American warplanes were backing Afghan forces against a major Taliban offensive in the south of the country even as the US military pressed on with a troop withdrawal, officials said Wednesday.
Fierce fighting has erupted in Helmand province since the weekend, when the US military formally began withdrawing its remaining troops.
They were supposed to have been pulled out by May 1 under a deal struck with the Taliban last year, but Washington now says they will only be out by September 11 — a slippage that has angered the insurgents.
‘The heavy US air strikes against the Taliban positions stopped them from advancing towards Lashkar Gah,’ said Atiqullah, a local government official, referring to the provincial capital.
‘The bombing was intense. I have never seen such bombardment in several years.’
Thousands of Afghans have fled their homes and taken refuge in Lashkar Gah in the face of the fighting, officials and residents say.
Attaullah Afghan, head of the Helmand provincial council, said Taliban forces had made advances, but government forces had ‘retaken some of these areas’.
‘The Taliban have intensified their attacks in almost all districts of Helmand for four days,’ he said.
A US defence official confirmed air support was backing government forces.
The US military continues ‘to deliver precision air strikes in support’ of Afghan forces in Helmand and other regions of the country, the official said.
Dozens of Taliban fighters were killed in fighting on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah as insurgents attempted to overrun several checkpoints, Afghan government officials said.
The Taliban, meanwhile, said scores of Afghan security personnel had died.
Both sides frequently exaggerate casualties inflicted on the other.
Fighting was also reported in other provinces.
Under the terms of last year’s withdrawal deal, the Taliban agreed not to attack US troops — but insurgents have continued relentless assaults against Afghan forces.
The missed deadline raised fears, however, that the Taliban would resume targeting foreign forces even as they completed their withdrawal, or that Afghan troops would be left defenceless without air support.
‘We have the military means and capability to fully protect our force during retrograde as well as support the Afghan security forces,’ US top commander in Afghanistan General Scott Miller said ahead of the weekend.
Meanwhile, a return to Taliban rule in Afghanistan would risk undoing the gains made in women’s rights since the group’s ousting nearly two decades ago, US intelligence warned in a declassified report.
According to the two-page National Intelligence Council document, the insurgents’ views have not changed since their time in power between 1996 and the US military’s 2001 intervention.
At that time, the Taliban imposed their fundamentalist view of religion by prohibiting women from studying or working.
The withdrawal of US and international forces, which is set to be completed by September, has raised fears the Taliban will return full force.
‘The Taliban remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women’s rights and would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power,’ the report said.
It notes the group has seen little change in its leadership, remains ‘inflexible’ in negotiations and ‘enforces strict social constraints in areas that it already controls.’
Some group leaders have made public commitments to respecting women’s rights, but only as a condition of the Taliban’s fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law, or Islamic law, according to the report.
‘If the Taliban were again Afghanistan’s dominant power, we assess that any prospect for moderating the group’s policies toward women would lie with ethnic minorities’ ability to maintain local variation and technological development,’ the report said, referring to the greater exposure to the world Afghans have gotten due to cell phones.
According to the report authors, the progress of the last 20 years is fragile and imbalanced, and depends heavily on international pressure, suggesting that such development would be ‘at risk’ after the withdrawal of foreign forces, ‘even without Taliban efforts to reverse it.’
External pressure could continue to play a role, and ‘the Taliban’s desires for foreign aid and legitimacy might marginally moderate its conduct over time,’ the report said.
But should the group return to power, its first priority would likely be ‘extending control on its own terms.’
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