Leaving hope behind in Kandahar

In the embattled region, a legacy of respect, but no peace
Adnan R. Khan
Gumbad, Afghanistan Captain Francois Provencher from Canada’s Civil-Military Cooperation team (CIMIC) discusses compensation for damage done to a local farmer’s fields by American Chinook helicopters transporting Canadian troops to their forward operating base in the village of Gumbad, in the notorious Shah Wali Kot District of northern Kandahar province. Building confidence and relationships with the local population is a crucial element of Canada’s approach to fighting the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan, especially now, at a time when Canadian combat troops have begun patrolling some of the more dangerous areas in Kandahar, searching for signs of the Taliban with the intention of neutralizing their activity.
Leaving hope behind in Kandahar
Photograph by Adnan R. Khan

Twilight in Kandahar city is not what it used to be. The light, of course, is the same as it was a half-decade ago: as the sun settles behind jagged mountain peaks, the dust kicked up by sweltering desert winds forms a natural filter in the sky, turning sunlight into an ochre-shaded mixture that settles over the city’s streets. But these days, the vermillion hues feel more ominous. Ghulam Nabi feels it: the long-time Maclean’s Kandahar fixer shifts uneasily in the passenger seat of the parked taxi cab, furtively glancing at the thinning crowds on Kandahar’s eastern outskirts. The driver, sitting in the backseat, feels it as well, as he sits unusually still and silent. The man in the driver’s seat, talking animatedly with his torso twisted to face the back, is the only person who seems not to notice the fact that the streets are quickly falling silent, that the wind is picking up force and, most worryingly, that even the police have disappeared.

“The U.S. forces destroyed my village,” the man says in a deep voice, speaking of his home in Sachai, just 35 km west of Kandahar city. “They told us our village was a Taliban stronghold so they ordered all the villagers to leave and levelled the homes; they stripped the land of its gardens and orchards, built roads for their tanks and turned it into a military base. This is what has become of Sachai since the Americans took over control from the Canadians. But what do the Americans think they are doing? The Taliban are everywhere. If the U.S. is going to destroy places where they are, they will have to destroy all of Kandahar. Now the people from Sachai have all come to the city and they hate the Americans. They all support the Taliban.”

As he whips his hand around his head in a sweeping motion, the 32-year-old construction worker suddenly becomes aware of the darkness descending over Kandahar city. His features shift from the intensity of storytelling to thinly veiled panic. “I don’t know about you people,” he says urgently. “You can stay here if you want, but I’m leaving.” With that the interview abruptly ends. The man, who only agreed to speak to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity, gets out of the car and walks quickly down a narrow alleyway and disappears into a maze of mud walls.

On the road back into the city centre, Ghulam Nabi is visibly more relaxed. “Do you remember all of the police check posts we passed on our way out of the city?” he asks. “Where are they now? Kandahar city is not what it was when you were here for the first time.” Indeed, the series of half a dozen roadblocks that only an hour earlier were manned by cocky young police officers is now all deserted. In this part of Kandahar city, so close to the uncertainty and violence of the outlying villages, underpaid, poorly trained and ill-equipped police officers want nothing to do with taking on Taliban insurgents.

And nighttime in Kandahar is the witching hour for the Taliban.

Six years after Maclean’s initially ventured to Kandahar, hitching a ride with the first convoy of Canadian troops shifting their home base from the relatively calm confines of Camp Julien in Kabul into the heart of Taliban country, the atmosphere has shifted from the giddiness of new adventures to the solemn realization that Kandahar’s future is more uncertain now than ever before. Back then, the overarching feeling was that Canadians were entering the war, but they would be doing it in a Canadian way. It was a heady time, full of promise, with a leadership at the helm harbouring designs of remaking the American-led nation-building process.

Canada would do things differently, Canadian commanders told Maclean’s at the time. Soldiers complained of the challenges they faced convincing the local people that Canadians were not like Americans. During that first convoy, kids threw rocks at the long line of LAV III armoured personnel carriers, Bisons and Nyala anti-mine vehicles, prompting one officer to remark that the locals “might have thought we were Americans.”

