Standing firm in Afghanistan

In spite of the impending pullout, Canadian troops remain committed to their mission

Standing firm

CPL Tina Gillies/DND/MDN

Standing firm
CPL Tina Gillies/DND/MDN

The staccato chattering sound of machine-gun fire drifts over Canada’s forward operating base at Masum Ghar in Afghanistan’s Panjwaii district shortly after dusk. The prolonged bursts are answered by other angry shots until, after a couple of minutes, the echoes fade away and silence returns. “That’s probably Wilson killing somebody,” says a soldier relaxing on a makeshift bench outside the metal shipping containers where many of them sleep on stacked bunks. Wilson is an American patrol base a few kilometres north of Masum Ghar, across the Arghandab River in Zhari district.

At dawn, from the same direction, the muffled crunch of a distant explosion sends a mushrooming plume of dust skyward above the green cultivated fields and rough mud compounds that spread from Masum Ghar beyond the river. It might have been an improvised explosive device, discovered and intentionally triggered, or perhaps something deadlier. No gunfire follows the blast, only birdsong and the puttering hum of a man coaxing a motorbike along a rutted dirt path.

“It’s the Americans at Wilson,” says another soldier. “They get more contact than we do. It’s closer to the highway, and now, with the prison break, there are 400 more Taliban there.”

A Canadian major who had arrived at Masum Ghar the previous day interjects. “They can’t clear it?”

“It’s like clearing water,” the first soldier replies. “You can push them aside”—he sweeps an open palm sideways in front of him—“but they flow back in.”

He describes a near-impossible task, and yet this is what NATO forces in Afghanistan, including Canada’s final combat battle group to deploy in the country, believe they are finally beginning to accomplish. The main reason, according to senior military officials in both Canada and allied nations, is the increased number of troops now on the ground.

For eight years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent overthrow of the Taliban, American and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan were too few and spread too thin to hold territory, deny insurgents freedom of movement, and convince the local population that they were stronger than the Taliban. Training of Afghanistan’s own security forces was fragmented and haphazard. Afghan soldiers and police were unable to effectively step in where outside forces were absent. “As they look back over this, they’ll probably figure that there were some opportunities early on that we didn’t take advantage of,” says American Lieut.-Gen. David Rodriguez, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command.

“The enemy regrouped, and by 2005 was starting to come back stronger and stronger,” Rodriguez notes. “And then we kind of were a little bit behind it each time and didn’t leap ahead to get the strength and density of forces to improve the security to enable all the other things that are important. The numbers came late. The speed and growth of the Afghan national security forces came late. And what we couldn’t do is just keep catching up to an ever-growing, strengthening insurgency, and basically shooting behind them.”

This meant Canada’s deployment to Kandahar province in 2006 coincided with an aggressive Taliban resurgence in what was once their heartland and remains a spiritual home. A summer of hard fighting followed. More than 30 Canadians died in Afghanistan in 2006, compared to fewer than 10 who perished in the previous four years combined. Similar casualty rates persisted from 2007 to 2009.

The Taliban could not beat the Canadians in open battle, and were defeated when they tried. But the Canadians were also unable to keep control of the ground in Kandahar. Some 2,500 Canadians were responsible for most of the province, including Kandahar city, the second biggest in the country, with a population of half a million. “It has been difficult, because we weren’t a large enough force to fight an all out counter-insurgency,” says Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, the Canadian commander of Task Force Kandahar, which is comprised of both American and Canadian forces. “We were able to contain the Taliban,” he says—but not defeat them.

The effort wasn’t wasted, says Col. Acton Kilby, director of stabilization at Regional Command South headquarters. Canadians kept pressure on the Taliban “to ensure that the south was not completely lost.” And then, in December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. They arrived last year in Kandahar province, where Canada had been grinding it out since 2006. Canada transferred responsibility for Zhari and Arghandab districts to American forces in June and handed control of Kandahar city to the Americans in July. “Now I have the forces available to live with the people, to be everywhere we wanted to be,” says Milner.

The current Canadian battle group is the largest yet to deploy, and its area of responsibility is smaller than the ground assigned to earlier battle groups, focused on the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. It is mostly comprised of soldiers from the 1st Battalion of the Royal 22e Régiment, the Quebec unit known as the Van Doos. The battle group arrived in November and will leave next month. A “mission transition task force” will then coordinate the handover of Canadian bases to soldiers from the United States. About 950 Canadian soldiers will remain in Afghanistan in a non-combat role, training Afghan security forces in Kabul, with smaller contingents in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif.

Canadians in Kandahar say they will not slow down the pace of their operations nor avoid combat as their mission nears its end. Col. Richard Giguère, deputy commander of Task Force Kandahar, likens the transition to a relay race. The Taliban will go to sleep with Canadians in their face and wake up with Americans there.

