By Candace Rondeaux and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 16 -- Hundreds of Taliban fighters took control of seven villages in southern Afghanistan on Monday in what appeared to be a major offensive near the country's second-largest city, according to Afghan officials.
An estimated 500 Taliban fighters swept into several villages in the Arghandab district, about 15 miles northwest of Kandahar, officials said. Agha Lalai Wali, an official with the government-sponsored Peace and Reconciliation Commission in Kandahar, said the fighters surged into the area Sunday evening, setting up several checkpoints in the district. Wali said local residents had reported seeing dozens of fighters believed to be of Pakistani and Arab origin traveling in the area in pickup trucks shortly before the incursion.
The Taliban's seizure of the villages comes three days after an audacious prison break at a Kandahar jail, in which an estimated 1,000 to 1,200 prisoners, many of them Taliban fighters, escaped.
A spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. M. Zaher Azimi, said Monday evening that hundreds of Afghan army troops were being deployed to the south from the capital, Kabul, and elsewhere around the country to mount a counteroffensive following the attacks in Arghandab.
Officials with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said Western troops were also being redeployed to support Afghan forces leading the counteroffensive. A spokesman for the force, Gen. Carlos Brancos, said he could not confirm that the Taliban had taken control of the villages in Arghandab, but said ISAF officials had received "information that Taliban insurgents were active in the area."
Kandahar, a city of roughly 450,000 people, is considered the birthplace of the Taliban, and fighters trying to infiltrate the city have frequently used Arghandab as a gateway. Arghandab was relatively peaceful until Mullah Naqib, a local leader known for keeping the peace, died there last year. It has since been the scene of several fierce firefights between NATO forces and insurgents.
According to Afghan officials, Taliban fighters have said they plan to march on Kandahar from Arghandab.
"The Taliban are getting stronger and stronger, and after they attacked the prison, that gave them higher morale," Wali said.
The Friday prison break appeared to have been well planned and sophisticated. A suicide bomber blew up a water tank trunk near the gates of Sarposa Prison, and fighters used gunfire and rockets to launch a broader assault. Hundreds of inmates fled into waiting cars and vans commandeered by insurgents, according to Afghan officials in Kandahar.
About 350 Taliban fighters were among those freed in the raid, which killed 15 members of the Afghan national police force, according to Afghan government and Western military officials.
Brancos said that five escaped prisoners have been detained and that another 17 were killed during an operation in nearby Zabol province, to the northeast.
Last month, several hundred prisoners waged a hunger strike at the Kandahar jail to protest a lack of progress on their cases. In a trend that is increasingly common at Afghan prisons, several inmates sewed their mouths shut as part of the protest.
The prison break and offensive in Arghandab occurred against the backdrop of renewed tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan over an increasingly active Islamist insurgency in Pakistan's rugged tribal areas along the Afghan border. A day after the jailbreak, Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send troops across the border into Pakistan to quash attacks against Afghan and NATO troops.
"When they cross the territory from Pakistan to come and kill Afghans and kill coalition troops, it exactly gives us the right to go back and do the same," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Karzai's statement provoked a strong response from Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who called Karzai's remarks "regrettable" and lodged a formal complaint with the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad on Monday.
"In my view, the only way to win the war against terrorism and extremism is by showing full respect to territorial sovereignty and noninterference in each other's internal affairs," Qureshi said.
Hamdard reported from Kabul. Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.