What follows are brief snapshots from a week in the life of one small Canadian outpost in Afghanistan—Haji Beach—in April 2008. It is a story of roads closed and being built, of enemy ambushes and the confusion and daily frustrations for soldiers at the sharp end of a war that’s very hard to see clearly, even when you’re right in the middle of it.
The Enemy is Real
In a random grape field in Panjwai, Afghanistan, early last spring, two Canadian patrols linked up and hunkered down as the war revealed itself on every side.
About a kilometre northwest, an enemy force attacked a coalition base at a place called Kolk. To the east, a base at Pashmul was being hit. To the south, Masum Ghar was taking fire. Three ground attacks in 15 minutes.
The small Canadian force, alone in the field, did little more than exchange wary glances as fighting erupted. It seemed as if the enemy had a plan. Everyone waited to see what would happen next. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The enemy was supposed to have gone underground, wasn’t supposed to be staging co-ordinated ground attacks across one of the most heavily patrolled districts in Kandahar province.
Gingerly, the Canadian force moved out to continue its long march. It had been hours grunting in the sun and there were many more hours to go before they would get back to their base and while the machine-gun fire died off, thoughts of the enemy remained.
Counter-Insurgency 101: Securing Roads and Populations
The cardboard sign hanging on the blast wall reads “PSS Lost Boys: Haji Beach” and it says quite a bit about what the war feels like for the Canadian soldiers spending weeks of their lives at this tiny battle-blasted compound on the western edge of Panjwai District.
Police Sub-Station (PSS) Haji is a collection of tents, bunkers and fortifications all piled on top of each other in what was once an Afghan residence in the middle of what was once the town of Haji, which is situated just south of the Arghandab River, and which will once again be a functioning town, if the Canadians have their way.
In April 2008 though, Haji was pretty much a ghost town; and fixing the place up wasn’t going to be easy. To begin with, the only main route in the area, dubbed Route Fosters by the Canadians, was closed to traffic because there were crazy amounts of bombs on it and no matter what the Canadians tried, they just couldn’t keep it cleared. Even when they patrolled the road literally 24 hours a day, it still wasn’t enough. The bombs kept going off and Canadians kept dying.
While there’s nothing terribly dramatic about securing a small little road like Route Fosters, without it open and full of traffic, the whole area will remain volatile and slow to develop. It is for this reason that road construction and security is, in many ways, central to the Canadian strategy in Panjwai.
As one tactic in that strategy, there are currently four police sub-stations strung along Route Fosters: Haji, Zangabad, Taloqan and Mushan. The sub-stations represent a fairly new development in the Canadian strategy to create security in southern Afghanistan, as Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Corbould, battle group commander, explains. “The police sub-stations were really established as ink dots. We talk about the ink spot, they were essentially representing ink dots on the map, because they were just a 10-man Afghan National Police section and a Police Operational Mentor Liaison Team (POMLT) of military police and a few combat arms soldiers, so their ability to influence the surrounding area was limited. And almost they represented initially a police precinct that in theory local nationals could come to, but they were not really able to expand much beyond their wire because they just didn’t have the manpower.
“As we came in, the plan now was to expand those areas of influence for those police sub-stations and so down in Panjwai we’ve flooded the area with ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) platoons to increase their ability to influence. So instead of a pinprick on the map they’re now an expanding ink spot, beyond three, four, five kilometres outside of the PSS, almost like a regional policing or patrolling capability that we would think of in Canada.”
There’s another reason the Canadians have started sending platoons out to these small forts and it’s an issue of what one senior Canadian officer politely termed a problem with the Afghan forces ‘survivability.’ Simply put, the first attempts to establish regional police stations ended with a lot of Afghan policemen getting killed.
In theory, and often in practice too, these kinds of roles are filled by camera-shy, bearded Special Forces guys who have been specially selected and trained for the mission. With forces like these in short supply however, the soldiers currently manning these forts are regular Canadian Forces soldiers, who, while certainly not untrained for this mission of foot patrols, intelligence gathering and building trust with the locals, are by their own account more habituated to mechanized operations and conventional infantry tactics.
