Our troops have to win over the locals while taking on the Taliban. It’s a deadly mission.

ADNAN R. KHAN April 3 2006


Our troops have to win over the locals while taking on the Taliban. It’s a deadly mission.

ADNAN R. KHAN April 3 2006


Our troops have to win over the locals while taking on the Taliban. It’s a deadly mission.



It’s 8 and pitch-black

when 1 Platoon gets the order to move out. The pit fire in what can loosely be called the courtyard of the patrol camp in Gumbad village, a collection of mud farmhouses in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Kandahar, has dwindled down to embers and the chill of the desert night has begun to setde in. Most of the men and women of Alpha Company, 1 Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, are preparing for bed. None will sleep well tonight.

Within minutes, 1 Platoon’s two dozen men are assembled in the marshalling area of their heavily guarded compound. LAV III armoured personnel carriers shatter the silence of the camp, a few test rounds from C-7 and C-9 assault weapons pierce through the roar of the LAVs. The patrol pushes out, the first of three platoons headed for what will be the first of many forays into what’s considered one of the most dangerous areas in Kandahar province, the Belly Button, a bowl-like area 20 km northwest of Gumbad surrounded by jagged mountains, where no foreign army has gone in the four years since the fall of the Taliban.

After an hour and a half, the LAVs stop and the troops get out. When the rumble of the vehicles fades away, only the steady footfalls of marching soldiers break the desert silence as 1 Platoon pushes into the mountains, with moonlight guiding the way. The hunt is oneven if the unerringly euphemistic Canadian commanders do not call it that, preferring instead “presence patrols”—for Taliban insurgents. It’s a difficult mission: find and destroy the enemy without simultaneously upsetting the local population, not an easy task considering the enemy is itself part of the local population, hidden amid the villages of the Afghan countryside.

On the march to the Belly Button, 1 Platoon for now avoids any contact with any settle-

ments. The soldiers intend to sweep the mountains around the bowl, search out Taliban observation posts, possibly flush out fighters, and kill or capture. Tipping off insurgents by entering villages, where they masquerade as farmers, would be dangerous before a secure base camp can be established. So the platoon travels under cover of darkness until the soldiers can establish themselves on high ground, and begin their forays into the mountains.

But once established, they must also engage the local population. “Afghanistan, in military doctrinal terms, is a counter-insurgency

fight,” says Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, commander of 1 Battalion of the Patricias. “You cannot win without the trust of the local people. And that is only done over time by sustaining a presence.” Once established, operations like the one around the Belly Button are designed to be part of that sustained presence, a “confidencebuilding” exercise that also places combat troops in a position to engage the enemy.

But how do you win the trust of the locals, as the Canadians hope to do, while fighting an enemy that is part of the indigenous pop-

ulation? Canada’s soldiers are well aware of the dilemma they face. “We’re not going to defeat these guys with a show of force,” says Capt. Kevin Schamuhn, after establishing the patrol camp and hashing out plans for sending fourand five-man foot patrols into the mountains surrounding the Belly Button. “We have to win over the local population.” As 1 Platoon’s men tear open vacuum-sealed Individual Meal Packs for lunch, using the water-activated heating pads as substitute hand warmers, Schamuhn adds: “We have to show them that we’re not here to dominate, but to help.” Some of the soldiers nod their heads, others look skeptical.

These are, after all, warriors, trained more to kill than befriend. “I know about all this cultural sensitivity stuff,” says Sgt. John May, the copiously tattooed lead scout of one patrol, “but I’m here to fight. If those guys are going to set ambushes and IEDs [improvised explosive devices], I’m going to kill them. That’s my job.” The bravado adds a little punch to the feel-good fuzziness of the hearts-and-minds campaign. And in a sense it’s comforting to know someone like May is out there, patrolling the caves and crevices of Kandahar’s inhospitable mountains, ranging through the rugged and reclusive interior regions that have been largely ignored by previous foreign armies. It is rough terrain, and it requires grit and determination, courage and stamina, and no small dose of swagger.

