KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - The infiltration of hundreds of Taliban militants this week into an area close to Afghanistan's second city was a tactical success for them and a setback for NATO, a NATO general said on Wednesday.
Some 800 Afghan government troops, backed by hundreds of mainly Canadian NATO soldiers, are fighting 200 to 400 Taliban insurgents who seized seven villages in the Arghandab district, just northwest of Kandahar, the regional base for NATO troops.
It is less than a week since the Taliban freed some 1,000 prisoners, including more than 300 of their comrades, from a jail in the city after a suicide truck bomber rammed the main gate.
"There are setbacks ... the prison breakout and the Arghandab operation, and there will be setbacks in the future," Canadian Major-General Marc Lessard, commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, told Reuters in an interview.
"They've definitely managed to achieve some kind of tactical success, there's no doubt there," he said.
Hundreds of villagers have fled Arghandab, an area of rich fruit orchards crossed by a wide river bed which was relatively peaceful until its tribal leader, Mullah Naqib, died from a heart attack in October last year.
The Taliban then raided the area, largely under the control of Mullah Naqib's young and inexperienced heir, forcing ISAF troops to launch an operation to push the militants out.
On Monday, the Taliban came back.
"The insurgents infiltrated there and as far as we know they intend staying there," said Lessard, speaking at his headquarters.
"They are not moving out, and based on the few hours of combat operations they are still fighting, so we will have to clear the area. Are they really dug in? Are they really prepared to stand and fight and die? We don't know, we'll definitely see in a day or two."
Almost 1,000 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops have been flown in from eastern Afghanistan for the operation, reinforcing some 4,000 ANA soldiers based in Kandahar, Lessard said.
Afghan commanders planned the operation and led the attack, with support from ISAF troops, aircraft and helicopter gunships.
There have so far been no casualties among the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), but some Afghan troops and Taliban militants have been killed, he said.
"It's a very deliberate operation, going well, very very slowly, because we want to make sure ... we fully clear the area, we don't leave any pockets behind," Lessard said. "How long will it take? I really don't know. What's important is less the time it will take (than to) ensure it's 100 percent clear."
ISAF commanders have repeatedly complained of not having enough troops to fight the Taliban.
Canadian soldiers leading ISAF operations around Kandahar, the former de facto Taliban capital, have suffered one of the highest casualty rates among NATO forces fighting mainly to the west of the city, and kept a lighter presence in Arghandab.
The second Taliban attack on Arghandab in eight months has exposed a weakness on the flank of Kandahar that the Afghan government and its NATO allies will have to fill.
"There will have to be a proper security framework there," said Lessard. "...one thing is quite clear -- it will not be the status quo that it was a week ago ... I guess we've learned lessons and we'll ensure they never come back again."