Afghan villagers vent frustrations at Canadian soldiers
Canadian troops - members of the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment - search an Afghan villager returning to his home in Folda, Afghanistan, in the restive Panjwaii district of Kandahar on Nov. 23, 2010. (Murray Brewster / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, December 7, 2010 5:29PM EST
ZANGABAD, Afghanistan - Canadian tanks and engineering vehicles endured a barrage of a different sort from local Afghan villagers Tuesday as they pushed to the edge of a long-time Taliban redoubt southwest of Kandahar city.
Farmers in this otherwise bucolic hamlet, long known for its support of the insurgency, vented their frustrations at the convoy of vehicles as it cut a swath across their land, making way for the area's first major roadway.
"I was never told about this," Abdul Rahman, a local land owner whose grape field is being cut in half by the new gravel road, said through a translator.
The road is to be eight metres wide, but the disruption is far wider: to discourage the Taliban from planting bombs, engineers have cleared 25 metres of land on either side of the project.
Rahman threw up his hands as mine-sweeping tanks churned up the field in front of him. "What am I going to do with that?" he railed. "They might as well take the whole field."
It was up to the district governor to consult with residents, but Rahman and several other landowners who turned up at a meeting with coalition officers said they weren't told the exact route.
Rahman said he tried in vain to convince engineers not to bisect his land, and even offered to allow his personal mosque to be demolished if it meant a different route.
The officer commanding the route clearing was mortified at the request and the optics it would have presented for the locals, to say nothing of the propaganda bonanza for the Taliban.
"It's weird, but quite frankly I don't want to have Canadian soldiers being seen levelling a mosque when there's a clear option to go somewhere else," said Maj. Eric Landry, the commander of the tank squadron.
NATO will compensate the farmers for lost crops, but it will be up to the Afghan government to deliver expropriation payments for land and demolished buildings -- a dicey prospect in a country where corruption is on an institutional scale.
"This is why we have the lawyers," Landry said with a half-hearted laugh. Afghan government lawyers, along with mentors, are supposed to follow up with the village soon. But that's cold comfort to locals.
"They don't trust the process. They say at the end of the day they won't get their money."
But Landry said he encouraged them to have faith in the system.
"I want to test the system. I want to test Afghan governance. We need to make it work. If we just say, 'Leave it to ISAF to pay everything,' we're (not making) any progress in terms of governance."
The Leopard 2 A6M tanks, which belong to the 12e Regiment blinde du Canada, based at CFB Valcartier in Quebec, are within sight of the village of Zangabad, where a company of soldiers from Alpha Company, Royal 22e Regiment have dug in.
The fighting vehicles are the vanguard of the road project undertaken by NATO, which is using a winter lull in violence to try and stabilize the region known as the Horn of Panjwaii.
The road will stretch almost 20 kilometres, cutting directly across what has long been safe haven territory for insurgents.
Roughly one kilometre of gravel has been laid, but in that short stretch three roadside bombs have been uncovered and defused.
"I was trying to explain to them that it's a real threat," Landry said of his meeting with the locals.
The most recent bomb was scratched into the wall of a compound right alongside the old road, which is nothing more than a winding trail riddled with centuries worth of tire and wagon ruts.
The sympathies of many of the local tribes, especially the powerful Noorzai, have rested with the Taliban from the beginning.
Villagers are reluctant to show support for the Karzai government, a fact made evident by the large crowd that gathered just beyond the security line set up by the troops. They wouldn't attend the meeting with other landowners, but instead sat and watched.
One man, identified as not being local, was questioned by soldiers and released.
How much the road helps sway support for the government remains to be seen. In addition to losing his land, Rahman was temporarily evicted from his compound by troops who needed it as a combat outpost.
As compensation, he was paid 10,000 Afghanis -- roughly $234 in Canadian currency. It did little to smooth things over.
"How about I give you 10,000 Afghanis," Rahman told the soldiers, "and you find someplace else?"
Landry just shrugged.
"It's hard to build a relationship in two weeks and trust in two weeks, but we're trying to give them some tangible proof that we can do some good."