“Ambush alley,” says Sgt.

Quinn Beggs, the baby-faced 37"year-old patrol commander.

He leads his men up to a 2,200m-high peak overlooking the Belly Button. The route through a narrow wadi, flanked by housesized boulders piled into ragged hills, is menacing. “I don’t like being here with such a small patrol,” Beggs says. “If we run into seven or eight Taliban, then no problem. But if we fall into a larger group, say 15 or 20, then we’d be in trouble, especially if they flank us and we get surrounded.”

The weather has been co-operative so far,


clouds protecting the soldiers from the brunt of the sun. But the terrain is tough, and it is the Taliban’s home turf. “Everyone knows the Taliban control the high ground,” says Beggs. “That and their mobility make them very dangerous in this terrain. But the purpose of this patrol is to show them, as well as the local people, that we’re not afraid to come up here.” For the men of 1 Platoon, it’s a risk calculated to keep the Taliban off balance while at the same time instilling confidence in the locals, who many military analysts believe co-operate with the insurgents out of fear.

The Canadians find one Taliban observation post, a cave that appears to have been recently used and provides a dominant view of the route Beggs’ team has just followed. The discovery, at around 1,800 m up, provides an energy boost to the patrol team. “This makes this hump worthwhile,” says 22year-old Corp. Aaron Magnan. “Even if we don’t find anything else over the next 400 metres to the peak, we’ve just shut down one of their positions. It’s worth it.”

But the Canadians don’t want to get sucked into an all-out hunt. “We don’t want to get involved in a cat-and-mouse chase with the Taliban,” says Capt. John Croucher, the 33year-old officer in command of Alpha Company’s 2 Platoon. “That requires a lot of resources.” He repeats the mantra of having to

win over the locals; Croucher has taken the lead in patrolling the villages inside the Belly Button, engaging leaders and assessing the security risks of operating in an area historically hostile to foreigners.

IEDs and ambushes are the main concerns for Canadian troops. To counter the threat,

the Department of National Defence has acquired leading-edge hardware, including 50 newly refitted Nyala armoured patrol vehicles. Forty-three are expected in Afghanistan shortly; they are specially designed to with-

stand powerful anti-tank mines, with a remote-controlled turret operated by a gunner safely housed inside the blast-proof carriage. Meanwhile, Croucher says, the LAV Ill’s are serving just fine. “The troops are comfortable in the LAVs,” he says. “They feel safe inside. We’ve had a couple of them hit by IEDs and only suffered minor injuries. The point here is we need to get soldiers into operational areas safely, and with the equipment we have, we can.”

And in the mountains around the Belly Button, Canadian patrols, backed up by GPSguided heavy artillery and the option of air support provided by U.S. and British forces, among others, are a formidable opposition to Taliban militia. A single radio call can bring down thunderous artillery rounds on suspected positions. “But the Taliban are smarter than that,” says Beggs. “They know they can’t take us face to face. So they do the hit-andrun thing.”

The troops are well aware that could prove costly in terms of lives lost, but all of the soldiers of 1 Platoon say they are prepared to make the sacrifice. Their real concern is that the Canadian public will not have the stomach for a protracted battle, and any sacrifices may be in vain. “Canadians need to prepare for a long deployment,” says Schamuhn. The Afghan nation-building project is an exercise in details: there will be no decisive battle or tipping point, no Vimy Ridge to be glorified in history books, no peace treaty to frame for posterity. As Lt.-Col. Hope said in a speech to the troops at the Gumbad patrol house, “I know you want to see the enemy and you want to engage them like you would in a war. Those opportunities will be fleeting. This fight will not take six weeks or six months. It will take six years.” Slightly more optimistic than Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier’s decade-long timeline, perhaps, but in military terms, still a lifetime. M