Afghan security forces fought back a major Taliban offensive in southern Helmand province in the last 24 hours, officials and residents said on Tuesday, as militants launched assaults around the country after a missed U.S. deadline to withdraw troops.
Although the United States did not meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline agreed in talks with the Taliban last year, its pull-out has begun, with President Joe Biden announcing all troops will be out by September 11. Critics of the decision to withdraw say the Islamist militants will try to sweep back into power.
“There was a thunderstorm of heavy weapons and blasts in the city and the sound of small arms was like someone was making popcorn,” Mulah Jan, a resident of a suburb of the Helmand provincial capital Lashkar Gah, said.
“I took all my family members to the corner of the room, hearing the heavy blasts and bursts of gunfire as if it was happening behind our walls,” he said. Families that could afford to leave had fled, but he had been unable to go, waiting with his family in fear before the Taliban were pushed back.
Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, said the Taliban had launched their offensive on Monday from multiple directions, attacking checkpoints around the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, taking over some of them.
Afghan security forces had carried out air strikes and deployed elite commando forces to the area. The insurgents had been pushed back but fighting was continuing on Tuesday and hundreds of families had been displaced, he added.
A Taliban surge in Helmand would have particular resonance, as the opium-growing desert province was where U.S. and British forces suffered the bulk of their losses during the 20-year war.
As part of the pullout, U.S. forces handed over a base in Helmand to Afghan government troops two days ago.
In Washington, the U.S. military said that about two to six percent of the withdrawal process had been completed so far.
United States Central Command said that the equivalent of about 60 C-17 aircraft worth of material had been moved out of Afghanistan and more than 1,300 pieces of equipment had been handed over to be destroyed.
The Afghan defence ministry said that in addition to Helmand, security forces have been responding to attacks by the Taliban in at least six other provinces, including southeastern Ghazni and southern Kandahar in the past 24 hours.
The defence ministry said just over 100 Taliban fighters had been killed in Helmand. It did not provide details on casualties among Afghan security forces.
The May 1 deadline for U.S. troops to pull out was agreed last year under then-President Donald Trump. The Taliban rejected Biden’s announcement that troops would stay on past it but withdraw over the next four-and-a-half months.
The deadline has been met with a surge in violence, with a car bomb in Logar province killing almost 30 people on Friday evening. On Monday, at least seven Afghan military personnel were killed when the Taliban set off explosives smuggled through a tunnel they had dug into an army outpost in southwestern Farah province.