Troops capture Taliban's birthplace
Two Canadians slain in fierce battle that drove insurgents – some of whom used children as shields – from their historic enclave
From Monday's Globe and Mail
November 19, 2007 at 1:19 AM EST
SANGISAR, AFGHANISTAN — Canadian troops pushed the Taliban out of their birthplace in a storm of artillery shells and rockets on the weekend, during a major operation that killed two Canadian soldiers and an interpreter.
The smoke and dust of explosions hung over the dry fields of Sangisar, a stubborn enclave of insurgents where the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, founded the armed movement in 1994.
The same cluster of villages, about 40 kilometres west of Kandahar city, still served as a hideout for Taliban who raided the highway in recent weeks despite repeated military sweeps into the mud-walled warren during the past six years.
None of the previous operations left lasting security in Sangisar, however, so the Canadians decided to tackle a more difficult task: seizing a strategic point among the hostile villages and building a new police station. They attempted the first phase with only three platoons of infantry, five teams of snipers and reconnaissance specialists, and a small contingent of Afghan soldiers, in a zone where locals have reported hundreds of insurgents.
The gunfire started at sunrise Saturday and continued until noon. It was a bitter fight on both sides. The Taliban resorted to using children as human shields, according to soldiers who witnessed the tactic, and the encircled Canadians called in artillery and air strikes so close to their own positions that a soldier suffered shrapnel wounds from friendly fire.
“I feel like I aged 40 years,” said Corporal Philippe Lemieux, a member of a reconnaissance team, after two nights on the battlefield with little sleep.
A roadside bomb exploded under an armoured vehicle carrying troops toward the battle in the earliest hours of Saturday morning, killing Corporal Nicolas Raymond Beauchamp, 28, and Private Michel Lévesque, 25, and injuring three others.
A military interpreter also died in the explosion.
Two other Canadians suffered minor injuries during the rest of the operation, military officials said, and one Afghan soldier was killed.
Estimates of the number of Taliban killed varied widely but most officials guessed at numbers in the double digits; Kandahar's police chief said 20 Taliban died, while another provincial official put the figure at 40.
A Taliban commander in the district, reached by telephone, dismissed the government toll as lies but acknowledged that his men had suffered casualties.
At least a dozen insurgents were killed by Canadians' direct fire and possibly more died in the hail of artillery and air strikes, said Major Richard Moffet, who commanded the Canadian battle group from a nearby hilltop.
The only specific report of civilian casualties so far was the death of a shopkeeper killed at his house, said Ustad Abdul Halim, an adviser to the governor.
Beside the stories of death, however, were breathtaking tales of narrow escapes.
At one point, 26-year-old Cpl. Lemieux said insurgents fired at him from three directions as he took cover in the frigid, foul-smelling water of an irrigation trench. Shrapnel from the Canadians' M777 artillery zipped by less than a metre from his head, tearing through a nearby knapsack and destroying a satellite phone.
Another Canadian soldier showed off the damage to his rifle where an incoming bullet had punched into the weapon, leaving him unscathed.
Several civilians also counted themselves lucky. Abdul Ahad, 40, a farm owner, said he discovered his cousin lying unconscious in a grape field Saturday morning, apparently the victim of an artillery shell. He took the injured man to the nearest road, where a passing Canadian patrol stopped and collected him for medical treatment at a nearby district centre.
“I was very happy the Canadians helped me,” Mr. Ahad said. “My cousin is okay now.”
Yet another close call happened later in the morning, as a reconnaissance section commanded by Sergeant Guillaume Ouellet, 33, hunkered down in the dirt troughs of a grape field.
He had successfully avoided detection all night, but the Taliban discovered him in the hazy morning light. The insurgents opened fire from three directions, he said.
“It was, ‘Good morning, Afghanistan!'” Sgt. Ouellet said. “It's a good thing the insurgents weren't co-ordinated, or I'd be dead.”
The reconnaissance team returned fire with their assault rifles and grenade launchers but realized they needed help, the sergeant said, so he called for artillery strikes on the mud compounds where the attackers were hiding.
He also popped a red smoke grenade, sending up a bright plume to avoid being hit by French Mirage jets that were strafing and firing rockets.
Construction of Sangisar's new police station was under way Sunday, and its presence will likely have symbolic as well as tactical value. The Taliban's so-called Commander of the Faithful started his career in Sangisar when he moved there as a young man from Uruzgan province, according to Ahmed Rashid's account in the book Taliban. Mullah Omar became the village preacher and opened a small boys' school, which later served as his first recruiting ground when he raised a militia to attack the remnants of the anti-Soviet guerrillas and establish a new regime.
“Why Sangisar?” Major Moffet said. “It was a node for the Taliban. Now it's ours.”
Canadian ground forces (French speaking Canadians?) supported by French air power.
To sit down with these men and deal with them as the representatives of an enlightened and civilized people is to deride ones own dignity and to invite the disaster of their treachery - General Matthew Ridgway
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