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Forces dismantle police substation in Afghanistan ‘drawback’

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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Canada's military says it has not abandoned villagers in the Taliban-controlled western Panjwaii district, insisting that the "drawback" of troops last week and the dismantling of a Canadian-built police substation are tactical victories.

Tearing down the Mushan substation signals the start of a new strategy that will see Canadian Forces troops move closer to Kandahar city, where the majority of Kandaharis live and where a greater security presence is considered an urgent priority.

But Mushan village and surrounding communities are now left without a fixed Canadian presence for the first time in two years, after hard-won battles and casualties in the area.

The police substation, lately referred to as a strong point, was taken apart and troops were redeployed in a large-scale operation called Munkiredal, the Pashto word for deny.

The name might seem ironic. But Canadian officers say it reflects that the strong point was eliminated and all its equipment removed, thus denying the Taliban any opportunity to claim anything from the site.

In a briefing Sunday with reporters at Kandahar Air Field, officers explained that the 64 Afghan National Army soldiers who were stationed inside the tiny and primitive fortress, along with a rotation of eight Canadian military mentors, had not effectively disrupted insurgent activity in the area. The strong point was constantly under siege, according to the military.

Mushan is a hardscrabble agricultural community about 40 kilometres west of Kandahar Air Field. It is now under Taliban control, the officers conceded, as is much of the Panjwaii peninsula, an area of some 160 square kilometres where poppy is a lucrative cash crop for insurgents. The Taliban use profits from the opium trade to buy arms and hire local men to fight their insurgency.

Canadian officers say that after living beside coalition forces for two years, villagers may find themselves in harm's way. They could face reprisals from insurgents.

"There is a concern," said Maj. Stephane Briand, operations planning officer for the Canadian Forces battle group in Kandahar. "[Reprisals] can happen in Mushan, but it (also) happens elsewhere."

The villagers have not been abandoned, he added. "I can see how it could be [interpreted that way]. But the main reason for the draw back was to reassign [troops]."

It was done at the request of the Afghan National Army, he said.

Canadian and Afghan soldiers stationed inside a larger, well-equipped forward operating base farther east will conduct sporadic patrols in and around Mushan, said Briand.

Operation Munkiredal involved 400 Canadian soldiers, 120 Afghan National Army troops and elements from the U.S. 2nd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment. The Americans are stationed in neighbouring Maywand district and fall under Canadian command. The operation was launched April 26 and ended on schedule April 30.

Two Canadian companies from the 2nd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment had infrequent contact with insurgents over the course of the operation.

"Canadians took fire and fired back," said Briand. He did not say if any Taliban were killed or detained in the brief firefights.

Seven or eight improvised explosive devices were discovered along the route leading out of Mushan as dozens of coalition vehicles, some laden with strong point equipment, returned to base.

Two of the IEDs were detonated. There were no coalition casualties or injuries.

An unreported number of insurgents were killed after taking on the U.S. 2-2s early in the operation, about 10 kilometres east of Mushan near the village of Zangabad. After a brief firefight on the ground, a U.S. aircraft was dispatched and a bomb was dropped on the insurgents.

Long described as a Taliban hotbed, the Panjwaii peninsula has been a centre of intense activity since Canadian troops arrived in 2006. It is the scene of Operation Medusa, the bloodiest conflict to involve Canadian troops since the Korean War.

The September 2006 battle cleared some area villages and farmland of Taliban, but the insurgents moved west, down the peninsula, to places such as Mushan.

The strong point was built there in 2007 to protect the local population from further Taliban attack, reprisal and recruitment. Two other Canadian-built strong points east of Mushan, in the villages of Talukan and in Zangabad, were dismantled last year. Talukan was the scene of a Taliban-led massacre of civilians in December, 2006.

The entire Panjwaii district area remains an area of Canadian responsibility. The number of Taliban operating there is difficult to determine. Their movements are seasonal, and they concentrate in certain areas. Canadian officers can't say if there are fewer insurgents now compared to three years ago.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Afghan police and intelligence sources seized an enormous cache of raw explosives material, hand grenades, home made bombs, arms, and a suicide vest. Six men were arrested. This follows the arrest of eight others on Thursday, when more bombs and some terrorist handbooks were discovered in the city.

Kandahar city has been hit with a string of deadly suicide attacks outside government and public offices in recent weeks, in a campaign of terror that insurgents are waging on high-profile targets.

Local residents including Kandahar Provincial Council deputy chairman Muhammad Elson tell Canwest News Service that security inside the city continues to deteriorate and that more effort is needed to stop insurgent activity there

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