As the Taliban launched an offensive over the weekend to take areas of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, there were hundreds of casualties amid some of the most intense urban fighting since Afghan peace talks began last month.
Among the victims was a pregnant woman struck by a stray bullet. She survived but her fetus died in utero, apparently the result of the bullet's impact, Doctors Without Borders says.
The woman was among the Afghan civilians who appeared to have been caught in crossfire while fleeing villages near the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, says Karsten Noko, the humanitarian affairs officer for Doctors Without Borders.
The Taliban launched coordinated attacks in different parts of Helmand, says Omer Zwak, the provincial governor's spokesperson. Local authorities estimate that some 35,000 people have been displaced in the fighting, which intensified around Lashkar Gah on Sunday.
There were so many casualties that the local 100-bed hospital was quickly overwhelmed, Noko says. A facility run by Doctors Without Borders absorbed some 20 more people needing treatment and care, including the woman hit by the stray bullet, who remains unconscious.
"She is still under our care and received surgery — we are waiting to see how the situation goes for her," Noko says.
The woman's personal tragedy resonated with Afghans on social media. Heartbroken and angry, some shared an unconfirmed image appearing to show an X-ray of a fetal skeleton with a projectile lodged near the spine.
A Taliban spokesman told Afghanistan's TOLO news channel that the group was recapturing areas taken by government forces a few months ago.
"The Taliban need to immediately stop their offensive actions in Helmand Province and reduce their violence around the country. It is not consistent with the US-Taliban agreement and undermines the ongoing Afghan Peace Talks," U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said in a tweet on Monday, quoting Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. forces commander.
The U.S. military conducted "several targeted strikes" in Helmand to defend Afghan security forces under Taliban attack, Leggett tweeted, noting this was "consistent with" the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February.
The insurgents had earlier curbed their attacks on urban centers, as part of that agreement. Their move to take Lashkar Gah and surrounding villages appears to have gone further as a brazen attempt to capture a government-held city.
Taliban fighters appeared to meet little initial resistance, TOLO reported. As they advanced, some Afghan police forces abandoned their checkpoints on the city's outskirts, which the Helmand police chief described as a "tactical retreat."
Local media reported that Taliban fighters also cut off the highway leading to the nearby city of Kandahar. Zwak says Afghan security forces are trying to take back areas the Taliban had captured.
Senior Afghan government negotiator Nader Nadery tells NPR the Afghan government remains committed to peace talks and describes a cease-fire as a "key demand." But the Taliban have argued that a cease-fire or further reductions in violence should come as talks conclude — not as they start.
"The increasing level of violence is certainly disheartening, and it increases the level of public pressure on us," Nadery says. "They say: 'How is it working? What does this mean when you are sitting and talking with a group that increases its violence and killing of Afghans?' "
Attacks like the one on Lashkar Gah are putting the government in an increasingly untenable position, Nadery says.
"It can't continue like this for long," he warns, "because if the violence continues to this level or increases, the public pressure will make [peace talks] almost impossible to pursue."
Khwaga Ghani contributed to this report from Kabul.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Peace negotiations are underway to end the war in Afghanistan, but peace seems even further out of reach. In Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, government forces and the Taliban are engaged in the worst fighting in months. The U.N. says thousands of families have had to flee their homes because of the violence. NPR's Diaa Hadid covers Afghanistan, and she is with us on the line from Islamabad. Diaa, good morning. Let's just start - what is happening in Helmand?
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Sure. So the latest is that officials say that two Afghan army helicopters crashed into each other while they were trying to airlift out wounded Afghan security forces. And they had been trying to repel Taliban fighters who seized a highway and overran some villages in Helmand. Effectively, what the insurgents are doing is trying to surround and seize the provincial capital. It's called Lashkar Gah. And so the fighting kicked off on Sunday, and since then, officials say, as you noted, about 5,000 families have fled. There's also been civilian casualties. Doctors Without Borders reported that a pregnant woman was struck by a stray bullet, and that caused the death of her fetus. She is still alive, though.
MARTIN: I mean, that's an awful story. And there have been so many of those awful stories to come out of Afghanistan in so many years of fighting. But there is always this constant drone of violence in Afghanistan. What is different about now?
HADID: Right. So this risks upending the peace process or at least chipping away at it, especially if this violence keeps escalating. And to explain a bit, this is the first time the Taliban have made a serious attempt to overrun a provincial capital since those talks began in September. And this is seen as a violation of an agreement they made with the chief backers of these peace talks, which is the United States. And their agreement actually calls for most foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by next year. But this attack also adds to already intensifying violence around Afghanistan, where the Taliban are targeting Afghan security forces.
And so about this, I spoke to Ali Yawar. He's an analyst with the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network. And have a listen to what he had to say.
ALI YAWAR: Such an attack will impact the peace process because there is already growing anger at the intensification of violence in many provinces.
HADID: And so he actually continued to say that the attack in Lashkar Gah could really harden people against the peace process, and that's a concern of Afghan negotiators as well. I spoke to a senior negotiator yesterday, and he says he's worried that they're going to lose key public support, which they need to make the painful compromises to end this war.
MARTIN: Well, then what's - I know it's impossible to know this, really, but what is the rationale of the Taliban right now? I mean, they overrun a provincial city. Are they intentionally trying to blow up the peace negotiations?
HADID: So the Taliban aren't commenting, interestingly enough, on this attack. But I spoke to Yawar about it, and he says that the attack in Lashkar Gah could actually be a way of showing muscle. It's showing Afghan negotiators that they can strike at any time, and that's important because the Taliban are being clear that their only real leverage here is violence, and they've been clear that they don't want to abide by a cease-fire. They say that should be a product of negotiations and not something that comes at the beginning.
And, importantly, this also seems to be a test of American resolve. President Trump said troops should be home by Christmas - that was in a tweet last week - and that sparked confusion and consternation in Afghanistan over the extent of America's commitment to the Afghan government.
MARTIN: NPR's Diaa Hadid reporting from Islamabad on the violence in Afghanistan and the peace talks. Thank you so much, Diaa.
HADID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.