Tanks pull back in Kandahar as withdrawal speeds up
Published Thursday, June 16, 2011 9:56AM EDT
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - A potent symbol that Canada's war in Afghanistan is almost over came roaring through the gates of Kandahar Airfield Thursday as the first echelon of battle tanks arrived for transport home.
A line of Leopard 2A6M tanks, with accompanying armoured troop carriers and support trucks, streamed out of the desert leaving a plume of dust in the blinding morning sky.
The lead vehicle, belonging to the Quebec-based 12e Regiment blinde du Canada, sported a small Canadian flag from one of the antennas.
It was followed further back by another tank where the regimental colours -- light blue, red and yellow -- were unfurled.
"It's a tremendous accomplishment for the tank squadron," said Maj. Eric Landry, the commander of C Squadron, who noted the seven- month tour was the first time the regiment has deployed with it tanks since the Second World War.
Other missions have been carried out with less imposing vehicles than the 64-tonne tracked Leopards.
Some Canadians were made nervous by the fact that the Canadian military had to conduct its business in Kandahar with the backing of the iron monster's 120-millimetre cannons.
When they were first deployed in late 2006, in the aftermath of the landmark battle known as Operation Medusa, the tanks were seen a major escalation of the war that had been sold to the public as a bulked-up peacekeeping mission.
Landry said the Leopards were a necessary component of the war.
"Everyone realizes that it would have been next to impossible without the tanks," said Landry, his shirt soaked in sweat and face powdered with dust except where the goggles had been.
"Now seeing those tanks being able to be pulled back, I think it's a great sign of the change that's occurred in the Horn of Panjwaii."
The tanks were first rushed to battlefield after troops found that other weapons had a tough time punching through thick mudwall compounds that the Taliban had turned into fortified positions.
There were some in the Canadian military establishment who had written off heavy tanks -- designed to duel with Soviet armoured formations on the plains of Europe -- as a useful weapon for the brush-fire wars of the 21st century.
Yet the Leopards proved useful in keeping the Taliban at bay or forcing them to break off contact with hard-pressed infantry, who grudgingly appreciated their presence.
"Tanks are like the fat, slow kids you pick last to be on your team -- they're there and you gotta have 'em," one unidentified soldier said last year at the end of his rotation with the 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment battle group.
Landry's squadron was tasked, along with combat engineers, to build a road through the western Panjwaii district -- notorious Taliban country.
It took more than five months to plow the 20 kilometres between the communities of Zangabad and Mushan. At times, the tanks were required to escort lightly-skinned gravel trucks that had become a favourite target of the insurgents.
It's not exactly the stuff they teach in armoured vehicle school, said Capt. Pascal Croteau, the 12th RBC's battle captain who was on his second tour.
"It's pretty unusual," he said with a laugh. "You don't learn that on your course, for sure, but we had to adapt."
Croteau is not shy about saying he believed that Panjwaii is safer now than when the Canadians first arrived.
During his last tour, a drive to Mushan took 36 hours and involved getting around 14 home-made bombs and six ambushes. The trip now takes 45 minutes, with few enemy contacts.
The American units coming in to replace the Canadians are not equipped with tanks, said Maj. Zac Vann, executive officer of the 3rd Battalion, 21st U.S. Infantry Regiment.
But he said the Stryker brigade does have a punch with its mobile- gun system, which is essentially an eight-wheeled light armoured vehicle with a 105-millimetre cannon mounted on it.
The sight of them has caused a few wry grins among Canadian troops. The former Liberal government had planned to scrap the Leopard tanks in favour of mobile guns, but the bigger roadside bombs of Kandahar convinced the Defence Department otherwise.
Capt. Adam Siokalo, executive officer of the 12th RBC, chuckled when asked whether there was any irony in seeing the Americans with them.
"The unit that was sent down here was a Stryker brigade and they're not equipped with them, unfortunately for them," said Siokalo. "I think they would have profited from having some tanks on the ground."
The first wave of Canadian tanks that arrived in Kandahar in the fall of 2006 were part of the army's 30-year-old arsenal of vehicles.
It became apparent that they weren't suitable for the rigours of an Afghan summer where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees C.
The Conservative government borrowed 20 Leopard 2A6Ms from the Germany army and purchased an additional 100 surplus tanks from the Dutch.
Those that were on loan have mostly been returned to Europe.