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For Canadian soldiers, Afghan road is perilous

As NATO airstrikes send plumes of smoke over orchards used by insurgents, nearby construction trucks shape a new road cutting through strategic land claimed by Taliban fighters.

Securing the area around the road is a key project for the Canadian military in southern Afghanistan, but the undertaking has cost soldiers' lives and battle-weary troops are not being replaced due to a lack of support from some other NATO nations.

"It is proving to be more difficult to rebuild ... than it was to defeat the Taliban in the area," said Maj. Todd Scharlach of Petawawa, Ontario, the head of operations for Canadian troops. "And the people are getting frustrated with the time it is taking to do that."

The road, called Route Summit, will help troops to move faster and hold ground in a region that has seen large battles with Taliban fighters. The 3.1-mile project, a joint effort by U.S., Canadian and German government development agencies, will link Panjwayi to Afghanistan's main southern highway. A firm completion date has not been set.

"Any advance west, east, south or north will be dependent on us being able to hold the ground here," said Capt. Jordan Schaub of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, whose troops are based on a hill overlooking Panjwayi.

Farmers will also be able to use the road to reach markets.

So far, military engineers have cleared a 100-yard-wide path, in which the road will be built, through fields to help prevent ambushes by insurgents.

The militants have resorted to classic guerrilla tactics of ambushes and bombings, bringing the development to a virtual stop. Rockets slam into the camps and small bases dotting the area, and troops regularly get shot at.

Venturing out on simple patrols has proved deadly for the Canadians, who have lost 36 soldiers since March, many of them in the area where the road is being built.

"I think Canada has always realized that the southern part of Afghanistan would be a difficult chore," said Brig. Gen. Tim Grant, the commander of Canadian troops. "This is the home of the Taliban ... and so we knew that there would be some challenges here."