June 19, 2008

Canadian General Says Taliban Defeated Outside Kandahar but Will Attack Again

ARGHANDAB, Afghanistan - The pastoral scene of farmers tilling wheat fields replaced the buzzing of helicopters and explosion of rockets in an area declared just a day earlier to be under Taliban control.

Canada's top soldier in Afghanistan said coalition forces would take steps over the coming days to ensure that the Arghandab district next to Kandahar city remained as placid as it appeared on Thursday.

But Brig.-Gen. Denis Thompson declared with blunt certainty that Taliban fighters will launch attacks again even after being routed on the battlefield this week.

It would be the repeat of a familiar pattern in which insurgents are repelled from an area in combat, only to scatter, hide and plot their comeback with another series of assaults.

"There is no doubt in my mind ... that further insurgent attacks will take place in the months ahead," Thompson said, making particular reference to the bold attack on Sarposa prison in Kandahar city.

A chaotic week around Kandahar city began last Friday night with the explosive prison break that sent hundreds of suspected Taliban inmates spilling out to freedom.

A number of them swarmed villages on the doorstep of Afghanistan's second-biggest city, declared themselves in charge and littered the roads with landmines.

Thompson said troops had already scoured three-quarters of the Arghandab district and encountered no sign of resistance. The soldiers planned to complete their sweep on Friday.

Security teams will work to de-mine the area, police will set up permanent outposts and military crews will assess property damage to compensate locals for any damage to their homes.

Thompson said he was not aware of any civilian casualties but some walled compounds had possibly been damaged.

The Canadian military and civilian engineers will also begin working on new construction projects in the area after discussing local needs with residents at a meeting next week.

Afghan officials had said 500 Taliban fighters seized the area earlier this week. The governor of Kandahar province said Thursday that hundreds of insurgents had been killed or injured in the coalition campaign to drive them out.

Canadian officials doubt that estimate.

They have maintained that the strength of the insurgency had been greatly exaggerated, and suggested Thursday that no more than 150 Taliban fighters had been in the area.

"Those that chose to stay and fight were defeated," Thompson said.

"The reality of the situation in Kandahar province is this: Taliban insurgents can cause temporary disruptions and intimidate the local population, but they cannot hold ground."

"Every time we meet them on the field of battle, insurgents either flee or are destroyed."

He expressed hope that residents would stay out of the dangerous areas on the west bank of the river for a few days while security forces completed their work.

But many tribal elders have remained in the battle zone all week to look after their property, and civilian traffic hummed along Thursday on the road leading into the region.

Thompson said he came across a married couple harvesting a wheat field just 100 metres from a spot where Canadian soldiers were positioned the previous day.

Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid said he was eager for the thousands who reportedly fled their homes to return within a few days. It's the middle of fruit-harvest season and if they allow their crops to wither, they could face financial ruin.

"When we clear the landmines and IEDs (improvised explosive devices) we will invite the people to come," Khalid said.

Canadian and Afghan forces outnumbered the Taliban and pounded the insurgent fighters back from villages along the Arghandab river with the help of aircraft and superior weapons.

This was after the rebels blew open the prison, freed their comrades, began claiming villages in the area and geared up to attack other key sites in Kandahar city.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper acknowledged the prison break was a "setback" to Canada's plan to turn over security to the Afghan government by 2011.

"The good news is the Afghan government has responded very quickly and very directly to this particular challenge," Harper said in Huntsville, Ont.

In Kandahar, Thompson reiterated his certainty that the Taliban will strike again.

"The enemy is a thinking enemy - not an inanimate object," he said.

"As we say in the army: The enemy has a vote. We have to accept that."