THE VIEW FROM AMBUSH ALLEY
With a stranglehold on a key village, the Taliban dares the Canadians to attack
ADNAN R. KHAN
A decisive battle is coming. In an unusual moment of frankness, Canada’s outgoing battalion commander in Afghanistan,
Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, has thrown down the gauntlet, warning the Taliban that the Canadians are coming for them. “They want to directly challenge us and that is a fatal mistake,” Hope told Maclean’s at Kandahar airfield, home to Canada’s 2,000-plus troops in southern Afghanistan. “If they wish to go to conventional fighting, they’ve chosen the wrong army. They have this belief that if they build it, we will come. Well, we will.” Following weeks of intense fighting in Kandahar province, Hope’s message is clear: Canada has had enough of piecemeal fights that have taken an unprecedented toll on Canadian troops, and accomplished little.
In August alone, eight soldiers lost their lives and dozens more were injured, largely in the villages just west of Kandahar city.
Highway 1, the main artery leading through the area, is now called “ambush alley” by Canadian soldiers who face a consistent barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire whenever they travel along it. Battles in the district, which is the heart of the Taliban movement, continue almost daily. One 60-hour firefight in July was dubbed the Battle of Pashmul. Another major operation, launched on Aug. 18 and intended to wrest back control of Highway 1 from the Taliban, managed to kill dozens of insurgents, according to Canadian military sources, but did little to dent the stranglehold the Taliban have over the region.
That’s because the key town, Pashmul, 40 km west of Kandahar city and the command centre for the Taliban in southern Kandahar,
has held firm despite continuous fighting. This, according to Hope, is where the decisive battle will take place. And the Taliban say they are ready for it. “We want the kharijan to come,” says one fighter in Pashmul, who, like most of the Taliban, uses the Pashto word for “foreigner” to refer to Canadian troops. “So far, they have only sent small forces to the village. They fight for a few hours and then run away. We want them to send big force—so we can finish them off.” It is message the fighter wants Maclean’s to convey to the Canadian leadership, but Hope scoffs at the challenge. The battle will come, he says, but “at a time of our choosing.” That time may be drawing close. The importance of Pashmul, just off Highway 1, cannot be understated, both in terms of strategic and psychological value. During the Russian occupation, the town was command centre for Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets. In the current conflict, Pashmul, according to Hope, has become the avatar for the next phase of the Taliban’s insurgency. “They’ve realized that living in caves in mountains means nothing,” he says, “and that if they want to be a credible option for people, they need to be near the political centre. Kandahar city is the political heart of southern Afghanistan.”
Occupying ground and holding it gives the Taliban much-needed prestige in the eyes of the local population. And Pashmul, with its history and strategic location, is the ideal candidate. Taking it would deliver a severe blow to the insurgents. But that will be no easy task. I was taken into the Pashmul area by a local farmer with ties to the Taliban. During my brief time in the village, it became very clear that the Taliban have dug in for a serious fight. Strictly speaking, this is no longer a village—it is an armed camp. Women and children have fled. Every street is manned with checkpoints. Local men have taken up arms, many of them walking around the warren of streets with two Kalashnikov assault rifles slung over their shoulders, entering and exiting homes that have become operational headquarters. Fighting the Taliban in this environment will be extremely difficult.
The Taliban’s first line of defence is 1V2 km north of Pashmul: an array of sentries scattered through the grape, corn and marijuana fields that flank Highway 1. Disguised as farmers, they wait and watch for convoys and communicate their approach back to central command in Pashmul, which then
mounts an ambush. A local baker who has managed to keep his shop on Highway 1 open in spite of the regular battles describes how the Taliban oper-
ate: “They’ve set this entire stretch of road up for ambushes,” he says. He points to an eightfoot-tall mud wall just off the highway, a section of which has been reduced to about five feet in height. “A few weeks ago, they knocked down the top half of that wall so they can shoot over it.” The shopkeeper also describes how the Taliban regularly set up checkpoints on the highway and occasionally “arrest” people they believe work for the government. An hour before I arrived in the area, one of these checkpoints captured a busload of Afghan doctors (they were later released, according to Taliban and government sources).
