A former British stronghold in Helmand has fallen to the Taliban just 12 months after UK combat troops left the province and civilians are fleeing the nearby provincial capital, fearing insurgents will soon move on the town.
The heavy fighting north west of Lashkar Gah and unravelling of security in areas UK troops fought bloody battles to secure comes days before the first anniversary of Britain’s withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan.
The assault also comes only three weeks after the Taliban captured the northern city of Kunduz in their greatest military victory since 2001.
A Western official said Lashkar Gah, which was the base of British aid and reconstruction efforts for eight years, was now “under serious military pressure”.
Babaji, which was cleared of insurgents with heavy British losses at the height of the Afghan campaign has already fallen to the Taliban, local officials said.
The area saw the notoriously bloody Panther’s Claw British offensive over the summer of 2009 and later became one of the main areas for Britain’s aid efforts.
Nearby Nad-e Ali, another district once garrisoned by British forces, has also seen heavy fighting. As many as 400 fighters are advancing on Chah-e Anjir only around 10 miles from Lashkar Gah.
The fighting also threatens to close the country’s main ring road, which passes through Helmand, officials warned.
One local government official said: “Babaji area has fallen in the hands of the Taliban and heavy fighting is ongoing in Chah-e Anjir area.
Farhad Dawary, local head of Civil Societies Union, said: “For three days, heavy fighting has been ongoing in Nad-e Ali district and the Babaji area.
“Babaji area has fallen to the Taliban, with heavy fighting ongoing in Nad-e Ali and the front line is now Chah-e Anjir.
“There is fear among the people in Lashkar Gah, with lots of rumours that city might fall. Some of the families are moving out of the city, and at the same time families from Nad-e Ali are coming to the city.”
A Western official told Reuters: “Helmand's capital appears to be under serious military pressure. We're hearing reports about civilians fleeing in large numbers."
Reinforcements were being drafted into the area, the Afghan ministry of interior said.
Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman, said he was confident Afghan security forces could protect Lashkar Gah from being overrun. “We are in no way concerned right now,” he said.
Britain, American and their Nato allies spent years and billions of pounds trying to build up the Afghan forces to secure their own country, but security has fallen sharply in the past year.
The fall of Kunduz at the end of last month came as a profound shock in Afghanistan, piling pressure on the government of President Ashraf Ghani and raising questions over the capacity of security forces to maintain stability.
Plummeting security last week forced Barack Obama to delay plans to pull American forces out of the country next year, with at least 5,500 troops now due to remain after 2017.
Britain has around 500 troops in the Afghan capital and a contingent of special forces, down from a peak of 10,000 troops in Helmand at the height of the campaign.