Is the Taliban Making a Comeback?

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Hamed Zalmy / AFP

A member of the Afghan national army searches passengers at a checkpoint in the Arghandab district near Kandahar on June 17

It took all of 30 minutes. On June 13, Taliban forces sent two suicide bombers into a prison in the southern Afghan town of Kandahar; they were followed by 30 motorcyle-riding militants, who systematically broke down every cell door in the jail. The audacious raid freed an estimated 400 Taliban fighters, and many of them appear to have gone right to work. Within three days, hundreds of insurgents swarmed through the key district of Arghandab — and escaped prisoners were among them, says district chief Ghulam Farouq. As the Taliban gained a footing in the villages, NATO and Afghan army troops launched a counter operation aimed at stopping the insurgents before they could mass for a major assault of their own.

The battle is being joined in a storied and auspicious place. Arghandab, just 10 miles northwest of Kandahar, is famous for its lush vineyards and pomegranate orchards. It is also a key symbol for the insurgency. Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, but were never fully able to conquer the Arghandab district, which remained an outpost of mujahedin defiance. Its shady groves, raisin-drying barns and deep irrigation canals provide excellent cover for fighters. Kandahar residents worry that the militants could use the Arghandab district as a base for an attack on the city itself, in an attempt to regain their former power base. "Arghandab 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 Arghandab, Mohammad says, and there are now 40 to 50 Taliban fighters in each village. He worries that the jailbreak was a precursor to an attack on the town of Arghandab itself. "The Taliban have gained a lot of power with those who have been freed from the prison," he says.

Mark Laity, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), NATO's military arm in Afghanistan, concurs. "In the wake of the jailbreak we obviously have a different and more difficult security situation in Kandahar," he says. While ISAF officials are skeptical about reports of high numbers of Taliban forces fighting together, on June 18 Afghan National Army (ANA) and ISAF troops launched an offensive, assisted by helicopter gunships, to drive the Taliban from the villages. Later that day, the Afghan Ministry of Defense said that dozens of Taliban fighters — including foreign militants — had died in the confrontation, as had two ANA soldiers.

A massing of Taliban fighters in Arghandab is a departure from the militant tactics that have evolved over the past two years. In 2006 NATO forces soundly defeated a Taliban force in nearby Panjwayi, and declared the movement all but dead. Since then there has been an increase in suicide bombings and the use of Improvised Explosive Devices. That approach was interpreted as one of weakness and desperation, but now it is starting to look like a recuperation strategy. The jailbreak and ensuing raid indicates the growing strength of the Taliban, whose fundamentalist Islamic regime was pushed from power when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

U.S. and NATO leaders have asked for more troops to counter the rising threat of the Afghan insurgency, but to little effect. The war in Iraq has taken the lion's share of American resources, and other Western nations are reluctant to invest more troops. "Afghanistan is half again bigger than Iraq, and it has a population estimated to be 3 to 5 million more than Iraq," says General Dan McNeil, a former ISAF commander. McNeil points out that there are only 65,000 international troops in Afghanistan, compared with nearly double that number in Iraq. The effort in Afghanistan, he says, "needs more flying machines, more maneuver units and more intelligence."

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