GHUNDEY GHAR, Afghanistan, Nov 9 (Reuters) Canadian troops handed control of a strategic base to the Afghan army today, a first step in a long-term exit strategy for foreign forces helping Afghanistan battle the Taliban in the volatile south.
Ghundey Ghar patrol base in the Taliban stronghold of Zhari district, just west of the key southern city of Kandahar, was a tough gain for Canadian forces who fought a fierce 18-hour battle to win the position on August 22 this year.
Two Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed during the combat operation, which was the first for the current rotation of Canadian troops, the bulk of whom are from the French-speaking province of Quebec.
Four others, including a Canadian journalist who lost a leg, were seriously wounded in the struggle over Ghundey Ghar, a lonely hill rising high above dusty marijuana and grape fields with views over largely deserted mud villages to craggy mountains on the horizon.
Six other Canadian troops and an interpreter were also killed by a roadside bomb in the area in July.
Now, after holding the position for three months and doing foot patrols in the area, the Canadian army said it was time for the Afghan troops it has trained to shoulder that responsibility as part of a broader strategy.
''This is the first part of a process that will see Afghan security forces take on responsibility for the entire Zhari district within the next few months,'' said Canadian Major Dave Abboud, commander of the infantry company that took Ghundey Ghar in August.
SYMBOLIC Ultimately, Afghan forces will have to stand on their own and the 2,500 Afghan National Army (ANA) troops currently operating in Kandahar province are the vanguard of a reliable Afghan army that will still take years to forge, said Abboud.
''This day is symbolic because it represents our overall exit strategy, not just for Canadians, but the entire ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) over the next 10 to 15 years. It has to be done gradually,'' he said.
Previous Canadian troop rotations have twice handed Ghundey Ghar over to Afghan National Police (ANP), only to see it quickly overrun by Taliban.
''Last time, they lasted a week,'' said Abboud of the poorly trained and lightly armed ANP.
This time, the base is in the hands of an experienced ANA platoon of some 40 men, supported by several Canadian soldiers working as mentors who can call in NATO air support, artillery, supplies and emergency medical care.
''They will have all the necessary force-enablers because if the insurgents knew they were alone, they would start testing them,'' said Abboud.
Canadian Warrant Officer Andre Lamarre made his final tour of the hilltop, pointing out sleeping quarters, observation points and Taliban positions to his Afghan replacements.
''After 80 days here, I'm ready to go,'' said Lamarre. ''It's all theirs.'' His replacement as commander of the base, ANA Captain Gais Atei, said he needed Canadian support and muscle to back his fighters, but vowed this time the base would not fall back into Taliban hands.
''Never can they take this place from us,'' he said.
REUTERS YA RAI2339