Canadian troops surround Taliban


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Canadian troops surround Taliban
NATO forces leave Afghan insurgents 2 choices: Surrender, or fight way out

Brian Hutchinson
National Post, With Files From the Canadian Press

Saturday, December 23, 2006

HOWZ-E MADAD, Afghanistan - There is no place to hide, and nowhere to run for the 700 to 900 Taliban insurgents now squeezed into a box near here by NATO forces.

They only have two options: Surrender, or attempt to fight their way out.

Such is the situation in and around Howz-e Madad, a dusty farming village 40 kilometres west of Kandahar City.

A week has passed since NATO and Afghan national security forces launched Operation Falcon's Summit, a massive demonstration of military might and discipline aimed at protecting Howz-e Madad from Taliban fighters to the south, and putting the insurgents in a quandary.

Once tightlipped about their objectives, and their chances of success, Canadian officers leading their army's effort in the campaign are practically boastful of its swiftness and its efficacy. "This is the first time we've projected (this) much combat power forward," said Canadian battle group commander Lt.-Col. Omer Lavoie. "(NATO) and Afghan forces are surrounding them, 360 degrees."

The Taliban are hemmed inside 10 square kilometres of mud fortresses and walled farm compounds, terrain that is well-suited to their guerrilla tactics, but which also makes it difficult -- if not impossible -- to escape.

As Lt.-Col. Lavoie noted with satisfaction, British and U.S. troops sit approximately 10 kilometres south of Howz-e Madad.

More British soldiers line the west, sealing that corridor, and Canadian combat teams rolled on Wednesday through Howz-e Madad.

About 30 vehicles and hundreds of soldiers now hold the northern flank. Canadian tanks and light-armoured vehicles are spread out there, in a giant circle, ready to attack fleeing insurgents.

The vehicles and weaponry are a menacing presence that can be seen for several kilometres, in all directions.

To the east, running in a straight line to the Arghandab River, is impenetrable Route Summit, the 4.5-kilometre roadway established in September, during Operation Medusa.

Five Canadian soldiers lost their lives during that two-week campaign, and dozens more were injured. Hundreds of Taliban were killed.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper remained steadfast in his defence of military operations in Afghanistan yesterday.

Mr. Harper told a Calgary-based radio program the United Nations and the entire international community want Canadian troops in the war-torn country.

And he said the soldiers still believe in the mission. "If they're willing to take the real bullets, we can take the rhetorical bullets back here at home," Mr. Harper said.

Route Summit is a distinct and well-protected eastern border the Taliban has dared not cross.

Now that line has shifted, another 10 kilometres west -- to Howz-e Madad.

The village is small, consisting of perhaps 30 homes and, save for a large blue-and-white mosque, lacks any distinguishing features.

Under different circumstances, the insurgents might surge forward from the south and launch an attack on Howz-e Madad itself, in a vain attempt to inflict the maximum possible harm on the maximum number of people, even though such a mission would be suicidal.

CanWest News Service followed a section from Charles Company, Royal Canadian Regiment, as it established a strong cordon on the village's southern flank. The soldiers met no resistance as they drove their LAVIII to the village boundary. In fact, they were met with smiles, hot tea and candies.

It helped that the Canadians had come with gifts: Containers of farming implements, and $50,000 in cash that was soon sprinkled around Howz-e Madad.

Operation Falcon's Summit succeeded Operation Medusa; it was not meant to duplicate it, especially not the violence that defined it.

The primary objective, soldiers can recite, is to help civilians and protect them from the Taliban, and to do it within 48 hours of the first Canadian deployment.

Isolating the Taliban to the south and, by surrounding them on all sides, creating an impenetrable box, is described as a secondary benefit.

Meanwhile, during operational briefings, engaging the enemy unless first provoked is declared off limits.

The 48 hours are now up, and it would appear Operation Falcon's Summit worked -- Howz-e Madad is safe.

But the Taliban are ready for a fight.

They fired the first shots on Thursday night; two 107-millimetre rockets blasted past the Charles Company platoon cordon set up just south of Howz-e Madad.

The rockets came from a compound one kilometre away, where up to 35 Taliban remain huddled, using women and children as human shields.

The Afghan National Army responded with machine-gun volleys, but no one was hurt on either side.

The Canadians did not fire a single shot. And they didn't fire early yesterday morning, either, when one private doing guard duty swore he had spotted a Taliban fighter running about 100 metres from the Canadian position.

"I could have killed him," the soldier said to his mates later on. "I bet he was planting IEDs on the road. I could have got him."

He was ordered not to shoot. "It would have ruined more than just my day if that guy was not a Taliban, and we shot him" explained Lt. Ray Corby of Fergus, Ont. "One dead civilian and this whole operation is "fu--ed."

An hour later, Lt. Corby -- the 25-year-old platoon leader -- received new information: Down the road, in their compound, the Taliban were assembling missiles.

He ordered his men to don their flak jackets and helmets and brace themselves for an attack.

It didn't come. But the Taliban are surrounded. They have taken innocent people hostage. No one expects them to surrender.

Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's top soldier, has already started visiting troops overseas, arriving aboard the patrol frigate HMCS Ottawa in the Persian Gulf yesterday.

He plans to fly into Afghanistan on Christmas Eve and visit troops stationed in the main Canadian base in Kandahar as well as in the capital of Kabul.

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