KABUL, Afghanistan – Taliban fighters made an unusual bid to capture a provincial capital, Afghan and Western officials said Sunday, a failed assault that nonetheless underscored their heightened ambition in recent months.
Hundreds of Taliban militants took part in the attack that began late Saturday against Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, where British troops maintain a regional garrison. NATO-led forces carried out airstrikes to stave off the assault, which left more than 60 insurgents dead in fighting that continued into the early hours Sunday, according to Afghan and Western military officials. About 40 militants were killed in fighting elsewhere in Helmand province after briefly seizing a district center, Afghan authorities said.
Until recently, the Taliban and allied militant groups generally eschewed frontal assaults on Western military installations or reasonably secure towns. But lately, the insurgents appear to have concluded that the risk is worth the chance to score a major propaganda victory by overrunning a base or seizing a major town.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the fighting in Lashkar Gah broke out Saturday evening after hundreds of insurgents were observed massing on the outskirts of the city of about 85,000 people on the banks of the Helmand River. Soon afterward, militants launched mortars against an Afghan army outpost, then attacked the provincial capital from three sides.
The NATO-led force responded with an airstrike in which it said “multiple enemy forces” were killed. Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor, put the number of dead insurgents at 62, an estimate Western military officials agreed with.
“If the insurgents planned a spectacular attack prior to the winter, this was a spectacular failure,” said Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, an ISAF spokesman.
Insurgents killed in the attack included some foreign fighters, Afghan officials said. That term generally is used to describe insurgents from Arab countries or Central Asia who join al-Qaida or the Taliban to fight in Afghanistan. A Taliban commander who led the assault, Mullah Qadratullah, also reportedly was among the dead.
About 8,000 British forces are deployed over a huge swath of Helmand, which is a center of both the insurgency and drug trade. Clashes with Taliban fighters occur almost daily.
Last week, insurgents seized the center of Helmand’s Nad Ali district. It was retaken over the weekend by Afghan and Western troops, Ahmadi said. NATO-led forces also used airstrikes in that clash, Western officials said.