ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Bunches of ripe red grapes hung heavy in vineyards near Afghanistan’s second city Kandahar on Wednesday, with villagers slow to return a week after Afghan troops routed hundreds of Taliban in their fields.
Most people fled Arghandab 10 days ago after the Taliban, buoyed by a jailbreak that freed 400 of their comrades in Kandahar days earlier, seized some seven villages in the rich agricultural district just northwest of the city.
Kandahar, the main city in Afghanistan’s mainly Pashtun south and the Taliban’s former de-facto capital, appeared under threat and 1,000 extra Afghan troops were rushed in from the north.
Nearly 100 Taliban fighters were killed in the ensuing battle, one of the biggest yet fought by the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA). But the Taliban are still not far away and most families remain in the relative safety of Kandahar city.
“The people are only slowly coming back,” said a senior police officer in Arghandab who declined to be named.
“The men come to check on their houses, but the rest of the families are staying behind in Kandahar.”
A few lonely figures quickly scattered as a convoy of Afghan army pick-up trucks weighed into view to inspect the battlefield of a week before. Smiling soldiers helped themselves to the unpicked grapes, once famous throughout Asia for their sweetness.
The insurgents, though driven back for now, were still not far away. “The Taliban are no more than 20 km (13 miles) away,” said the police officer.
Since Canadian troops moved in to lead NATO forces around Kandahar in 2006, they have been largely tied up battling the Taliban to the west of the city and sometimes having to capture districts several times after insurgents swept aside Afghan forces put in place to hold onto the area.
Arghandab meanwhile remained relatively secure under pro-government tribal leader Mullah Naqib and NATO forces could afford only a light presence there.
But since Naqib died of a heart attack last October, last week’s Taliban raid was the second time the insurgents swept down into Arghandab from the hills in the north.
Now the Canadians, who have suffered perhaps the highest casualty rate of any of the more than 40 nations with soldiers in Afghanistan, have had to move troops into Arghandab as well.
“What makes it difficult is that the insurgents hide amongst the people so it’s difficult to know what we’re up against,” said Canadian Major Jay Janzen.
“There was anywhere between 150 and 200 insurgents here. Some were killed, some were captured, some escaped. They will go to other regions and regroup. They will scatter into small groups.”
While NATO commanders continually complain they do not have enough troops in Afghanistan and Afghan security forces still have a long way to go before they can operate independently, the cycle of cat-and-mouse warfare is unlikely to end and more Afghan villagers will have to flee their homes.
“We don’t have enough Canadian soldiers to be everywhere in Kandahar. That is why the emphasis is on ANA training. They have done well but they still have some way to go,” said Janzen.
“The insurgents, all they can do is to disrupt. They cannot hold ground,” he said. But “there is no question that insurgents will cause disruptions in the future.”
Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Jerry Norton