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.
In less than 48 hours, they had driven out the insurgents.
Afghan authorities declared Thursday that the brief Taliban incursion near the southern city of Kandahar had been successfully repelled. But the incident illustrated the ease with which even a handful of militants can tie up large numbers of coalition troops and heavy weaponry deployed to counter what NATO repeatedly described as a not particularly serious threat.
The short-lived confrontation in the Arghandab district also showed how thoroughly the insurgents could disrupt the daily lives of villagers in a nominally secure area, and raised concerns of worrisomely flawed communication between Afghan forces and their Western allies.
Moreover, officials acknowledged that the insurgents would probably regroup elsewhere in the area and remain a threat, with the warm summer months traditionally a time when Taliban fighters step up attacks on Western forces.
After moving into nearly a dozen villages in the Arghandab area on Sunday, Taliban commanders said they would use it as a springboard for attacks on Kandahar, the nation’s second-largest city and their former power base.
Arghandab is a prime gateway to Kandahar, 10 miles away. The farming area has good roads and plenty of cover for fighters among its wheat fields, pomegranate groves and vineyards.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials have insisted that Kandahar, whose security is considered pivotal to the entire south, was never under any real threat. But the alliance put troops on high alert to counter the Taliban threat of suicide bombings.
NATO said its troops, mostly Canadians, did not encounter any significant concentration of Taliban fighters as they backed up Afghan troops in the Arghandab operation. Alliance officials repeatedly questioned Taliban claims that hundreds of fighters had surged into the district.
“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.
The Taliban incursion grew out of a demoralizing blow to the Afghan government: a well-organized attack on Kandahar’s main prison.
About 900 prisoners escaped, many of them considered dangerous militants. Taliban commanders said their ranks were substantially bolstered by escapees.
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.
Panicked residents fled their farms as the fighting loomed. And departing militants seeded the area with mines, Afghan officials said, which could imperil the harvest of grapes, wheat and pomegranate that was to have begun within days.
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.
Whereas NATO has superior technical means of intelligence-gathering, including aerial and electronic surveillance, the Afghan authorities generally hear more readily from local officials and village elders.
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.
“We don’t have a definitive assessment, though casualties were inflicted,” said NATO spokesman Mark Laity.
Taliban commanders acknowledged only six fighters killed.
The fighting is expected to reignite tensions with Pakistan, which Afghan leaders have accused of granting shelter to Taliban fighters.
Kandahar lies 60 miles from the frontier, and Afghanistan’s south and east, which borders Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, are riddled with infiltration routes.
The governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid, said many in the Taliban force in Arghandab came from Pakistan, including some who answer to Baitullah Mahsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban movement who is based in the South Waziristan tribal area.
On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai threatened to send troops into Pakistan to target insurgents who travel freely back and forth across the frontier.
A spokesman later said the president was trying to convey the urgency of the threat emanating from Pakistan rather than warning of imminent attack.
The comments, however, were seen as an indication of Karzai’s frustration as the stubborn Taliban insurgency continues to damage his domestic standing.
Special correspondent Faiez reported from Kabul and Times staff writer King from Istanbul, Turkey.