Corner Brook native on Canadian patrol that illustrates difficulty figuring out friend from foe in Panjwaii

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Gunfire rings out less than a kilometre away from the Panjwaii district centre, shattering the silence that hangs over this small village southwest of Kandahar city.
Hours later under the shadow of night, men mill about roadside culverts, a popular hiding spot for improvised explosive devices.
That makes Cpl. Christopher Turk suspicious.
The next morning, the 29-year-old Hamilton man leads a small section of soldiers and Afghan National Police to talk to the Kuchis, a nomadic agrarian people who have remained neutral in the conflict with the Taliban. They also live in the vicinity of where the gunshots were fired and farm near the roadside during the relative cool of night.
The patrol illustrates the challenges members of the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment face in identifying friend from foe in Panjwaii, known as the birthplace of the Taliban.
The march is slow, each footstep gentle. On this parched stretch of land eyes fixate on a bottle cap, a piece of cloth, a clump of dirt - anything that appears unusual.
Families piled onto bicycles and motorcycles are stopped along the way. Master Cpl. Chad Vincent delivers the same message each time.
"Be careful when you're around the roads at nighttime and make sure to stay away from the culverts especially," the 29-year-old native of Corner Brook tells them.
"If you do work at nighttime you should report to the (district centre) and let them know what you're doing exactly because of the activity that's been happening."
At one point, a man cradling his toddler-aged son pleads with a NATO interpreter and journalist to provide medication - any kind of medication will do, he emphasizes. Master Cpl. Sergio De Franco, a medic, gets the boy to stick out his tongue and then examines his pupils.
De Franco tells the father his boy likely has diarrhea and encourages him to see a doctor. But the father says he doesn't trust local doctors as much as those from the West. He hops back onto his motorcycle with his son and moves on.
Minutes later, an Afghan teenager on a motorcycle approaches. Turk waves at him to stop. He complies.
Immediately, Turk notices what appear to be burn marks on his palms.
"What happened to the bottom of your hands?" Turk asks.
Through a NATO interpreter, the Afghan offers a meandering explanation. He says it's a green chemical used to treat unspecified wounds and sometimes used at wedding celebrations. He doesn't elaborate.
Turk asks for his age, but he says he doesn't know. He says he's a farmer.
Without a gunshot residue kit to determine whether he was handling explosives, there is little Turk can do but take pictures of the Afghan and his hands before letting him go.
"It was very vague," Turk says later of the Afghan's explanation for the marks on his hands.
"He was at the age where he might be influenced to work and do these types of things, so it's just something to keep an eye out for. There's nothing you can really do."
About 90 minutes into the patrol, the group reaches a shantytown of about 40 tents assembled from blankets, hay and mud, each housing Kuchi families of six or more. Turk asks to speak with the village elder, but he is in a smaller Kuchi settlement about a 15-minute walk away.
The troops head to that settlement and meet the elder. Turk emphasizes the importance of notifying the district centre if his people are going to farm along the roadside at night. Otherwise they could be identified as a threat.
"That's the best idea," the elder says.
The elder says his people are appreciative of the supplies and aid the Canadians have offered in the past, but they must refuse.
"If one of the insurgents here understands that we have gotten something from ... the district centre, we'll be in trouble and we will be in a big problem."
"Do you know where these people are that will give you problems?" Turk asks.
"You know better about that," the elder replies before offering an analogy that gives the troops pause for thought.
"It's like ants. It's the city of ants. Everywhere I know there are ants. The insurgents, they are also the same. They are living in each village. But the specific place? I'm not sure."
Turk tries to reassure him that the Afghan police and Canadian soldiers will do their best to keep the area secure, encouraging him not to be afraid to report suspicious activity.
At the end of the day, Turk and Vincent say the patrol was successful. They feel they have taken a small step forward in building trust with the Kuchis and instilling confidence in their local police and government.
But it's a slow, painstaking process.
"We'd like them to be more open with us if they do see any insurgent activity," Turk says. "But there's always been this problem where they're scared to."

Organizations: Taliban, NATO, Royal Canadian Regiment

Geographic location: Panjwaii, Corner Brook, Kandahar

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