NAWA, Afghanistan – The fight between Afghan government troops and the Taliban is entering a more brutal phase, as the reduction in airstrikes against militants by the withdrawal of US forces has largely shifted the fight to ground engagements, many of which on the ground. the edges of densely populated urban areas after some recent Taliban advances.

To clean pockets in this neighborhood, a few hundred yards from the provincial capital of Helmand, Afghan government forces led by General Sami Sadat moved house to house last month through crowded neighborhoods, often on foot, so that Afghan planes were carrying out waves of violent strikes.

The area had been heavily mined by the Taliban, and weeks of clashes left the streets in tatters: dirt roads littered with craters and walls of straw and mud riddled with bullets and shrapnel.

For months, the Taliban slowly expanded its influence across Afghanistan after signing the Withdrawal Agreement with the United States. The halt to US offensive operations, especially airstrikes and raids, allowed the group to mass fighters, assemble supplies and cut into government-held territory.

The south of the country, particularly Helmand, has seen some of the militant’s most significant advances. By May 1, the date marking the start of the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban had massed hundreds of fighters in Helmand. And as the US military handed over its last base here to the Afghan government, Taliban fighters launched a massive assault on the same day on the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, invading the territory of three districts including Nawa.

While Nawa had fallen to the Taliban several times over the past two decades, locals say the current battle to recapture the area is different from others before: it dragged on for weeks rather than days, and both parts use heavier weapons.

General Sami Sadat speaks with troops during a May 25 visit to the Nazar outpost near Lashkar Gah. CREDIT MUST: Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli

Sadat described one of the most successful raids, which surrounded and killed a unit of around 50 Taliban fighters. “They were eager to pick up the dead, so we monitored the area,” he said, saying his forces shot dead several other militants as they attempted to retrieve the bodies.

He said he did not know if any of the Taliban fighters attempted to surrender. “The boys were angry,” he replied, referring to his men. The junior officer who led the operation was promoted to major.

The Battle of Helmand could indicate how the war in Afghanistan will evolve once the United States and other NATO forces withdraw from the country completely. Over the past month, the violence has increased dramatically. The Taliban carried out a wave of attacks on provincial capitals, initially triggering a collapse of government forces in several bases and outposts. Now, where the Afghan army is retreating, both sides are increasingly turning to harsher tactics.

Taliban fighters cover the territory with roadside bombs and explosive bombs. And Afghan government forces on the offensive are carrying out grueling ground operations covered by intense Afghan air support. Of the eight provinces where the Taliban gained territory last month, the Afghan army has advanced in three: Baghlan in the north, Laghman in the east and in Helmand, around its capital Lashkar Gah.

Where fighting broke out, the new phase of the war proved more deadly for government forces, Taliban fighters and civilians.

Last month, the airstrikes in Nawa got so close to the home of a woman named Tajbib that explosions littered her garden with pieces of shrapnel 60cm long, she said. . Then Taliban fighters appeared at his door and ordered the whole family to leave. But the street in front of his house was in full battle.

“We were caught,” said Tajbib, who has only one name and believes she is in her 30s, as she rubbed shoulders with the women and children of her extended family. After navigating around the fighting, however, the whole family managed to reach the government-owned provincial capital on foot.

Tajbib at his home, hearing explosions nearby. CREDIT MUST: Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli

Families in his neighborhood say they have fled several times over the years, but for many it was the first time the Taliban had kicked them out of their homes.

When Tajbib returned, she found that her neighborhood had been turned into a Taliban garrison. Passages were drilled between rooms and houses, smaller holes were drilled in the walls facing the street, and tunnels were dug to connect adjacent houses.

“I begged them, ‘Don’t do that,’ but they said, ‘You are the friend of the Americans. Get out of here, ”Tajbib’s neighbor said, in a similar account of being forced out of her home by the Taliban. Fearing retaliation, she spoke on condition of anonymity.

As the neighbor, a small elderly woman, was fleeing, her son stepped on a roadside bomb. The explosion killed him almost immediately, she said, telling the story in cries of mourning and anger to a group of Afghan soldiers. Her son was one of the main breadwinners, and she asked the troops for help to feed her grandchildren.

