Al Qaeda militants are flocking to join the Taliban front lines as the insurgents make gains across the country, the Afghan general leading the defence of Helmand's capital has claimed.
Gen Sami Sadat warned a victory for the Taliban would have a “devastating effect on global security” by emboldening extremists across the world.
The commander of the Afghan army's 215 Corps made the comments hours before urging residents of Lashkar Gah to evacuate their homes so his troops could clear residential neighbourhoods amid heavy fighting.
The city which held the UK's headquarters during Britain's eight-year Helmand campaign was on Tuesday night largely held by the Taliban as it risked becoming the first significant Afghan city to fall to the militants' latest offensive. Residents reported the Afghan forces had been beaten back to a small number of police and government compounds.
Gen Sadat said intelligence reports suggested some 60 al Qaeda members had been killed in the fighting so far, alongside hundreds of Taliban. Both sides regularly exaggerate enemy losses.
He said the Taliban's losses included foreign militants from Egypt, Syria Iraq and Yemen.
“I have never seen so many al Qaeda members in the front lines and in the fight shoulder to shoulder with the Taliban before, than I have seen after the withdrawal of the US forces,” he told the BBC.
Al-Qaeda members had been helping the Taliban to “refit and mobilise”, as well as giving specialist weapons expertise with mortars and snipers. A win for the militants, who were ousted in 2001 by a US-led invasion, would “send goosebumps across the globe to other extremist elements”, he predicted.
“This will increase lone wolf attacks, this will increase the hope for small groups to mobilise in the cities of Europe and America and will have devastating effect on global security.”
His comments came a week after the latest United Nations monitoring report on al Qaeda said the group was active in 15 Afghan provinces. Yet the Afghan government has also been accused of regularly overplaying the threat from al-Qaeda to try to stop America withdrawing and attract continued Western backing for its military and counter terrorism efforts.
Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert with the Royal United Services Institute, said the general's comments echoed a concerted effort by Afghan leaders to “really hammer the point home that the fight they are fighting in Afghanistan is directly linked to the threat the West is facing”. He also questioned how easy it was to identify al-Qaeda members from ordinary Taliban on the battlefield.
Donald Trump's 2020 withdrawal deal with the Taliban saw them give assurances they would suppress the international terrorist threat from Afghanistan.
The latest UN analysis released late last month said the terror network founded by Osama bin Laden was still present in the south and east of Afghanistan and “operates under Taliban protection from Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces”.
Joe Biden decided to complete the withdrawal of American troops after concluding the international threat from terrorists based in Afghanistan had fallen sharply in the past 20 years.
Lashkar Gah residents reported a sixth day of heavy fighting as the Taliban continued to push into the city.
Gen Sadat said he was confident government forces would repel the attackers, but warned the fight was “not going to be nice”. He accused the Taliban of taking hostages and evicting residents to fortify their homes. Local hospitals have reported scores of civilian dead and wounded.
In a message to resident, he said the army would "not leave a single Taliban alive".
"I know it is very difficult for you to leave your houses - it is hard for us too - but if you are displaced for a few days please forgive us," he said.