Panjwaii road: Lasting Canadian legacy
A Canadian soldier checks a gravel-delivery truck at the end of Route Hyena, a 15-kilometre Canadian-built road that runs the length of western Panjwaii district in southern Afghanistan, on Sunday, April 17, 2011. The road may be one of Canada’s most enduring successes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Colin Perkel
MUSHAN, Afghanistan - It could end up as the most tangible accomplishment of Canada's long, bloody and expensive involvement in southern Afghanistan _ a 15-kilometre stretch of gravel road.
Cut through some of the most hostile territory in the country, the road through Kandahar's Panjwaii district evokes pride among Canadian soldiers.
"This will be one of our great achievements here in Afghanistan because it's not something that will really ever go away," said Capt. Adam Siokalo as he recently surveyed the ribbon of gravel.
"This is something that is here to stay."
Last November, Canadian soldiers, along with American counterparts and private Afghan contractors, began carving out the road that runs from just west of the major town of Bazar-e Panjwaii to the hamlet of Mushan on the very western edge of Panjwaii.
Five months later, the last of the hundreds of gravel trucks that have been making the daily run from Kandahar city have been dumping their loads at the end of Route Hyena.
Lined up as far as the eye can see, they spend hours waiting to discharge their cargo and return to the big city.
Some three years ago, vulnerable Canadian soldiers were forced to dismantle their lonely outpost in Mushan amid repeated insurgent attacks, and withdraw from western Panjwaii.
Now, they are back following a determined push west that cost the life of Cpl. Steve Martin in December, when he stepped on an IED in a booby-trapped insurgent compound.
"As of this point west was basically considered the 'Wild West,' " Siokalo said, standing at Outpost Khyber, where the new road starts.
"We were the first coalition forces to push in here in two years."
From the start, the insurgents tried to thwart the construction. Insurgents gunned down three Afghan truck drivers during the project.
But the road went on.
Canadian soldiers levelled walls behind which insurgents could hide and consulted locals on the exact routing.
They also paid locals more than 300 claims topping $1 million, said Maj. Sara Siebert, legal adviser in Kandahar.
"We're paying for damage to crops on the land — most commonly wheat or grape plants," Siebert said.
Afghan police now man several checkpoints on the road, attempting to maintain security, and American troops check daily for explosives.
For residents in scattered hamlets along the way, the new road cuts a trip that would have taken seven or eight hours along the old rutted serpentine track to under an hour.
They can move produce to markets or visit family more easily.
"Being able to move freely from Kandahar city to Mushan _ that's something that people never expected to be feasible," said Maj. Francois Dufault, deputy commander of Canada's battle group.
For the moment, however, traffic is still sparse.
The road ends just past Mushan. On one side, there's a small, vulnerable Afghan police outpost.
"The Taliban always try to attack us," said one officer, Abdul Karim. "Not every day. Several times a week."
On the other side is the old Mushan school, ravaged and abandoned after fighting between Taliban and Canadian troops.
Beyond, a little dirt track continues a few hundred metres at the extreme edge of Panjwaii, leading to the Red Desert to the south, and the insurgent infested Zhari district to the north.
It's highly dangerous territory into which few coalition soldiers go.
On the road, at least, insurgent attacks are considered more harassment than damaging.
"They tend to fire from areas which can't be directly accessed by road," Siokalo said.
"We have not had good success in tracking them down."
Still, the essentially completed project instils a fierce sense of accomplishment among Canadian soldiers who made it happen.
"Building the road is like putting a dagger in the heart of the insurgents," said Col. Richard Giguere, deputy commander in Kandahar.
While that assessment remains to be seen, the road is a rare, tangible success story that should outlive Canada's mission to the south _ a simple, 15-kilometre stretch of gravel most Canadians — or Afghans for that matter — will never travel.