By Hamid Shalizi
CHAH-E-ANJIR, Afghanistan (Reuters) – Only a few days ago, this village of mud huts in southern Afghanistan was a battlefield.
Afghan security forces beat back attacks by encroaching Taliban fighters on Chah-e-Anjir, just 10 km (6 miles) from Helmand’s provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, but schools remain shuttered and many residents who fled are too scared to return.
Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and the heartland of the lucrative illicit drug trade, is seen as a strategic target for the militants who would win a major psychological victory by capturing the provincial capital.
Soldiers at the sharp end of the latest offensive described a battle that pitted increasingly well-armed and disciplined Taliban militants against Afghan special forces backed by U.S. air strikes.
“The Taliban have heavily armed, uniformed units that are equipped with night vision and modern weapons,” said Sayed Murad, a special forces commander.
During more than a decade of international intervention, Helmand was the deadliest province for foreign troops, claiming nearly 1,000 lives.
Already said to be in control of or contesting the majority of Helmand’s districts, Taliban fighters continue to attack all around Lashkar Gah. Afghan reinforcements and U.S. air strikes were credited with preventing a rout of the city’s defenders.
The Taliban are seeking to make Lashkar Gah the second provincial capital they have captured since their extremist Islamic rule was toppled in 2001. The insurgents briefly held the northern city of Kunduz last October before being driven out by U.S.-backed government troops.
“Helmand is a strategic province for the Taliban and therefore they are determined to make a push,” said deputy interior minister General Abdul Rahman Rahman.
Towards that goal, the Taliban have deployed a specialized “Red Unit” said to be equipped with advanced weaponry, including night vision scopes, 82mm rockets, heavy machine guns and U.S.-made assault rifles, special forces commander Murad said.
U.S. military spokesman Brigadier Charles Cleveland said it was possible Afghan troops on the frontline had seen Taliban wielding night vision technology, but that the NATO-led coalition had “not seen any evidence” of such a capability.
“The Taliban consistently spread false information and inflate their own capabilities in an effort to intimidate Afghans,” he said.
In downtown Lashkar Gah, most businesses were open as usual on Friday, but residents and the thousands of refugees displaced by the fighting spoke of lingering fear as Taliban forces remain active not far from the city.
“I fled my home and left everything behind,” said Abdul Bari, a resident of Nad Ali district. “We are fed up with this situation and it is better to die one day instead of dying every day.”
Taliban forces have made major gains across the province in the past year, forcing government troops to abandon some bases and checkpoints in a bid to consolidate their defenses.
Provincial Governor Hayatullah Hayat accused militants of planting indiscriminate roadside bombs and using residents as human shields.
“I am assuring the people in Helmand that (the Taliban) won’t be able to overrun our districts, let alone capture Lashkar Gah,” he said.
Such assurances may offer little comfort to residents wearied by constant conflict.
“We prefer to live under the current government, not the Taliban, but absolutely not under this current situation,” said Abdul Khaliq.
Officials blame elements across the border in Pakistan for fuelling the conflict by supplying the Taliban fighters with better weapons.
“It is not the regular Taliban force with a pair of sandals and an AK-47,” said one senior government official in Lashkar Gah. “They are better trained and equipped.”
The violence means Helmand will continue to be a pressure point for over-stretched government troops and their international backers.
Hundreds of international military advisers are stationed at bases in Helmand and U.S. warplanes conducted at least two dozen air strikes in the two weeks of most recent fighting.
Even if the lull in fighting around the provincial capital lasts, civilians doubt the government will be able to bring peace any time soon.
“Either the government should get rid of the Taliban or let them come and govern,” said one shopkeeper. “We have been burning in this fire for so many years and we don’t know what could be worse than this.”
(Writing by Kay Johnson and Josh Smith; Editing by Alex Richardson)