KALACHE, Afghanistan (Reuters) - One of the most frequently attacked Canadian outposts in Afghanistan seemed relaxed Wednesday.
Soldiers joked around. Some listened to music. Others were building a makeshift television lounge.
Then suspected Taliban militants disguised as farmers opened fire on Ballpeen from a vineyard, leaving holes in laundry hanging near a machinegun nest.
Fighting here offers a glimpse into how the conflict in Afghanistan is being played out ahead of a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011.
Militants know they have little chance of capturing Ballpeen: Canadian troops suppressed them with machinegun fire after the initial volley; helicopters with rockets were quickly on hand, and there was the option of calling in an artillery barrage.
Instead, the Taliban are waging a war of psychological attrition against their NATO foe. They are waiting it out.
Western forces are scrambling to stabilize Afghanistan ahead of the American pullout, at a time when the insurgency is at its strongest in the nine-year war. Seventeen foreign military personnel have died this week alone.
Masters of the terrain, the Taliban hope to wear down and outfox NATO troops who possess far superior firepower.
Militants know every field and alleyway in Kalache, where Ballpeen outpost is located. Canadian patrols must move extra slowly in surrounding villages, especially with the risk of triggering crude roadside bombs known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).
“They bury an IED on a path and just wait for us to step on it,” said platoon leader Captain Ashley Collette.
“It could take months, or years. It doesn’t matter to them. They are patient,” she said.
The Taliban strategy threatens to undermine NATO’s plans to secure areas in the militant stronghold of Kandahar Province so that the government can then win over the local population by improving services and creating jobs.
Some citizens have informed the Canadians of the presence of insurgents in parts of Kalache, but large numbers are unlikely to come forward anytime soon. Militants have been known to behead opponents and publicly flog those deemed immoral.
Such obstacles may ultimately prove insuperable for the Canadians, who are due to leave next year.
“The biggest challenge is getting the local population to come to your side. The Taliban rule by fear,” said Collette.
A big part of the problem is that NATO forces don’t know who to go after. The bearded men who sometimes smile at Canadian patrols may be Taliban. The uncertainty can exhaust the most disciplined of troops.
“It’s really hard to tell who is who,” said Sergeant Eric Coupal. “The Taliban know we can’t just fire at anyone, and they look like everybody else.”
Taliban fighters have stalked soldiers back to Ballpeen and staged ambushes nearby. One sniper said he was pinned down for 20 minutes in one such incident a few days ago.
As a result, any unusual activity arouses suspicion. If an unfamiliar face is spotted, military radios buzz and a group of soldiers may need to investigate on foot.
It’s a painstaking process for troops fighting to ensure that the Taliban can’t take over again, a worst-case scenario that would severely test the credibility of the Obama administration.
“It’s tough keeping up the morale of my unit. Luckily some of them worry about their girlfriends breaking up with them and issues like that. It keeps their mind off the trouble here,” said Sergeant John Carr, 43.
Even going to Ballpeen’s makeshift toilet can be risky. Soldiers are required to carry their weapons during the short walk in case they are stuck there doing an assault.
Some don’t seem to mind the danger.
“It’s exciting getting kitted up and the bullets whizz by -- whooooh,” said Corporal Kevin Granlund.
Editing by Dan Williams and David Fox