Lessons in Arghandab

If Afghanistan's Arghandab district were in Canada, it would be the Okanagan. It's southern Afghanistan's orchard — a rich and fertile river valley that once supplied an abundance of pomegranates, apricots and grapes.
The lush Arghandab River Valley is located northwest of Kandahar city. ((Susan Ormiston/CBC))

If Afghanistan's Arghandab district were in Canada, it would be the Okanagan. This is southern Afghanistan's orchard — a rich and fertile river valley that once supplied an abundance of pomegranates, apricots and grapes.

But much of Arghandab is better known now as tough, brutal and Taliban-infested. The Arghandab River snakes through the valley floor, at times dividing "safer" territory from no man's land. Taliban have tried for years to control it.

Arghandab is a strategically critical gateway to Kandahar City, which is located just 30 minutes to the south.

Canadians are no stranger to the area. For two years, until August of this year, they fought to keep the Arghandab district out of the grasp of the Taliban. It wasn't always a successful fight.

When the U.S. extra forces started to pour into the south last summer, Arghandab was one of their priorities, and they took control of the region. But Canadian soldiers are now set to move back into Arghandab, alongside the Americans, under a NATO directive announced Dec. 1.

When the U.S. took control

On a blisteringly hot August day, near 50 C, my cameraman and I witnessed the handover of the territory from Canadian to U.S. troops.

CBC cameraman Dave Rae, Kandahar Governor Toor Wesa and Arghandab District elders at the handover ceremony in August, 2009. ((Susan Ormiston/CBC))

The ceremony took place at the Arghandab district headquarters, newly built at the top of a hill and the only secured safe place in the district.

The room filled quickly with district elders who gathered to greet Kandahar Gov. Toor Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian. The Americans took up a third of the seats.

They looked uncomfortable, having barely arrived in the territory, compared to Canadian Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance, who arrived at the event hand-in-hand with Arghandab's district governor, quipping, "This is a big day."

"Today is the start of a new era for Arghandab," Vance told the assembled elders. "Six months ago, I asked you to help eliminate the IED threat killing so many of our soldiers. The IED threat has been reduced in Arghandab and we haven’t lost as many as we might have."

But it was time for a new plan.

"We have worked shoulder to shoulder with our Canadian friends," Arghandab district governor Jabar Khan said, then turned to the Americans. "We wish you success in Arghandab district."

Lessons learned

U.S. Lt.-Col. John Newman was assigned to directly command the Arghandab troops. He began speaking slowly, carefully, his translator jumping in with words in Dari. There was consternation and shuffling among the elders.Then a whispered conference with Newman.

The translation should have been in Pashto, the local language, not Dari, also known as Eastern Persian, which is commonly spoken in central and northern Afghanistan. Mistake No. 1.

It was clear the Americans were on a steep learning curve.

The U.S. brigade of armoured Strykers also learned the hard way about the relentless fighting in Arghandab. Over the next four months, 24 U.S. soldiers were killed in the district.

But it was a surprising twist in military strategy when NATO announced in early December, 2009, that Canada would retake command and control of troops in the area.

A 'daunting' task ahead

Reporter Susan Ormiston stands overlooking the Arghandab Valley. ((CBC))

As part of the plan, the Strykers will pull out to concentrate their power elsewhere on highways into Kandahar City, while Canadians will be back in the valley and Americans from the 82nd Airborne Division will patrol the valley. It is a daunting assignment.

"Arghandab is a very difficult piece of ground," Brig.-Gen. Daniel Ménard, the new Canadian commander in Afghanistan, said. "West and east of the river there are two different groups of people and two different sets of problems. It will easily lead to a 20 per cent increase of [troops in contact] and in-direct fire."

Back on the day of the August handover to the U.S., my cameraman and I went with Kandahar's governor to a look out over the lush, green river valley.

Wesa pointed out his ancestral village in the distance, saying Afghans still come here to picnic on Fridays. At the same time, a local police officer told us that a government worker had been hanged from a tree just two nights before, 100 metres from where we stood.

It's such a beautiful valley, but a brutal one.