KANDAHAR—Directly overhead, in the night sky, are the brilliant stars of constellation Orion, the great hunter drawing his bowstring taut.
Down on the ground, the inhospitable desert ground, Task Force Orion — which takes its name from that predatory celestial image — is battle-bloodied from the crack and flare of enemy gunfire.
Canadian soldiers, having already waged their longest and most injurious piece of combat fighting in more than three decades, were this morning anxiously braced for an anticipated second-strike assault by Taliban militia at a forward operating base in neighbouring Helmand Province.
Even as one casket was solemnly loaded onto a departing Hercules aircraft — containing the remains of Pte. Robert Costall, slain in the wicked firefight as Tuesday night turned into Wednesday morning — his brothers-in-arms from Seven Platoon, Charlie Company, were continuing their hard-nosed mission at an isolated Afghan National Army base near Sangin, 110 kilometres northwest of Kandahar city.
“The Canadian platoon, the reinforcement platoon, remains in situ and will do so until we decide otherwise,” said Col. Chris Vernon, chief of staff of Task Force Aegis, the coalition forces battle-group component in Afghanistan. “But I won’t tell you how we’re going to play this because that’s operational.”
Thirty-eight Canadian troops in the Quick Reaction Force — detached about a month ago from Charlie Company and attached to the overall coalition brigade for rapid response duties, and of which infantryman Costall was a highly regarded member — had been airlifted into Sangin the previous evening as emergency support after the base came under fierce and sustained assault.
“It would be reasonably termed a significant-sized attack on to that forward operating in greater numbers than we’ve seen thus far,” said Vernon, a British officer.
The British have coalition command of Helmand Province, as the Canadians do Kandahar, although the bulk of their 2,500 troops will not be in place for another two months.
“Did we expect a Taliban attack on the base? Yes. There have been probing attacks over the past month. But this size and the tenacity with which it was carried out may have slightly exceeded our estimates.”
There are only about 100 troops at the base — Afghans, some American forces deployed there as training instructors and, now, the Canadians. The post is really no more than a distant and isolated hunkered-down toe-hold, surrounded by a sand berms and razor wire, and essentially wide open to attack from insurgents — Taliban, narco-criminals and common thugs, all vying for ascendancy in the restive territory.
The protracted combat episode actually began with Taliban fighters cleverly falling upon an Afghan supply convoy returning to base after acquiring provisions nearby around 3 o’clock Tuesday afternoon.
That convoy took small-arms fire when it was about eight kilometres from base. Stranded in no-man’s land, that frail convoy was further besieged with the detonation of an improvised explosive device that tore up the road, carving out a huge crater and freezing the vehicles for two hours.
Eight Afghan soldiers were killed in that initial foray.
“It wasn’t looking good,” Vernon admitted. “But the ambush was seen off.”
That’s when a decision was made to rush in two British Harriers and a couple of American Apache helicopters from Kandahar airfield for close air support supplementing direct-fire weapons and mortar volleys.
By 10 p.m., although the first assault had been repelled, the Taliban just kept coming. At that point, the Quick Reaction Force was dispatched from its quarters near the flight line in Kandahar, situated there for the very purpose of quick-paced scrambling. The Canadian platoon was airlifted by Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters. (Only two coalition nations in Afghanistan have chopper capacity in Afghanistan — the Americans and the Dutch, who use their aircraft for special operations.)
“Late on, in the early hours of the morning, the forward operating base was attacked by, I think it would be fair to say, a significant Taliban attack, during which a pretty fierce firefight ensued. A Canadian soldier was killed, an American soldier was killed, and five coalition forces were also wounded,” said Vernon, laying out the still sketchy timeline for reporters at a brigade briefing.
It was about 2:45 a.m.
The dead and injured would later be Medevac-ed back to the Kandahar base in Black Hawk helicopters.
Three Canadian soldiers suffered non-life-threatening flesh wound and gunshot injuries. All three — one in a wheelchair, both legs bandaged, one on crutches and one in a plastic leg cast — were on hand when Costall’s casket was loaded onto the Hercules last night for transport to CFB Trenton.
It is unclear how, exactly, Costall was killed, except that he was slain within the perimeter of the base.
As Charlie Company commanding officer Maj. Bill Fletcher said of his 22-year-old infantryman later: “When most people would run away from the sound of gunfire, he’d run towards it.”
`When most people would run away from the sound of gunfire, he’d run towards it.’
Maj. Bill Fletcher, Commanding officer
The attacking Taliban were armed with AK-47s and, apparently, the ubiquitous rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
Usually, these Taliban militia move in small cadres of eight to 10 men and, said Vernon, try to avoid confrontations with larger, better-equipped enemy units. But the forlorn Sangin base must have been tempting as a target and they’d palpably been reconnoitering.
“Over the past five or six weeks, there have been various probing attacks, mainly at night, by the Taliban to the forward operating base,” said Vernon.
“But it’s fair to say this is the largest we’ve seen thus far.”
The Taliban didn’t just hit-and-run, as is more common for them. They hit and hit and hit again, even while absorbing huge losses.
“Initial reports indicate a significant number of Taliban there were killed during this attack,” said Vernon.
The BBC reported last night that 33 Taliban had been killed; 12 in the attack and 20 in an aggressive bombing sortie addendum by B-52s.
“There was one follow-up, I understand, into a compound that was followed up by various means. Insurgents were seen running into a compound and that was destroyed.”
Vernon emphatically denied the allegation, by Afghan journalists, that civilians were killed in the bombing action and homes destroyed.
“I find that very unlikely. I’ve seen the aerial photographs around the forward operating base. It’s in the middle of nowhere. The attacks came over open ground. I cannot see in any way how any degree of civilian damage could have been inflicted because there isn’t any civilian habitation around. It’s almost in the middle of nowhere.”
By sun-up, all was reported to be quiet at the outpost, as the brigade conducted battlefield damage assessment from the air and on the ground.
“Night exploits darkness,” Vernon pointed out.
But he emphasized that the post had not been breached. “The forward operating base remains entirely intact,” he said.
“No Taliban got into the base.”
The Taliban have said they have numerous suicide bombers waiting to strike. And early today, in the centre of Kandahar, a suicide car-bomber was killed when his explosives went off prematurely as he approached a Canadian military convoy, police said. None of the Canadians was wounded but Associated Press reported seven passers-by were hurt.
Sangin, indeed very nearly all of Helmand Province, remains uncharted territory for coalition forces and particularly the British troops who have been on the ground there for only six weeks. But the area is of utmost importance to all those who covet that territory.
“Sangin is a critical node in Helmand Province,” said Vernon. “It’s part of the Helmand River valley, in which a lot of the roads converge and then move northward into Uruzgan.”
The area is culturally and politically complex — three main tribal groups live there — with no Afghan district police or army authority able to assert control. “Through nobody’s fault, the forward operating base has been pretty isolated,” Vernon acknowledged. “We haven’t been able to spread out in terms of patrols, both Afghan or coalition.”
Meanwhile, the Taliban recruit from the local male population — largely unemployed men between the ages of 18 and 25 — luring them with guns, motorbikes, and money obtained largely from control of the burgeoning opium crop.
Vernon was frank about the Taliban fighting capacity, and its tenacity.
“Their coherence as a fighting unit, in Western military terms, is not great. Their co-ordination measures are not great.
“But what I will say is there’s no doubt they are brave.”
After a pause, the British officer added: “There is always a fine line between bravery and stupidity.”