In the years since, Canadian forces worked hard to change the perception in Kandahar that all foreigners are bad, often clashing with their U.S. counterparts over tactics and strategy. But did it work? And now that the Canadians are gone, what sort of legacy have they left behind? After spending billions of dollars and losing 157 lives, has the Canadian mission in Afghanistan been worth it?

To answer such questions means going back into the same volatile villages surrounding Kandahar city where Canada’s men and women fought and died—Panjwai and Zhari and the lush Arghandab valley—places that have continually see-sawed between Taliban and NATO control and where some of the most gruesome incidents have taken place, including the axe attack on Capt. Trevor Greene in March 2006.

That was the year the Canadians made Kandahar their military and humanitarian holy grail. At the time, Canada’s battalion commander in Kandahar, Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, called southern Afghanistan’s rural hinterlands the Taliban’s “command centre,” and promised to deploy the full force of Canada’s military power against it. It was also the year Canada suffered its highest casualty count in Afghanistan: 36 dead, 180 wounded in action.

Today, the villages in this, Afghanistan’s most conservative and in some ways most dangerous place for foreigners, remain volatile, even after a surge of U.S. forces in 2010 designed to put an end to a resurgent Taliban. That initiative has had an impact: the Taliban no longer directly control these districts. U.S. forward operating bases dot the landscape, their monstrous Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) armoured fighting vehicles kicking up dust on the dirt roads that snake through fruit orchards and marijuana fields; the Afghan National Army controls the main highway, putting an Afghan face to a war that has been largely fought by foreigners.

But the calm is deceiving, local villagers tell Maclean’s. The Taliban are ever-present, retreating back to their tried and tested strategy of pinpoint attacks, roadside bombs and assassinations. In many ways, locals add, the situation is now worse than ever before. From their perspective, the Canadian presence was a time of more Taliban influence in their villages, but also a time of less direct conflict. “The Canadians didn’t really challenge the Taliban,” says Mahmood, a villager from the Senjarai district, 15 km west of Kandahar city. “They would fight them but only for very short periods and only targeting those who were doing the attacking. The Americans respond by attacking everyone. They attack and bomb entire villages.”

In the weeks and months of the transition from Canadian to American control, much has changed in Kandahar. The heavy hand of the American war machine has devastated the lives of many villagers. In the Arghandab valley, one elder tells Maclean’s that before the Americans came, there was peace. “Sure, the Taliban were in control,” says the 80-year-old Haji Abdul Jabar, “but they never bothered us. They treated us with respect. Now the Americans have come and they are destroying our gardens with their tanks. When they patrol the village they trample over our irrigation canals. And now war has come. Wherever the Americans go, war follows them.”

And there is the Sachai construction worker’s story. Only two months ago, his village was still a verdant oasis straddling Kandahar’s main highway, west of Kandahar city and next door to Panjwai, the same place Canadian forces faced their toughest battles against the Taliban. Under Canadian occupation, the area had fallen to Taliban control, as had much of Kandahar province, a fact often cited as Canada’s failure in Afghanistan. But the construction worker disagrees. “The Canadians worked differently from the Americans,” he says. “When the Canadians were in control, they respected our way of life. It was difficult for them: the Taliban are strong in this part of Afghanistan but the Canadians tried to be careful not to disrupt the lives of the people. They fought the Taliban, but only in a limited way. And they never punished an entire village just because there were Taliban there.”

Mahmood agrees. “In the way the Canadians fought, the way they patrolled our villages, the way they interacted with us,” he says, “we could see that they were trying very hard to be respectful. The Americans don’t care about us. They are a cruel people.”

Canadian troops may have been at war in Kandahar, but their strategy was strikingly different from that of their American counterparts. Building relationships was at the core of the Canadian approach, as opposed to the more traditional U.S. tactic of battling another army for geographical space. Even as U.S. military commanders claim success in overcoming extremist influence in the countryside, locals say the real victory belongs to the Taliban, who have proven time and again that occupying physical space is only a transient victory at best.

