Afghan Villagers Flee After Taliban Assault

By Candace Rondeaux and Javed Hamdard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, June 17 -- Hundreds of residents fled several villages in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday after Taliban fighters launched the next phase of a major offensive near the country's second-largest city, according to Afghan government officials.

Residents of Arghandab district, northwest of Kandahar city, began leaving their homes after hundreds of Taliban fighters took control of nine villages. The fighters blew up three bridges in the district and began laying mines along several key roads, according to Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and head of the Kandahar provincial council. Hundreds of Afghan and NATO troops were on the move in the area in preparation for a counteroffensive, Ahmed Wali Karzai said.

"NATO and Afghan forces are moving forward and ready and about to attack, but I don't know when," Karzai said. "People are still . . . leaving the villages, but it is not clear how many families there are because they are not coming to a camp or a place that we can count. They are coming to their relatives' houses."

There were conflicting reports on the number of residents who had fled. In interviews, officials near Arghandab estimated that at least 100 families had left the district and moved to safer areas in Kandahar city. A police official in Arghandab, meanwhile, told the Associated Press that about 700 families had fled.

NATO officials with the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan disputed reports about Taliban activity in the area Tuesday, saying there was no indication that the insurgents' offensive in Arghandab had forced residents to leave.

"The situation in Kandahar and Arghandab is quiet," said Brig. Gen. Carlos Brancos, an ISAF spokesman. "Our troops are moving freely there."

Brancos acknowledged that at least one explosion had been reported in the region. But he said NATO had airdropped leaflets in and around Arghandab, warning residents to stay inside their homes.

Tensions have been on the rise in Kandahar province since Friday, when a sophisticated suicide bomb attack by the Taliban at a jail led to the escape of more than 1,000 inmates, including Taliban fighters.

Two days later, Taliban fighters slipped into Arghandab, setting up several checkpoints in the district. Karzai said about 300 Taliban insurgents attacked Arghandab from the north while 200 attacked from the south. Local and Western military officials said they believe at least some of the insurgents had been joined by escaped Taliban prisoners.

The small, rural district of Arghandab has played an outsize role in Afghanistan's history. A crucial byway to roads toward Iran, the cluster of hamlets lies at the northwestern edge of Kandahar city, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. Arghandab fell under the control of insurgents during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and has from time to time been a major infiltration route for the Islamist insurgency in the region.

Kandahar, a city of about 450,000, was home to Afghanistan's first rulers and still is considered a center of political power in the country.

"The symbolic meaning of Kandahar was that it was the cradle of the Taliban in Afghanistan," Brancos said. "But beyond the symbolism of these areas of Kandahar and Arghandab, it's an area that controls the highway and the security of the highway. The highway is not only very important for logistics and the movement of troops but for the economy of the area."

ISAF and Afghan army troops began deploying to the region soon after the latest Taliban offensive began. Hundreds more were expected to join the counteroffensive late Tuesday.

Hamdard reported from Kabul.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company