Taliban fighters made an unusual bid to capture a provincial capital, Afghan and Western officials said Sunday, a failed assault that nonetheless underscored their heightened boldness and ambition in recent months.
Hundreds of Taliban militants took part in the multi-pronged attack that began late Saturday against Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, where British troops maintain a regional garrison. NATO-led forces responded with airstrikes that left more than 60 insurgents dead; the fighting continued into the early hours Sunday, according to Afghan and Western military officials. Also in Helmand, about 40 militants were killed in fighting after briefly seizing a district center, Afghan authorities said.
Until recently, the Taliban and allied militant groups generally eschewed direct assaults on Western military installations or well-guarded Afghan towns, because they risk significant casualties from the better armed coalition forces. But lately, the insurgents appear to have decided that it is worth the chance to score a major propaganda victory by overrunning a base or seizing a major town. Such attacks also suggest that Taliban commanders feel confident they have a sufficient supply of foot soldiers to stage such costly assaults.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s International Security Assistance Force said the fighting in Lashkar Gah broke out after hundreds of insurgents were observed massing on the outskirts of the town on the banks of the Helmand River. Soon afterward, the militants launched a volley of mortar rounds against an Afghan army outpost, then attacked the provincial capital, which has a population of 85,000, from three sides.
The NATO-led force responded with an airstrike that it said killed “multiple enemy forces.” Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, put the number of insurgent deaths at 62, a tally Western military officials later agreed with.
“If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure,” Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, an ISAF spokesman, said in a statement.
The insurgents killed in the attack included foreign fighters, Afghan officials said. The term is generally used to describe militants from Arab countries or Central Asia who join Al Qaeda or the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. A Taliban commander who led the assault, Mullah Qadratullah, also was reported to be among the dead.
Although the Taliban attack was repelled, some residents of Lashkar Gah were badly rattled. The local governor went on the radio to assure them the town was secure, and ISAF said its forces were conducting reconnaissance patrols in the area.
About 8,000 British forces are relatively thinly deployed over a huge swath of Helmand, which is a center of both the insurgency and the drug trade. Clashes with Taliban fighters occur almost daily.
Late last week, insurgents seized the center of Helmand’s Nad Ali district. It was retaken over the weekend by Afghan and Western troops, Ahmadi said. NATO-led forces also used airstrikes in that confrontation, Western officials said.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Islamabad, Pakistan.