How can the Taliban operate so brazenly in an area literally next door to Kandahar’s capital? Their ability to communicate quickly, says Hope, gives them a huge advantage. “Cutting the lines of communication is extremely important in shaping a battle,” he adds. But in the age of mobile technology, enforcing zero communication on an enemy is virtually impossible. Armed with cellphones, Taliban sentries are only a call away from alerting their commanders of an impending attack. In one incident on Highway l, a Canadian convoy is spotted by a Taliban
MANY LOCAL MEN ARE ARMED NOW—A KALASHNIKOV RIFLE SLUNG OVER EACH SHOULDER
fighter who is escorting me. He speed-dials his commander: “Lunch is on its way,” says, describing the line of LAV III armoured vehicles, Bisons and a military tanker heading southwest toward Pashmul. The exchange takes 30 seconds, after which the fighter tells me that if there is still enough time, and large enough contingent of fighters in position, insurgents farther down the highway will scramble for an ambush, perhaps lay
roadside bomb if they have one at the ready.
This time, though, there is no attack. But on numerous occasions over the past weeks, there have been. And there is a pattern. Once Canadian soldiers enter the danger zone along Highway l, they must travel south through lush green fields to reach Pashmul. Taliban sentries will have already alerted fighters about the troops’ location. Those fighters then converge on the area, using the crops, which are high because it’s the height of the growing season, for cover. Their tactics are simple: creep through the foliage to mount an attack, and then retreat. If pursued, stash your weapon and pick up a farming tool. In seconds, fighters transform into farmers, making it extremely difficult for Canadian troops to differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The majority of Canada’s assaults on Pashmul have been limited to fighting along Highway 1 and the fields that surround it. But during the few incursions into Pashmul village itself, the Canadians have met fierce resistance. One problem is in the way the village has been laid out: it is effectively a fortress, the culmination of centuries-old tribal traditions that value privacy and guard against attacks by other tribes. Close-knit compounds surrounded by mud walls impenetrable to bullets are a formidable challenge to any invading army. Narrow alleyways can easily become death traps for soldiers caught in ambushes by attackers on rooftops. Houseto-house battles may be the only way to take the village, but that will be a costly approach. And even if Pashmul is won, holding it will present an entirely new array of difficulties.
“But we’ve already been in there,” says Hope, referring to the six incursions the Canadians have made into Pashmul. “We’ve fought the Taliban in the compounds and in the grape fields, with great success. Each time we’ve had temporary effects. The next time we go in we’ll have a more enduring effect.”
ONE SIGNIFICANT operation in Pashmul, on Aug. 2-3, cannot be called a great success. True, over the course of those two days Canadian forces dispersed scores of Taliban, inflicting significant casualties and killing a medium-level commander, as Hope points out. But during the course of the day-long battle on Aug. 3, Canada lost four soldiers, and 10 more sustained injuries. The bulk of Canadian casualties were sustained during a firefight in which troops from the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry occupied an abandoned school on the outskirts of Pashmul. Once inside, they were surrounded by Taliban fighters who laid siege for hours before the Canadians were able to egress out. For the Taliban and villagers who spoke to Maclean’s,
that battle was a huge victory. “We destroyed two of their tanks [i.e. LAV III light armoured vehicles] and killed or injured many of their soldiers,” says one villager who refused to give his name for fear of government reprisals.
But what really happened? Accounts differ. Canadian sources say our soldiers went in to Pashmul answering a request for help from local farmers, and that according to solid intelligence, the school was being used by the Taliban as a base. But a Taliban fighter told Maclean’s that the battle at the school was pre-planned by Taliban commanders, and that no one had been using the school. “We purposely left it unoccupied because we wanted the kharijan army to take it,” he said. “Then we surrounded it and killed a number of their soldiers.”
In the fog of war, determining the truth is often near to impossible. But there seems to be little doubt that Canadian forces were set up on Aug. 3. “We drew them in,” says another fighter in Pashmul. “We had prepared the school in advance with land mines and
had an attack strategy ready once the kharijan were inside.” Reports from Canadian soldiers who fought in the battle confirm this; some told the Canadian Press shortly after the bloody fight that the attackers had put together a well-planned ambush.
