Page last updated at 16:13 GMT, Wednesday, 18 June 2008 17:13 UK

Afghan valley of crucial importance

By Bilal Sarwary
BBC News, Kabul

Canadian soldier at a joint checkpoint in Arghandab district
Control of the Arghandab valley is critical for both sides

The green Arghandab valley, just north-east of the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, is known locally for its fruit growing - but it is also an area of huge strategic importance.

The Arghandab river after which the district is named supplies most of the water for the city and some of its districts.

Any Taleban control of the area would give the militants an ideal launching-point for attacks on the city.

Knowing the area well, the Taleban have proven adept at hiding in its sometimes inhospitable terrain and using the networks of irrigation trenches to dodge Nato and Afghan forces who are hunting for them.


One former police official in the area told the BBC the terrain in the valley was "very difficult".

"There are gardens, ditches and houses everywhere. The Taleban have the best cover by using the gardens.

Afghan soldier searches a man leaving Arghandab district
There is tension in the Arghandab area

"Even if you go with a big number of troops, you can get trapped because there are so many hiding places there.''

Soviet and Afghan communist forces never managed to take control of the valley in the 1980s and suffered big casualties against the mujaheddin.

It's not just for strategic reasons that Kandahar matters to the Taleban - it's also the birthplace of the movement, as well as of President Hamid Karzai.

Taleban leader Mullah Omar used to have a house in Arghandab district when the movement ruled Afghanistan.

The militants' influence in Kandahar has shifted back and forth since they were toppled by US-led troops in 2001.

Local experts in Kandahar say the Taleban regained strength in Arghandab after the death of two powerful anti-Taleban leaders from the district's dominant Alkozai tribe.

Mullah Naqib, an influential tribal elder died of a heart attack last year.

Two weeks after his death the Taleban moved into the district, although they left later when there was a huge deployment of Afghan forces.

Better foothold

The other important bulwark against the Taleban was police commander Abdul Hakim Jan, who died in a massive suicide attack in Kandahar in February that killed more than 100 people.

Afghan officials say Afghan National Army forces are conducting mop-up operations, backed by Nato forces, in the district.

But an interior ministry official involved in the operation said the fighting was difficult.

Afghan map

"The Taleban are operating from villages and gardens. They don't stay in one place," he told the BBC.

"We are very careful not to kill civilians. But, we are going to defeat the Taleban at any cost.''

Afghan officials are also concerned that control of Arghandab would give the Taleban a better foothold for operations in neighbouring provinces such as Uruzgan and Daykundi.

Ordinary Afghans are caught in the middle - they fear planes from the sky and bullets on the ground.

Most have left everything behind for the safety of Kandahar and other neighbouring districts.

Local farmers and traders are worried for their future.

"Last year we exported our fruits to countries like Pakistan, India, the United Arab Emirates and some European countries. During all these years of drought, we have always had water from the Arghandab river," said Sifatullah Alokozi, a Kandahari trader.

Another man, who left the Arghandab area with his family when fighting broke out in his village, was also anxious.

''My grapes are almost ready and my pomegranates need more work. But living in Arghandab is impossible," he said.

"We are caught in this fight. So we left Arghandab for Kandahar city."

With the Arghandab valley now the scene of heavy fighting, many villagers and farmers are now leaving, wondering when they can return and what they will come back to.

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