KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canadian soldiers are pushing deeper into insurgent-controlled areas southwest of Kandahar city as their commander awaits an expected NATO request that Canada take on greater responsibilities.
The military announced Saturday that Canadian troops had moved into the northern limits of Nakhonay, a town of around 2,000 people in the heart of the volatile Panjwaii district.
This marked a new phase of an operation dubbed Hydra, which started last week with Canadian and Afghan forces taking control of Haji Baba, located northeast of Nakhonay.
“We have spread ourselves into the northern regions of Nakhonay and we have begun presence patrolling in Nakhonay itself,” said Maj. Darcy Wright, the acting deputy commander of the Canadian Battle Group.
“We have long suspected Nakhonay as having an insurgent presence.”
Canadian soldiers entered Nakhonay on Thursday and have met with little resistance as they begin to secure the area.
Initial intelligence reports from Haji Baba suggested Taliban fighters had not fled as was originally expected. But commanders on the ground are now wondering where they are.
“We’re trying to ascertain whether or not they really are still in there or whether or not they did disappear,” said Wright.
While Nakhonay has been the site of three different operations since 2007, the Canadian military is committed to maintaining a presence in the area for the foreseeable future.
Hydra is already one of the largest operations in recent memory, involving 1,000 of the 2,800 Canadian troops based in the country.
There are also 200 Afghan National Army soldiers taking part.
But the commitment to the Haji Baba-Nakhonay area comes amid speculation NATO will ask Canada to enlarge its area of responsibility in Kandahar.
NATO’s commander for southern Afghanistan, Gen. Nick Carter, was expected to provide orders to Task Force Kandahar on Saturday, but those appear to have been delayed.
Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard, the new commander of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, hinted last week he could find soon himself responsible for more territory, and have more troops under his command.
He also said his priority will be securing Kandahar city, raising the question of whether there are enough troops to push forward with stabilization projects in Panjwaii.
“There is with any operation we run, especially within counter-insurgency, a balance that we have to have,” said Wright.
“You cannot abandon one area and chase a ghost.”
Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, Menard’s predecessor, concentrated Canadian forces in rural areas, creating a string of so-called model villages.
But U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who heads the allied forces in Afghanistan, is reportedly seeking to base more troops around Kandahar city.
Though Menard’s orders have yet to be finalized, according to Wright there are enough Canadian forces available for a surge in the city as well as to continue with model-village projects in rural Kandahar.
“We’re a pretty flexible and robust organization,” he said “We can be (in) many places at once.”
Among the strategic aims of Operation Hydra is to connect Nakhonay to the security bubble created by model villages in neighbouring Dand district.
Doing so, the military believes, will further restrict Taliban access to the southwestern approaches into Kandahar city.