Deadly attack signals growing struggle for troops

Friday, January 1, 2010 – Globe and Mail
ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY

TORONTO and QASSAM POL, AFGHANISTAN — It was a targeted attack, a massive bomb detonated via remote control, that tore up the road just four kilometres from Kandahar city and killed four Canadian soldiers and a journalist in one of the deadliest attacks on Canadian troops since the country’s Afghan mission began.

The brazen attack so close to Canada’s base in Kandahar indicates just how challenging it’s going to be for Canadian troops to secure what Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard called a “ring of stability” in the area directly surrounding Kandahar city – and how far the troops have to go to win not only the hearts and minds but the trust of Afghans living there.

The soldiers hailed from battalions and hometowns from one coast to another: Sergeant George Miok, 28, and Corporal Zachery McCormack, 21, were both from Edmonton; 28-year-old Sergeant Kirk Taylor was from Yarmouth, N.S.; and Private Garrett Chidley, 21, was born in Cambridge, Ont. The journalist was Michelle Lang, 34, from the Calgary Herald.

In Qassam Pol, the small farming village near the Dand district where the bombing took place, some residents interviewed by The Globe And Mail indicated they were aware of the strike. They said it was closely targeted, triggered by a remote control designed to hit the last vehicle of a two-vehicle convoy.

A 13-year-old boy named Zulmi gave a detailed description of how the blast might have been triggered.

“I saw one man with wires and a small battery,” he told a Globe and Mail researcher. “He was putting wire under mud from the place of the mine. He was sitting about 200 metres under a small tree in a ditch behind a small wall with big cracks.”

Other villagers, who saw the explosion, said the two armoured vehicles were travelling south alongside a stream on an unpaved road that was muddy from heavy rainfall two days earlier. The bomb, they said, struck the second vehicle as it drove overtop.

“I was busy in my land near to my home and saw two vehicles. … The first one crossed the bomb place, but the bomb exploded on the second one…The vehicle overturned and six tires were thrown away,” said Sardar Mohammad, an elderly villager.

He said, based on the size of the explosion, nobody could have survived.

“No one can be alive,” he said. “Helicopters came for the [dead and injured] and were flying around in the air.”

The explosion left a crater two metres deep and three metres wide. Blood and gasoline pooled on the road where the explosion took place.

Residents of Qassam Pol said Taliban fighters stalked their village at night. Many described Taliban fighters erecting checkpoints, or going door to door to ask about foreign troops and local police presence in the area.

Asked why he did not alert anyone, Zulmi replied: “We are scared from the Taliban and if we mention this to anyone maybe they would kill us.”

This persistent fear is one of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of Canada’s rejigged Afghan strategy, which features a scaled-back objective to secure the area immediately around Kandahar city, rather than the entire province, and to bunk Canadian troops with Afghans in an attempt to win local hearts and minds.

“We may be winning their hearts and minds – slowly, in that particular area, as the army says – but it’s pretty clear the local population is still very scared of the Taliban: So scared they will not tell us what’s happening in that region,” said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies.

To change that, Prof. Bercuson said, NATO troops will need enough strategic momentum to convince Afghans the Taliban won’t be coming back into power any time soon. But as both Canada and the U.S. focus on concrete military pullout dates, that’s not happening.

“Until people in that little stretch of road where people were killed feel they will gain more by siding with us than they will by not squealing on the Taliban, then they’re going to not squeal on the Taliban.”

Wednesday’s attack, the third-deadliest single incident for Canadian troops since 2002 and the worst in 2½ years, brings the death toll of Canadian soldiers to 138, plus one diplomat and now one journalist. It drives home once again for the Canadian public the risks the region poses to soldiers and non-military alike.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai acknowledged as much in a statement, saying Afghans recognize the impact of these deaths for Canadians.

“Your children sacrificed their lives for the people of Afghanistan and the threat of terrorism,” he said. “The Afghans will not forget your sacrifice.”

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay offered their condolences to the families.

“These four brave soldiers lost their lives seeking to help Afghans build a better future for themselves,” Mr. Harper’s statement read. “They represent the best Canada has to offer and they perished in a far away land, working tirelessly to advance Canadian values. We owe them a debt we can never repay.”

Department of National Defence staff said no ramp or repatriation ceremonies have yet been set, although they will likely take place in the next several days.

Meanwhile the family of Lieutenant Andrew Nuttall, killed Dec. 23, prepared for his funeral, which will take place in Victoria on Monday.

AND GLOBE AND MAIL STAFF

The Globe’s Afghan staff are unnamed for security reasons

THE FALLEN FOUR

PTE. GARRETT CHIDLEY, 21

Pte. Chidley was fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a soldier. Born in Cambridge, Ont., and raised in Langley, B.C., he loved talking about his family and was always ready to lend a hand.

CPL. ZACHERY McCORMACK, 21

A gifted wrestler known for his keen sense of

humour, Cpl. McCormack was looking forward to marrying his fiancée,

Nicole, when he returned home to Edmonton.

SGT. GEORGE MIOK, 28

On his second tour of

Afghanistan, Sgt. Miok was a leader who ‘looked after everybody.’ He was a school teacher in Edmonton when he joined the reserves more than 10 years ago.

SGT. KIRK TAYLOR, 28

Known to his troops as ‘Sgt. Morale,’ the youth counsellor from Yarmouth, N.S., was nervous to leave his family and girlfriend, but ‘he wanted to help people rebuild their lives.’


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