Patrol with Canadian Troops Outside Kabul

FROM HIS hilltop perch overlooking the fertile Lalandar Valley, Shaheen is prepared for war. Or perhaps, in his mind, the conflicts that have swept through the mountains around Kabul have not ended.

Patrol with Canadian Troops Outside Kabul

FROM HIS hilltop perch overlooking the fertile Lalandar Valley, Shaheen is prepared for war. Or perhaps, in his mind, the conflicts that have swept through the mountains around Kabul have not ended. What's clear is that this former mujahedeen fighter has enough weaponry stored at his one-room, mud-brick hut to fend off a small battalion. Located at the extreme southwestern edge of the NATO International Security Assistance Force's current area of operation, Shaheen's stronghold sits at a strategic point - and is a distraction for the Canadian soldiers patrolling the remote countryside around the capital. "We're keeping an eye on him," says Master Cpl. Trevor Uhl, as he accepts Shaheen's offer to come into his home for a chat.

Uhl and his men refer to Shaheen as "the Taliban guy" because of his weaponry, which includes a few dozen mortar rounds with launchers, a recoilless rifle, and an undetermined number of Kalashnikovs. There is nothing in his home to link him to the former regime or al-Qaeda; a massive machine gun and a model helicopter fashioned out of plastic bottles are the only decorative elements in his sparse dwelling. But the Canadians are uncertain about the former fighter's loyalties, even though he talks like an ally. "Right now, people know I'm here so they don't do anything," says Shaheen, words tumbling out at a torrid pace. "They know that if I catch any Taliban or al-Qaeda, I will hang them from a tree."

Shaheen is evasive about the actual presence of Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters in the Lalandar Valley, preferring instead to talk about his exploits during the factional fighting of a decade ago. Uhl doesn't know what to make of the diminutive, thick-bearded Afghan. Shaheen's home is surrounded by marijuana plants, but it's unclear whether he's involved in Afghanistan's drug trade, or is simply a shell-shocked war veteran. But having a potential loose cannon in an area Canadian troops are patrolling can't bode well for the future.

Some 30 km from the heart of Kabul, the Lalandar Valley has a reputation for lawlessness. Maj.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, deputy commander of ISAF and the ranking Canadian officer in Afghanistan, has described the region as "the most dangerous" in Canada's area of operation. On patrol, the soldiers' guns are regularly drawn and formations tightly held as they search for LAND MINES and rebel fighters. "It's a mountain climber's dream and a soldier's nightmare," says Cpl. Ricardo Taylor, scanning the steep mountainsides above one of the dirt tracks running through peach orchards and onion fields. "See that bunker up there?" he says, pointing to the cliffs. "You'd see nothing but targets all the way down the road from there."

Potential ambush positions dot the rugged cliffs, while the soft dirt of the road is ideal for concealing mines. The Taliban made use of Lalandar's terrain to lay siege to Kabul in the mid-'90s; for the Canadians, bringing this area under control is crucial. But as we move forward, Cpl. Steve Posthumus says the level of nervousness among the troops has spiked since Oct. 2, when two soldiers were killed and three injured after an anti-tank mine exploded. Adds Posthumus: "If I were to say to you in a word what we feel when patrolling, I'd say 'trepidation.' "

The two Canadians died on a road leading to Haft Qol, a dry, barren valley running parallel to Lalandar. Lt.-Col. Mohammad Safa of the Afghan National Army, who is also in the area, says the strategic importance of the area cannot be underestimated. He points to a group of rolling hills on the northern edge of Haft Qol. "If you control those foothills, you control Kabul. And Lalandar is the main access point to Haft Qol."

Over two decades of war, wave after wave of soldiers have swept across Haft Qol's parched floor. Among them were the Soviet army, mujahedeen factions, rival warlords Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud, who fought in the early '90s to control the whole country, and finally the Taliban. It was Hekmatyar and Massoud who laid the majority of the anti-tank mines along the dirt track the Canadians were travelling on. "If someone had spoken to me before coming out here," says Safa. "I would have warned them."

In the loose dirt where the mine that killed the Canadians lay hidden, the crater has been smudged out of existence by the mine-clearing activities of Sgt. Rod Stead and his team of engineers. They were the first on the scene, securing the site for the forensic investigators who followed. A pile of blackened earth on the edge of the road is the only remaining sign of the explosion. "This area is full of these types of mines," Safa says, looking westward along the winding road toward Haft Qol and beyond that to Afghanistan's even more lawless regions. "That's where the enemy will come from," he says. "They can place mines here anytime because there is no one patrolling the route. And now that they know an ISAF force was hit, they will definitely place more."

That's a worrying development for the Canadians. Opening the dirt track is key to securing not only Haft Qol but also Lalandar's southwestern passes, which feed it. But, separated from Kabul by the rugged Korokh Mountains and Haft Qol, and untouched by ISAF's deterrence patrols, the west Lalandar's impoverished residents are far removed from their nation's capital, itself poor. The area is also believed to be harbouring a large Taliban presence. The patrol comes to a halt on a ridge overlooking the west Lalandar. "This is the red line," says Posthumus. "We don't go any further than this."

I decide to leave the Canadian troops, and continue on. Hiking up a dry riverbed, I reach Osman Qala, a hilltop village surrounded by lush farmland, where Khowzik, a 43-year-old resident, says the community just wants to be left alone. "We don't care about ISAF," he says. "The one who brings security, we will support him."

Osman Qala is only now beginning to recover from decades of conflict. Families have begun returning from Pakistan; from crumbling buildings, villagers stare out warily at strangers, refusing to talk about the Taliban. "Why are you asking these questions?" an old man asks brusquely. Others simply shrug when asked if any fighters for the former regime are hiding out in the valley. "We support no one here now," says 37-year-old Noor Mohammad, a farmer. "It's not good to ask these questions. It will only make them angry."

Mohammad only recently returned from Pakistan to join his family on their one-hectare farm. He was hoping to find peace, but instead many of the returnees brought with them old feuds. Two of the 15 families in Osman Qala are already at each others' throats, locked in a vicious cycle of murder and reprisal killings. "Who knows when it all started," says Mohammad. "It's been going on for as long as I can remember." If ISAF's mandate is extended into these dangerous areas, soldiers will have to contend with people mistrustful of foreigners and ready to spill blood - and perhaps willing to lay their loyalties in more familiar hands.

Maclean's October 20, 2003