KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — NATO and Afghan forces are on the move in western Kandahar in what could be one of the last big pushes involving Canadian troops before the combat mission ends next summer.
A large combined assault group of Canadian, American and Afghan troops are headed into a longstanding Taliban redoubt, a restive area known as the Horn of Panjwaii.
The arid patch of farmland has been fought over for years; taken, retaken several times and abandoned as coalition forces struggled to hold the region with only a few thousand soldiers.
American paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division have been clearing the region between Zangabad and Mushan since late October.
The combined force is relieving them and establishing a permanent presence by building bases and conducting regular patrols in the region.
“This is not going to be a walk in the park,” said Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the commander of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment battle group.
One Afghan battalion is leading the operation under the codename Baawar, the Pashto word for Assurance.
Canadian and U.S. forces are contributing one company of soldiers each, along with tanks, artillery and aircraft support.
A detachment of Afghan Civil Order Police will follow them.
It is part of a the third and final phase of NATO’s overall Kandahar offensive, known as Operation Hamkari, which has rolled through the Taliban heartland all summer and fall. It could very well be the last time in this war that the Canadians are asked to seize and hold ground before the withdrawal begins next spring.
St-Louis said, even though the Americans have already battled through the bucolic region, advance elements of his force have met resistance in the form of three roadside bomb attacks since Nov. 28.
“We will be pressed for every kilometre we take, I think,” he told reporters.
Some of the explosives are what the military call legacy munitions, bombs left over from previous wars. But the majority of explosives were recently planted by Taliban cells that are either still in the area — or have withdrawn for the winter.
Panjwaii is the Canadian area of operation and why the Americans were tasked with the initial assault has puzzled many observers, including the commander of Task Force Kandahar.
Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner was told from the moment he assumed command in September that his troops would go in after the paratroopers were finished.
He was asked why in a recent interview with The Canadian Press.
“It was never explained to me,” he said.
“I’m an aggressive guy and I wanted to be in there, but the decision was made before I came in.”
The first phase of the clearing involved U.S. Special Forces and Milner said it was unlikely the Americans would allow Canadians to command them.
The Zangabad area was fought over in 2006 as NATO forces chased newly routed insurgent fighters through the district following the landmark battle Operation Medusa. But insurgents trickled back into the hardscrabble villages and fields where camel graze, which set the stage for future battles.
A previous rotation of Van Doos fought to take the ground in 2007, but by the spring of 2008 the Taliban had sewn so many roadside bombs and booby traps into the tangled landscape that it was impossible for Canadian troops to drive into the area without facing massive explosives. The soldiers took to walking — albeit gingerly — into the area.
That changed in the spring of 2009 when Canadians pulled back and concentrated on defending Kandahar city and other towns.
The region that troops are pushing towards was the focus of a scorched-earth policy by the Soviets in the 1980s.
Thousands of families were forced the flee from their homes, many never to return. The Taliban have used the abandoned compounds as bomb-making factories.
The Americans have dynamited some of the abandoned homes, many of which have been rigged with booby traps.
St-Louis said the Canadian and Afghan forces will only level structures that present a clear threat to troops or the local population.
The objective is to reconnect with the villagers, those that are left, and take advantage of the lull in fighting to build trust, he said.
“There’s some skepticism. We’ve tried this before. We’ve gone into the horn and we’ve not stayed.”
Only on the job a week, St-Louis said he’s seen anecdotal evidence that war weary villagers, who’ve fled in the fighting in Panjwaii, have started to return.
He referenced an encounter he had with an Afghan man in Folad, a tiny hamlet in the centre of the restive district.
The villager was stopped with motorcycle that was towing a wagon piled high with household belongings, including plastic cooking oil jugs, which insurgents use to make homemade bombs.
The newly deployed Van Doos were suspicious, but the man convinced them he was returning from Kandahar city to his home and bringing all of his family’s possessions with him.
“That’s an anecdote. I hope to see more of those anecdotes.”