More than five years after taking charge of security in one of the most violent regions in Afghanistan, Canadian troops wrapped up their final combat operation with a two-week sweep through a rural swath of Kandahar that was undisputed Taliban territory just a year ago.
The offensive, conducted with a bulked-up Afghan National Army brigade in the lead, marks Canada's last days in the long and deadly war. All combat troops are set to withdraw this summer, 5½ years after the mission in Kandahar began.
Until the last soldier leaves, the danger that has stalked Canadian soldiers in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and still one of its strongholds, remains.
Members of the Royal 22nd Regiment will still be patrolling the volatile area, risking death by improvised explosive devices and operating isolated outposts up to the day they hand off their positions to U.S. soldiers.
"The soldiers are going back tomorrow morning or tomorrow night, going patrolling in villages [and]exposing themselves to IEDs or contacts by small-arms fire," Lieutenant-Colonel Michel-Henri St-Louis, the battle group commander, told The Canadian Press.
The area that the Canadians are leaving behind has a significantly different feel than it had just a year ago, before the surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan targeted the provinces of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban re-established control during the past five years.
The district of Panjwai, the area covered by the operation, was a no-go zone for both foreign and Afghan government forces as recently as 2010.
Two years ago, Canadian forces came under fierce attack just resupplying Afghan police checkpoints there, said Major Martin Larose, the operations officer for Canada's battle group.
Late last summer, bolstered by an influx of newly deployed U.S. troops, the coalition targeted an area of the district known as the horn of Panjwai, where the Taliban used the scattered villages and scraggly fields as safe havens, weapons hiding places and staging areas for attacks.
A month into this year's traditional summer fighting season, the districts around the provincial capital of Kandahar city now host about 16,000 U.S. and Canadian troops. The Afghan government has some presence on the ground in the form of schools that operate unhindered by the Taliban and district governors who live part-time or full-time in their district capitals.
Canadian and U.S. forces are also overseeing construction of a paved road that stretches from farming centres in the western end of the Panjwai district to Kandahar city, although at a heavy cost in lives from roadside bombs.
Taliban insurgents retain a foothold in the area and have managed to launch co-ordinated suicide attacks in recent weeks, in line with their pledge last month to concentrate this summer on assassinating Afghan soldiers, police, government officials and anyone working with foreign forces.
Just two weeks ago, for example, 10 Afghans were killed and about 30 injured when their vehicles hit a roadside bomb as they travelled to work on the east-west road under construction.
But the months of military operations to kill insurgents, seize hidden weapons and build infrastructure have weakened the Taliban's ability to use the countryside as a safe haven, according to the commander of the Canadian task force.
"Right now they do not have the same capability to operate against us in the rural areas," Brigadier-General Dean Milner said.
The latest operation was meant to continue the hunt for insurgents in Panjwai and also to test battlefield leadership capability of the Afghan National Army brigade in southern Kandahar.
The 3,000-strong force involved was split about evenly between the Afghan brigade on one side and U.S. and Canadian troops, playing a supporting role, on the other. The offensive was planned and executed by the Afghans, a point of pride for officers of the Canadian task force in Kandahar.
Over two weeks, the force fanned out across a 30-kilometre-wide band south of the Arghandab River. It conducted searches of homes and compounds, marched into villages, met with elders, held open-air firing exercises and clambered through fields - all in what Major Dan Leblanc, a Canadian task force planner, called "a show of force."
The Afghan brigade, which has conducted operations as a junior partner with coalition forces since 2006, "crossed a hurdle on this one and planned it from start to finish," Major Leblanc said.
They also brought knowledge that cannot be taught by foreign trainers or mentors. "They understand this battle space in ways we would never understand … and could never understand unless we were born here," Major Leblanc said.
Like other NATO armies operating in Afghanistan, Canadian forces have acted as mentors in the field with Afghan units. In the past six months, according to a battle group spokeswoman, it conducted nearly 62,000 patrols in partnership with Afghans.
Those mentoring exercises are considered essential to the coalition's efforts to prepare its exit from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and leave primary responsibility for security in the hands of Afghans.
The Afghan brigade that took the lead in the latest offensive only recently acquired the specialty and battlefield support skills, including artillery and reconnaissance, that are still lacking in the much of the country's security forces.
Its officers are veteran fighters, many of them trained by the Soviets during the 1980s, and about half its infantrymen were hired on before NATO instituted a standardized training course for the Afghan ary and police force 18 months ago.