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Battle-weary troops welcome relative calm

In southern Afghanistan, attacks are down and acceptance is up

Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 23 Nov 06

Article Link


KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — The Canadian military is enjoying its longest period without a soldier killed since June, as regular troops settle into defensive positions and appear to be making progress winning acceptance among villagers in their freshly conquered terrain.


Soldiers hunkered down in the northeastern edge of Panjwai District continue to fight daily battles, holding a protective cordon just outside of Kandahar city. But the swath of farmland that Canadians seized from the Taliban insurgents during weeks of bloody fighting in early September has stayed largely under government control, residents say, and behind the front lines a sense of lawful order is slowly returning to the war-scarred district.


The zone where the Canadians have carved out some influence isn't large. They have established a front line that runs roughly 10 kilometres from north to south, building three new forward bases and several observation posts that allow them to protect Bazar-e-Panjwai, the district's biggest town, and two main roads leading to Kandahar city. They're also building a road that will connect the new bases.


Taliban fighters regularly probe these new positions, but so far with little success. When two Canadian soldiers were injured by a land mine this week, the Canadian contingent had survived 35 days without a death or serious injury.


"We're in a pretty strong position in that end of Panjwai," Colonel Mike Kampman, NATO's chief of staff in southern Afghanistan, said in an interview.


Still, the Canadian colonel acknowledged that the defensive work in Panjwai has tied up so many of Canada's soldiers that the force has lacked mobility and hasn't had the strength required for more offensive operations.


"That's where we really want to be, is much more mobile," Col. Kampman said.


The Canadians are hoping to give control of the new bases to Afghanistan's army and police, the colonel added, allowing the foreign troops to pursue the Taliban elsewhere.


"We're not going to have the entire Canadian battle group sitting in that position for years on end," he said.


Panjwai residents interviewed this week said they're wary about feeling too optimistic. They have watched the shifting fortunes of war for more than two decades, and they know that pauses in the violence are often brief. They also know fighting often slows during the winter season in southern Afghanistan, and fear the war will flare up again in the spring.


Many families say they're still afraid to go home, preferring to pass the cold season in the cramped slums of Kandahar or temporary camps west of the city. They're terrified by stories of strafing and bombing by foreign aircraft, which hasn't slowed, and they hear tales of Taliban marauding at night, or lurking just beyond the range of new Canadian bases recently established in the district.


Still, even people whose houses were destroyed by the bombing say they've seen modest signs of improvement since Canada devoted its entire military strength to securing their villages.


"Now it's quiet," said Hashim Osmani, 41, who lost a valuable property to the devastation in his home village of Zangabad, about 35 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city. "It's not quiet in my village, because the Taliban still fight there, but mostly quiet."


Mr. Osmani says he tracks the security situation west of the city very closely, not only because of his family in the region but because he operates a cotton-processing factory in Kandahar that depends on daily truck deliveries of raw material from nearby Helmand province. Earlier this year, local warlords were growing more predatory and demanding higher tolls on the roads, he said. Frustration about this banditry, usually by armed men who nominally work for the police, fuelled support for the Taliban.


"Still, now, there are checkpoints," Mr. Osmani said. "But now the police behave themselves. They know the Canadians are watching. It's a little better."


The best measure of whether Canada's foothold in Panjwai will hold, villagers say, is whether ordinary people think the foreign troops are behaving properly. Several of them suggested the air strikes and shelling should stop; others suggested a peace deal similar to the British military's arrangement with the Taliban in the Musa Kala district of Helmand province, which saw the British pull out and the tribal elders guarantee security themselves.


But many suggested the Canadians should stay and continue to improve their reputation using the traditional Afghan technique of buying influence. Reconstruction teams in Panjwai have launched a so-called "cash for work" program, giving workers $10 a day for menial tasks, and Afghans have widely interpreted this as a handout to young men who might otherwise be fighting the Canadians.


"My village is destroyed, and you are responsible," said Akhtar Mohammed, 53, pointing an accusing finger at the foreigner in the room. But in the next breath, he added: "NATO should stay here. We have a lot of hope that the foreigners will build schools, clinics, things like this."


This summer, Mr. Mohammed said, most people in Panjwai would have disagreed with his optimistic view of the foreigners. But the general view is slowly changing, he said.


On a cool sunny day, hundreds of Afghans gathered at a mosque on the outskirts of Kandahar city to mourn the victims of an air strike. It was almost a month ago, in the tense aftermath of an Oct. 24 strafing run by a U.S. gunship that killed at least 31 civilians.


A man who looked like a Taliban fighter, with a black turban, stood up and made a speech against the Canadian soldiers and their allies.


"He said, 'Why do we let foreigners come with tanks and kill our children?' " Mr. Mohammed said.


The response was surprisingly muted, he said. Many people in the crowd were relatives of air-strike victims, and nearly all of them came from Panjwai. But in the aftermath of those heated battles, as the winter cold started to creep into the south, nobody in the crowd seemed willing to echo the Taliban's rally cry. People turned away from the fighter and stayed silent.


"They don't want more jihad," Mr. Mohammed said. "They are very tired of the fighting."


Kandahar calm


Until two soldiers were injured by a land mine this week, Canadian troops based in Kandahar had gone 35 days without a serious injury. Deaths of Canadians in Afghanistan since redeployment from Kabul to Kandahar have occurred almost monthly since November, 2005.


Nov. 2005 1

Dec. -

Jan. 2006 1

Feb. -

March 3

April 4

May 1

June -

July 3

Aug. 8

Sept. 10

Oct. 5

Nov. -



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