Hillbillies Intrude on Army Paradise
In general, the further you get from the main NATO base at Kandahar Airfield, the more ragged things become. At KAF you can have Pizza Hut and all the warm showers you want. At Haji Beach, you’ll go to the toilet in a bag and even the rations are being rationed.
They call it Haji Beach because, at least in theory, there’s a sandy bit of riverbed down by the Arghandab that does look temptingly hospitable. In actual fact though, it is not. When a small group of soldiers from B Company, 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry tried to go swimming down at the beach just after arriving in Haji, they were promptly shot at by the Taliban, who in this case the soldiers describe as “the hillbillies across the river.”
While nobody was hurt, the small attack did have the unhappy effect of forcing 6 Platoon Warrant Officer Jeremy Abrams to ban all further swimming activities on the beach. “Haji is something where you can take a photo off a postcard and then army it up a little bit and that’s Haji,” says Master Corporal Travis Good. “It depends on the angle you take your photos from, because it will give you a totally different perspective. You could stand in one spot and take pictures and there’s a couple guys sun tanning, a couple guys lifting weights, and you see me in the background barbecuing and you’re like ‘that’s not a bad go.’ But then you take five steps to the right and you take a picture and you can see big holes, a bunch of rubble, wire, a big pit of garbage on fire, a river that’s 300 feet away that you can’t swim in because there are landmines and shit everywhere. So yeah, it’s like an army-jazzed up postcard picture of paradise.”
While it may sound like fun, the police sub-stations are very far from safe places. By their very conception, they are somewhat beyond friendly lines. At Haji Beach, surrounded as it was by ruined buildings and complex terrain, and having essentially no defences at the front gate—some loosely rolled wire and a swinging pole—you could not help but imagine the many ways even a small enemy force could do serious damage.
When not out patrolling, the soldiers at Haji often sat around the very small kitchen area, telling jokes and making fun of whomever there is to make fun of. Indeed, black humour is the order of the day at Haji Beach, and seemingly nothing is out of bounds in the name of a good laugh.
For example, the soldiers have been told not to make any jokes about life ‘inside the wire’ back at Kandahar Airfield versus life ‘outside the wire’ in places like Haji Beach. While everyone knows the soldiers back in Kandahar are working hard, and taking risks, too, this doesn’t stop the guys at Haji from saying this order came down because all the jokes were making the guys back at KAF cry, and “the salty tears were screwing up the flavor of their cappuccinos.”
Meanwhile, There is Some Good News
Eastern Panjwai is in some ways the showpiece of Canada’s effort in Afghanistan. In 2006, the area around the town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai was insurgent central, a run-and-gun paradise for RPG-toting marauders and nearly empty of normal everyday stuff like merchants and schoolchildren and farmers. Things have changed now, sort of.
With the main Canadian forward operating base in Panjwai situated right beside Bazaar-e-Panjwai, in the shadeless dust bowl known as Masum Ghar; and with the constant attention of the helpful if overstretched teams from the Canadian-run Provincial Reconstruction Team—the town has become something different than it was. There are new projects springing up all over the place, schools are running and well-attended, people walk around freely and come and go from the surrounding villages and the markets are full of activity.
Of course, the bad guys still lurk around and they’re still fiendishly deadly. In late spring 2008, Corporal Michael Starker was shot and killed in a gunfight within sight of the sentries at Masum Ghar. Beyond this though is the greater problem, that many of the insurgents who used to call the area home have now picked up and moved down the road, either south, to the area around Nakhonay, or to western Panjwai, or still further west to neighbouring Maiwand district or even all the way to Helmand Province, to fight the British and, more recently, the United States Marines.
This War is About Afghans
On the morning of April 17, the Haji Beach crew geared up just after dawn and went out on a foot patrol of the local villages. The basic idea was to stop and talk to whomever they could find in an attempt to gather information on the local situation.