The Canadian soldiers are spread out in a network of forward operating bases, patrol bases, and combat outposts. Some are large and well-fortified camps, with a helicopter landing pad, rows of armoured vehicles or tanks, and a staffed kitchen that prepares hundreds of meals a day. Others are small compounds where the few soldiers who live there sleep in cave-like hovels or out in the open and eat what they make themselves.

Often there are units of Afghan soldiers living in the same camps and fighting with their Canadian counterparts. Their numbers have increased as well. Two years ago, one small kandak, or battalion, of Afghan troops covered three districts of Kandahar province. Today there are two kandaks assigned only to Panjwaii district, plus more than 350 trained Afghan police. In September there were 75. “The insurgency is weak now,” says Ali Urozgani, a sergeant major with the 6th Kandak of the 1st Brigade of the Afghan army’s 205 Corps. He’s partnered with Canadian soldiers and lives with them at a patrol base in Panjwaii. “If they attack, they run away five minutes later,” he says.

The concentration of Canadian and Afghan soldiers has frustrated Taliban operations. Two Canadians have died as a result of insurgent attacks since the Van Doos deployed in November. Maj. Frédéric Pruneau, commander of Para Company of the Royal 22e Régiment’s battle group, says his soldiers used to find one or two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) every day. Now it’s about once a week. Firefights are rare. “We’re not chasing them everywhere anymore, because we’re with the population,” he says.

“We’ve been able to take back the Horn of Panjwaii from the insurgents,” says Lieut.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, commanding officer of the Canadian battle group. “We’re talking about a Taliban stronghold where there was no previous government presence.”

Dominating ground militarily, however, is only the first stage in a successful counter-insurgency. International forces in Afghanistan must also win over the local population that might otherwise support the insurgency, and nurture an Afghan government and security forces that can keep that trust and protect civilians who support it. These goals are perhaps more difficult to achieve, and have become more pressing as Afghanistan’s international partners seek to withdraw troops and hand over the security lead to Afghan forces by 2014.

Some of the forward operating bases in Kandahar province have observation balloons hovering above. The cameras mounted on them can zoom in on a farmer kilometres away and reveal what he’s carrying in his pocket. “Sure,” a special operations adviser to NATO replies when this anecdote is related to him. “But it can’t tell you what’s in his heart.”

At the Masum Ghar forward operating base, Maj. Frédéric Pruneau stands in a rough wood-framed building over a table spread with maps of the surrounding countryside and plans a dawn patrol. A silent television in the corner is replaying NHL hockey highlights. Someone has tacked a short history of the 12th Armoured Regiment of Canada, from CFB Valcartier in Quebec, to one of the walls. On another is a photograph of Cpl. Steve Martin, killed by an IED during a foot patrol in December.

Surrounding Pruneau are members of his Para Company and Afghan soldiers with whom they will be conducting the operation in the morning. One of the Canadians has the word “determination” tattooed on his forearm.

The patrol is to visit the home of a local man whom the Canadians had previously detained and then released. He was what Pruneau describes as an “insurgent facilitator” because they had found weapons and IED-making material in his house. Pruneau made inquiries with a local power broker and learned the man felt trapped—intimidated by the Taliban and afraid of being jailed again by the Canadians. They reached an understanding, says Pruneau. Now, when the man is pressured to attend an insurgent shura, or meeting, he passes on the information to Pruneau.

So the patrol is, in part, to maintain a valuable relationship. It also demonstrates power. “The local population will go with who is strongest,” says Pruneau. By walking through Taliban country, the Canadians are asserting they are stronger than the Taliban, and they are daring the insurgents to try to prove them wrong. Finally, the joint patrol is an opportunity for the Afghan soldiers partnered with the Canadians to assume more leadership in security operations.

During Pruneau’s briefing, Afghan National Army Lieut. Mohammed Mir speaks up. “If there is a family in one of the compounds we approach, please let us search it,” he says through a translator. “We know the language and the people, and it’s our job.” “That’s why we’re glad you’re here,” says Pruneau. “We’ll stay back and only come if you call for our help.”

Later, Pruneau describes the Afghan soldiers he works with as competent, if unpolished. “When we look at them, we think they shouldn’t carry their weapons that way,” he says. “But they don’t need to look professional. They show professionalism by their actions.” As an example, Pruneau says he’s recently given responsibility for the nearby town of Bazar-e-Panjwaii, largest in the district with a population of about 5,000, to the Afghan National Army. “I don’t patrol there anymore,” he says. During Pruneau’s previous deployment in 2006-2007, shops in Bazar-e-Panjwaii were shuttered. The town is now bustling. “People tell us they’ve come back because they feel secure.”

A surge of troops into Panjwaii has also impacted Canada’s efforts to win over Afghan civilians in the district. Civilian Military Co-operation (CIMIC) teams are attached to the battle group. Their job is to bring aid and development, providing jobs and hopefully building a link between local residents and their government.

