Taliban fighters overran two checkpoints in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province on Tuesday, killing at least 15 Afghan policemen. The fighting in the opium-rich province comes as the lucrative poppy harvest winds down, and the insurgents, who largely control the drug trade, are now flush with cash and new recruits.
Afghan officials warned after the attack that the Taliban is within striking distance of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
"The situation is very critical near Lashkar Gah," a senior provincial security official told Reuters on Tuesday, confirming that, after a protracted gun battle, 15 policeman had been killed. "If the government does not act soon, there will be a disaster," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi confirmed on Tuesday that the insurgents had indeed overrun the two two checkpoints. A spokesman for the Helmand governor's office also said that 11 Taliban fighters were killed in the fighting.
Saeed Khan, a Helmand resident who fled from the countryside to Lashkar Gah several months ago due to fighting, told VICE News that the clashes are getting closer to the provincial capital every day.
"I was thinking that Lashkar Gah might be safer, but I can hear big sounds of ammunition and artillery on the outskirts of the city," he said. "The government keeps promising they will be launching huge operation, but so far we don't see anything happening. I am fed up with this fighting. I don't have anywhere to go where I can live in peace."
Helmand is the birthplace of the Taliban and the biggest source of opium in Afghanistan, which supplies as much as 90 percent of the world's heroin. Afghan security forces have been under pressure for months in the province, and government troops have already been forced to pull out of several districts threatened by militants and regroup around Lashkar Gah.
The province has long been a key battleground for the Taliban. The group launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule. But in the past few weeks, fighting in Helmand has been more muted than in other regions of the country, as the Taliban has focused its energies on the opium crop, a key source of revenue for the militants.
There has been heavy fighting in several other Afghan provinces recently, including in Kunduz in the north, Kunar in the east, and Uruzgan and Ghazni in the center. Tuesday's attacks in Helmand may signal that the militants are on the march in Afghanistan's opium heartland. The insurgents — who control more territory than at any time since the US invasion in 2001 — appear determined to gain control of a Helmand and use it as a base for further conquest.
Hundreds of American troops were sent to Helmand this year as part of an effort to train and equip local Afghan fighters standing against the Taliban. Afghan security forces had promised to mount an offensive against the Taliban, but the operation never materialized.
Meanwhile, in Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has vowed to deal harshly with the Taliban. After militant attacks in the capital Kabul left 64 dead last month, he said he would "show no mercy," to the group. Over the weekend, he ordered the hanging of six Taliban prisoners — the largest execution since he took office.
But in Helmand, the country's largest province, the threat was far from neutralized.
"Over the past few days, the Taliban have been attacking security belts near Lashkar Gah," Bashir Shaker, a member of the provincial council, told Reuters. "The threat is becoming bigger minute by minute. If the government does not take action soon, we will witness the collapse of Lashkar Gah."
Abdul Aleem contributed to this report.
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