Tagging along with the patrol was Sergeant Ole Frederiksen, a tactical CIMIC operator from the Provincial Reconstruction Team. CIMIC, which stands for civil-military co-operation, are the guys on the front lines of the hearts and minds effort and are charged with kick-starting the local economy through small projects. “We go out and initiate projects, basically try to help the locals,” said Frederiksen. “Here (in Haji Beach), more than anything, you’re just trying to get the people on board. What I was taught in (Canada), and what I’m doing in reality, is different. This is not a permissive environment at all. If I could just hire some locals to help out on some projects around the PSS, sort of bring them into the fold, pay them, let them see that we’re not bad guys, then hopefully they’ll get on board. And quite honestly we will gain information from them. If you look at eastern Panjwai, that’s what’s happening. I mean, it’s not any safer, there’s still Taliban there, but there’s a lot of locals there who can sing the benefits of what we bring. In eastern Panjwai, there’s a high school that’s operational. We’re working on building a clinic there. There are all these things, people are able to live there. Here, it’s just not happening right yet.
“The people really don’t trust us. And why would they? The last time they saw Canadian soldiers come through here they were shooting and blowing things up, that’s a reality. It took a long time for eastern Panjwai to get to the point it is now, and it’s going to take a long time for this area. They have to see us on a daily basis, talk to us. Right now they have no real reason to trust us. And there are a lot of rumours. The other day when we were out we heard the rumour that ISAF was bombing innocent farmers. The insurgents love that sort of stuff. It’s not true, but they will take an actual event and twist it. That’s part of the job, to make sure they know we’re here to help and that we’re not an occupying force. They have to be told that we’re not going to shoot them.”
During the patrol, Frederiksen did his best to talk to everybody he encountered. He talked to farmers and children and women and he heard the same story again and again. The Taliban are here at night, they don’t like us helping you, they burn the schools, they plant bombs and then they run back north of the river. “They are thieves,” said one man.
At PSS Haji, the Canadians are paired up with Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCOP), a group of theoretically well-trained Afghan police from outside of Kandahar province. While co-operation is developing, mistrust and even outright hostility still exists. Several of the Canadian soldiers expressed the belief that many Afghan forces, both police and army, made local agreements with enemy fighters which consisted basically of: ‘if you don’t attack us, we won’t attack you.’
However, not all the problems are merely rumours. In one potentially dangerous incident at Haji Beach, a Bravo Company soldier made a fart joke that proved so offensive to the ANCOP that the aggrieved Afghan reached for his weapon and, for a few brief moments, it actually looked like armed violence was going to break out.
Frustrations Rise as the Enemy Appears, But Can’t Be Engaged
Patrolling through Panjwai is like jogging though an insane obstacle course in the most intense heat imaginable with attack by enemy fighters and sudden death by IED a constant possibility. No one knows where the next threat will come from. A Bravo company legend, Sergeant Jason Boyes was killed by a bomb planted in a wall not far from Route Fosters just a few weeks earlier. The situation is tense. Some soldiers carry a single bullet in their pocket. It’s kind of a superstition.
“As an insurgency they don’t have rules of engagement,” said Good. “They don’t have a government back in their country dictating how things go. They don’t have a public image to keep. They don’t have to ask permission to shoot at certain things, or do certain things. They just get the job done.”
However, in the few weeks that Good has been at Haji, he has seen positive change. “The more presence we have, the more people are returning. So that would make me assume that they like to have us there. I think that the opinion of the people toward us is definitely improving.”
While adults can certainly be wary, the kids often seem easier to reach. Sometimes they react with fear, but a candy or a few smiles win them over. It’s hard to estimate the importance of small gestures in this kind of conflict. These hard kids of Panjwai have spent two years being “candified” and smiled at by Canadian soldiers and, among some at least, there is recognition.
It’s not all kids and candy out on patrol, however. One of the central tasks for these soldiers is to try to generate intelligence on enemy forces and their movements. To do this, the patrols stop and with the help of an interpreter they do gentle interrogations of pretty much every villager and farmer they come across. No one villager gives up much in the way of information, hardly anyone ever admits to seeing ‘Taliban.’
It is, no doubt, frustrating for the soldiers. They see men acting oddly—looking out of place—but they can’t do anything about it.