There are more CIMIC operators than during previous deployments, and their efforts are decentralized. CIMIC operators are assigned to each company, which means projects are run by soldiers in direct daily contact with people who live in the district. Maj. Daniel Lamoureux, commanding officer of CIMIC for Task Force Kandahar, describes the teams as “another weapons system for a company commander.”

Maj. Jean-Christian Marquis, who currently commands Crazy Company of the Van Doos’ battle group, says he didn’t have CIMIC at his disposal as an infantry commander during his last tour, in 2007. “It didn’t make sense. Everyone was hiding, and the only people we’d meet were insurgents.” Marquis now works out of Patrol Base Folad, near the Afghan village of Salavat. He says when he arrived in November, residents would throw rocks at his soldiers. The Taliban had murdered the village leader, or malik, three years earlier. Then his son, Musa Khalim, only 24 years old, returned to the village from Kandahar city and declared himself malik. He also said he would work with the Canadians.

“I promised myself I would make my village better,” Khalim says during an interview that takes place when a Canadian patrol stops to visit him at an Afghan police outpost near Salavat. “I talked to my family. I told them if I die on this job, one of my brothers should take over. The Canadians have a good attitude and they provide support projects for the people. I have been threatened so many times by the Taliban. I don’t care. I want to improve my village.” Khalim says about 10 per cent of the people in Salavat support the Taliban, some because they want to, and some because they are afraid to do otherwise.

In April, the Canadians opened a school in the village. It’s located in a compound that used to be a base for the Afghan National Army. The soldiers there agreed to leave after the Canadians built them an entire new camp elsewhere. The school’s principal is 22 years old. Instructors, teenagers themselves, come in from Kandahar city every morning to teach math, Pashtun culture, Islam, reading and writing. The Afghan Ministry of Education pays their salaries. The battle group’s CIMIC team funded jobs to repair the compound buildings. No students arrived the first day it opened. The next morning there were about 20. Now more than 200 regularly attend.

Today there are at least eight schools open in Panjwaii district. Last August, there was one. There are more than 30 schools open in neighbouring Dand district. Less than a year ago there were 15.

The Salavat school isn’t a flawless success. Only boys attend. One morning, a father brought his three daughters and asked that they be educated along with his three sons, but the girls never returned. Marquis suspects the father had hoped other fathers would send their girls, and when they wouldn’t the man was afraid to leave his daughters at the school alone. Students who study there mostly belong to the same tribe. Children from a different tribe who live closer to the school don’t come. “For us, it is to give them the tools,” says CIMIC team leader Capt. Nick Paquet. “Then it is an Afghan process.”

The battle group has pushed a paved road through what was once Taliban-controlled territory in the Horn of Panjwaii. Known as “Highway Hyena,” it allows Canadian and Afghan soldiers to move quickly throughout the district. Travelling the 70 km or so from the Masum Ghar outpost to the highway’s end used to take all day, and can now be done in about an hour. Taliban strength picks up where the road stops.

Canadian soldiers hope the highway will also help farmers in the district more effectively transport produce to market and give them an alternative to fighting for the Taliban for a few dollars a day—or growing poppies, which provide the Taliban with much of their revenue. Poppy fields still bloom everywhere in Panjwaii, including directly below at least one Afghan police station. Zarar Ahmad Moqbel, Afghanistan’s minister of counter-narcotics, says his government eradicates poppy fields when it can provide farmers with a better alternative. This doesn’t appear to be the case in Panjwaii, where security is fragile and infrastructure is poor.

The Canadians, for the most part, stay out of it. Maj. Eric Landry of the 12th Armoured Regiment of Canada, whose soldiers helped build the highway, says Afghan police found an enormous cache of marijuana and opium near the terminus of Highway Hyena. The police burned it, he says. “But they kept a sample for themselves.”

The battle group also tries “psy-ops,” or psychological operations, to persuade locals to shun insurgents. Capt. Braden Greaves, an information officer with the battle group, says they are forbidden from using “black-ops,” meaning deception or intentional misinformation, in this campaign. Pamphlets they publish criticizing the Taliban must indicate that they originate with ISAF or the local Afghan government. “We don’t lie,” he says. “What we try to do is present the truth in a way that is favourable to us.”

Greaves helps run a radio station out of Bazar-e-Panjwaii. It employs two local DJs and two reporters, and features news, music and poetry. It’s also a way for local and national government officials to speak to citizens of Panjwaii, who otherwise have little contact with their government. The Canadian army controls the content. “We’re not trying to hide anything from the population,” he says. A recent Taliban attack on Kandahar city was covered, for example, but the focus was on the fact that Afghan security forces repelled it, and that the insurgents had used suicide bombers—a tactic Muslim scholars have condemned.

