Canadians move into Taliban stronghold

Canadians move into Taliban stronghold

Canadian soldiers have launched what may be their last major operation in southern Afghanistan, joining U.S. and Afghan forces in a push to take and hold a Taliban stronghold.

Operation Baawar, or Assurance, got underway early Sunday with a large combined force of Canadian, U.S. and Afghan troops moving into a region known as the Horn of Panjwaii.

CTV’s Ben O’Hara-Byrne said the area, just west of Kandahar City, has been a trouble-spot for coalition forces in the past,

“It’s been used for a long time as a Taliban stronghold, as a staging area for their attacks into the city,” he told CTV News Channel Sunday in a telephone interview from Kandahar. “They’re trying to finally establish a permanent presence for the coalition in that area and deprive the insurgents of the area.”

The operation is being led by an Afghan National Army kandak, or battalion, a move O’Hara-Byrne said was necessary to give the Afghan troops vital combat experience to ensure they are ready to take over from Canadian and other coalition forces.

“A lot of the operations in this area are now being Afghan led, at least in name,” he said. “This is an attempt to try to get the Afghans to use the training that they’ve been given over the past several years by coalition troops and put it into practice.”

The Afghan battalion is supported by a company each of Canadian and U.S. soldiers along with tanks, artillery and aircraft support.

A detachment of Afghan Civil Order Police will follow the troops.

Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the commander of the Canadian battle group in Kandahar, said a large force of American paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division has 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, he said.

But Lt.-Col St-Louis said he expects to meet resistance from the Taliban. “This is not going to be a walk in the park,” he told reporters. “The insurgents are still there and we will be pressed for each kilometre that we go.”

He said his soldiers have already encountered improvised explosive devices and seen signs of Taliban fighters in the area.

St-Louis said the objective is to reconnect with the villagers, those that are left, and take advantage of the seasonal 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.”

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 told reporters of 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 often 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.”

Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end next year and O’Hara-Byrne said Operation Baawar may be the battle group’s last large-scale mission. “This may well be the last big operation for Canada of this kind before we leave in 2011.”

The Zangabad area was fought over in 2006 as NATO forces routed insurgent fighters and chased them through the district after a summer of fighting that culminated in the landmark battle Operation Medusa.

But the Taliban eventually trickled back into the region’s hardscrabble villages and fields, setting the stage for future battles.

By the spring of 2008 the Taliban had sown so many roadside bombs and booby traps in the tangled landscape that it was impossible for Canadian troops to drive into the area without being hit by massive explosions.

With files from The Canadian Press