In one moment of high tension, a patrol out of Haji seemed to wander into an ambush-in-the-making, as lines of Afghans could be seen in the tree lines ahead, waiting. At the key moment, when the patrol leaders understood what was happening, there was a disagreement about what to do. Frederiksen wanted to go forward and investigate, engage if necessary, but Captain Bob Barker wanted to go back. Both had their reasons.
For Frederiksen, and many of the other soldiers on the patrol, going forward to find out what was happening, possibly even to engage enemy forces, was exactly the reason they were out here. As Frederiksen said, “we can’t turn and run away every time somebody challenges us.”
Barker, however, would not be persuaded, even if the conversation did get tense. He wanted to go back. “The reason I was looking to go back, was first of all the fact that we’d never been there before, so we didn’t have a good feel for the ground. Second was the fact that it wasn’t a real large patrol, it was a patrol to go out and get information, it wasn’t a patrol to go out and get in a fight.
“My biggest concern was there were two groups moving, which to me indicated there was a fairly decent degree of control between them. I don’t think it was just two random groups. So if we’re going to go into a situation where we’re getting into a fight I didn’t want to go in half-cocked. So that was my biggest concern there. I fully understand where (Frederiksen) was coming from in wanting to go forward, but I didn’t want to get the patrol pulled into a fight against a co-ordinated enemy that we hadn’t planned for at all in terrain that we didn’t know at all especially because the support that the PSS could provide in terms of fire was pretty much nil because of the range and in terms of a (backup force) they could field, it was very limited.”
In the end the patrol returned to base without a shot fired.
Cracks in the Armour
The antiseptic image the CF seems to want to present, of stoic professionals doing their duty in a tough place, is both true and not. These are emphatically real people, with all the issues real people have. When they’re sitting around the base at Haji Beach, they talk about what they’re going to do when they get home, or legendary nights out when they were last home, or how screwed up the army is, especially the long-winded work-up training they had to endure. “I could write a whole book full of ‘I told you so’s’,’” said one soldier.
They talk about other things too. They talk about watching Canadian Parliament on television and laugh how the politicians behave, about how they boo each other. “Grow the f—k up, you’re running the country,” laughed one soldier.
Primarily though, the most interesting and often hilarious conversations are provoked by exchanges overheard on the camp’s radio, which is loud enough for everyone to hear. For example, one night the following exchange took place:
“If we pulled out of (PSS) Zangabad could the ANCOP hold it themselves?” asked headquarters over the radio.“No,” said Zangabad.
“What’s your best guess about what would happen to them?” asked headquarters.
“They would die,” Zangabad replied.
Much to the chagrin of the guys at Haji, every once in a while the radio would squawk a missive in their direction too. One night, the order came down that someone up higher wanted an operations plan that detailed the patrols and general war activities the men at Haji Beach would be conducting, and they wanted the operations plan to extend four days into the future.
The Haji Beach crew met in the dinner lounge to discuss the new orders. “If they want four days out they can get f—ked,” said one soldier. This was the general consensus.
“F—k it, I’m getting drunk,” said another soldier.
On a hot and lethargic afternoon, Capt. Leifso comes over the radio to give a small morale-boosting and mission-clarifying talk to Barker, and Haji being tiny, the whole camp sat around and listened. “The intent is to patrol as much as possible, to push the Taliban out of the area so we can move onto bigger and better things. That is the intent, over,” crackled Leifso’s voice over the radio.
“Where are the bad guys staying? Are they moving during the night or during the day? Where do they store their weapons?
“As for security, go out and find info on the bad guys, and then we’re going to plan an operation and then we’re going to find them and kill them. That’s as simple as that.
“I understand there are concerns about water and rations. We’ll push them out.
“Regarding manpower issues, understood, ANCOP will not go out at night, we will.
“Niner-niner (Brigade Headquarters) wants to know if there is a six-hour patrol scheduled, why is it only taking two hours? And if 15 personnel are out, what are the other 15 doing?”
