Canadians Take more Taliban Turf Brian Hutchinson National Post
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The National Post's Brian Hutchinson is travelling with Canadian troops on Operation Baaz Tsuka, a major NATO-led military campaign underway in the Taliban strongholds of Afghanistan.
ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan - With one pump of his fist and a menacing glare, a burly soldier from Alpha Company, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, exhorted his mates this week to put on their game face and confront the Taliban.
"Let's get it on, boys," the soldier yelled, seconds before jumping into his LAV-III, a light armoured vehicle now ubiquitous in Kandahar province.
The rest of his Shilo, Man.- based company needed no encouragement. The soldiers from A Company are no strangers to close combat. They engaged the Taliban within days of arriving here in August, and a month later played a key operational role during Operation Medusa, the violent, two-week-long campaign that saw Canadian troops strike deep into Taliban country and secure a front line 30 kilometres west of Kandahar city.
While A Company never left the area, it hasn't seen close action for three months. The soldiers bided their time, fortifying their hard-won positions and manning observation posts.
But earlier this week, A Company moved out of Forward Operating Base Mas'um Ghar, scene of its first major firefight with the Taliban. It pushed west, deeper into enemy territory than any other Canadian company.
On Tuesday, A Company ventured past the village of Howz-e Madad, into Zhari District.
The terrain here is flatter and more arid than the grape fields of Panjwaii, and far less populated.
Yesterday, A Company expanded the coalition's sphere of influence, again moving west and practically daring Taliban fighters to leave their compounds and come forward to clash.
"It's just good to get back to the action, trying to break out further and further," said A Company commander Michael Wright, 35, of Oakville.
The deployment is the latest move in Operation Baaz Tsuka (or Falcon's Summit), the NATO and Afghan security forces campaign meant to separate so-called Tier Two Taliban insurgents from more extremist, Tier One elements.
Central to the operation is the release of material and financial assistance to local Afghans, in an attempt to stop men of fighting age from serving as Taliban mercenaries and help instead with the reconstruction of this war torn region.
That's the official "hearts and minds" strategy behind Operation Baaz Tsuka, as devised by the NATO and Afghan coalition.
To date, it seems to be working. Now two weeks old, the campaign has seen few head-on battles waged against the Taliban, and none involving Canadian troops.
Boxed into a swath of territory 10 kilometres west of Mas'um Ghar, in Panjwaii District, and surrounded by a massive gathering of coalition war machinery, 700 to 900 insurgents seem indisposed to do more than launch the odd -- and, to date, harmless -- rocket attack.
Rather than assemble into one large fighting force, they have scattered into fortress-like agrarian compounds and taken local families hostage, believing that coalition forces will not attack if civilian lives are at risk.
The tactic has worked. Canadians have not fired a single shot at enemy positions in Panjwaii District during Operation Baaz Tsuka.
But Canadian troops have advanced, taking more ground from the Taliban and suffering no casualties in the process. The insurgents remain in their defensive positions. The men and women from A Company are cooling their heels, some reluctantly.
"I'd love to get into a fight," Corporal John Adair, 28, said yesterday, "and I think we're going to get into one."
Being off the front lines the past few months left the Fort Mc- Murray, Alta., native feeling "disgusted.? Boredom had started to kick in." Edit: Bleeped word is not an expletive... but d i s g u s t e d.... why I have no idea!
Cpl. Adair added he was "glad to be on the move. We've never been out this far west before. We're kind of treading on [Taliban turf.]"
He was not concerned about battle rust or complacency. A Company has been through too much; harsh lessons learned in the autumn aren't forgotten.
"We've gotten better at what we do," he insisted. "Let's face it, no amount of training prepares you for actually [shooting at] people. The more you do of it, the better you get at it."
But the only Afghans that soldiers from A Company have met face-to-face so far this week are desperate farmers and their families, displaced from their land by the Taliban.
One night at dusk, Sergeant Bryce Piukkala, 27, of Mississauga, Ont., led a section of soldiers on a brief reconnaissance patrol. The men found themselves at a lonely agrarian compound spilling over with poverty stricken elders and children.
"We're not here to cause problems," Sgt. Piukkala told one of the elders, who approached him slowly. "We're here to help."
Children, some barefoot despite the winter chill, soon encircled him.
"We are five families living in one place," an elder told Sgt. Piukkala, his words translated by an interpreter. "There was no security in our village south of here and so we lost our land, our gardens, our trees, everything. Now we are in big trouble. There is not enough food for five families."
Sgt. Piukkala listened carefully and promised to alert those in a position to deliver assistance. The children smiled and began to skip. The day ended peacefully; there was no fight.