KABUL: 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 the insurgents away.

But the brief Taliban incursion near the city of Kandahar, which Afghan authorities declared on Thursday had been successfully repelled, illustrated the ease with which even a handful of militants could tie up large numbers of coalition troops and heavy weaponry 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 boasted they would use it as a springboard from which to mount attacks on Kandahar, their one-time power base.

Arghandab is a prime gateway to Afghanistan’s second-largest city, just 10 miles away. The farming area has good access roads and plenty of cover for fighters among its wheat fields, pomegranate groves and vineyards.

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation officials have insisted that Kandahar, whose security is considered pivotal to the entire south, was never under any real threat. But it put troops on high alert to counter the Taliban threat of suicide bombings in the city.

Nato said its troops, mostly Canadians, did not encounter any significant concentration of Taliban fighters as they backed up Afghan troops during the Arghandab operation. Alliance officials repeatedly questioned Taliban claims that hundreds of militants 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 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 farm fields once airborne bombardment began, then slipped away.

An Afghan Defence Ministry spokesman, Gen Mohammad 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 Sadullah Khan, a tribal elder in Arghandab.

The Taliban incursion grew out of a demoralising blow to the Afghan government: a well-organised jailbreak at Kandahar’s main prison. Up to 1,000 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 upon 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 pomegranates that was to have begun within days.—Dawn/ The LAT-WP News Service (c) Los Angeles Times