And with that, Leifso concluded: “The only way we’re going to make progress is to dominate the landscape.”
There was a collective heavy sigh at Haji when the conversation ended. And while everyone knew Leifso was making good points, it was one more irritant—what one soldier called a “radio jacking”—to add to the list.
Shortly after that, a new order comes down to increase the tempo to three patrols a day. The guys start joking about creeping down the Arghandab hidden behind twigs. Continuing the joke, Warrant Abrams comes up with the idea to disguise himself as an IED and hide on the side of Route Fosters. “It’s our new operation, just pick up a plastic bottle and hide in it.”
“If someone picks you up, just go limp and see where they take you,” says the medic.
“If they caught us they’d just let us go,” said one of the Bravo sergeants. “These guys are too old. I think they wanna die.”
Indeed, the orders that come down don’t always seem connected to the reality observed by soldiers on the ground.
Over the course of several days the requests got larger and larger. Eight-hour patrols, 12-hour patrols, 24-hour patrols.
Everybody sitting around the table at Haji just laughed. It’s impossible, they agree, a person couldn’t carry enough water to do it. “If they’d come out of the crystal palace once in a while they’d know that,” said a soldier.
“I think a 24-hour patrol would be more than a water problem, I think it would be a morale problem,” said another soldier.
“All you can do when it sucks is laugh,” said a third.
“I wish it would suck more,” was the deadpan reply from another.
A Glimmer of Hope
The effort to build Route Fosters is the latest major project, with about 350 Afghans working to construct and pave the road by hand with wheelbarrows and hand tools. Despite the painful slowness of the project, it has at the very least injected some of the Canadian soldiers here with what is, unmistakably, hope.
Among the troops, particularly the engineers, stories circulate about the Afghan resilience and desire to work despite threats from the Taliban, and, sometimes, gunshot wounds.
Sgt. Terry Vandenbroek of 1 Combat Engineer Regt. tells a story of an Afghan worker who was stopped on his way to the road project by the Taliban, who demanded to know where he was going. He told them he was going to work on the road. The Taliban told him he could not go. The worker said he would go anyway. One of the Taliban loaded a round into the chamber of his AK-47 and told the unarmed worker ‘You cannot go.’ The worker replied, ‘I will go.’ So the Taliban shot him.
Later, the Afghan worker limped into the Canadian lines bleeding and, as Vandenbroek tells it, after being cared for by the Canadians, the Afghan worker was out of the hospital faster than expected, just in time to collect his next paycheque.
You can see this story in a few different ways. First, that it’s a true representation of the situation on the ground and that local Afghans, perhaps lured by paycheques, are risking a lot to help in the reconstruction of their country. Or it could be just an anecdote, not truly representative of what’s happening on the ground. But then it is at least representative of something, which is hope among the Canadian soldiers that—at least in some areas—the situation is getting better.
War Arrives at Haji Beach
Things weren’t going perfectly out at Haji Beach. The soldiers were growing leery and command was becoming disgruntled because, to them, it seemed like their orders weren’t being executed as they should have been. In addition, there was another large operation coming up and so command decided to pull several units, including the Haji Beach crew, from the field for a little morale boosting rest. In order to do this, a giant column of Canadian armour and Afghan infantry would make its way from the base at Sperwan Ghar up the Arghandab riverbed to rendezvous at Haji Beach.
Everyone got up early on the day of the convoy, looking forward to a nice ride back to the luxury of Sperwan Ghar. The first sign that things were going wrong was when a giant blast rippled across the base. The convoy had just hit an IED within site of Haji, several hundred metres up the riverbed. Everyone crowded up into the guard tower to watch as a huge plume of smoke rose into the sky. The radios crackled. One of the engineer vehicles had been hit, its trailer blown apart. The driver was shaken, but uninjured.
The convoy ground to a halt in the middle of the riverbed. Minutes later, as recovery operations began, the ground around a stationary Leopard 2 tank erupted in dust as another sharp explosion rippled across Haji Beach. At first it seemed like the Leopard had fired, but in fact it was an enemy RPG exploding on or near the tank. “Contact, contact, contact,” Capt. Leifso yelled over the radios. AK-47 fire erupted from the village on the north bank of the river, the Canadians fired back. Heavy machine-guns started bursting, the guys at Haji scrambled for their guns and vests.
