British and Afghan forces repulsed an attempt by hundreds of Taleban fighters to attack the provincial capital of Helmand, Lashkar Gah, on Saturday night in the most audacious Taliban attack in the province since 2006.
Up to 100 Taleban fighters were killed in a series of airstrikes and firefights around the city outskirts in fighting that began in the early evening as Taleban fighters were concentrating to attack the city of three sides and continued into the early hours of Sunday morning.
It was the first time that the Helmand capital has been attacked.
The Taleban plan appeared to be for a “Tet Offensive” style infiltration of the city, the seat of the Afghan provincial government and home to the headquarters of the British commander in Helmand and the civilian reconstruction component of the British mission in Helmand.
Had the infiltration succeeded then British and Afghan forces would have faced confused street fighting in which Western airstrikes would have been impossible without the risk of causing mass civilian deaths in the city.
A British army spokesman said that the Taleban operation displayed “a level of co-ordination that wasn’t expected.” He estimated the Taleban forces at around 170, though some Afghan estimates were much higher.
However, British officials insisted that there was absolutely no threat of the British base falling. “Whatever their military objectives were, we didn’t get to find them out, because they were defeated on the edge of the city” said the Helmand Task Force spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Woody Page.
“At around 1700hours we detected terrorist vehicles moving in just to the west of the river (on the western edge of Lashkar Gah). By 1730 there were three or four separate groupings. There appeared to be a plan to attack on three different sides, with a blocking force on the fourth side. We waited until the terrorists were concentrated and then attacked with maximum effect,” he added.
The British Army spokesman said that an initial airstrike in a wooded area called Bolan, west of the city, killed 27 Taleban fighters and injured approximately the same number.
There were then follow up strikes by British Apache ground attack helicopters on further concentrations of Taleban fighters. Afghan National Army and Police were also involved in ground skirmishes around the city limits which continued until 3am on Sunday morning.
Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor Gulab Mangal said that 62 Taleban fighters were killed but that the number could rise.
“Afghan National Security Forces did a really good job of limiting the Taleban to the outskirts of the city,” said Colonel Page. “It is impossible to say if the target was the British PRT, though it is a possibility.”
The British Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in Lashkar Gah is heavily defended with 30ft Hesco walls and wire fences designed to prematurely detonate rocket propelled grenades.
It contains hundreds of British troops and the large civilian reconstruction component of the UK mission from the Foreign Office and the Department for Overseas Development (DfID).
Today, local residents who didn’t want to be named for fear of Taleban retribution said they saw two truckloads filled with dead and wounded Taleban driven away from the Lashkar Bazaar area on the east of the city after the attack.
Another report was of Taleban dead being buried in the Bolan area. Alhough the Taleban attack appears to have been decisively defeated, local people said that there was atmosphere of rising panic inside Lashkar Gah.
“They attacked from everywhere,” said one local man, who asked that his name only be given as Mirwais. “There were rockets and mortars. No one could sleep, everyone was trying to hide themselves. I don’t trust the Afghan government or the British. Tell me where to escape to.”
Haji Salim Khan, a tribal elder of the Alizai tribe living in Lashkar Gah said: “They were throwing artillery to the city. Children and women were weeping and screaming. I asked my tribe to protect me and twenty of my tribesmen surrounded my house. This is a shame, a shame, a shame, upon the British. They turned off the lights of the PRT and shut the doors. There are rumours they are going to withdraw from the city.”
Colonel Page said that no lights were turned off in the PRT and that local people were, on the contrary, reassured by the defeat of the Taleban attack:
“The atmospherics we are getting are very far from that situation,” he said. “There is a lot of confidence that Lashkar Gah was safe last night and will continue to be safe. The Afghan National Security Forces and British forces will continue to maintain that as the status quo.”
The attack follows heavy fighting in recent days in the district of Nad Ali to the west of Lashkargar. Previously a government stronghold, the district and neighbouring Marja fell to Taleban fighters in September.
British forces from 3 Commando Brigade retook Nad Ali district centre with Afghan Army troops in a three day operation that finished on Saturday.
A statement by Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, the official Taleban spokesman for southern Afghanistan, had a different version of events.
“Until four in the morning the fight went on. We killed 25 government soldiers and destroyed ten Ranger vehicles. Several others soldiers were wounded. We targeted the NDS (Afghan intelligence department), the governor’s residency and office and some other areas. Hundreds of Taleban participated in the fight. Four Taleban were killed and their bodies remain on the battleground. Three others were wounded.
“The rumours spread by the enemy that they killed dozens of Taleban are just to keep up the morale of the soldiers of the puppet government. It was a huge attack from three directions.”