By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 2, 2008
ZHARI, Afghanistan -- The company of Canadian soldiers set off from the small base in southern Afghanistan a few hours before dawn. Combat boots crunching along the wide plains of the Kandahar desert, they moved slowly in a long line into the moonless black ahead.
No one said a word as they picked their way across an old cemetery. The soldiers strained to hear any sound of approaching insurgents above the slap of funeral flags in the crisp autumn wind. Someone at the head of the line motioned them forward. A few dozen yards later, they stopped again.
The soldiers' target, a Taliban bomb-supply compound, was only a little more than two miles away. But it took the contingent of 200-plus troops about three hours to march from the cemetery to the insurgent stronghold. That is the way the war is being fought in southern Afghanistan: inch by inch.
The pace is frustratingly slow for many of the 2,500 Canadian troops fighting to break the Taliban's hold on Kandahar. The insurgents move swiftly under cover through much of the province. But for the Canadians, every tactical wiggle in Kandahar involves days of planning and dozens -- sometimes hundreds -- of soldiers.
Since taking charge of security there in 2005, Canadian forces have mounted several major offensives aimed at driving the Taliban out of Zhari and the neighboring district of Panjwai, in the western part of the province. Yet Taliban fighters maintain a stranglehold on much of the area.
Skirmishes with the Taliban in the province this year alone account for about a quarter of Canadian casualties in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. The Canadian force is less than a tenth the size of the 33,000-member U.S. force. Nonetheless, the Canadians are responsible for maintaining security in one of the most historically fractious parts of the country.
Meanwhile, they are also struggling to find their footing in their first large-scale combat operation since the Korean War.
"We've had to play a bit of catch-up when it comes to getting into a big fight. We've traditionally been seen as peacekeepers," said Capt. Shawn Dumbreck, who leads one of several Canadian platoons in western Kandahar. "When the conflict started, our fighting skills were obviously there, but there was a steep learning curve to really get into the combat mission."
In Zhari, a mix of rocky desert and fertile farmland, the Taliban fighters wage their war largely from the deep gravel culverts lining Highway 1, Kandahar's main transit route. Roadside bombs along the highway account for about half of the 97 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001. This year, the Canadian death toll has reached a record high, with 23 troops killed through September, many of them in Zhari and Panjwai. As a result, the soldiers go to great lengths to avoid possible booby traps.
"Frankly, it slows us down, because if I'm not confident a road has been swept, then the soldiers will head straight into the desert and drive across country," said Brig. Gen. Denis Thompson, the top Canadian commander in Kandahar. "It takes forever to get from A to B because you can't travel on a road."
One well-placed bomb in a culvert along the highway can easily result in multiple casualties. And multiple casualties over time increase pressure on Canadian politicians to end involvement in a war that is widely unpopular in their country. Like many of the 39 nations that make up the coalition forces in Afghanistan, Canada has faced repeated demands from the United States to shore up the flagging Western military mission. But Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed to pull the majority of Canadian troops out of Afghanistan by 2011.
With the Canadian casualty count mounting in areas near Highway 1, the pressure to bring the restive province under control has never been higher.
But control of Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban, has proved elusive. In June, Taliban insurgents attacked the province's main prison, near Kandahar city, freeing an estimated 1,200 inmates. About 400 of those who fled the prison were thought to be Taliban fighters. Four days later, Canadian and Afghan troops mounted a counteroffensive after locals reported seeing dozens of armed insurgents massing in Arghandab, a valley district near Zhari and Panjwai. Since then, nine Canadian soldiers have been killed in insurgent attacks -- all in Zhari and Panjwai.
"The bottom line in Zhari and Panjwai is that we own about a third of those districts. The other two-thirds aren't owned by the Taliban, but I call them contested," Thompson said. "If you're out there, you're going to get into a scrap. There are firefights, and there's combat every day in Zhari and Panjwai."
The southwestern stretch of the highway through Kandahar to the eastern border of the volatile province of Helmand is arguably one of the most dangerous in Afghanistan. For the insurgents based in Zhari and Panjwai, control of the route is a strategic imperative. Taliban commanders in the area subsidize their operations by imposing a 10 to 15 percent tax on everything and anything traversing the province. Meanwhile, Panjwai and Zhari have evolved into key insurgent supply stations. Insurgents rely heavily on roadside bombs to maintain their grip on the province.
"They're cagey, and they're constantly changing what they do, and we're constantly changing what we do," Thompson said. "The key to improvised explosive devices is that it's not the device and it's not the vehicle. It's the network."
It was a bomb-making network that Canadian troops were after when they set out on foot in the darkness from a small, fortified military base in western Kandahar last week. Intelligence sources had pinpointed a Taliban compound at the western edge of Zhari that appeared to be a supply base for a key leader of such a network. "Megaman" was suspected of being behind many of the bomb attacks on Canadian troops over the past several months. No one had ever seen Megaman, so it was unclear what chance the soldiers had of capturing him. But their main objective was clear: to destroy the compound.
The soldiers plodded on. Soon, the desert plain gave way to fields of grapevines. One by one, the troops scrambled up and down the muddy rows of hillocks. They were deep in Taliban territory now, slowly zigzagging through Zhari, hoping the insurgents would not hear them coming.
The first shot rang out a little before first light as dozens of Canadian soldiers crept to the edge of a wide irrigation ditch. Someone shot a wild dog that was attacking a group of soldiers approaching the main compound. Two helicopters swooped overhead. A contingent of Canadian tanks rumbled loudly over the fields in the distance. An Afghan interpreter shouted into a megaphone that anyone in the compound should come out unarmed. The show of force was met with silence.
The only sign of insurgents was the frantic chatter that crackled over a radio monitored by an Afghan interpreter with the Canadian troops. As the Canadians pushed deeper into the web of Taliban compounds surrounding their objective, a panicked voice commanded someone to move the bombs out of the compound. The radio went dead for a few minutes. Then came the crack, crack, crack of automatic gunfire. A rocket-propelled grenade landed a few hundred feet from a line of Canadian soldiers returning fire into the leafy thicket of grape fields.
The firefight was over in minutes. The Taliban fighters faded into the countryside as the Canadians poured into the compound, which was packed with dozens of huge mortar shells, ammunition shells and what appeared to be ingredients for homemade bombs. After a careful sweep of the area, Canadian military engineers set charges around the bomb storage site and the compound was blown up.
After their return to the base, Lt. Col. Roger Barrett, the Canadian battle group commander, appeared pleased with the results. He wore a confident smile as he surveyed the troops lounging in the sun and guzzling Gatorade after the operation. It had taken about 230 ground troops and 150 troops in the battle group's mechanized division to strike the Taliban compound. Megaman had escaped capture, but there wasn't a single Canadian casualty.
"Lots and lots of effort went into this," Barrett said. "It's a game of inches, but we're winning it."