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A grim harvest in Afghan vineyards: Embedded American experts share tactics -- and casualties -- with allies

Graeme Smith, Globe & Mail, 11 Sept 06


PANJWAI DISTRICT, AFGHANISTAN -- Sand-coloured Humvees were a welcome sight for Canadian soldiers recently, as the squat U.S. military vehicles appeared on the front lines in Panjwai district, churning through the dust and stopping alongside the green Canadian troop carriers.


U.S. forces strengthened a Canadian effort this weekend to contain a group of Taliban fighters in a patch of farmland southwest of Kandahar city, while aircraft and artillery pummelled the insurgents from the sky. An estimated 94 Taliban died in the bombardment.


Some Afghans had become convinced that the U.S. military was giving up its fight against the Taliban in Kandahar province, ever since thousands of Canadian troops arrived early this year.


In fact, the Americans remain an influential presence in this troubled region. One U.S. soldier died in the Canadian-led Operation Medusa on Saturday, while another was killed the same day in neighbouring Zabul province.


Both of those killed were members of so-called Embedded Training Teams, small units of experienced U.S. troops who live alongside Afghan recruits and teach them how to behave like soldiers.


But the Americans aren't just mentoring the Afghans; the Canadians, too, are learning from their U.S. counterparts.


During a lull in the fighting, a Canadian platoon commander took a walk along a ridge line with Lieutenant Ryan Edwards, of Alpha Company 2-4, part of the U.S. Mountain Division.


With his Louisiana accent, and the death's-head logos stencilled on the sides of his unit's Humvees, the American lieutenant must have seemed a bit foreign to the Canadians. While the Canadian military calls each unit on the radios using a standard numbering system, Lt. Edwards's soldiers use the call-sign "Mohawk."


Lt. Edwards peered out of the grape fields of Panjwai with different eyes, too. Where the Canadians saw a forbidding warren of hiding spots for insurgents, the U.S. lieutenant saw a few hours of easy work.


"We haven't operated yet in vineyards, my platoon, so we'll be watching you," Canadian Captain Piers Pappin said.


"We've operated everywhere," came the Louisiana drawl. "All the vineyards and irrigation ditches are pretty much the same."


Lt. Edwards spelled out his tactics for dealing with the terrain, showing the Canadian how to sweep his troops through the rectangular sections divided into row upon row of chest-high grape trellises.


"Instead of looking at it as a big jungle . . ." the American said, before getting interrupted by the nodding Canadian.


". . . Cut it into little bite-sized pieces, yeah," Capt. Pappin said.


Part of the American's method involved shelling the perimeter of the field with white phosphorus, giving his troops a screen of burning smoke to hide and protect them as they weave among the grapes. Sometimes considered a chemical weapon but not banned by any treaty, white phosphorus -- or, as the lieutenant called it, Willy Pete -- billows out from a mortar shell and consumes the foliage with intense, lingering heat.


"I'm a big Willy Pete man, myself," Lt. Edwards said. "If they Taliban are brave enough to move through all that Willy Pete to get to me, I'm going to give them a free shot."


Canada's military has mustered what it calls the country's largest operation since the Second World War, in an attempt to clear these grape fields of insurgents. But after seven months in southern Afghanistan, Lt. Edwards said the job isn't as difficult as some others he has witnessed. "Actually the biggest issues we've had was not with these vineyards, but with the wheat fields," he said. "Trying to find anything in there was impossible."


Even worse, he said, was trying to root out Taliban from a village in northern Zabul that sympathized with the insurgents. "Every day, it was all about survival," Lt. Edwards said. "My platoon was 27 or 28 guys, and every firefight they'd have 100 at least. We would just take human waves of assaults at our position, one after another after another."


He continued: "Fortunately we had a good piece of high ground, and we'd fend it off, day after day. . . . The problem was, that's where they lived. At lot of them, we'd kill them and their house was only 10 metres away. So you'd get the wife and kids out there going, 'Oh, you killed my husband! He was innocent!' And I'm going, 'Okay, so the machine gun in his hands right now is what? His innocence?' "


Both soldiers shared a laugh at the anecdote, but the Canadian chuckled with a little less mirth. His platoon's first grape field lay ahead of him.

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