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troung
30 Apr 06,, 00:29
Canadians taking flak over Afghan gun battle
GRAEME SMITH

From Friday's Globe and Mail

SANGISAR, AFGHANISTAN Canadian soldiers are struggling to persuade their Afghan allies that they behaved properly during a pitched battle April 14 that ripped through this district about 25 kilometres southwest of Kandahar city.

Afghan police say nine of their colleagues were killed in the fight, and they criticize the Canadians for staying on the fringes while the poorly equipped Afghans endured several hours of running battle among the grapevines, wheat fields and mud compounds of Sangisar.

It's difficult for the Canadian military to answer those accusations directly, because a continuing friendly-fire investigation prevents soldiers from discussing details of April 14. Troops say they weren't afraid of the Good Friday battle, and they won praise for the discipline they showed as they held back from a muddled fight on unfamiliar turf in which they risked shooting their allies.

But the military is having to work hard to address the Afghan complaints. In a land where trust is more powerful than guns, Canadian military officials say, it's crucial for Canadians to repair their damaged relationship with the local Afghan police.

Last week, that task fell to Major Nick Grimshaw, commander of Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

He travelled for three days through the districts southwest of Kandahar city and met with the local leaders whose men fought and died on Good Friday.

"Hopefully we can co-ordinate much better, next time we show up," Major Grimshaw said, standing in the courtyard of the Maywand district headquarters and facing a crowd of disgruntled Afghans.

The district leader, Haji Safullah, refused to be placated.

"We've been fighting 25 years, and we never lost so many men in one battle," Mr. Safullah said. "This is because of bad co-ordination with the Canadians and Americans." Major Grimshaw nodded gravely.

"There was bad co-ordination," he said.

"My subcommanders were brave," Mr. Safullah said.

"Yes, I'm sorry we lost them," Major Grimshaw said.

Dusk was falling as they spoke, and Bravo Company decided to spend the night camping inside Mr. Safullah's compound. As soldiers pitched their cots under the cedars and pines, a warning circulated quietly among the soldiers: The Afghan police are angry; don't take off your body armour.

The district headquarters has high walls topped with barbed wire, but the Canadians took more precautions than they did the night before, when they slept in the open desert overlooking a suspected Taliban smuggling route. Extra patrols crunched along Mr. Safullah's gravel driveway, while sentries manned the gun turrets of the armoured vehicles.

After saying goodnight to Major Grimshaw, the Afghan commander expressed more anger and confusion. The military shouldn't bother investigating the accusations of friendly fire that emerged from the Good Friday battle, he said, because such accidents are normal in war.

But he was less forgiving about what he described as a lack of boldness by the Canadian troops.

"We thought the Canadians were behind us," Mr. Safullah said. "But they weren't, and some of my men got shot."

The criticism about the Canadians' lack of boldness echoed the triumphant assessment made by the Taliban during the heat of battle that day.

"The U.S. troops are fleeing Afghanistan; it's great," one insurgent fighter said to another in a radio transmission intercepted by Afghan police during the April 14 battle. "Now we have Canadians, and they are cowards."

The chronology of the battle offered by the Afghan police can't be confirmed, but witnesses gave similar accounts in three separate interviews. Early in the morning, Taliban ambushed the Afghan police on Highway 1, the paved road leading from the city of Kandahar to Helmand province. Afghan authorities had known about groups of Taliban gathering in the area for days, so dozens of Afghan soldiers and police were nearby and rushed into battle.

Maywand police estimate there were roughly 170 Taliban fighters.

Others describe a smaller number of insurgents, but heavily armed. From his headquarters, Mr. Safullah worried about his own officers' equipment: The government hadn't given them any ammunition for their Kalashnikov rifles, so he spent his own money on bullets, giving each officer a couple of magazines.

Mr. Safullah's men didn't have any radios either, and only three had mobile phones. The Roshan mobile network is weak in this part of the country, the commander said, and the signal died when his officers took cover in the fields.

The Canadian convoy rolled up Highway 1 several hours after the shooting started, and largely stayed back from the daylong fight. The Canadians fired only twice.

The first time was when they arrived, shooting 1,200 metres across an open field in the direction of thick foliage alongside a canal, where they saw incoming fire. By one account, a soldier from the Afghan National Army ran out and waved his arms, trying to stop the Canadians from firing because they were hitting friendly positions -- although nobody was hurt -- and the ANA soldier was hit from behind by a Taliban sniper who saw him wave.

The second burst of Canadian fire happened after part of the convoy drove up a side road and got hit with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades. The grenades came from behind a mud wall about 500 metres away, and the Canadians crumbled the wall with blasts from the turret gun of a light-armoured vehicle.

The Canadians couldn't go farther into the battle, Major Grimshaw said, because they didn't know what was happening.

"We showed up ready to fight, and we did," Major Grimshaw said. "But we exercised restraint because it was unclear where the enemy was, due to a lack of co-ordination. We could have done something more severe, but my soldiers are well trained and they exercised restraint."

Bravo company had another reason for not plunging into the warren of mud compounds in Sangisar. If they had pushed south and chased the Taliban, they would have been channelled into narrow roads bordered by mud walls and fragile wooden bridges.

Two days later, an LAV on patrol would get stuck for hours in the soft-shouldered ditch in exactly the same spot. Showing restraint didn't make the Canadians popular with the local police, Major Grimshaw said, but it was a wise decision.

"I'm very proud of what my soldiers did," he said.

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