The first crack of gunfire echoed out across the grape orchards of one of Afghanistan’s most persistent Taliban hotbeds at 6.40 on Saturday morning, just a few hours after international troops marched into Zhari district in the country’s troubled south.
An attack by militants was exactly what the Canadian soldiers, the main international force in Kandahar province, were hoping for before the searing heat of the day kicked in.
International forces were attempting to harass and disrupt local Taliban fighters in the district, as security in neighbouring Arghandab, where hundreds of militants are gathering in the wake of a mass Taliban jailbreak from Kandahar prison on Friday, deteriorated. The confrontation was part of what is expected to be a major operation to dislodge militants in the region.
”Damn, one hour earlier than I was expecting,” said one of the more seasoned members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) conducting the operation.
As predicted, an hour-long gun, artillery and rocket propelled grenade battle ensued with an unknown number of fighters successfully encircling the platoon from the PPCLI, firing at them from north and south.
The Taliban fighters, numbering 16 or so, undermined any advantage they might have had by spraying fire wildly and inaccurately.
For some of the young Canadians it was their first “TIC”, or troops in contact, and many bellowed with laughter, shouting: ”You’re useless!” as they returned fire.
The Canadians were well prepared, having been in and out of this restive area since they deployed to southern Afghanistan in 2006 when a major effort, known as Operation Medusa, was launched to clear the area.
The districts of Zhari, and nearby Panjwai, are seen as the birthplace of the Taliban, the movement of hardline religious students that emerged in the south in the early 1990s before taking over large parts of the country.
The districts have been hard to penetrate, in part because the terrain of densely packed grape fields and mud-walled compounds offers ample hiding spots for Taliban insurgents.
Sergeant Jason Patterson, who fought in the same village in 2006 during operation Medusa, says there are major differences between today and the enemy they faced two years ago.
Then, they occupied and attempted to hold fortified positions.
These days insurgents prefer ambushes and attempts to encircle Nato forces.
”They are still gutsy and determined.”
And he has much greater faith in the contingent of Afghan National Army soldiers who fought alongside the Canadians this week.
They still have a rag-tag air about them, with their mismatching helmets and the occasional aged AK47 slung over some shoulders, rather than the more modern Canadian-gifted C7A1 assault rifle.
But Patterson says they are “ten times better” today.
”Last time we cleared the area and set up police sub stations everywhere, but the ANA just couldn’t hold them. They weren’t ready.”
Nonetheless progress is painfully slow, and the Canadians frankly admit they are under resourced to tackle a complex insurgency. Canada, which currently has 2,500 soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, has lost 85 of its troops since 2002 – the highest proportional death toll of any of the 40 countries fighting in the Nato alliance.
Saturday’s skirmish saw a Canadian soldier being evacuated by helicopter after the blast from a Taliban rocket-propelled grenade snapped his femur.
In general, however, the most deadly threat is from roadside bombs blowing up even the most heavily armoured Canadian vehicles.
But Canadian commanders know they enjoy greater effects from dismounted troops making patrols on foot, even though it increases the risk of injuries during fire fights.
”They are more scared by the infantry than when we are in vehicles,” says Lieutenant Victor Mover, the officer commanding the 9th platoon company of the 2nd Battalion PPCLI.
Until Saturday’s skirmish, his men had not seen any fighting since their tour arrived in February, ironically because they have spent much of their time in Arghandab, which is now set to be the scene of a major confrontation with the Taliban.