KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The Taliban kept to the shadows of Haji Baba on Wednesday as Canadian soldiers trying to seize control of the insurgent stronghold continued to pick up apart its defences.
With the operation entering its fifth day, a high-stakes game of hide-and-seek has emerged between insurgents and Canadian troops and their Afghan counterparts in the small village southwest of Kandahar city.
"We are aware we are being observed by insurgents in the vicinity of Haji Baba, and they are using children as shields," the military said in a statement, which went on to describe how the children would emerge whenever helicopters or tanks arrived near a compound.
"Using children as human shields to protect compounds is a tactic of the Taliban that has been observed on a number of occasions during (the current rotation)."
There has yet to be any direct contact between the coalition forces and the insurgents, but Canadian troops are nevertheless coming across telltale signs of their presence in the form of improvised explosive devices.
Two more were found Wednesday, bringing the total number of devices found to around a dozen.
The continued presence of Taliban in the village is unexpected and could present problems to both Afghan and Canadian military planners.
The operation was designed to telegraph the intention of coalition forces to move into the town in order to flush out insurgents with little contact. Intelligence reports, however, indicate many have not fled and have instead opted to blend in with the population.
Canadian Forces have since moved to box in the town in order to trap fleeing suspects. Operational security concerns prevent reporting whether detainees have been captured.
A protracted effort to weed out the Taliban, with the ever-present threat of direct confrontation, has the potential to derail the goals of the operation.
"Right now we're in the process of looking to secure certain population bases," said Maj. Ryan Jurkowski, who heads one of the companies charged with taking control of Haji Baba.
"We're securing small populations a little bit at a time with the overall intent of securing a larger population."
Canadian commanders hope to extend the "key village" approach, which has met with some success in Dand district, into neighbouring Panjwaii, where tribes have stronger ties to the Taliban.
They have been heartened by the willingness of some villagers in Haji Baba to help identify IED sites following a dramatic shura Monday.
But it is still unclear how deep the goodwill runs.
Should Canadian and Afghan forces secure Haji Baba, the idea is to task Afghan National Police with keeping the Taliban out. Given the slow progress of the ANP, however, the military recognizes maintaining an Afghan National Army presence may be the only alternative.
The problem is that ANA units capable of conducting their own operations, such as the one being used in Haji Baba, are in precious short supply.
"You don't want your army locked into villages," said Lt. Col Jerry Walsh, who heads the Canadian battle group.
"They need to be able to manoeuvre to address the threats to the nation."
With Canadian troops slated to scale down their combat presence in Kandahar by mid-2011, the ANA can ill-afford getting bogged down in Haji Baba for long.