KABUL, Afghanistan — The news coming out of Helmand province on Thursday was far from clear.
The Taliban announced a complex series of attacks throughout the province, targeting police checkpoints and “invader bases.”
The insurgents’ media office was working overtime to spread the news; dozens of tweets, press releases and other announcements were sent out, boasting of tanks “obliterated” in Nawa district; “puppet vehicles” destroyed in Nad Ali, killing all the “minions” inside; and heavy fighting from Greshk to Sangin, two of the most unstable districts in the province, and the scenes of the bloodiest battles between the insurgency ad international forces over the past few years.
Later in the day they reported that they had fired missiles at a police base near the airport and attacked four “enemy bases” in Nawa district.
At the same time, the provincial government in Helmand was doing its best to dispel any notion that the Taliban were making headway.
“Insurgent claims are just propaganda,” crowed a press release distributed by the governor’s media center in Lashkar Gah. “On Thursday, May 19, insurgents have claimed that they have launched the so-called Operation Badar in Helmand, strongly damaging government sites. But this is all just propaganda given to the media.”
The press release acknowledged that a missile had been fired on the capital, Lashkar Gah, injuring one child, one woman, and a laborer. An Improvised Explosive Device (IED) had slightly damaged a government vehicle, but caused no injuries. And the insurgents attacked three checkpoints in Greshk district, as a result of which four Taliban were killed and two injured. The police sustained no casualties, said the report.
Residents were a little less sanguine about the attacks.
“I can hear very heavy fighting,” said one journalist, speaking by phone from Lashkar Gah. “Three rockets have fallen on the capital so far. We are getting reports that there are attacks in nearby districts.”
Operation Badar is the Taliban’s spring offensive, named after a famous battle in 624 in which the Prophet Mohammad triumphed over a much larger force.
Over the past few days, the Taliban have claimed several acts of violence as part of their ongoing offensive, including an attack on an army bus in Nangarhar province that killed at least 13. According to Afghan media, most of those killed were civilians, teachers at the police academy in Nangarhar.
On Thursday the BBC reported a deadly attack on road workers in Paktia, in eastern Afghanistan, in which 35 laborers were killed and 20 more injured. Eight insurgents also died in what was described as an ambush on the highway linking Paktia to Khost province. The Haqqani network, a Taliban-linked insurgent group with close ties to Pakistan, is known to operate in that area.
In early May, right after announcing the onset of Operation Badar, the Taliban rolled out a complex attack in Kandahar city that paralyzed the area for two days. The fight ended badly for the Taliban; they lost more than two dozen fighters, while causing little real damage in Kandahar.
In Helmand, all had been quiet, with local residents remarking as recently as Wednesday that they doubted the Taliban would make good on their promise to heat things up in Helmand.
April and early May are normally battle-free in the opium-rich province, with all sides doing their best to get the mutually profitable poppy crop harvested before unleashing mayhem.
But by Thursday morning the calm had been shattered.
The NATO media office had no comment on Thursday afternoon.
“We have heard that there is fighting in Helmand,” said a press officer at the International Joint Command. “But we do not know the details. We are waiting for updates.”
The attacks in Helmand, particularly if they affect the capital, will doubtless attract significant attention from the international forces, who are set to begin a transfer of security responsibility to Afghan troops beginning in July.
Lashkar Gah is one of the first seven sites slated for “Transition,” as it is known.
The U.K.’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, sent a report to parliament just two days ago in which he pointed out that insurgent activity in Helmand had been unusually low over the past few months. The British are quite heavily invested in Helmand, with the bulk of their 10,000 troops stationed in the southern province. For several years they were almost alone, in one of the most difficult theaters of war in the country. But in 2010 they were joined and almost overwhelmed by 18,000 U.S. Marines.
While much of Helmand is still at least partly controlled by the Taliban, Lashkar Gah has been an island of relative security for the past several months.
In his report, Hague pointed out that the current calm could be deceiving.
"Seasonal trends associated with the completion of the poppy harvest, the large number of weapons caches still being found and the Taliban's declared intention to begin their spring offensive all suggest that activity will increase over the coming months,” he said.
But he was happy to assure the U.K. Parliament that the Afghans were capable of meeting the challenge.
"The strength of the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] has grown again in April and this, combined with falling attrition rates, will help to ensure that the ANSF are increasingly able to meet this threat.”
Daud Ahmadi, spokesman for Hemand’s governor, was similarly upbeat in a telephone interview from Lashkar Gah.
“These attacks will not affect the Transition,” he said. “In fact, it is good news. Our armed forces are getting some practice. They are easily able to handle these insurgents.”