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In the early hours of his 52nd day in this ruinously complex and violent country, the young soldier from one of the most preposterously blessed nations on Earth was killed in combat.

Afghanistan, brought to its knees by three decades of war and self-immolation, rendered numb by roadside bombs and gunfire, and its ground regularly strewn with human flesh, barely noticed; Canada, beset by doubts about the mission here and rendered timorous by six decades of peace, could hardly bring itself to look.

Thus, in the service of these two disparate and distracted lands, Private Robert Costall's death might appear a lonely, even futile, one.

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It came at a remote and isolated forward operating base in the Sangin River Valley, about 110 kilometres northwest of Kandahar, in Helmand province, a largely uninhabited part of southern Afghanistan that is only nominally under British control. "A bit of desert in the middle of nowhere," British Colonel Chris Vernon, chief of staff for the international brigade headquarters here, called it yesterday.

Consisting of nothing but a smattering of dirt surrounded by a berm of sandbags, the base is manned by a contingent of about 100 soldiers from the Afghan National Army and their U.S. military trainers.

Established only six to eight weeks ago, sitting smack in the middle of a well-known transit area for the Taliban as well as local warlords and narcotics criminals who Col. Vernon frankly said are often loosely defined as Taliban for the sake of military convenience, the base is in need of constant resupply, with convoys frequently travelling to neighbouring towns and back.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of these ANA convoys was ambushed by Taliban forces, with eight national soldiers killed.

At Kandahar Air Field, where most of the 9,000 troops from the eight-nation coalition forces are posted, two British Harrier fighter bombers were first dispatched as air support for the convoy, then two U.S. Apache attack helicopters.

The convoy was able to repel the initial Taliban attack, but was stranded 13 kilometres from its rudimentary base and left even more vulnerable when an improvised explosive device, or IED, exploded ahead of it, destroying the road.

Usually, Taliban attacks work in reverse: IED first, then small-arms fire. This one was a surprise, as was, Col. Vernon said, "the size and tenacity" of the Taliban force.

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At 10 p.m. that night, with the beleaguered ANA working to repair the route, the third element of support for the convoy, the quick-reaction force, or QRF, was mustered.

This was 7 Platoon of Charlie Company of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

This was Pte. Costall's platoon, 38 young men who about a month ago were moved out of the BAT (big-ass tents) where the rest of Charlie Company and pieces of the First Battalion's Alpha Company live when at Kandahar Air Field, and not in the field and set up closer to the actual flight line.

They were flown by U.S. helicopter -- Canada has no troop-carrying copters; those sold off to the Netherlands years ago are cruelly still in use here by their Dutch purchasers -- to Sangin.

About 2:45 a.m. yesterday, the Taliban attacked the base proper, a firefight that would ultimately involve B-52s dropping munitions for the coalition, the Canadians defending themselves by firing into the dark from within the perimeter, and the Taliban as always firing inward from the hills nearby, armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and what Col. Vernon acknowledged was their usual courage.

Their coherence and co-ordination "are not great by Western military standards," he said, "but there is no doubt, they are brave."

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As evidence that there is, in Col. Vernon's words, "a fine line between bravery and stupidity," unconfirmed estimates now put the number of Taliban dead at more than 30.

It was during this larger battle that Pte. Costall and a U.S. soldier were killed, and three other Canadians sustained gunshot and other flesh wounds. Two of these soldiers have already been released from the Kandahar base hospital, with the third scheduled to leave for Germany for further treatment, apparently skin grafts to his legs.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jacques Ricard, the Canadian task force surgeon, described them all yesterday as being in good physical condition and spirits, although the emotional toll of what they endured and saw is unknowable.

"That is not something we can put a dressing on," is how he cast it.

Canadian military officials are unofficially describing the battle as arguably the deadliest in which Canadians have been engaged since two soldiers were killed in a 1974 firefight in Nicosia, Cyprus.

It was also perhaps the most sustained Canadian combat since the ferocious and unsung 15-hour-long contest for the Medak Pocket in Croatia in the former Yugoslavia, also fought by the soldiers of Charlie Company, who took no casualties but killed 27 Croats.

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It took Ottawa, wedded to the outdated national vision of Canadians as pure peacekeepers and apparently embarrassed by overt fighting skills, almost a decade to honour those valiant men, their unit medals presented only in late 2002.

The formal rules of engagement are looser for the Canadians here, the government and General Rick Hillier, Chief of the Defence Staff, having warned the public that the troops in Afghanistan would be soldiering and that casualties were to be expected.

What remains to be seen is how the soldiers fighting here will be regarded by their civilian brethren and how, if at all, their sacrifices are acknowledged.

Certainly, Pte. Costall's fellows believe, deep in their bones, in their own mission improbable. It is part war, part reconstruction, part civil governance, with troops on one hand building schools and goodwill even as on the other they move as armed and threatening-looking security forces through the tiny, mud-built villages and cities of this impoverished and overwhelmingly illiterate country.

