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KANDAHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Canadian soldiers with night vision goggles slowly navigate through grape fields, wary of triggering booby traps planted by Taliban insurgents.
The Taliban, who have fought NATO forces for nine years, are masters of the terrain, so they could have the advantage. Militants may be hiding a few feet away in irrigation ditches as deep as eight feet.
After hours of heavy hiking, the Canadians reach a hamlet of mud-brick huts they have never previously visited, seeking intelligence that is becoming more critical by the day as NATO troops push to stabilize Afghanistan before a gradual U.S. pullout in 2011.
A cell phone battery is discovered on a young man, immediately raising suspicions. Batteries are often used to trigger improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have killed more NATO soldiers than any other weapon in the conflict with insurgents.
Questioned through a translator about why he is carrying a battery and no cell phone, the Afghan responds: The Taliban don't allow us to have them. They would arrest me and hold me for 15 days.
The Taliban frequently ban cell phones in areas where they operate to prevent being informed on.
It is that sort of question Canadians and other U.S.-led troops constantly ask as they attempt to break Taliban networks.
Finding answers has become increasingly urgent since Western forces launched a two-pronged strategy to pacify the Taliban.
NATO forces in the Taliban's heartland of Kandahar Province will improve security and that will enable the Afghan government to win over the population by providing better services and creating jobs.
The plan depends heavily on the cooperation and trust of the Afghan people, who are well aware of the risks of crossing the Taliban, a group that does not hesitate to publicly execute opponents.
So it may take painstaking efforts to persuade Afghans that it is in their best interest to come forward. As part of their campaign to build ties with the local population, the Canadians donated speakers to a mosque.
If the Taliban are not seriously weakened before the pullout, and there are no eventual peace negotiations, they may be in a position to return to power, which would be a foreign policy disaster for the White House.
NATO fighter planes, tanks and combat helicopters have failed to do the job, so gaining intelligence is a huge priority.
The Canadians have to be efficient to get results since they are expected withdraw from Afghanistan next year.
The sergeant leading the night patrol, John Carr, was careful to be respectful of villagers. He makes a point of first approaching elders, who said they were happy his troops working to improve security.
The Taliban had been moving through the area, he learned. Was it a small intelligence victory? It's hard to tell. After all, this is Afghanistan, where militants look and speak like everybody else.
The Canadians pressed ahead in an area heavily infested with IEDs. After the call to prayer, they came upon about a dozen bearded men who had just left a mosque. The group also had nice things to say about the Canadian presence.
But jumping to conclusions is risky in Afghanistan.
While there no engagements during the patrol, after the Canadians ended the mission and recalled details of their grueling hike over burritos and chicken cutlets, someone fired an RPG at them.
Editing by David Fox