Frustrations rise in besieged Afghan provincial capital

LASHKAR GAH: Elders in Afghanistan's troubled Helmand province accused the Kabul government and its international backers on Saturday of failing to live up to promises of protection as Taliban militants claim more territory and threaten the provincial capital.

Despite months of reorganization, a new influx of international advisers, and regular American air strikes, Afghan security forces have slowly lost ground to Taliban offensives in Helmand.

Fighting to reimpose a radical Islamist regime, Taliban insurgents have tightened the noose on provincial capitals in Kunduz, Uruzgan, and Helmand, among other areas.

Facing off with a high-level delegation that included the minister of defence as well as the top commander of the U.S.-led military force and NATO's senior civilian representative, Helmand residents complained of a disconnect between national leaders and the situation on the ground.

"The sons and daughters of those leaders in the capital have not fought, but we have sacrificed our children," one elder, Mohammed Nabi, told the visitors in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.

Some in the crowd criticized the presence of international troops, but almost all called for more aid to the province.

Residents have responded to pleas from the central government to rally around the national security forces, only to have police and soldiers abandon checkpoints, one provincial council member said.

"Every day delegations are coming to Helmand... but much of Helmand has been lost," he said. "Please start more operations here or bring enough aircraft so we can all go to Kabul."

Some checkpoints have been closed under a plan this year to pull soldiers off static forts, consolidating forces and making them more mobile.

That hasn't sat well with some locals, distrustful of the security forces after seeing some posts abandoned in the face of Taliban attacks.

The provincial governor, Hayatullah Hayat, said some troops who abandoned their posts have been put on trial.

The Taliban has tightened pressure on Helmand for much of the past year and is now estimated to control or contest most of the districts in the province, which supplies a major proportion of the world's illegal opium.

Witnesses report Taliban flags are visible from some areas in Lashkar Gah, while in one area only a river stands between the insurgents and parts of the city.

The visiting officials sought to reassure the crowd, with Defence Minister Abdullah Habibi acknowledging the losses in the area.

"Your pain is our pain. Your sadness is our sadness. We do not want to see our Helmand brothers suffer."

In the latest sign of upheaval as the military tries to blunt Taliban advances, a new general took command of the Afghan army's 215th Corps on Monday, the second such command shake-up in Helmand this year.

General John Nicholson, the top commander of U.S. and NATO coalition troops in Afghanistan, pledged continued support to the Afghan troops, with more advisers arriving in coming months.

"The world is watching what is happening in Helmand," he said. "We will do everything possible to ensure Lashkar Gah does not fall."

With Afghan security forces on the defensive not only in Helmand, but also in Kunduz, Uruzgan, and other provinces. Nicholson admitted the situation was something of a stalemate, but one that he believes will turn in favour of the government in the long run.