KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Afghan security forces fought back against a fierce Taliban onslaught by about 800 militants in a key southern province Wednesday as clashes that have killed dozens of people, including at least 35 civilians, stretched into a fourth day.
The Taliban attacks targeting checkpoints and government buildings in Helmand province — which was touted as a showcase of a major US military offensive to drive out the militants in 2009 — show the stark challenges facing government troops trying to defend the country against the resilient Islamic militants with diminishing help from the international community.
Afghanistan’s security situation has been complicated by a political crisis stemming from allegations of massive fraud in the recent election to replace President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the Taliban regime was ousted nearly 13 years ago. Abdullah Abdullah, one of two candidates who competed in a runoff vote June 14 suspended his relations with the Independent Election Commission after he accused electoral officials of engineering extensive vote rigging, allegations they have denied.
His rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, called on Abdullah to rejoin the process and demanded that the commission stick to the official timetable for releasing preliminary results next week.
‘‘We believe that the only way forward is full adherence to the constitution, to the election law, and to the regulations,” Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official, told supporters at a rally. “We therefore are dismayed that our esteemed colleague Dr. Abdullah has withdrawn from the process. Our request to him is simple — join back to the process. Respect the will of the people.”
Afghan soldiers and police were applauded last year for largely holding their own against the Taliban, but the militants have stepped up their campaign of violence in a bid to undermine the Western-backed government. The relentless insurgency has raised concern that the departure of most foreign forces will lead to new instability in the war-weary country. The Obama administration has said it would leave some 10,000 American troops in the country if a much-delayed bilateral security pact is signed. That would also pave the way for thousands of forces from other NATO countries to remain.
NATO foreign ministers discussed Afghanistan’s future after the alliance’s combat mission ends in December in a meeting Wednesday in Brussels.
The alliance’s secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the goal was to launch a new mission called ‘‘Resolute Support’’ to train, advise, and assist the Afghans at the start of next year.
‘‘But it is the Afghans who must take the next step,’’ he said at a news conference. ‘‘The necessary security agreements must be signed soon. Otherwise, we will not be able to keep any troops in Afghanistan from next year.’’
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, brokered the deal but then refused to sign it, saying he would leave the decision to his successor.
Both candidates have promised to sign the agreement soon after taking office. Final results are due July 22, and Karzai has set Aug. 2 for the inauguration of the new president.
Ahmadzai denied any involvement in fraud, saying his campaign team had itself registered 1,800 complaints of irregularities that needed to be investigated. He refused to offer specific forecasts but said his team’s analysis shows that votes for him had increased in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The ongoing clashes in Helmand come as the Taliban have launched their so-called summer offensive, in which fighters take advantage of warmer weather and easier movement in the mountainous country to increase attacks, posing a major test of the capabilities of Afghan forces.
At least 57 people — including 35 civilians, nine soldiers, and 13 policemen — have been killed and more than 1,000 families displaced since the fighting began, provincial government spokesman Omar Zwak said. He said dozens of militants also had been killed, but he could not give a figure.