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Canadian troops on patrol in Afghanistan. (Josh Wingrove)
Canadian troops on patrol in Afghanistan. (Josh Wingrove)

The Afghan mission

Last exit from Kandahar Add to ...

Standing on the roof of this mud compound and armed with only a bent seven-iron, Corporal James Riley is dealing with the changing nature of the Afghanistan mission, writ small.

He has finished the "stick" part of his day, a patrol through the harrowing, bomb-laden dirt roads that connect the nearby villages of the volatile Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. Now, on this typically hot and sunny Afghan winter afternoon, Cpl. Riley has moved on to his "carrot" strategy: One by one, he clubs golf balls into the rolling fields. Children scream with excitement and run to fetch them.

One returned ball is worth two candies - in theory. In reality, he has to barter with the kids. This is, after all, a war for hearts and minds.

A few months ago, this place was nobody's idea of a driving range. About 15 kilometres southwest of bustling Kandahar City, the villages of Haji Baba and Nakhonay, a few minutes' walk apart, are staggeringly poor. Life moves slowly in this area of perhaps a few thousand people. The roads are lined with solid mud walls, wide enough for a small car or a donkey pulling a cart but not for armoured vehicles.

Occasional breaks in the barriers make for a labyrinth of peering eyes and possible threats. Everything is covered in dust or mud. The small homes and shops have few windows. This is a place closed to outsiders.

The compound where Canadian soldiers now live was home to insurgents and drug traffickers, who used the villages as bases - "Taliban central," says Major Wayne Niven, the head of Canada's Delta Company, which has embedded three platoons around these communities. Canada swept in and took over four months ago.

Now, the compound is held by Captain James O'Neill, the hard-nosed but informal commander of Delta's 11 Platoon, and officially called Combat Outpost Shkarre (a Dari word meaning "to hunt"). However, an older name has stuck, inspired by the Afghan graveyard across the road and, perhaps, the bloody toll Canada has paid here.

Welcome to Camp Tombstone.





It's all part of the Key Village Approach, introduced last year by Canadian Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance as a way to stabilize this country. Nakhonay was one of the first places to benefit. Once in their compounds, each platoon stays put, fast-tracking development, wooing locals and warding off the Taliban. It's what has Cpl. Riley alternating gun and golf club.

It's a far cry from Canada's past here, when large bases and quick-moving units were the rule. But eight years on, with the country's 2011 withdrawal date fast approaching, it has come down to this: After gradual improvements, season after season, in the uphill battle with the Taliban in and around Kandahar City, security fell off again in the past year. The province is as dangerous as ever. Now, 85 per cent of Canada's 2,800 troops are scattered through villages, in groups of a few dozen or less, trying to make a lasting difference.

With the lives of 140 Canadian soldiers lost, hundreds more wounded and billions of dollars already spent, it's here, at these platoon houses, that Canada will stake its legacy. Gen. Vance's successor, Brig.-Gen. Daniel Ménard, has boasted that a major summer battle will be fought out of these small outposts.

He speaks often of the "ring of stability" - the point where coalition influence wavers or stops. He won't name its exact boundaries, but around here, it's clear that any stability ends about where Cpl. Riley's tee shots land.

CHAPTER 2. A CAMP IS BORN - AND TRANSFORMS ITSELF FROM RAT HOLE TO 'GUCCI'

Tombstone is the antithesis of Kandahar Air Field, Canada's sprawling home of operations, loaded with conveniences such as TV, Tim Hortons and a TGI Fridays restaurant. When Canadian networks cut to images of soldiers watching, for instance, an Olympic hockey game, they're filming from the safety of the base. The Tombstone guys missed every Olympic event.

Among the platoon, you'll find just about any kind of expertise. They are a family, living and working together in this small space for a seven-month tour. They build their own camp, fix their own radios, cook their own food. Capt. O'Neill gives the haircuts.

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