Friday, June 20, 2008

Arghandab redux

A rough sketch of what unfolded at Arghandab these past few days:

The Taliban scored a propaganda coup when Kandahar's Governor Khalid told the media that some 600 Taliban were in Arghandab, poised to attack the city. (Unnamed Canadian officials assert that it was more like 150.)

Then when NATO and Afghan forces moved to clear the area, Afghan authorities claimed there were many Taliban casualties ("hundreds" according to Khalid) while NATO said, to use current lingo, "not so much". However, at one site, in Manara village, journalists counted 19 bodies of alleged Taliban who were evidently victims of an airstrike.

Afghan clashes point to larger problems
By M. Karim Faiez and Laura King
Los Angeles Times

The fighting near Kandahar, though brief, disrupted lives of villagers in a nominally secure area, and raised concerns about communication gaps between Afghan and Western allies

KABUL - When the Taliban seized a string of villages outside one of Afghanistan's largest cities this week, NATO-led forces moved fast, airlifting in hundreds of Afghan and Western soldiers and sending warplanes and attack helicopters into the skies...

"No large formation of insurgents were met or spotted; only minor incidents occurred," Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco, the spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, told journalists in Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Thursday.

But villagers said the insurgents, in keeping with their usual battlefield practice, did not attempt to mass and confront the superior firepower of arriving coalition forces. Instead, they sought cover in the region's lush fields once aerial bombardment began, then slipped away.

An Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, said he thought many insurgents had fled under cover of darkness Wednesday night.

"The Taliban have just gone to other parts of Kandahar province," said Saadullah Khan, a tribal elder in Arghandab...

Even though it did not last long, the Arghandab confrontation showed the havoc insurgents could readily inflict on civilians, even in an area barely half an hour's drive from the main coalition base in southern Afghanistan...

From the time the Taliban arrived in Arghandab, statements by the coalition and Afghan authorities were somewhat embarrassingly out of sync, suggesting that the Afghans and their Western allies might not be fully sharing intelligence or conferring closely with each other...

NATO initially said no significant numbers of residents were fleeing; Afghan officials reported an exodus numbering in the thousands. Eventually, the alliance acknowledged that about 700 families had taken shelter elsewhere, but said there was no humanitarian crisis.

On Tuesday, two days after the insurgents had moved in, the Afghan Defense Ministry said the Taliban force numbered about 400; NATO said that estimate was "greatly exaggerated," but never provided its own.

The Defense Ministry said more than 50 Taliban fighters were killed during the 24 hours beginning Wednesday morning.

Kandahar's governor put the total of killed and injured insurgents in the hundreds. NATO did not issue any tally... (link)
Afghan villagers return to grim aftermath of fight

MANARA, Afghanistan, June 20 (AP) -- Corpses lay stinking in the shade of mulberry trees and in the ruins of a collapsed storehouse...

In the village of Manara, an Associated Press reporter counted 19 bodies, some of them missing limbs. Some were piled in a mud-brick storehouse, which was missing its roof. Others lay prone in an alleyway beside a tree-shaded stream.

Afghan and French soldiers pointed to a 3-foot-deep crater in a nearby field and to broken and scorched trees as evidence of an airstrike. There was no sign of a gunbattle, though residents of other villages reported hearing heavy fire.

NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Carlos Branco said the fighting was over by early Thursday. He said there had been only small ground skirmishes, though an alliance helicopter had returned fire against gunmen in one incident and warplanes carried out "very limited" airstrikes.

The Afghan Defense Ministry said 56 militants were killed in all. Two Afghan troops also died. However, Gov. Asadullah Khalid said Friday that militants were killed in about 10 locations, and that the death toll was over 100...

Branco said the lone reported civilian casualty and the deployment of 1,100 Afghan troops within 24 hours were "very important" positives from the operation...

Din Mohammed, a farmer returning to Manara with 12 relatives, said Taliban fighters had been bent on combat.

"They said they wanted to fight the Afghan and foreign forces. I asked them what should I do, but they said they didn't care, so I left everything, my land, my possessions, my animals," he said.

"Last night I heard on the radio that the Taliban were either dead or gone, so we came home," he said.

Several other vehicles laden with people and possessions headed into the district, though the governor urged villagers to wait a few more days until troops had finished searching the area for militants and bombs... (link)
Canadian Press:
Kandahar city calm after insurgent storm
Alexander Panetta

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan, June 20 (CP) - The buzzing of helicopters and explosion of rockets gave way to a scene of farmers tilling wheat fields yesterday in an area that was under Taliban control just a day earlier...

The declaration of victory was diminished by alliance officials who implied that Afghan authorities had handed the militants a propaganda coup by exaggerating the threat they posed.

Afghan officials had said 500 Taliban fighters seized the area. Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province, said yesterday that hundreds of insurgents had been killed or injured in the campaign to drive them out.

Canadian officials doubt that estimate, maintaining that the strength of the insurgency had been greatly exaggerated and suggested no more than 150 Taliban fighters had been in the area... (link)

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