Taliban threaten Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah
Local official says five districts in province under Taliban control
Afghan soldiers increasingly desert to join the militants
Sometimes you know a war’s going badly when your enemy is right in front of you.
About 3 miles outside the southern city of Lashkar Gah, Afghan soldiers can see a white flag. It’s not one of surrender – quite the opposite.
The flag belongs to the Taliban, and shows exactly how close the militant group is to the capital of Helmand province.
Despite Afghan government assurances that the army can hold and retake ground, the strategic province that hundreds of NATO troops – who have been in the country for the last 15 years – died fighting for is closer than ever to falling to the Taliban.
Those inside Lashkar Gah are understandably nervous.
A Helmand police official, who did not want to be named for his own safety, told CNN on Sunday that the army had not made any recent advances, and at least five full districts in the province were already under full Taliban control.
The official said this included the towns of Musa Qala and Nawzad, and that an army offensive to retake the town of Khanisheen was recently repelled by the Taliban.
Lashkar Gah is currently under threat from two directions by the militant group, the official said.
The official confirmed what many analysts had long feared: that the highly valuable opium crop, now being harvested in Helmand, is a key reason for the Taliban’s focus on the southern province.
Even a temporary lull in the fighting in Helmand in the past week can be attributed to the Taliban’s focus on getting the poppy harvest in, the official said.
‘It will not fall’
Government representatives strongly reject any suggestion that Helmand is under threat of Taliban control, or that Lashkar Gah would be overrun.
“It will not fall. If it falls, there is no doubt I will resign, but it will not fall,” acting Defense Minister Masoom Stanikzai told CNN.
“It is not a rosy picture in Helmand. It’s a difficult fight and there are many fighters coming from across the (Pakistan) border, there is no doubt about that.”
He blamed the Taliban’s recent advances on Pakistani assistance, an oft-repeated charge by Afghan officials.
“Why are we ignoring this fact? Go to Quetta, go to Peshawar. What the hell are those (militant) bases doing there? How are they moving there? How are they communicating there?”