SPERWAN GHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban tried to crash the Canadian army’s party Friday by launching an attack on the ceremonial opening of a road in the heart of the perilous Panjwaii district.
The speakers weren’t even finished and pieces of the ribbon had just been picked up when a pair of explosions rang out, followed by small-arms fire.
“Nothing like a few fireworks,” said Brig-Gen. Dean Milner, who was still speaking when the first muffled explosion occurred.
Milner, unfazed, carried right on talking.
“Like a good day in Afghanistan, there’s still lots of things that happen out there,” he said.
“I think we even heard a couple of bangs. To make good things happen, you still have to challenge those bad guys, those insurgents.”
Local Afghan officialdom, including the new district governor and members of the provincial administration, seemed nonplussed as they quietly tucked into lunch.
Canadian and Afghan troops scrambled to reinforce the defences around the combat outpost where the ceremony took place. The soldiers returned fire, but everything went quiet when two American AH-64 Apache gunships swooped down and began circling the base, which was recently carved out of the hardscrabble farmland and scrub.
The incident underlined that despite being able to push a 20-kilometre road through notorious Taliban territory, security remains fragile in the western reaches of the Canadian sector.
The last Canadian battle group, led by the 1st Battalion, Royal 22e Regiment, based at CFB Valcartier, is due to hand over the area to U.S. troops in July.
The harassing fire came one day after eight U.S. soldiers were killed in a powerful explosion in a southern Kandahar district that abuts the border with Pakistan.
The troops were hit by two consecutive blasts, NATO said — the second coming as troops rushed to aid those wounded in the first.
It was the deadliest day for NATO in Afghanistan since April 27, when a veteran Afghan military pilot killed eight U.S. troops and an American civilian contractor at Kabul airport.
The Canadian military has been eager to showcase the road, which runs the length of a notorious insurgent haven, and even brought along local Afghan media to witness the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the battle group commander, waved off the interruption.
“You can’t say these guys were trying to take us on,” he said. “A lot of this activity is harassing fire, harassing shoots; a couple of guys and couple of bullets — shoot and scoot.”
NATO has conducted a systemic winter campaign to root out Taliban weapons caches. Some soldiers at the remote base were pleased they faced only gunfire instead of mortars and rockets as they have in past fighting seasons.
Still, they’ll tell you the number of skirmishes has been on rise with the poppy harvest at an end and many Panjwaii fields looking brown and wasted.
Whether the violence spirals completely out of control remains to be seen. The latest U.S. deaths don’t bode well for those who cling to the belief that NATO has turned the corner in Kandahar, where Canadians have fought and died for more than five years.
Maj. Eric Landry, the commander of C Squadron of the 12th Regiment blinde du Canada, said he’s seen a shift in Taliban tactics away from attacking NATO and even Afghan troops towards civilians — or so-called soft targets.
The gravel trucks that provided the base for paved sections of the road were ambushed so often during construction, Landry was forced to use his Leopard 2A6M battle tanks and armoured vehicles to escort them.
“I understand why they did it, wanting to stop the road,” said Landry. “But shooting at civilians who are trying to earn their living honestly? I don’t know how you can win the hearts and minds of the population doing that.”
The head of counter-narcotics in Kandahar praised the road as something that will help in the battle against drug-running.
Shukran, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said it will encourage farmers in this bucolic region to grow legitimate crops now that they have direct access to markets in Kandahar city.