After four years of effort and heavy sacrifices, Canada’s military is still confounded by the Panjwaii district, the seat of Taliban power and home to a tiny, unhappy populace.
Panjwaii is not secure. Insurgents continue to assemble here, kill troops and plan attacks on Kandahar City and places beyond.
Major Eleanor Taylor is blunt: “We cannot protect the population the way we’re currently configured.”
The Antigonish, N.S., native commands Charles Company, 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group (1RCR). It’s placed inside a Soviet-era military instalment at Sperwan Ghar, 30 kilometres west of Kandahar’s capital and right on the Taliban’s doorstep. This is the western front, where the most Canadian soldiers can manage are short patrols and attempts to “disrupt” Taliban activities.
Maj. Taylor’s company does its best and enjoys “some rays of hope,” she says, but it’s caught in the same numbers game as others that came before it. Resources are spread too thin. There aren’t enough soldiers. And the Afghan National Army troops operating in the area are often a hindrance, not a help.
Knowing the battle for Panjwaii was once considered a high point for Canadian battle groups makes the current predicament seem worse.
Canadians arrived in Panjwaii in 2006. First the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), then 1RCR, including Charles Co. They beat back the insurgency. Charles Co. played a crucial role in Operation Medusa, a notable offensive campaign that opened up most of the district and allowed Canadians to build a string of forward operating bases and strong points, all the way to Panjwaii district’s western boundary. But the tables turned. The Taliban came back in force and by 2008 the Canadians were drawing back. Those western strong points are long gone.
With security disrupted, development in Panjwaii has stalled. Road paving projects are on hold because contractors and local workers risk being killed. Irrigation repairs and health clinics have been postponed.
The district lacks transparent, effective governance. Panjwaii’s illiterate district governor, Haji Baran, is by most accounts dispirited, unengaged and suspicious of those around him. He has no staff to help him govern; civil servants from the cities will not venture into Panjwaii. Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa seldom visits.
The Taliban have filled the vacuum. The insurgents run a medieval court system from Zangabad, a village just west of Sperwan Ghar. It’s their district council, where mercy, not vengeance, is spared.
Last winter, insurgents rarely strayed east of Zangabad. A PPCLI company in Sperwan Ghar had to go looking for them, explained Maj. Taylor. She inherited a fairly quiet area. When Charles Co. arrived at the beginning of May, Sperwan Ghar and points east were considered “permissive,” or relatively safe to move around.
“Then everything transitioned,” Maj. Taylor said. The Taliban prepared for another fighting season. They assembled a larger fighting force and started launching regular attacks on Charles Co. and on other Canadian and Afghan units nearby. They used small arms, rocket propelled grenades and mortars.
“We knew we were facing something new,” she said. “They had foreign fighters. We took direct contact for the first time. Then, there was contact every day.”
Petty Officer Second Class Douglas Craig Blake, a navy explosive ordnance disposal officer, was killed by an IED blast near Sperwan Ghar on May 3.
The Taliban also began planning their response to Operation Hamkari, a large, three-phase coalition campaign aimed at securing key Kandahar districts, including Panjwaii. Hamkari may be the last, large-scale operation involving Canadian planning and combat teams before troops are withdrawn next summer.
Phase 1 saw U.S. and Afghan forces establish a network of security checkpoints around Kandahar City. Phase 2 saw them aggressively clear Arghandab district, north of the capital. According to senior military sources, Phase 2 was more “kinetic,” or combat-intensive, than had been anticipated.
The Taliban fought back, hard. Phase 3 is scheduled for Panjwaii and the adjoining Zhari district, once a Canadian area of operation and now a U.S. responsibility. Phase 3 won’t likely start in earnest before mid or late September. Much depends on the readiness of Afghan national security forces, and on the Afghan government’s resolve, which can seem shaky.
British Major-General Nick Carter, commander of coalition forces in southern Afghanistan, says the intention is to sweep through all of Panjwaii, including Zangabad, and reclaim territory formerly held by Canadians. Insurgents are warning locals to avoid the “infidels.”
Taliban tactics are increasingly vile, Maj. Taylor said. They use children to conduct attacks on Canadian forces. A local insurgent, a man in his 20s, is known to recruit boys at least as young as eight to “emplace IEDs” near Canadian positions and routes at Sperwan Ghar.
“They know we can’t take action against children,” Maj. Taylor said. “I’ve given up trying to explain to people back home how ugly the insurgency is.”