The Canadian military’s official statement on the incident claims that their operation was a response to local villagers requesting assistance from the Afghan government against the Taliban who, the statement claims, were preventing farmers from getting their grape harvest out to market. “That is true,”
says Hope. “They’ve been asking the government for three weeks to remove the Taliban so they can get their grapes out.”
Such a request may well have been made, but it may have been a ruse. Villagers say it certainly did not come from them. “Why would the Taliban prevent us from making our living?” says one, refusing to give his name also for fear of government reprisals. “The Taliban are farmers. Many of the fighters in Pashmul are local farmers. The fighting disturbs our work but we blame the kharijan for that. If they leave, the fighting will end. The Taliban are defending us. They help us get the grapes out. They warn us when there is going to be an attack and tell us when it is safe to move.” And on the ground, the harvest season appeared to be running smoothly. On Highway 1 in the Pashmul area, at least half a dozen trucks were in the process of being loaded with grapes when I drove through.
In a place such as Kandahar, it would certainly be difficult for the Canadian military
to get proper intelligence. Sources on the ground, informants and spies are tough to come by in an area with fanatical tribal allegiances. To make matters worse, the Taliban, keenly aware that Canadians need informants, are sending out their own people armed with misinformation. Is this what happened in Pashmul? “It is possible that someone in the village working for the Taliban told the kharijan to come,” says a villager with close ties to the Taliban. “They’ve asked me to tell the Afghan army to come to Pashmul so they can attack them. It is a tactic the Taliban are using.” Not all villagers in Kandahar are necessarily Taliban supporters. Some can be bought, while others can be convinced that the Taliban will lose the insurgency and it’s in their interest to be allied to the winning side. The problem is convincing people that the winning side is working in their interest. Most villagers haven’t seen an alternative to the Taliban, and so have nothing against which to measure the quality of their lives—except
what they see on television, from Hollywood or Bollywood or music video stations, all featuring vivid explosions of sexuality. So many Afghans turn to the Taliban for the familiarity of tradition. They fight or provide housing and food for fighters, convinced by their limited experience that the kharijan have come to corrupt their society. But some remain curious about the world out there. These are people who could be swayed away from Taliban ideology, given an alternative.
Presenting that alternative in a place beset by bloodshed is the tricky part. With Canada’s much vaunted 3-D model for nationbuilding stuck on the first ‘D’—defencediplomacy and development remain neglected components of the mix. And meanwhile, Taliban resources appear to be on the rise, with more sophisticated explosive devices, and more fighters turning up regularly in Kandahar. “External factors,” says Hope, “external to the nation, have deliberately pushed hundreds of fighters and millions of dollars into the region.” The implication, of course, is involvement by parties in Pakistan, although Hope will not say this directly.
But Quetta, on the Pakistani side of the border, is acknowledged as the central command for the Taliban. It’s a chaotic tribal city where many commanders took refuge after the fall of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001. The insurgency, according to both Western experts and the Taliban themselves, is directed from there. Sealing the border could seriously disrupt the Taliban’s supply lines, but that is a task Canadians are ill-prepared to take on. “We simply don’t have the troops,” says Hope. “We have to train Afghan forces to do that, which is one of our tasks.”
In the interim, though, there is a steady flow of arms, cash and fighters to the Taliban, as the insurgents wait for a larger Canadian offensive, striking here and there with suicide attacks, roadside bombs and ambushes intended to goad foreign troops into reacting. They take over villages like Pashmul, feeding off the self-sustaining farming community that provides them with food and water. From this position of strength, they dare the Canadians to attack.
For Lt.-Col. Hope, the battle is now over. He and the men and women under his command are heading home, and a fresh batch of Canadian soldiers from the first battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment based in Petawawa are taking over the reins. But Hope has a final warning for the Taliban. “Trying to occupy ground and create a battlefield, I think, is a stupid tactic and it’s going to cost them a lot,” he says. “I don’t think they appreciate the lethality and determination of the combat power that’s going to be arrayed against them.” M