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ZALAKHAN, Afghanistan — For nearly a month, Canadian soldiers with Company A, Royal 22nd Regiment took mortar fire almost every day from a small group of Taliban fighters hiding somewhere in this abandoned, blasted village on the southern outskirts of Kandahar.

The Taliban mortars were little more than a nuisance for the troops. But a stray Taliban round killed a young girl in Balanday, a village just outside the camp, and insurgents had just attacked a patrol in Zalakhan.

Last week, the soldiers with Company A moved into Zalakhan to clear out the Taliban. They located a hideout atop a compound used by enemy spotters to fire at the Canadian outpost. In previous operations, they might have destroyed the site and moved on. This time, they plan to stay.

“It will be our headquarters now,” said 1st Lt. Alexandre Hottin, a platoon leader with Company A.

The soldiers will remain in Zalakhan until the end of their tour as part of a new Canadian counterinsurgency approach that places small groups of soldiers in strategically important villages where they will live and operate alongside Afghan security forces and civilians.

Canadian forces carried out the approach — commonly known as the “oil spot” or “ink spot” theory, where security is established in an area and then spreads — about three months ago in the nearby village of Deh-e-Bagh. There, soldiers provide security alongside Afghan police, and civilian specialists work with local Afghan officials to improve governance and promote economic development.

The mission into Zalakhan was designed to build on those gains. It was part of a larger operation involving about 700 Canadian and Afghan soldiers that also centered on several other villages in the Dand and Panjwayi districts southwest of Kandahar. Dubbed Operation Constrictor, it was the latest in a series of efforts in recent months aimed at choking off Taliban infiltration routes into the provincial capital and boosting security for Afghan villagers in the two districts.

“This whole purpose of this operation is to improve security for the population,” said Lt. Col. Mike Patrick, chief of operations for Canada-led Task Force Kandahar, briefing reporters Tuesday night, two days after the mission ended.

‘Exactly the approach’

Senior NATO officials have praised the Canadian effort in Deh-e-Bagh as a model for counterinsurgency efforts they hope to emulate elsewhere in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen, who visited the village at the start of the operation last week with U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the effort in Deh-e-Bagh “is exactly the approach we will pursue in coming years,” Canada’s Canwest News Service reported.

In early July, Canadian forces moved into Balanday, about 3 miles west, to reinforce the counterinsurgency effort in Deh-e-Bagh. The mission into Zalakhan continued that effort, according to another military officer.

The villages are “the beginning of the ink spot southwest of Kandahar that will be expanding over the next month,” said Capt. Alain Aube, operations officer for the Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group.

Zalakhan has been abandoned for at least several months, and has suffered heavy damage from artillery shelling, particularly during recent clashes between Canadian forces and Taliban fighters hiding there.

During the first four days of the operation, only a handful of villagers ventured back. One old man said he welcomed the Canadian presence, but he refused to have his photo taken by the soldiers, saying he was scared the Taliban would kill him.

The soldiers discovered in the village three small jugs of homemade explosives, which they blew up. In another compound, they found an empty case for a German anti-tank missile. The case appeared relatively new, but there were no markings to indicate its date of manufacture, and there was no indication whether the missile itself had been used or was yet to be discovered.

Several scattered potshots rang out on the first morning, but no soldiers were hit, and it was never clear who was shooting or where the shots came from.

Periodically, an Afghan interpreter would climb atop a compound and announce over a loudspeaker that any Taliban should leave the area or be killed.

A battalion of Afghan troops cleared another village independently of Canadian forces, and discovered a small weapons cache there.

“This was a very significant operation for them,” said Aube, the battle group operations officer.

Injuries suffered

It wasn’t until the end of the third day that the Canadian soldiers actually encountered any fighters, when they killed three of them bringing an old U.S.-made 60 mm mortar and four rounds of ammunition by motorcycle into the village. The fighters appeared to be headed toward a spot where they could fire on the Canadian outpost at Balanday.

Later that night, soldiers back at the new outpost in Zalakhan described the killing of the fighters and the capture of the mortar as a small, yet important, victory.

But the operation wasn’t without Canadian casualties. A soldier stepped on a land mine only 30 minutes into the first day. He lost a foot in the blast, and another soldier walking close to him lost an eye. Neither injury was life-threatening, Hottin said.

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