Afghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck headed into the district of Arghandab, north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Wednesday.
Afghan National Army soldiers ride on the back of a transport truck headed into the district of Arghandab, north of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Wednesday. David Gilkey/NPR
A boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle at a checkpoint entering Arghandab district.
A boy prepares to throw a rock at a NATO military vehicle at a checkpoint entering Arghandab district. David Gilkey/NPR
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint as a man peeks out of the back of a truck leaving Arghandab district.
An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at a checkpoint as a man peeks out of the back of a truck leaving Arghandab district. David Gilkey/NPR
Apache helicopters and warplanes circled overhead, and sporadic explosions echoed in the distance as NATO and Afghan soldiers mounted an offensive into the densely packed fruit orchards of Arghandab district, less than 15 miles from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
On Monday, Taliban insurgents infiltrated and occupied at least a half-dozen villages in Arghandab. From there, Taliban spokesmen threatened to launch attacks against Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city.
Some 700 hundred Afghan soldiers were rushed in to protect Kandahar's northern suburbs on Tuesday. They arrived as thousands of Afghan villagers fled their homes in Arghandab, fearing an imminent battle.
On Wednesday, a constant stream of Afghan soldiers in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns roared back and forth from Arghandab. A column of Canadian armored personnel carriers also rumbled towards the river that bisects the valley. Afghan soldiers at a checkpoint prevented journalists from descending further into the district.
NATO announced it began joint Afghan-NATO patrols on the western bank of the river at 6 a.m. Wednesday. Several hours later, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar's provincial council and brother to the Afghan president, announced 16 Taliban fighters and two Afghan army soldiers had been killed in clashes. A Taliban spokesman made a counter-claim in a phone interview with NPR, saying insurgents in Arghandab destroyed two Afghan National Police trucks and killed 16 Afghan security forces.
Meanwhile, the streets of Kandahar were largely deserted Wednesday morning, with the exception of Afghan police and soldiers, as well as NATO troops, who manned checkpoints at nearly every intersection.
Kandahar's residents were shocked last Friday, when Taliban insurgents temporarily seized control of a Kandahar neighborhood and mounted a daring raid against the city's main prison. Approximately 1,000 prisoners escaped after dozens of insurgents detonated a truck bomb and overwhelmed the prison's Afghan guards. Hundreds of Taliban fighters, including several notorious Taliban commanders, escaped in what may have been the world's largest jail break.