KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada’s military will press ahead with its new strategy of having troops live among Afghans despite this week’s “surprise” death of a Canadian soldier in a village in Panjwaii district, a senior officer said.
It’s the only way to ensure Canadian troops can effectively counter the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban insurgency, said Lt.-Col. Jerry Walsh.
“All of our platoons, all of our soldiers, live now amongst the population,” said Walsh, commander of the current battlegroup.
“They do that very deliberately, so that we can make a connection, that we can gain their trust, and that we can operate more effectively.”
Lt. Andrew Nuttall, 30, of Prince Rupert, B.C., was among a group of Canadian soldiers who had been living just outside the village of Nakhoney for the past month.
On Wednesday, his platoon and Afghan soldiers were on a routine foot patrol — designed to look for insurgent activity and interact with locals — when an improvised explosive detonated.
Nuttall and an Afghan soldier were killed, while an interpreter was injured.
“They’d gone down in that area every other day,” Walsh said.
“On this particular day, there was an explosion and unfortunately Andrew was killed.”
Thousands turned out at Kandahar Airfield on Thursday to give Nuttall — praised as a leader with “fire in his soul” — the traditional ramp-ceremony sendoff back to Canada.
Until recently, Canadian forces would sweep into areas, attempt to ferret out insurgents and their weapons, then withdraw.
The moment they left, however, the insurgents would return. As a result, local Afghans gained little sense of security from the presence of the foreign troops.
“(Coalition soldiers) go to one village, go to the other village, to no avail and with no results, and the insurgents are coming back,” Niaz Mohammad Sarhadi, leader of the dangerous Zhari district, said recently.
“If you come in the daytime into a village, and a villager just talks to you, that is a threat to his life, because you are leaving in the night.”
Nakhoney, in the treacherous Panjwaii district, has long been a trouble-spot for Canadian soldiers.
However, the recent presence of Canadian and Afghan forces appeared to have had a calming influence.
Locals had increasingly been approaching the troops to point out the location of the dreaded improvised explosive devices, a low-tech but often devastatingly effective weapon of choice for the insurgents.
“We’re having great success in that regard, so (the IED attack) has come as a bit of a surprise to us,” Walsh admitted.
Despite Nuttall’s death — which follows a similarly lethal incident in October — senior commanders remained committed to a strategy designed by Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard, senior commander in Kandahar province.
The aim is to create a “ring of stability” around the all-important Kandahar city.
As a result, Canadian soldiers — backed by an influx of about 2,000 American troops under Menard’s command — are taking advantage of the relatively quiet winter period to move into the larger towns around Kandahar as well as the city itself.
It’s a riskier approach that will not change because of Nuttall’s death, Walsh said.
“The soldiers are very determined and they believe very much in what they’re doing and how we’re doing it,” Walsh said.
“We must live amongst (Afghans), we must get to know them, we must gain their trust. By doing so, they will see a better future — a future that involves the Afghan national security forces protecting them.”