The Taliban assault Monday on the outskirts of Kandahar was the latest display of prowess by the militants despite a record number of US and NATO troops in the country.
The push into Arghandab district - a lush region filled with grape and pomegranate groves that the Soviet army could never conquer - comes three days after a Taliban attack on Kandahar’s prison that freed 400 insurgent fighters.
Those fighters, NATO conceded Monday, appear to now be massing on the doorstep of the Taliban’s former power-base. Kandahar city lies just 10 miles (16 kilometres) to the southeast.
The sophisticated and successful jailbreak, followed by the movement into Arghandab, is the latest evidence of the growing strength of the Taliban militants, whose hard-line Islamist regime was ousted from power in the US-led invasion in 2001.
The US and NATO have pleaded for additional troops over the last year and now have some 65,000 in the country. But the militants are still finding successes that the international alliance can’t counter.
“Three days ago, inside of a 30-minute operation, the Taliban freed hundreds of prisoners, and NATO, the Canadians, the Americans, didn’t do anything,” said Mohammad Asif, a 30-year-old Kandahar resident.
Mohammad Farooq, the government leader in Arghandab, said about 500 Taliban fighters moved into his district and took over several villages Monday. He said families were fleeing even as Canadian, US and Afghan forces were moving in.
A large river dissects Arghandab’s fertile lands. The east side, closest to Kandahar, is controlled by NATO and Afghan troops, Farooq said. The area to the river’s west is now controlled by the Taliban.
“The Taliban told us to leave. They are planting mines everywhere,” said Shafiq Khan, who was moving his wife, seven children and brother out of Arghandab in a small truck late Monday. Khan reported that helicopters were patrolling the skies. “The people are scared,” he said by mobile phone.
Arghandab lies just northwest of Kandahar city, and a tribal leader from the region warned that the militants could use the cover from Arghandab’s orchards to mount an attack on Kandahar itself
“All of Arghandab is made of orchards. The militants can easily hide and easily fight,” said Haji Ikramullah Khan.
Maj. Gen. Carlos Branco, a spokesman for the NATO-led force, dismissed the idea, saying the Taliban couldn’t mount such an attack. He said he did not believe there were 500 fighters in Arghandab but wouldn’t offer an estimate.
Nevertheless, security in Kandahar city had been beefed up noticeably. Police with rockets on their shoulders kept a lookout from the roof of police headquarters, and the few remaining aid groups in town added guards.
NATO spokesman Mark Laity said NATO and Afghan military officials were redeploying troops to the region to “meet any potential threats.”
Friday’s attack at Sarposa Prison involved dozens of militants on motorbikes and two suicide bombers. One suicide bomber set off an explosives-laden tanker truck at the prison gate while a second bomber blew up an escape route through a back wall. Rockets fired from inside the prison’s courtyard collapsed an upper floor.
Two powerful anti-Taliban leaders from Arghandab have died in the last year, weakening the region’s defenses. Mullah Naqib, the district’s former leader, died of a heart attack in October. Taliban fighters moved into Arghandab en masse two weeks after his death but left within days after soldiers moved in.
A second leader, police commander Abdul Hakim Jan, died in a massive suicide bombing in Kandahar in February.
The assault came one day after President Hamid Karzai angrily told a news conference that he would send Afghan troops into Pakistan to hunt down Taliban leaders in response to the militants that cross over into Afghanistan from Pakistan.