Civilian casualties were nearly three times higher in May than the previous month. More than 300 civilians were killed and more than 690 injured in May, according to preliminary findings of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Children accounted for 378 of the civilian casualties in May.

In a series of tweets warning of heavy civilian casualties in recent days, the United Nations said indirect fire, Afghan airstrikes and Taliban explosives were killing scores of civilians.

Afghan special forces arrive on May 25 at Bolan Qala’s army outpost near the town of Lashkar Gah, where the fight against the Taliban has intensified. CREDIT MUST: Photo for The Washington Post by Lorenzo Tugnoli

The Afghan government does not disclose casualties for its forces, but local officials have said losses among Afghan troops in Helmand are about twice as high today as when the military had air support. American close up. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release such information.

The Taliban are also taking more casualties. Sadat said his men killed or injured around 700 Taliban fighters in Helmand over the past month. Local officials estimated the number to be closer to 300, but said it was still more than triple the number of Taliban casualties in previous operations.

“As we have said before, the best way to reduce civilian casualties is for all parties to reduce violence,” said Col. Sonny Leggett, US Army spokesman based in Kabul, when asked about the peak civilians killed or injured.

Asked about the role of the United States in supporting Afghan forces in Helmand last month, Leggett said: “We have no operational announcements at this time. He continued: “Our mission is a safe and orderly withdrawal and to leave (the Afghan army) in the best possible position when we leave.”

But the caliber of forces that make up the Afghan army is extremely uneven. The vast majority of desertions and casualties suffered by government forces are in units that lack supplies and training. But the country’s elite units – which make up only a fraction of the national security forces – have trained and worked alongside US and NATO special operators for nearly two decades, and they display a deep commitment to fight for their country.

Sadat is the product of part of this elite formation. He attended military academies in Germany and Britain, fought alongside US special operations forces, and says he will always have deep gratitude for the US-led mission in Afghanistan. “None of this would exist without the United States,” he said, pointing to his team of officers, their base and their equipment.

But he sees the withdrawal of foreign forces as an “opportunity” for the Afghan government to fight the Taliban more freely. US support for combat operations has many benefits, he said, but it also adds bureaucracy, extensive coordination and lots of meetings. “We don’t have to do this anymore,” he said. “It’s easier now.”

Operating more independently, Sadat said he was able to empower ground commanders to fight with less American oversight. And with the Afghan Air Force now leading the majority of strikes, there are fewer measures to approve and less need to decongest air support.

Sadat said he now plans to speed up military operations after months of stalled negotiations in Qatar with the Taliban – a period he says has been used by militants to bolster their fighters on the ground. “Be clear, we gave peace a chance, and it didn’t work,” he said.

Ultimately, he said he believes the Afghan army can be more effective without the presence of US troops and can defeat the Taliban in a matter of years.

U.S. intelligence assessments disagree, instead predicting widespread Taliban territorial gains after the complete withdrawal of foreign forces.

Hasham Fedayee, a tribal elder from Helmand province, also disagrees with Sadat and expects the growing wave of violence to continue for decades.

“The war is taking a new turn,” he said, predicting that the next stage of the conflict would be “internal” and similar to the years leading up to the outbreak of civil war in the 1970s. “And the Afghans will continue to do so. to fight [for many years], “he said.” We have already been at war for four decades. “

In Nawa, low-intensity fighting continues near Tajbib’s home, although government forces have deemed the area “clean”. As she spoke, gunshots rang out a few hundred yards away, and controlled detonations of roadside bombs sent shockwaves through her modest front room, beating the pastel curtains hanging from the wall. window.

“We don’t feel safe, but we couldn’t afford the rent in town,” she said, surrounded by half a dozen children who didn’t seem taken aback by the noise. They are fine during the day, Tajbib said. But at night, when airstrikes and artillery begin, she added, they often wake up screaming in terror.

She said she did not understand why the violence was escalating now that the United States was withdrawing. Without foreign forces in Afghanistan, Muslims should live together in peace, she said.

“Those who are fighting there,” Tajbib said of government troops and the Taliban, “they are brothers.”

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