Mawlavi Talib, the Taliban commander leading the assault on the key southern city of Lashkar Gah is one of 5,000 former prisoners that the United States pressured the Afghan government to release last year after the peace deal was signed by the Trump administration and the Taliban. 

The Afghan government knew he would return to the battlefield. This development, which surprises no one, will no doubt be another sore spot between Washington and Kabul. 

With the U.S. and NATO withdrawal nearly completed, the Taliban have gone on the offense and are gobbling up district after district. They now have captured nearly half of the districts and are gearing up to threaten provincial capitals.

The Fight Is Desperate in Lashkar Gar

Afghan commandos
Afghan commandos are overtasked and the only reliable unit the Afghan government can count on. (AP)

The fierce fighting in Lashkar Gar, Helmand province’s capital, continues as the Taliban have pushed the Afghan commandos into a corner.

The U.S.-trained commandos launched a counter-attack backed by U.S. airstrikes on Tuesday night, trying to blunt the Taliban’s attempt to take Lashkar Gah’s prison. The Taliban want to capture the prison in order to release many of their imprisoned comrades and get them back in the fight. The Afghan forces have been pushed back to within 200 yards of the governor’s office.

Already having taken nine out of the 10 districts in Helmand province, the fall of Lashkar Gah would be a huge blow to the Afghan government. It would be the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since their new offensive began. The local government confirmed that the Taliban control local television and radio stations that have gone off the air. They have also been executing government and security officials in the city. 

Gen. Sami Sadat, the commander of the Afghan forces in Helmand, urged civilians to flee since counter-attacks will be accompanied by airstrikes in the coming days. 

“Please evacuate your families from [sic] your homes and their surroundings,” Sadat said. “We will not leave the Taliban alive… I know it’s hard… we do it for your future. Forgive us if you get displaced for few days, please evacuate as soon as possible.”

The Afghan Government Has Stopped Releasing Casualty Figures

Afghan General Sami Sadat
Afghan General Sami Sadat (Afghan Security Forces)

The fighting in Lashkar Gah is part of the Taliban offensive that now also threatens the provincial capitals of the neighboring Kandahar province in the south, and in Herat province in the west. The Afghan government said commandos launched a counterattack in the city of Herat and pushed back the Taliban from the city’s entrance. Herat’s civilian airport has re-opened.

Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that its forces had killed around 375 Taliban and wounded 193 in fighting across the country in the last 24 hours. The Afghan government has stopped releasing statistics on its own military casualties to avoid demoralizing its troops.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani blamed the hasty withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops for the deteriorating security situation.

The Afghan Army is in poor shape to defend the country. It often surrenders quickly or pulls out of a position with barely a fight. This leaves the over-tasked but elite commando units as the only stopgap against the advancing Taliban.

Mawlavi Talib, whose real name is Mullah Abdul Ahad, had been the Taliban’s shadow deputy governor of Helmand province when he was arrested in Sangin after he tried to slip through a checkpoint, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban released in the U.S. peace deal negotiations were asked to assure the Afghans that they would not take up arms again, but that — along with the Taliban’s assurance that no al-Qaeda terrorists were still in the country — went by the wayside. Many of the released prisoners, like Talib, went straight back into the fight.