Canadians in Kandahar often describe their mission as offering the local population a choice. They can’t force Afghans to reject the Taliban, but they can provide an alternative.

“As long as we’re here, our work should be to create an option,” says Capt. Alexis Legros, who commands a platoon at the Folad patrol base. “They chose the Taliban because they provided security. Now we’re giving them another choice. In the end it will be the population that decides. They know the Taliban closed schools and we opened one. There’s no point trying to impose anything, because it won’t work. The only thing we can do is give them time and an alternative when we leave.”

That the Canadians are leaving the south complicates the choices Afghans living there will make.

Few Afghans—and few senior members of ISAF—fault the Canadians for ending their combat mission in Kandahar. “Canada has been in a very tough area. They have contributed a lot to the security of this country. There is nothing to complain about,” says Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak.

“They have not given up,” Wardak continues. “They are trying to train and prepare the Afghan national security forces. And we all believe the only sustainable way to secure Afghanistan is to enable the Afghans themselves. What we really didn’t want is that anyone’s blood should be sacrificed here to defend and secure us. And the sooner we fulfill our historic responsibility to secure and defend this country, I think we will be restoring our historic honour and pride. We really don’t want to be a burden on the international community forever. Canada has been a good friend and ally. We are highly indebted to the Canadian people and their government. And I think they have demonstrated the highest degree of soldiering and professionalism, and they have represented Canada with honour and dignity and gallantry.”

Yet Canada is leaving the south before the area is fully secure. The country has paid an enormous cost in blood and treasure there already, and one might reasonably argue that Canada has earned a respite. But were the Americans and British to declare an end to combat this summer and decrease their troop contributions by more than half, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan would collapse.

In the short term, the gap left by Canada’s departure from Kandahar will be filled by American and, increasingly, Afghan soldiers. Afghan Sgt.-Maj. Ali Urozgani, partnered with Canadian soldiers in Panjwaii, believes Afghans will be ready to stand on their own. “The training the Canadian mentors have provided us has been very helpful,” he says. “Also, the Americans are coming. Even without the Americans I think we’ll be okay,”

Eventually the Americans will go, too. Then the decisions faced by Afghans in Kandahar will come down to a choice between the Taliban and their own army and government.

There are reasons to worry. The Taliban and other insurgent groups still have sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, and Pakistani madrasas, or religious schools, continue to churn out recruits. The ongoing professionalization of the Afghan army won’t solve this problem.

It’s also far from certain that Afghanistan will have a government that deserves the loyalty of its population. The 2009 presidential election that returned Hamid Karzai to power was not free and fair, and similar corruption persists throughout all levels of Afghanistan’s government. One senior Western official who works closely with the Afghan government describes corruption in state institutions as “very extensive.” He says some Afghan leaders understand that corruption is “a potentially fatal threat to the state” and are trying to end it. Ultimately, however, like so much of Afghanistan’s future, there’s a limited amount that he and other non-Afghans can do about it.

It raises the question of how much of the progress that Canada and its allies have fought for and earned in Kandahar is sustainable. What will remain when they go?

The Saidon patrol base is a tiny outpost in what was once the Taliban’s backyard. It guards a village and road. There is a mulberry tree in the centre of the compound, a generator-run freezer, camouflage netting for shade, and a couple of mud-walled rooms that don’t appear to have lights. On the roof are the flags of Canada and the Royal 22e Régiment. There’s also a .50 calibre machine gun. Behind it is a battered easy chair where anyone firing the gun might sit.

The soldiers stationed here stay for two or three weeks at a time, patrolling constantly through nearby villages, sometimes with Afghan soldiers who live in a neighbouring compound. Pte. Tommy Quiron, 24, says he prefers life in a small outpost because “we’re free to do what we want,” but says conditions are more comfortable on the larger bases. He has a tattoo on his shoulder: “In peace, vigilance. In war, victory. In death, sacrifice.”

The walk to get to Saidon from a nearby forward operating base is hot. All the soldiers carry 70 or 80 lb. of gear, including a ballistic vest, weapons, water, and ammunition. Michel-Henri St-Louis, commander of the battle group, stands in the centre of the base, guzzling warm water from a plastic bottle. Powdery dust kicked up by marching soldiers sticks to the sweat on his face, forming smears of white against his sunburned skin. He’s smiling.

“It has to be brought down to small victories,” he says, when asked what the Canadians have accomplished that will outlast them. “It has to be brought down to a 10-year-old going to school. When he was born he couldn’t listen to music or study anything other than the Quran. Now that 10-year-old has a choice.

“So what’s our legacy? That 10-year-old was born in a very different world. It was a radical extremist government that allowed its country to be used for terrorism. That 10-year-old today has more choices. He has a school. He’s learning reading and writing—and the Quran. And he has a spark of what he can do with his life that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”