“Lashkar Gah will not fall,” US General John Nicholson promised Afghans in the capital of Helmand, but its residents have begun bugging out. The Taliban made its most serious bid for control of Helmand province — and the local drug trade — with an invasion of Lashkar Gah yesterday. NATO and coalition forces finally pushed them back out after several hours, but the point had been made where it counts:

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.

According to the Post’s report, the Taliban claims to control three-quarters of Helmand already (the US puts it at 30% — bad enough), but that may be a little misleading. Most of Helmand is rural area with small strategic value except for the drug crops, but getting those out of Helmand requires an infrastructure for delivery. In Helmand, that infrastructure only exists in any significance in the capital.

That’s one reason why Lashkar Gah holds strategic significance, but it’s not the only value. Capturing the capital would also allow the Taliban to bring its leadership out of Pakistan, which might increase their risk but also their tactical and strategic opportunities. Given the lack of infrastructure in Afghanistan, a Taliban victory in Lashkar Gah could effectively split Afghanistan into two halves.

There’s also the symbolic value of Lashkar Gah, as the BBC notes:

The BBC’s South Asia correspondent, Jill McGivering, said the fall of the city would be a “symbolic disaster” for government forces and the international community.

“For the past fifteen years, Lashkar Gah has been held up by the west as a safe, protected seat of government – a focus for international development, a weapon in the battle for hearts and minds,” she said.

“In terms of its propaganda value too, the government and its backers simply can’t afford to lose it.”

By the way, Lashkar Gah isn’t the only regional capital under siege, the Hindustan Times reports today. Taliban forces have targeted other cities, but seem to be having the most success in Helmand:

In recent weeks, the Taliban have attempted to overrun several provincial capitals, from Kunduz and Baghlan in the north to Farah in the west, but Afghan forces managed to repel the attacks.

The Taliban captured Ghormach district in northern Faryab province on Tuesday when security forces retreated from the area after heavy fighting. Vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum left Kabul for Faryab on the instructions of President Ashraf Ghani to take charge of the military operation to push back the Taliban.

Also on Tuesday, Taliban fighters renewed an offensive against Farah, triggering heavy fighting that lasted hours. A regional police spokesman said security forces pushed back the attack, killing more than a dozen militants.

From Lashkar Gah to Faryab province, a line could be drawn that would cut off the entire western portion of the country, but the incursions in Kunduz and Baghlan look more like an encirclement strategy to isolate Kabul. Helmand is in the traditional Pashtun region, the tribe from which the Taliban derives its power, but Kunduz is primarily Uzbek and Baghlan more in the Tajik region. If the Taliban has become militarily ascendant in that area of Afghanistan, the situation looks even more grave.

So much for this war being over. It might be soon, though, unless we decide we want to actually win it in reality, and not just in political fantasy.