Villages Cleared Of Taliban, Afghan And NATO Officials Say

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
June 20, 2008
Pg. 8
By Taimoor Shah and Dexter Filkins
ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan — Afghan and NATO forces cleared Taliban guerrillas from a cluster of villages outside Kandahar on Thursday, removing for the moment any threat that they might try to move into their former stronghold in the southern part of the country.
The Taliban fighters, who had infiltrated as many as 18 villages here, largely retreated before a force of about 1,100 Afghan soldiers that began moving into the area on Wednesday, Afghan and NATO officials said. NATO planes and helicopters supported their advance.
Afghan and NATO officials took slightly different views of the operation, with the Afghans trumpeting it as a great success. Afghan soldiers killed 56 Taliban fighters during the operation, including a number of foreigners, Gen. Zahir Azimi, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, said at a news conference. The operation involved no loss of civilian life, and the Afghan Army suffered no casualties beyond two reported on Wednesday.
NATO officers offered a more measured view: they said fighting had been minimal with the Taliban, who they said had not been so numerous to begin with. Still, no one disagreed that, for the moment, the Taliban had been dispersed from the edges of one of the country’s most important cities.
“Arghandab is totally cleared out of the enemies,” General Azimi said at his news conference, in Kandahar. But he conceded that a number of Taliban fighters appeared to have slipped away.
By Thursday evening, NATO’s force in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force, was urging the roughly 4,000 Afghans who had fled their homes to return.
The quick response of the Afghan Army, and the apparent success of the operation, represented a bit of good news here after a run of gloomy events.
Last week, Taliban fighters mounted a brazen assault on the main prison in Kandahar, blowing up the mud walls, killing 15 guards and freeing about 1,200 inmates, including several hundred Taliban fighters. Then came the reports that Taliban fighters — numbering 400 in some reports — were infiltrating the villages around Arghandab, a river valley about 10 miles northwest of the city that is critical to its defense.
The situation raised the prospect of a possible Taliban move into Kandahar itself, which has been the capital of the Taliban since the movement was founded in a village near here in 1994.
The events around Arghandab have unfolded amid a growing recognition that the sanctuaries enjoyed by the Taliban across the border in nearby Pakistan are posing a serious threat to the NATO-backed Afghan government. This week, President Hamid Karzai threatened to send troops across the border into Pakistan if Islamabad continued to allow the sanctuaries to flourish. On Thursday, Asadullah Khaled, the governor of Kandahar Province, accused Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader based in the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan, of responsibility for cross-border attacks. But he offered little evidence.
Yet exactly how significant the Taliban threat in Arghandab was — and how impressive the Afghan operation was to dispel it — remained murky on Thursday. On Wednesday, helicopters flying over Arghandab Valley could be seen firing rockets at Taliban positions, suggesting that the militants had moved quite close to the district center. After the operation, Governor Khalid declared that “hundreds of militants had been killed and wounded.”
Other Afghans were more restrained in their assessments. NATO officials said the Taliban infiltration of Arghandab was not that significant, nor was the Taliban resistance. Some officials suggested that the reports of Taliban infiltrations had been spread by the Taliban themselves, with the aim of exaggerating their strength, a tactic used by guerrilla armies throughout history.
The NATO officials said that however many Taliban fighters were in the area, they failed to put up much of a fight against the Afghan Army. That suggested that the guerrillas had fled, were never there in great numbers to begin with, or had disappeared into the local population.
“We have not seen major concentrations of Taliban,” said Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, spokesman for the NATO force.
“The contact we had were very small skirmishes,” General Branco said. “We used artillery fire.”
Still, the speed with which Afghan forces moved into the area, and the air power deployed to support them, suggested that military and political leaders viewed the crushing of the Taliban in Arghandab as an urgent matter.
Amid the uncertainties over the Taliban presence, General Branco said there were two positive aspects of this week’s operation: no civilians had been killed or wounded, and the Afghan Army, which has sometimes struggled in its effort to develop into an effective fighting force, had deployed 1,100 troops in 24 hours and done most of the work on the ground.
“That is a very big achievement compared to a year ago,” the general said.
Taimoor Shah reported from Arghandab, Afghanistan, and Dexter Filkins from Islamabad, Pakistan. Abdul Waheed Wafa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.