Legion Magazine staff writer Adam Day spent nearly a month in Afghanistan last October. These field notes serve as a prelude to a major special section on the war in Afghanistan scheduled to appear in the March/April issue—the Editor.
AFGHANISTAN FIELD NOTE No. 1
In the spring and summer of 2009, it seemed that critical opinion about the war in Afghanistan was sinking towards pessimism nearly as fast as violence inside the country was rising. “We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CNN, and a chorus of military analysts soon joined him in expressing doubt. From Senator Colin Kenny to Professor David Bercuson, the best that could be said was that a new opinion had emerged: at this point, the war was easy to lose and hard to win.
On the ground inside the country, throughout the summer and early fall, things had turned starkly fatal. July (76 dead), August (77), September (70) and October (74) were by far the deadliest months of the war for the coalition.
Something had to be done; many things had to be done. The first and most significant for the Canadian soldiers spread out around Kandahar Province was the appointment of American General Stanley McChrystal as overall commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.
McChrystal, a special forces man with a deep connection to the practice of unconventional warfare, immediately launched a new strategic direction for the war.
“Get out of the Forward Operating Bases and get into the villages,” was the rallying cry of this new philosophy. The idea was that only by getting in among the population, and living there, can NATO hope to protect local populations from the insurgent’s influence.
And while Canadian officers at many levels have been talking about this strategy for years—the so-called “inkspot” strategy, the creation of islands of stability, model villages—now everybody at every level was taking the approach more seriously.
Platoon Houses. That was the solution. These small bases, compounds really, began springing up around Panjwai in mid-July and the battle group spread out to staff them all with small groups of Canadian soldiers.
The last time the Canadians tried something like the platoon house concept it was under a different name. Back in 2007-08, when they were co-locating platoon-sized infantry units with Afghan police mentors and liaison teams, they were doing it under the banner of Police Substations.
After a while, these small bases at Haji, Zangabad, Taloqan and Mushan were all abandoned by us for one reason or another.
AFGHANISTAN FIELD NOTE No. 2
Getting to Afghanistan is not easy. It is, rather, a 48-hour test of a person’s ability to endure discomforts so varied and uninteresting that they are best forgotten entirely. Getting there, however, doesn’t really make things better.
At Kandahar Airfield (KAF), the endless hassles of the trip are replaced by a new blur—confusion. The military calls its antidote ‘situational awareness’ and it is in painfully short supply around the airbase.
The base has more amenities than maybe it should. There are Internet centres, telephone stations, webcam rooms, a Burger King, Pizza Hut, Subway, a gaming centre, weightlifting rooms packed with aggressive soldiers, and at least one replica church made of plywood.
But there is little joy in the endurance. While some Canadian soldiers seem professionally satisfied, most wear the sort of expression a person can’t help but wear when camped out in a strange and hostile land, what might as well be a million miles and a millennium from everything they know—at least that’s how it seems.
AFGHANISTAN FIELD NOTE No. 3
In the fall of 2009, the war had developed its own odd pace. I arrived at Masum Ghar on Oct. 10 to see a sign saying something like ‘Welcome to Masum Ghar. We have had a pleasurable ‘21’ days without rockets.’
I walked up the hill through the shin-deep dust and into the gym when the month’s first rocket exploded up on the ridge. Everybody just looked around and kept going. Nobody fired back, or even really seemed to care. Somebody did change the sign however.
There are signs of progress everywhere, though. In 2006, at Masum Ghar, it was often only thin nylon that separated sleeping Canadians from rockets. By 2008, a lot of soldiers had moved into handmade bunkers. But now, air-conditioned and entirely secure ballistic sleeping containers with 10-mm of armour-plating have arrived and, for those inside them at least, the rockets aren’t really a worry anymore.
The area around Masum Ghar is even more impressive. Route Summit, the road that many Canadians paid with their lives to build, is now a busy thoroughfare running from just in front of the base north to connect with the main highway. There are now actual full-sized passenger buses travelling across the Arghandab River, right in front of Masum Ghar, on a causeway built pretty much exactly where in 2006 Canadians were crossing the river under fire during Operation Medusa.
The town of Bazaar-e-Panjwai, right next door to Masum Ghar, is similarly booming. Hundreds of kids now attend school in a compound that was once an impromptu Canadian military outpost and the markets on the main street now stretch, overflowing, for kilometres in either direction of the main crossroads.
These are all changes I saw myself, and so there are definite signs of progress.
For the soldiers of the Royal 22nd Regiment, however, who were just finishing a very violent and difficult tour, a grinding six-months of constant IEDs and an ever-changing mission, the jubilation of departure told a different story. When one section of Van Doos were pulled for good out of Sperwan Ghar by Chinook, they arrived at KAF and the reaction was unambiguous—10 combat soldiers weeping and making a giant group hug was not a sight you soon forget. They had survived.
The 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was taking over. The last time they were in Kandahar was in 2006, the first battle group rotation in the new mission, and a tour from which they still carried formidable scars. It was their turn now, again.
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