Canadians were less concerned with that kind of war fighting, Ghulam Nabi says. After six years of working with Maclean’s, providing access to Taliban commanders and fighters, securing safe passage into some of the most dangerous areas in Kandahar, he offers a rare insight into how Canadians operate. “There is a difference between you and the Americans,” he says. “Canadians spent a lot of time building up relationships with the local people. In just a few weeks, the Americans have come in and destroyed all of that work.” Nabi cites conversations he’s had with translators working for Canadian troops. According to them, the transition from Canadian to American control caused friction between the two armies, with Canadians complaining that U.S. commanders are more interested in destruction than reconstruction. “The Canadians had made agreements with local tribal elders for reconstruction projects,” says Nabi. “But then the Americans came in and cancelled all of the projects. This caused a lot of tension.”

For some locals, American strategy is perplexing. Contrary to the portrait painted by elements in the Western media, the Pashtuns in Kandahar are not ignorant yokels who support the Taliban simply because they don’t know any better. Over the past decade of war, their understanding of the conflict and the agendas of the players involved has grown more subtle and discerning. They understand, for example, that the Canadian presence was motivated less by overarching regional interests than by a genuine desire to help civilians lift themselves out of absolute poverty.

They also understand that the Taliban lack the ability to bring them the economic and social rehabilitation they so desperately need. But at least when the Taliban are in control, there is peace, they say. “The Americans claim they want peace,” says Ismitullah, a 50-year-old elder and farmer in Arghandab. “They now say they want to negotiate with the Taliban. But don’t they understand that the Taliban will never negotiate with them when they have bases here? They will never talk to them while they are making the lives of the local people so difficult.”

Taliban commanders take that argument a step further. At a clandestine meeting in a truckers’ rest house on Kandahar’s western outskirts, one commander tells Maclean’s they are now willing to negotiate with the Afghan government. “In this sense, we have changed our position,” he says. “We now accept that the politicians in Kabul are fellow Muslims; we are of the same nation. We can talk to them. But if there is even one foreigner in Afghanistan, then negotiations are not possible.”

Taliban fighters who spoke to Maclean’s in the volatile district of Panjwai, 30 km west of Kandahar city, also concede that the Canadian presence in Kandahar was better than the Americans, although their reasoning is based more on military considerations than humanitarian. “The Canadians were softer,” says one fighter, a 21-year-old labourer who fights to make some extra income for his family. “They spent more time talking to people than fighting. The Americans are a tougher fight for us.”

But being tough has never proven a workable strategy in Afghanistan, a fact even the Americans are beginning to accept. According to U.S. diplomats in Kabul who spoke on condition of anonymity, U.S. strategy appears to be coming in line with what Canadian commanders have been quietly promoting for years: concede space to the Taliban in the south as a way of bringing them to the negotiating table. Behind-the-scenes talks, they say, are focusing on just that: a de facto partitioning of Afghanistan into a Persian-speaking north and a Pashto south dominated by the Taliban.

Still, elders in Kandahar are skeptical. They’ve caught on to the mechanics of what they see as the U.S. game. “The U.S. will never completely leave Afghanistan,” says Jabar. “They want to turn the south over to the Taliban and keep their bases in the north so they can deal with threats from Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan. The Taliban will never accept this.” And, he adds, “From the beginning, the U.S. has been strengthening the northern warlords, the same warlords the Taliban was fighting during the civil war. These warlords have grown strong because of U.S. support. They will never allow the Taliban to control any part of Afghanistan.”

That means that, in the eyes of most villagers, any end to the foreign presence in Afghanistan will ultimately usher in a new and even bloodier era of civil war. Would that mean Canada’s contribution to the war effort would have been in vain? Not necessarily. If nothing else, the Canadians have left a legacy of compassion among the villagers in Kandahar. As Ghulam Nabi points out: “If the Canadians had been in the lead in Afghanistan from the beginning, things might be different here.”

Instead, Kandahar has become a place where the daylight hours belong to the people—and the night to the Taliban. The hope that was tangibly present in 2005 has largely evaporated into a kind of stoic resolve anchored in the belief that things are about to get much worse before they get any better. But Canadians can take some pride in the knowledge that their troops did what they could in the most difficult of wartime environments. In a country where a global effort will be the only way to fix a shattered nation, Canadians have shown the intensely mistrustful people of southern Afghanistan that working with foreigners is possible. This is our victory.