In Afghan district, U.S. will face 'toughest environment'

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 13, 2009 

MBR

A U.S. soldier and a Stryker in Iraq. The Canadians doubt the usefulness of Strykers in Afghanistan.

TONY OVERMAN — Tony Overman / The Olympian / MCT

ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — The Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan wonder whether the Americans who're coming later this month will be able to do any better than they have.

The Americans "need to understand this is the toughest environment" they'll face, said Capt. Chris Blouin of Canada's Royal 22nd Regiment. "It's not complicated. Expect everything."

Some Canadians are skeptical that the Americans will find the rows of big eight-wheeled Stryker armored fighting vehicles parked nearby to be of much use in the local terrain, which is lush with waist-high grapevines that make it impossible to travel on anything other than foot.

Taliban wearing flip-flops and carrying AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers have the small Canadian forward operating base near Zhari surrounded, but how many of them there are is anyone's guess. Blouin has heard 15,000. Harassment fire is common, usually beginning in midmorning, from men a few hundred yards from the base.

Every time the Taliban appear, Canadian medics who've grown accustomed to the routine put on their bright blue plastic gloves and booties, stand in front of stretchers laid out in a barren outdoor medical center and await the inevitable casualties.

The Taliban have no chance of overrunning the base, but they're sending a message to the villagers: They, not the foreign forces, are in charge of this area. They'll launch another two attacks outside the base before the week is over.

The longest land battle of this Afghan war took place just south of here in September 2006. The Canadians call it the Battle of Medusa, and they say that hundreds of Taliban were killed, along with 12 Canadian soldiers. Some think that battle, the most conventional fight between the Canadian Forces and the Taliban, stopped the Taliban from moving toward the city of Kandahar.

It was the apex of the Canadian effort here. The Canadians tried to keep the momentum going, but they lost it quickly because they didn't have enough troops.

Throughout their time here, the Canadians have pleaded for more troops and resources. They asked for more helicopters but never got them. They pleaded with the Americans to send a new Marine brigade here, only to see it go to neighboring Helmand and Farah provinces.

Their only reinforcements came last year, when a Canadian commission found that Canada couldn't continue its mission without another 1,000 soldiers. The Americans sent 750 troops plus logistical support to the neighboring Maiwand district and the Canadians agreed to stay for another three years.

They built schools in the community, but NATO destroyed them after the Taliban took them over and used them to stage ambushes. They then set up small outposts, including the one in Sangsar. The Canadians found that they spent most of their effort protecting the outposts, so by early 2007 they moved back to their main base near Zhari.

No coalition soldier has been stationed here in the birthplace of the Taliban since then.

Instead, the Canadians have launched one small operation after another, sweeping through the district village by village, operation by operation, back and forth. They've hit each of the district's villages at least twice, once before and once after the warm-weather fighting season. The aim is to capture enough weapons to force the Taliban to search for more instead of driving toward Kandahar.

"We have to hit certain places several times just to keep them off balance," said Cpl. Gary-James Johnston, 27, of Montreal.

Canadian soldiers serve six-month tours in Afghanistan, half as long as the Americans' tours. Since the 22nd Regiment arrived in late March, it's launched 15 operations. In July, the Canadians conducted three operations, each lasting two to three days.

They struck Taliban staging areas toward Kandahar city, accompanied by Afghan forces. During one operation, word leaked out and the Taliban fled. During the others, the militants simply dropped their weapons and went back to farming. In the last operation in July, the Canadians found one of the largest weapons caches of the war, enough rifles, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and ammunition to fill a small building.

Still, they've made only a small dent in the insurgency.

"Yeah, they will be back," Canadian Lt. Col. Michael Patrick said after the latest operation. "We know that."

Together, the Canadian troops and the newly arriving 5th Brigade of the U.S. Army's 2nd Infantry Division will tackle the area's population centers. The Americans will come to Zhari, and the Canadians will move south to neighboring Panjaway district to reinforce their presence there.

"If we adequately secure 80 percent of the population, and the Taliban become irrelevant to 80 percent of the population, then we are well on our way to winning," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the international force's deputy regional south commander and the highest-ranking American military officer in southern Afghanistan.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has declared that Kandahar will be a top priority, but his advisers quietly concede that the new U.S. strategy may not work, either, and that if more troops are needed, they'll have to be American troops who are leaving Iraq.

"Even today, we don't have enough," a senior military adviser to McChrystal said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk more candidly about the situation in Kandahar. "This is all the reality of an under-resourced war, and that's the impact of Iraq."

"We kept a lid on this as best we could, and successfully. The insurgency didn't win," said Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander in Kandahar province.

"Woulda, shoulda, coulda, there would have been more troops here, and there would have been right from the beginning," Vance continued. "But there weren't. So we did exactly what we had to do. Now we have an opportunity. . . . We have two years" before the Canadians are expected to leave Afghanistan. "In two years, you can do a lot."

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