But late Monday, their official spokesman seemed to walk a tight-line that appeared to suggest they were holding back. The spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said the insurgents were only recapturing areas that were once under their control but that were retaken by Afghan forces several months ago.
The violence in Helmand was part of a wider uptick in deadly attacks across Afghanistan targeting districts and increasingly choking the highways. In the past 24 hours, the Taliban carried out attacks in 20 of the country’s 34 provinces, according to Rohullah Ahmadzai, the spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry.
The insurgents made a strong push for Lashkar Gah from several directions since Friday, following a couple of weeks of tightening the noose, officials said.
Ataullah Afghan, the head of the provincial council, said that the Taliban had overrun security checkpoints in the suburbs of Babaji and Chahanjir and closed one of the main roads leading into the city, blowing up parts of it. They also carried out attacks in Nawa, a district neighboring Lashkar Gah. The advances were slowed by airstrikes and fresh government forces that arrived Sunday night, he said.
“They have blocked most of the entrances and exits to the city,” said Bashir Ahmad Shakir, a former member of the provincial council in Helmand. “The officials were in deep slumber. The military officials only realized it when the Taliban were almost stepping in to the gates of Lashkar Gah.”
Mr. Afghan, the head of the provincial council, attributed the defense failures to a problem that has plagued Afghan forces in the south for years: the presence of a large number of “ghost soldiers” in their ranks.
“In Babaji and Chahanjir on paper there are 150 police, the salary of 150 police is paid, but only 50 police are present in the whole area, with each outpost getting no more than five or six police,” he said. “We shared this problem with higher officials, with the interior minister, with the present of the country, but no action was taken. Now we see the result of those imaginary police.”