In short order, Leifso tasked the Afghans and their Canadian mentors to attack the village on foot. It was too dangerous to send the Leopards or the LAVs. The threat of IEDs was too high. As the ground forces moved in, American attack helicopters started pounding the village with rockets. In run after run, the helicopters swooped in firing dozens of rockets down into the trees and huts. The enemy firing continued. The ground forces, now near the village, themselves came under fire. They made their way into the outskirts of the first village, but could get no further. They pulled back; it was going to take some heavy firepower to root the bad guys out. And so began the long and sometimes acrimonious search to find an allied warplane able to drop some bombs on the enemy force. Two fighter bombers checked in, but neither could drop their ordnance in this situation, prohibited as they were by national caveats. Finally a French fighter checked in. He didn’t speak English very well but he could drop if someone was in imminent danger.
The forward troops understand what is needed to happen next. A voice came over the radio. “We are in imminent danger,” said the Canadian voice. The French fighter dropped three 500-pound bombs on the village from an altitude so high that, while it was possible to hear the jet, it was not possible to see him.
The insurgents would not die though. Just when it seemed the battle was over, as the American helicopters peeled off to refuel, three or four greasy clouds appeared in the sky above the Canadian convoy and then ‘boom boom boom.’ Air bursts—rockets fired intentionally high to explode at maximum range, raining shrapnel down on the Canadians. “Hatches down! Hatches down!” Leifso screamed over the radio. More guns erupted. The fight went on for hours. The helicopters returned and fired more rockets—many more. In the end, it was suspected that the enemy numbered between 4-8 fighters, and they kept the Canadian force of several dozen vehicles and about 200 allied soldiers engaged and largely pinned in place for almost eight hours. No Canadians were hurt by enemy fire, and while it can’t be known for sure, the American helicopter pilots did report several enemy dead. No civilian casualties were reported.
Big Army, Small War
In many ways, it seems that in Afghanistan the Canadian army is stuck between two strategies. On the one hand, there is a noticeable shift to classic counter-insurgency strategy via PSSs and small strongpoints, which is the classic “ink spot” tactic, where the hope is that small zones of security and stability across the region will slowly spread. On the other hand, there is the unmistakable fact that the Canadian battle group still needs to be able to pull off large, conventional operations whenever and wherever the insurgents appear in larger numbers.
“We struggle with the counter-insurgency approach,” said Corbould. “We talk about it a lot. But we’re not necessarily equipped to conduct counter-insurgency, and institutionally across NATO we’re not setting ourselves up to conduct a counter-insurgency warfare doctrine. We do it locally where it’s suitable, and at the tactical level all kinds of brilliant minds are trying to apply the principles of counter-insurgency operations. But the reality is that it’s balanced with a number of different agendas that are out there and trying to use a pure counter-insurgency approach is extremely difficult and I would argue that it’s an ideal that we’ll never achieve.”
If you want to know whether the strategy is working, well, there’s no easy answer. There are signs of progress and there are signs that the situation is worsening, in some places these tactics seemed to be working, in others the effort seems futile. The generals and staff officers remain optimistic, but politics being what they are, optimism from a general is not unexpected.
As for the guys in the field, they’re still gung ho in that peculiar Canadian way. They might think HQ has lost their marbles, they might think the bureaucracy of coalition warfare is too restrictive, they might even believe that the whole thing is being done all wrong, but they’re still ready to do it. Perhaps that’s all that can be asked of them.
In any case, after exhausting weeks patrolling at Haji Beach and a full day of fighting to get back to home base at Sperwan Ghar the soldiers took turns getting disciplined by the sometimes grumpy Bravo company sergeant major for having their pants on incorrectly or being insufficiently shaven. The soldiers didn’t mind much though, they just shrugged and laughed and took the heat. This is just life in Afghanistan for the warriors of Haji Beach.
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