In Afghanistan, waging battles of attrition
ZHARI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — The first firefight erupted to the south, hitting a Canadian patrol somewhere along the Arghandab River.
Then a few scattered shots hit a group of Canadian and U.S. soldiers on patrol with Afghan police about 300 meters away.
The third attack occurred when Taliban gunmen opened fire on two dozen Afghans and Canadian soldiers with Operational Mentor Liaison Team 73 Alpha.
As far as security incidents go in Afghanistan, the firefights were fairly unremarkable. No coalition soldiers or Afghan troops were killed or wounded, and it was unclear how many, if any, Taliban fighters were hit.
But the three engagements were typical of the daily skirmishes that Canadian troops, along with a handful of Americans, are fighting alongside Afghan troops here in Zhari district, about 25 kilometers west of Kandahar city.
Taking place in the heartland of the fundamentalist Taliban movement, they are short, sharp, chaotic affairs and often inconclusive.
Yet the gunbattles illustrate the kind of grinding attrition that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the Taliban are waging against each other in southern Afghanistan, where frequent combat appears to be less about taking and holding territory than it is about weakening the other side’s will to fight.
"What the Taliban is trying to achieve is for us to leave the outposts," said Maj. Rob McBride, commander of November Company, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment. "It would be a victory for them if we were to close them down. On the flip side of that, the message from us is that we’re here to stay, and we’re not going to leave just because you’re shooting at us every day."
Canada was one of the first countries to send troops to Afghanistan after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and its forces have been responsible for security in Kandahar province since 2005. Canada has about 2,500 soldiers serving in Afghanistan. The soldiers serving in Zhari district are spread between a firebase and a number of smaller outposts.
The outposts are manned by teams of Canadian troops who serve as advisers and mentors to Afghan army and police units. They receive fire almost daily.
The fighting that occurred near Pashmul was among a number of incidents in Zhari district that day, enough, that "I lost count," McBride said.
Canada has lost 97 soldiers since the war began nearly seven years ago. Twenty-three of its soldiers have been killed so far this year.
Insurgent attacks across Afghanistan have risen sharply in the last three years, as the Taliban and other groups have become more organized and sophisticated in their tactics. At least 236 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, the highest annual number since the war began seven years ago.
Kandahar province has suffered some of the more recent high-profile incidents. A prison break outside the provincial capital in June freed hundreds of jailed Taliban fighters. In early September, two suicide bombers struck inside a police headquarters, killing two people and wounding nearly 40. And Taliban gunmen assassinated the city’s top female police officer just last week.
"Certainly, this is one of the most violent summers we’ve encountered," Col. Jamie Cade, deputy commander for the Canada-led Task Force Kandahar, said in a recent interview. "But again, part of that is because we are imposing ourselves on the insurgents, going into areas and taking control of areas that they want."
In August, soldiers with the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment moved into Maiwand district, an area that ISAF has identified as an important logistics hub for Taliban fighters moving between Kandahar province and neighboring Helmand, where some of the worst fighting has occurred.
Coalition strategy in southern Afghanistan is based on building up the Afghan army and police and slowly expanding their presence into areas held by the Taliban. For now, the strategy means that coalition and Afghan government forces control the roads. But out in the countryside, the Taliban still hold sway.
In Zhari district, the fear the Taliban inspire among locals was evident when a platoon of November Company soldiers patrolled last Sunday through the village of Haji Makhadem, just a few hundred meters off the main highway.
The purpose was to ask village elders why they were not attending weekly meetings with other local leaders at the district center.
Troops encountered the village chieftain walking along an irrigation ditch. The old man expressed concern about Taliban spies in the village, but he still agreed to talk for a while with Lt. Jeff Lloyd, the officer in charge.
The old man said he’d been to the district center, but was noncommittal about attending any of the councils there. He also expressed worry about the presence of foreign troops in the village.
"Now it is safe," he said.""But if you come here too many times, then the Taliban will come and they will make war in this village. They will put [bombs] here, and then you will fire your artillery."
Lloyd said that the intent of Canadian forces was to help the village.
"If you guys help us, then the Taliban will come," the old man said.
After 20 minutes of seesawing discussion, the old man said he was grateful that foreign troops had come to Afghanistan, but it was still evident that he wanted little to do with them. He ended with a plea for the soldiers not to bomb the village.
"Hopefully, we can keep the Taliban out, and we won’t have to do that," Lloyd said. "Hopefully, one day the Afghan government will be strong and we won’t have to patrol here anymore."
Things went only marginally better in the nearby village of Feyzollahkhan. The elder there told Lloyd they were all refugees from a place further south that had been destroyed by fighting. Since they were only refugees, it was not their place to attend the weekly meetings on the village’s behalf, he said. It was unclear where the other inhabitants had gone.
Still, the old man said he was glad for the soldiers’ visit and welcomed them back again.
"We want your help," he said. "But secretly, because we are afraid to be seen by [the Taliban]."
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