Taliban fighters have snuck past a military cordon and swollen the ranks of insurgents now in their sixth day of a major standoff with Canadian troops, according to local government and intelligence officials.
The fact that the Taliban are replacing the fighters they've lost in daily air strikes and artillery barrages shows their determination, local officials say, to keep holding a strategic warren of villages known as Pashmul, about 15 kilometres west of Kandahar city.
A Taliban fighter claimed yesterday that the breach also shows the Canadians' weakness, saying the foreign troops weren't able to isolate the insurgents.
"Hundreds of Taliban fighters came from Helmand yesterday to help us," the fighter said.
He was referring to Helmand province to the west of Kandahar, which has been a stronghold for the insurgency.
Reached on his mobile phone as he took shelter from military aircraft overhead, the fighter said the fresh reinforcements more than compensate for the Taliban's losses in the first days of their biggest confrontation yet with Canadian troops. "I saw them [the new Taliban]myself, and they brought more weapons and bullets for us," he said.
Afghan officials said they confirmed parts of the Taliban's claim. "New fighters are coming from Helmand," said Haji Agha Lalai, a local provincial council member and trusted ally of the foreign troops.
Haji Kheerdin, the Zhari district chief, said a captured Taliban fighter from Pakistan had told interrogators about the reinforcements.
"If we closed all the ways out, they could not continue to fight," Mr. Kheerdin said. "They would use up their weapons and ammunition." Like other Afghans, Mr. Kheerdin expressed impatience with the Canadian troops and their international allies for the slow pace of their advance into Panjwai district.
"We don't know why the real fight has not started," he said.
Canadian soldiers advanced on foot under moonlight early yesterday, pushing deeper into the dangerous district than any troops so far during the operation. They seized a compound but did not find any Taliban, and later returned to their original positions. The Taliban have been reluctant to fight Canadian troops in the dead of night, when the foreigners' night-vision devices give them an advantage. Instead, they have preferred to harass supply convoys and outlying patrols with ambushes, often in the hazy hours of dawn and dusk.
For their part, the foreign troops earlier described their attempt to lay siege to a group of Taliban they estimated at roughly 700.
"We are closing the circle on the Taliban," NATO spokesman Major Quentin Innes told Reuters on Tuesday. "We have got the Taliban in a bit of a trap."
But Lieutenant-General David Richards, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, played down the idea of a cordon around the Taliban when he visited Kandahar Air Field yesterday.
"Essentially they can't get in or out at the moment, and that's why we can squeeze it," he said. When asked about reports of fighters and weapons reaching the Taliban positions, Gen. Richards said: "I wouldn't want to portray it as a complete encirclement. It's a psychological encirclement, and as we sit here things are looking very good for us."
Yesterday, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said that Afghanistan and Pakistan must join forces to fight the "common enemy" of terrorism. But General Musharraf also said Pakistan would never allow U.S.-led coalition forces into tribal areas on its side. "On our side of the border there will be a total uprising if a foreigner enters that area," he said at a joint news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Last week, in a trip to Pakistan, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor raised the idea of Canadian troops being stationed on the Pakistan side of the border and Pakistani troops being stationed with Canadians in Kandahar "to assist in information gathering and intelligence sharing on both sides of the border." In a statement on the weekend, Mr. O'Connor stressed that this would not involve stationing "standalone Canadian military units," but one or two Canadian liaison officers working within Pakistani military headquarters.