Hundreds of Taliban insurgents swarmed through a key district just outside the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on Monday, sending residents fleeing in anticipation of retaliation by NATO troops. This latest Taliban assault in the Argandab district caps several weeks of increased fighting in the country's southern districts along the border with Pakistan, followed by a spectacular raid on a Kandahar prison, in which some 400 Taliban fighters were freed, according to officials. "My men have seen a few of the escaped Taliban prisoners among the fighters in Argandab," says district chief Ghulam Farouq.
Argandab, just 10 miles southeast of Kandahar, is famous for its lush vineyards and pomegranate orchards. It is also a key symbol for the insurgency. Soviet troops that took the rest of Afghanistan when they invaded in 1979 were never able to conquer the district. Its shady groves, raisin drying barns and deep irrigation canals provide excellent cover for fighters. Kandahar residents worry that the militants could use it as a base for an attack on the city itself, in an attempt to regain their former power base. "Argandab is a strategic district, which the Taliban can use to threaten Kandahar," says former police chief Khan Mohammad. The Taliban have taken every village in the area except for the main town of Argandab, Mohammad says, and there are 40 to 50 Taliban fighters in each village. He worries the prison raid was a precursor to an attack on Argandab itself. "The Taliban have gained a lot of power with those who have been freed from the prison," he says.