Taliban Fighters Make Gains Near Kandahar
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Afghanistan, there has been a major setback for NATO and the Afghan government. Both have deployed troops to defend Kandahar, the country's second largest city. This after Taliban insurgents claimed to have captured part of a district just outside the city.
NPR's Ivan Watson visited the district of Arghandab today and sent this report.
IVAN WATSON: Arghandab is a lush valley packed with dense orchards just 10 minutes' drive north of Kandahar. On Monday, thousands of Afghan villagers began fleeing the area.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: Today, a tractor rolled out loaded with refugees, blankets, pots and furniture. The tractor was towing a second vehicle, a broken SUV filled with 12 more fleeing villagers.
The driver, a man named Hadar Agha(ph), pointed towards the western bank of the river, less than two miles away.
Mr. HADAR AGHA: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: You see the pomegranate orchards on the other side of the river? Hadar Agha says. I saw Taliban fighters there, and they told me not to come back. Moments later, a convoy of trucks carrying hundreds of Afghan soldiers rolled through, headed in the direction of the river.
(Soundbite of trucks)
WATSON: Afghan government officials in Kandahar say in the past two to three days, some 500 Taliban fighters succeeded in occupying a half dozen villages in Arghandab. But NATO commanders are trying to downplay these reports. Lieutenant Colonel David Corbould, a commander of the 2,500 Canadian soldiers deployed in Kandahar, says he saw no sign of Taliban insurgents during a recent tour of the district.
Lieutenant Colonel DAVID CORBOULD: I can tell you what I've seen with my own eyes on the ground, and I saw kids waving at me today and families getting on with normal life. I haven't gone all over Arghandab today, but the areas I were in - I was in - there was no such activity going on.
WATSON: NATO is still reeling from last Friday's embarrassing setback in Kandahar, when Taliban insurgents overran Kandahar's main prison.
I'm looking at what used to be the entrance to Kandahar's main prison. The force of a truck bomb here destroyed a two-story building in front of the entrance and reduced to a pile of rubble the 15-foot-high wall in front of the prison. About a thousand prisoners escaped, among them hundreds of Taliban fighters - including some prominent commanders. This is a major setback for the Afghan government and for its Western allies.
WATSON: Across the street from the prison, a shopkeeper named Bachtula(ph) shows how the truck bomb blew in the metal door to his small machine-repair shop.
BACHTULA: (Speaking foreign language)
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
WATSON: The attack has shaken Bachtula's confidence in the Afghan government.
BACHTULA: Of course, like, when this incident, this attack operations occurred, like I got confused, like the government - they should like provide a very good security 24 hours, you know, to protect those criminals, prisoners and Taliban's prisoners. And these types of things going on, it means the government is weak.
WATSON: The prison in Kandahar is located less than 25 minutes' drive from one of the biggest NATO air bases in Afghanistan.
(Soundbite of helicopter)
WATSON: And yet none of the attack helicopters and fighters jets that constantly fly in and out of Kandahar air base, nor the thousands of NATO soldiers stationed here, arrived in time to stop what may have been the biggest jail break in Afghan history. Aga Lalai Destagiri(ph) is the head of an Afghan government commission in Kandahar that has been trying to convince Taliban fighters to lay down their arms and join the Afghan government.
Mr. AGA LALAI DESTAGIRI: (Through translator) The Taliban will only negotiate when the Afghan government is strong, but these types of incidents will have a very negative impact on our work.
WATSON: Over the last two years, the Taliban is believed to have lost thousands of fighters in clashes with NATO and Afghan government forces. But over the past six months, the insurgents have mounted a series of increasingly sophisticated attacks, including an assassination attempt against Afghan president Hamid Karzai during a heavily guarded military ceremony in the Afghan capital last month. Nearly seven years after the lightning-quick overthrow of the Taliban, the insurgents are proving to be a tenacious and increasingly dangerous enemy.
Ivan Watson, NPR News, Arghandab, Afghanistan.