Even now, when worse clearly has come to worst, Major Bill Fletcher, Pte. Costall's officer commanding, as he is called, was steadfast.

"Everything good that we do from now on," he pledged earnestly yesterday at the BATs, "we do in part in his name."

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That morning, a day after Major Fletcher turned 34, he had given his young men and women the dreadful news.

"I could have kicked them in the guts; it would have hurt less," he said. "It was the toughest thing I've done in my career."

He left them alone then, "because the best thing is to talk to another army guy." The other best thing, he said, is action. Most of 7 Platoon remains at Sangin, finishing the job, although they will be replaced as soon as it is prudent to do so. The rest of Charlie Company is, with Alpha Company, preparing for deployment again.

"By action," said the thoughtful Major Fletcher, "I don't mean revenge, or looking for a scrap. . . . The key thing here is the population," by which he meant winning over the Afghan people.

"We want to do it that much better, because we've paid the price."

Behind him stood a clutch of damp-eyed young men tasked with acting as pallbearers for their fallen friend. They were Privates Jeff Leitch, Jerry Conlon, Dawson Bayliss, Jason Joe, Jason Hoekstra and Jesse Peterson; Corporals Paul Rachynski and Bryson Kellor; and, in charge of them, Sergeant Patrick Tower.

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Pte. Conlon emerged from the shattered group to speak about Pte. Costall.

Both 22, the two went through basic training together about three years ago, and Pte. Conlon remembered his friend as "a great soldier, a great guy" who "never whined or complained" about the infantryman's gruelling and unglamorous lot.

It was about a year ago, he said, at the Edmonton Garrison that the First Battalion calls home, that Pte. Costall came gleefully bounding up to him, shouting, "I got married! I got married!" And so he had, to Sandra. "He knew his wife was The One," Pte. Conlon said. The couple's baby son is now 13 months old.

Fatherhood and marriage aren't common among privates, Major Fletcher said, and perhaps were what made the young man unusually mature for his age. While "quiet and reserved, at least around his Major," he remembered with a weak grin, when Pte. Costall spoke, "he was carefully considered; you knew you should listen. He had real leadership potential. He's somebody Canadians should be very proud of."

It was at his briefing yesterday that Col. Vernon best described the nature of the coalition task here.

The briefing was attended by members of the Afghan news media, who like their countrymen are bright as pennies but consumed by their nation's overwhelming neediness, their questions reflecting this: Wasn't it true that the Taliban were coming from Pakistan? Was the West going to build more schools, train teachers?

It was in answer to these that Col. Vernon defined the difficulty of this mission.

To one, he said, "We build schools. We build bridges. They [the Taliban]burn them. They intimidate the teachers. I don't know anywhere in the world where a culture of negativity about allowing your people to be educated, sustains a level of local support, and it's something I find abhorrent and bizarre."

To another, he said, while the Taliban "leadership and the thinking" is across the border, the recruits are often "Afghan refugees. You can't say Afghan people are not being recruited, it's all there. Any emerging nation has to take some responsibility for the actions of its own people."

In Helmand province, he said, the British have to do what Canadians have done in Kandahar province: move into the remote villages, get local projects going. "We're in a battle for the hearts and minds of the young Afghan male with the recruiting sergeants of the Taliban. . . . Can we offer them better employment than a gun and a motorbike?"

The young Canadian man who died in service of his Afghan counterpart was sent off home last night.

Into the warm and deceptively benevolent spring night -- with songbirds, confused by the lights in the big hangar optimistically called Taliban's Last Stand, chirping as thousands of army boots moved with surprising quiet onto the darkened tarmac -- his casket was borne to the flight line in one of the LAVs, or light armored vehicles, so beloved of the Canadian infantry, his pallbearers arriving in another.

Two rear doors opened and Pte. Costall was on his way to the waiting ramp of a great grey Hercules C-130.

Piper Master-Corporal Callum Campbell played the lament.

Canadians, and soldiers from eight other nations, saluted their fallen comrade.

All the way home to Canada, escort officer Sergeant Bill Grady, of 7 Platoon, was with the young man's body.

Robert Costall was never alone, not for a minute.

When it was all over, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, the commanding officer of the Canadian battle group known as Task Force Orion, looked skyward and pointed.

"Orion," he said, of the bright and beautiful constellation above.


In a story this week on Pvt. Costall's combat death in a vicious firefight at the Singan Valley base northwest of Kandahar, I mentioned by way of comparison the battle fought in 1993 at the Medak Pocket in Croatia, where Canadian soldiers withstood ferocious fire for 15 hours, without taking a single casualty. Alas, I wrongly described them as being from the First Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. It was members of the Second Battalion, PPCLI, Charlie Company, based at Shilo, Man., who covered themselves with such glory there. Inexcusable mistake, and sincerest apologies.

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