In key Afghan province, thousands displaced as Taliban gains ground

GWEN IFILL: As the summer's political and foreign policy debate has focused overwhelmingly on the rise of ISIS, an old foe continues to threaten lives and security in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have been closing in on Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, forcing residents to flee as the Afghan army struggles to contain them.

For more on this, I'm joined now from Kabul by special correspondent Jennifer Glasse.

Jennifer, welcome.

You have been to Lashkar Gah, to the provincial capital.

Tell us, what is important about that and what is happening there?

JENNIFER GLASSE, Special Correspondent: Well, the people down there are very concerned.

The Taliban in the last week or so have basically encircled the city, taken many of the road leading into and out of the town. They say they feel besieged; 30,000 people have been displaced just in the last couple of weeks alone, and the Afghan army is struggling to contain the Taliban and to keep them out of the provincial capital.

Now, if the Taliban were to assault provincial capital, it would be the first time they have tried it since 2008. That assault was beaten back. But, of course, it's been a difficult time for them. They have some help down there. Afghan forces have sent down reinforcements. They have help in the form of American airstrikes.

U.S. officials say there have been at least 25 U.S. airstrikes in the past two weeks alone as the Taliban have mounted that offensive. Probably the biggest problem is that they are controlling many of the routes in and out of the city, including the main road between Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, the two big cities in Southern Afghanistan.

This — of course, Helmand has always been a contested province. The fighting down there has been particularly fierce. More than 125 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives there, including one soldier who died in January in fighting in Helmand Province. About 400 British soldiers, as well as another 100 or so coalition forces have died during the conflict in Helmand Province.

So, it has always been a heavily contested province, but the fact that the Taliban are making an offensive, making advances on the provincial capital, I think, shows that they are resurgent here, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: What effect have those — you talked about the U.S. airstrikes, the 25 U.S. airstrikes. What visible effect have they had?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, certainly, they have helped move the Taliban back or keep the Taliban from forming in big groups, because that's what we have seen since the drawdown of U.S. forces, since the withdrawal of NATO forces, the end of 2014.

Without that airpower, the Taliban were able to group in large numbers. And that's what the airstrikes are helping. Now, U.S. officials also say there are combat enablers on the ground in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province. Now, that could mean forces on the ground, fighting forces on the ground. That could also mean spotters who help target those airstrikes more effectively.

There are also several hundred American advisers that went down there last year to help reform the 215 Army Corps that is in Lashkar Gah, that is in Helmand Province, trying to hold that province together, helping with, main role, training, advising and assisting the Afghan forces.

But the Afghan force is clearly struggling.

GWEN IFILL: Why are the Afghan forces, why do they appear to be so weak, after all of the support they have gotten, not only from the U.S., but also in training and advising? What has gone wrong, if anything?

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, there are a number of problems. A lot of it is inexperience. It is still a relatively new force. U.S. officials say they are better this year than they were last year because they have some combat experience. They have a little bit of better strategic experience.

But there have been American advisers down there helping with the force. Problems with leadership. Many of the generals and officials down there have been changed or moved out. Problems with strategy.

So, one of the things that the Afghans used to do was go and set up checkpoints on roads. They, of course, were easy targets for the Taliban. What the U.S. forces and other NATO advisers are trying to help them with is to actually go and take land that they need to take, hold land that they need to hold.

But it's definitely been a struggle in the last week or so around Lashkar Gah, as the Taliban have made a concerted offensive there, in some cases even blowing up bridges. So, the Afghan security forces — also with a fledgling air force. So, they don't have their own airpower. And that's why the U.S. has introduced its airpower.

GWEN IFILL: And the Taliban, how strong is it? We went through this back and forth in Kunduz not long ago.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Well, it's not really whether at this point Lashkar Gah falls or not. It really is the psychological battle.

So, last week, the Taliban went into a district south of Lashkar Gah, in the Helmand River, went into the district center for a brief point of time. And then the enemy army pushed them back.

It's really not whether they can hold the area, because in Kunduz in the north, they only held the city center for about three days. But the knock-on effect of that was really very dramatic, because it instilled fear in people. They did go around. They gathered a lot of intelligence. They gathered people's names in Kunduz.

And the concern, of course, of the people in Lashkar Gah, if they are able to get into the city, are able to get close as they have gotten, it just shows that they still are a resurgent Taliban. And people are very concerned, not just in Helmand Province, but around the country, that the Taliban have been able to make such gains.

GWEN IFILL: Jennifer Glasse reporting for us tonight from Kabul, thank you so much.

JENNIFER GLASSE: Good to talk to you, Gwen.

Recently in The Longest War