Afghan special forces prepare for battle with the Taliban outside of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province on Monday. (Abdul Malik/Reuters)

When Taliban fighters penetrated the capital of Helmand province for the first time Monday, killing at least 14 people in a suicide bombing and related attacks, it was their most successful assault to date on the strategic southern city and opium trade center, which the insurgents have been trying to capture for months.

Government forces pushed them out after several hours, and officials declared the situation under control, but by then some panicked residents had fled the beleaguered city, and the psychological damage had been done. The Taliban had not raised their flag over Lashkar Gah, but they had come awfully close. 

Monday’s ground assault and bombing came two days after Gen. John W. Nicholson, the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, flew from Kabul to Lashkar Gah and promised worried local leaders that international forces would do everything possible to make sure the city does not collapse.

“We are with you and we will stay with you,” Nicholson told the group gathered inside a police compound, adding that Western nations had recently pledged new military and economic support to Afghanistan “because we believe in you.” Even if the Taliban keeps trying to attack, he vowed, “Lashkar Gah will not fall.” 

Lt. Gen. Abdullah Khan Habibi, the Afghan defense minister, accompanied Nicholson and promised the group his forces would “defend Lashkar Gah with our own blood.” Helmand Gov. Hayatullah Hayat declared that Taliban fighters were making “a last push” to capture the city but that “they will take that hope to their graves.”

By Monday, the public bravado had been replaced by closed-door emergency meetings and appeals for help. Hayat, while declaring the situation under control by afternoon, acknowledged that local security forces were “really tired” after weeks of defending the city against Taliban aggression.

In a telephone interview, he said provincial security officials had asked the central government to send “fresh troops so our guys can cycle out and get some rest.”

To the elders who gathered anxiously Saturday to hear what the visitors had to say, Monday’s attack came as no surprise. The Taliban already controlled three-quarters of the province, and since mid-September it had launched a new offensive, harrying the edges of the capital while overrunning several district centers and attacking security checkpoints.

The elders knew the militant Islamists were itching to capture Lashkar Gah, where they could establish a launching pad for more offensives and move their leaders from neighboring Pakistan. They knew it would also give the insurgents much greater control over the region’s hugely profitable opium poppy trade. 

They were alarmed by the erratic performance of Afghan troops, more numerous and better equipped but less motivated than the insurgents. They were frustrated by political infighting in Kabul. They wondered why the Americans, with so many warplanes and attack helicopters at the ready, weren’t doing more to help. 

So they listened politely to the speeches, fingering their prayer beads and fidgeting with frustration. And then they spoke.

One elder, Hajji Ahmad Jan, rose and graciously welcomed the visitors, but then his tone shifted abruptly. “We are sacrificing so much here, and what have we gained?” he said, pointing to a legislator whose brother had just been killed in fighting. Then he turned and addressed Nicholson. “You got rid of the Taliban in three days once. Why can’t you do the same thing now?”

Another complained to a reporter about pervasive corruption in the security forces. He said the practice of “selling ranks” had weakened military morale and “made the Taliban stronger than us.”

One man seemed to speak for everyone when he made a brief, impassioned plea to the visiting officials. 

“Our homes are being destroyed, our youths are being killed, people are suffering every day and being forgotten,” he said. “If, God forbid, we lose Lashkar Gah, then Helmand will collapse and the whole region and Afghanistan will collapse.

“Please save us from this chaos.”

The Afghan forces’ battlefield performance has been mixed. Army commandos have been widely praised, but police frequently run away from Taliban attacks, and coordination among different security branches is poor.

 Monday brought Lashkar Gah — already on edge, running out of supplies and crammed with refugees from nearby fighting — one step closer to chaos. The suicide bombing and ground attack left 15 people hospitalized with gunshot wounds and other injuries, and officials said the death toll might rise. 

Hayat tried to reassure the public that everything was under control. “We have locked the area down and it is now completely clear,” he said Monday afternoon. “There is no doubt that people were scared, and some fled their houses, thinking the Taliban had broken through the security belt and entered the city, but that was not the case.”

But some local leaders said Taliban forces had breached the city’s defensive lines early Monday and attacked numerous checkposts. Abdul Bari Barakzai, a tribal chief, said that government troops had pushed the insurgents back by midday but that sporadic gunfire was continuing.

Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taliban spokesman, said in an audio message that its forces “began an operation on Lashkar Gah this morning and have since entered several areas and captured some strategic points.”

Refugees from the conflict, now living in a maze of mud-walled huts here in Kabul, said Monday they had little expectation the province could be pacified. They also said tribal rivalries and NATO bombings had added to the violence and caused some residents to support the Taliban.

“I don’t have even a tiny hope,” said Mahmad Nabi, 55, a farmer who fled last month with 60 other families from Nad Ali, a district now mostly under Taliban control. “Our land of grapes and pomegranates became a desert. The foreign planes have destroyed our houses and the Taliban don’t let farmers go to their fields. The people are caught in the middle.”

Sardar Gul Rahim, 32, a refugee from Greshk, a city that fell to the Taliban several years ago, expressed a more cynical view. “The Taliban take plunder and say you are supporting the government. The government forces accuse you of providing cover for the Taliban,” he said, sitting under a tent and feeding his pet partridges in wicker cages. “Everyone is just fighting for their own interests.”

Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.