ADAMZAI, Afghanistan - The noose has been tightened around one of the lingering insurgent strongholds where Canadian soldiers operate in Kandahar's Panjwaii district.
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But a two-day operation aimed at cutting insurgent supply lines into the volatile town of Nakhonay also angered locals and prompted a retaliatory attack by the Taliban.
Teams of Canadian engineers and infantry troops were dropped by helicopter earlier this week on the southern edge of Khenjakak, a small village southwest of Kandahar city.
They charged out of Chinook helicopters as daylight broke Wednesday morning, prepared for contact.
As they moved north through the town, however, they only found traces of the shadow-like insurgency. In a grape hut, a patrol came across an extensive cache of medical supplies.
"It's probably a stop-over for injured insurgents," said Warrant Officer Todd Weber, a member of Bravo Company's 4 Platoon.
NATO has had little presence in this area until now, allowing the insurgents to use it as a staging area for attacks further north.
It is considered the main Taliban supply route — "rat-line" in military parlance — for Nakhonay, a fiercely contested town that has been the site of the deaths of at least six Canadian soldiers in recent months, not to mention several other severe injuries.
A similar operation conducted in Khenjakak's northern neighbour, Adamzai, last month ended with the seizure of several IED components and six people being detained.
"Adamzai and Khenjakak are insurgent strongpoints and logistical nodes," said Maj. Austin Douglas, the commanding officer of Bravo Company, which is responsible for this volatile patch of eastern Panjwaii.
"Essentially, what we are trying to do is separate the population from the insurgents."
The Canadian military has set up an elaborate series of checkpoints throughout Panjwaii, making it near impossible to drive from one end to the other without crossing either Afghan or Canadian soldiers.
It is part of a larger NATO effort to deny freedom of movement to insurgents in a district where, until the recent surge in U.S. troops, they held sway.
Denied access to the district's main roads, the Taliban have resorted to rat-lines, moving weapons and explosives by motorcycle along small back roads often no wider than a country path.
Blocking access to these rat-lines had proven difficult for the military, until the engineer regiment proposed a solution: blow them up.
With the towns cleared by foot patrol, the engineers set to work Thursday on a process known as cratering.
Along eight different routes in both Adamzai and Khenjakak, engineer teams first exploded 18-kilogram "honeycomb" explosives, which opened narrow 1.5-metre holes in the ground.
They then packed the holes with four large bags of Trigran explosives, setting them off with a plastic explosive charge.
The result, aside from a deafening roar, is a crater more than dozen metres long and just as wide.
"By doing this we're basically funnelling the insurgents into these (checkpoints)," said Warrant Officer Adam Taylor, who oversaw the engineer element of the operation.
Taylor said it was the first time engineers in any Commonwealth country had conducted such an operation on foot.
"Today is our day, boys," he told his troops Thursday morning. "Boom, boom."
But the soldiers involved in the operation also acknowledged it came at the cost of their relationship with the local population. The routes that were destroyed are not only used by insurgents, but farmers as well.
"It will have an effect on the local nationals, so the plan is to… engage and tell them why we did what we did," Douglas said.
"We'll look to work with them to better identify routes that they should take to get to their gardens, to get to their crops, to continue with their way of life.
"But we do need to find a way to channel everyone through certain access control points to better help better define who exactly are the good guys and who aren't," he added.
Several locals complained about damage to their farms, and predicted the craters will do little to prevent the Taliban from using their villages as a staging ground.
"The holes will create problems for the villagers because they will not be able to access their land," said Haji Nida, a local elder from Adamzai.
"But these holes do not create any problems for the Taliban. They will not stop them."
If the Taliban were largely unseen during the initial phases of the operation, they lashed out after it was over.
The engineers had blown their final craters of the day and, along with several dozen other soldiers, were resting in the compound of a local farmer when it was hit by several bursts of automatic gunfire at short range.
Canadian soldiers quickly responded with machine-gun fire of their own, and tore into a grape hut with shoulder-fired rockets.
But by the time a patrol made its way into the grape rows where the shots had come from, the insurgents had vanished.
Though there were no casualties in the incident, it suggested that while the end of the fighting season may be approaching, significant numbers of insurgents remain active in Panjwaii.
According to some reports, several out-of-area fighters have come to Nakhonay in recent weeks.
In an area that has seen a flurry of Canadian activity in the past several months, feeding claims NATO forces have reclaimed momentum from the Taliban, Nakhonay continues to pose a security threat.
"Nakhonay is one of the last strongholds," Douglas said. "There hasn't been any development in there since I've been here."
The operations earlier this week were conducted with an eye towards choking off the Taliban's ability to buttress their position there.
Canadians have been making repeated attempts to clear the town of insurgents since 2006, only to see them return to reclaim lost ground.
Douglas, who is approaching the end of his tour, concedes his troops were able to do little in Nakhonay beyond provide security to the population.
But he is optimistic his troops have now been able to lay the groundwork for more sustainable clearing operations in the future.
"This time, when they clear Nakhonay, the locals will see our sincerity," Douglas said.
When the Royal 22nd Regiment arrives to replace his troops, they "can take that to the next level, and move from the hold onto the build phase with more governance."
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