A City Under Siege: What the War Looks Like on Afghanistan’s Front Line

As bullets from a Taliban machine gun ricocheted by means of the avenue beneath, an Afghan soldier carrying an “I Heart Kabul” T-shirt took a quick relaxation. “There has been fighting day and night.”

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan — The battle is simply on the different aspect of this wall, a partly destroyed cinder block barricade in southern Afghanistan.

A week in the past, a household lived in a home on the property. They have since fled and their residence has been transformed right into a preventing place held by a half-dozen troopers, together with their spent shell casings and empty power drink cans.

The roof terrace is pockmarked from a rocket-propelled grenade explosion and there are holes bored out of the mud brick for machine weapons and rifles to fireplace by means of.

“There has been fighting day and night,” mentioned Cpl. Hamza, 28, an Afghan border drive soldier who had been compelled into holding this place — removed from any border — after the police and native militias fled.

It is the entrance line in a now deserted neighborhood nonetheless inside the metropolis limits of Lashkar Gah. Bullets from a Taliban machine gun ricocheted by means of the avenue beneath, and the boring thud of grenades shook the massive ornate mirror in the room the place Corporal Hamza had gone in to briefly relaxation.

As commandos arrived to strengthen the place, a burst of computerized weapons hearth narrowly missed the troopers disembarking one among the armored automobiles. One bullet punctured a tire, a number of hit the metal hull and others kicked up grime as the troops ran for canopy.

Corporal Hamza, who goes by one title, fired his American-supplied M16 rifle at enemy positions throughout the avenue. Under his vest that carried his ammunition, he wore a black T-shirt that learn “I Heart Kabul.”

When the Taliban pushed towards the metropolis final week — whether or not they had paid off the police or reduce offers with them prompting these positions to shortly collapse — Corporal Hamza and his motley crew of border drive troopers grew to become the final authorities forces separating the Taliban from the metropolis. (A Taliban official mentioned a lot of the police had been paid off.)

This could also be the closest the Taliban have ever gotten to taking Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand Province, which is the Taliban’s heartland and a risky swath of territory that has turn out to be synonymous with the U.S. and British army’s failures in Afghanistan over the final 20 years.

At one level final week after the offensive started, the Helmand River was the solely barrier holding the Taliban from overrunning authorities positions till American and Afghan airstrikes and Afghan troops pushed the Taliban again. The metropolis’s airport shut all the way down to industrial site visitors due to mortar and rocket hearth, and greater than 1,000 households have fled into the extra defensible metropolis middle.

As the American withdrawal got underway, the Taliban started their newest offensive on the provincial capital on May 1, a date that tied neatly with the poor climate and blowing mud that prevented air help from stopping them. The insurgents struck elsewhere in the nation at roughly the identical time, taking a number of Afghan Army bases in the north.

Capt. Shir Agha Safi, an intelligence officer who strikes round Helmand Province, had not come to phrases with the deliberate U.S. departure. Because the Americans, their international sounding names and plane and drones are nonetheless ingrained into nearly each a part of the battle.

“They won’t leave us,” Captain Safi mentioned of the Americans, satisfied that the withdrawal was probably not taking place.

Almost day-after-day Captain Safi talks to the U.S. Army captain who helped him for months by coordinating airstrikes from close by Camp New Antonik, a scab of a base constructed between the ruins of Bastion and Leatherneck, former British and American installations that at the moment are decaying relics of the battle’s final chapter.

The American flag folded for the final time at Antonik on May 2, leaving freezers filled with apple pies, hen and bean burritos, containers of medical provides and fluorescent night time sticks which have since been harvested by Afghan forces close by. The odor of musk and physique odor nonetheless lingered in the rooms as soon as inhabited by American troops when the Afghan troopers got here to retrieve something left behind.

Captain Safi’s hyperlink to the U.S. army is now again at Bagram, a sprawling base in Afghanistan that can turn out to be one among the United States’ final earlier than the nation absolutely withdraws someday this summer season. Despite his geographical distance, the American captain continues to assist direct airstrikes as a key member of a WhatsApp group: the Helmand Targeting Team. The group chat of messages, footage and grid coordinates is a digital assembly room for Afghan and American forces planning day by day bombing runs in the province.

Around midday on Monday, the day was heating up as Captain Safi stared out over the Helmand River from one among the metropolis’s army bases. Along the river banks, households bathed in the water and youngsters performed in the shade. Around him, commandos ready for his or her subsequent mission. Some rested underneath their armored automobiles, others ready their weapons and kit.

Above him an Afghan A-29, a single prop bomber, swooped down over the western financial institution of the river, dropping a 250-pound Mk-81 unguided bomb on, what Captain Safi mentioned, was a bunch of Taliban fighters making an attempt to place themselves to strike the airport.

The plume of smoke, shock wave and eventually audible blast barely caught the consideration of these having fun with the heat day alongside the river financial institution. Traffic moved steadily into the metropolis, busier than regular due to the approaching Eid vacation commemorating the finish of Ramadan. Nobody bothered to go away as the flight of plane returned three extra instances, steering right into a dive to drop the remaining ordnance hooked underneath their wings. It would take greater than an airstrike to chop at the present time quick for these households who up to now had refused to flee.

As the planes departed and the smoke drifted lazily into the air, Captain Safi laid again on a inexperienced cot and put his hand to his temple, exhausted. At 28, he had been in the army for 11 years.

“It has been a tough decade,” he mentioned.

It could solely worsen. Staring at a map of Lashkar Gah in his command middle earlier in the day, Captain Safi gestured at the little blue dots that denoted police checkpoints in the surrounding space — arguably the Afghan authorities’s entrance line.

“Ninety percent of them are gone,” Captain Safi mentioned, and he turned again to his radio.

Now, supported by armored personnel carriers outfitted with computerized grenade launchers and heavy machine weapons and the better-trained cellular strike staff commandos that crew the hulking automobiles, Corporal Hamza and his gang of border forces troopers had been ready to clear the surrounding neighborhoods nonetheless firmly in Taliban palms. The modest purpose: to provide Lashkar Gah a barely greater safety bubble of presidency presence.

But till the police returned to their positions, Corporal Hamza must keep on the line, doing a job that was speculated to be another person’s. His bushy-browed commander, Capt. Ezzatullah Tofan, laid it out plainly, displaying a screenshot on his telephone to his troops as the PKM machine gun on the roof fired away. The doc, Captain Tofan mentioned, indicated that the police and native militias wouldn’t return to their posts any time quickly.

“You’ll have to keep fighting,” Captain Tofan defined. His males appeared unusually unfazed, as in the event that they knew this had been coming or, at the least, resigned to their destiny.

A three-day cease-fire was introduced by each side starting Thursday to commemorate Eid, leaving the troops right here incredulous. It was an excuse, they mentioned, so the Taliban might transfer fighters and tools again to the entrance strains with out worry of being attacked.

When the cease-fire ends, the battle will as soon as extra be on the different aspect of the wall.

“I’m happy for my family,” Corporal Hamza mentioned of the vacation, “But I will be here.”

Jim Huylebroek contributed reporting.

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