KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan troops are being deployed to the capital of the key southern province of Helmand amid intense fighting with the Taliban in surrounding areas and fears the city could fall to the insurgents within days, officials said Wednesday.
According to Kareem Atal, the head of Helmand's provincial council, Taliban insurgents have completely surrounded Lashkar Gah after weeks of intense fighting across the province. Army and police units have now been pulled back from checkpoints farther afield and brought back to reinforce the city. Also, "new forces are arriving" in the city, he added.
The fighting has closed all the highways leading into Lashkar Gah, forcing up prices for food and other basics inside the provincial capital, Atal said.
Doctors Without Borders, the international medical charity, has reduced its international staff in Lashkar Gah and is maintaining basic emergency and surgical services, said the country representative Guillem Molinie.
The charity, known by its French acronym MSF, has a 300-bed hospital in the city and usually functions with 25 international staff. Molinie would not say how many staff had been evacuated.
He said that the number of people arriving for treatment after being caught up in fighting in districts around the city had been reduced in recent days by the road closures.
"With fears of the town being taken, non-emergency patients prefer to delay their treatment," he told The Associated Press, though 400 patients arrived at the hospital's emergency room on Tuesday.
"We are concerned about urban fighting — it is getting closer to the urban center," he said.
Helmand is a strategically important province for both the Kabul government and the Taliban, whose insurgency is now in its 15th year. The province produces opium, which is the raw material for most of the world's heroin and which funds the insurgency.
Southern Afghanistan is considered the Taliban heartland. During the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule of the country, they made neighboring Kandahar province the seat of their extremist regime.
In an indication of the seriousness of the Helmand situation, senior Kabul officials, including the deputy interior minister and the deputy chief of the military staff, are in Lashkar Gah, along with elite Afghan forces, said Sediq Sediqqi, the Interior Ministry's spokesman.
"All our focus is on Helmand right now," he said. "We know that the threats are high."
Sediqqi said he was aware of recent claims by Atal and other Helmand officials that the Taliban had taken control of up to 80 percent of the province but he would not confirm those assessments.
Dawlat Waziri, the defense ministry spokesman, said 60 percent of the Taliban's forces were foreign fighters — usually a reference to Pakistanis — and were well trained. AP has reported that the Taliban are believed to have formed a commando-style unit that has been deployed across Helmand, using night vision technology and snipers.
Waziri conceded that two districts are under Taliban control, Baghran and Dishu, but denied reports by local officials that 80 percent of the province outside Lashkar Gah has fallen to the insurgents.
The U.S. military is providing air support but no ground troops, he said, adding "we have enough ground troops to fight."
Last September, the Taliban seized the northern city of Kunduz for a few days before they were pushed out by Afghan forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes.
At the time, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country, Gen. John Nicholson, vowed no other city would fall to the insurgents.
However, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charlie Cleveland, said late Thursday that he doubts reports of the Taliban closing in on Lashkar Gah. He said military bases in the province were still receiving fuel supplies by road.
"The view we still have is that overall Lashkar Gah is not about to fall," Cleveland told the AP.