HEARTS AND MINDS ON THE LINE
This is part four of Legion Magazine’s story on the efforts of one small Canadian unit to win the hearts and minds of a town in the Taliban heartland last fall. First Platoon of Alpha Company, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry has been in Salavat for a week and a half, living in a small school compound on the edge of town, struggling hard to get a grip on the distrustful, slightly hostile little community in the centre of Panjwai District, the deadliest place for Canadians in all of Kandahar Province.
Follow the links to read Part 1, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 1, Part 2, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 2 and Part 3, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 3
Day 9 — A Shura Doesn’t Happen And A Hard-Charging Minesweeping Mission To The East
In the years the Canadian Forces have been at war in Afghanistan, certain things have changed for the better, operationally speaking. There are now Canadian helicopters ferrying troops and supplies, for example, so not as many soldiers die doing convoy duty on dusty bomb-strewn tracks in the outback. And the military itself seems to have gotten better at adapting to war’s unique demands. Back in 2006, many soldiers and leaders seemed fresh to the complexity of the conflict and prone to a kind of bureaucratic optimism: the command influence, you could call it. This was the tendency some had to ignore apparent difficulty and pass heedless good news up the chain of command in an apparent effort to make the sun shine on their own personal head. While I have been assured that this is an ancient military tradition—nothing more than a kind of bland careerism—the problems it created on the ground were serious: if everyone was passing sunshine upwards, the policies and directives that eventually came back down weren’t going to be all that pertinent to the actual situation.
It’s safe to say that the Canadian Forces now, or the PPCLI at least, take quite seriously their duty to perceive and report the actual situation, as dire or futile as it may be.
On Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2009, the situation at the Platoon House in Salavat was feeling pretty futile. Captain Bryce Talsma, the good-natured platoon commander, had chosen today to attempt to convene his first meeting of village elders, a Shura, in local parlance. But seeing as Canadian influence among the villagers was, well, so far non-existent, few in First Platoon had very high hopes that the villagers would take the risk to make an appearance at the Canadian base.
Corporal John Little, the platoon’s amicable ambassador who can be counted on for comic relief, begins the morning by sitting in the hot sand in the middle of the school compound, playing his new game of war forecaster for the amusement of a small crowd of soldiers. “There’s a 40 per cent probability of hostilities today,” he says gravely, mocking the style of a weather forecaster, “with a chance of RPG ambushes developing in the evening and IED emplacements overnight. Zero per cent chance of a Shura this morning.”
While the details of how and why the Shura failed to develop were left to the realm of rumour (mainly that the resident Afghan Army commander, Lieutenant Saed, told the elders not to come; or the Taliban told them not to come; or both; or it was the same thing), it didn’t mean much to the soldiers. The only part that meant anything was that an entire section had been readied basically at dawn to provide security for the event, which of course never occurred, but which wasn’t officially called off until just before lunch.
Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall conducted a mock after-action review after he and his section had stood around fully-geared up in the hot dusty parking lot for four hours.
Master Corporal Shane Stackpole was the first to offer his observations: “We woke up and we were told to put our kit on. That went well. You all did amazing. Then we stood around for four hours as our mission changed and was cancelled three times. Good job on that too. Maybe though, there was too much standing; we could get weak if we had to go on much longer. We’ll work on that.”
The section’s soldiers all just lolled in a heat daze, amused but waiting to be dismissed.
“Adrift in a sea of confusion,” says Talsma as he rushed past, exhibiting his tendency to pull off almost perfectly timed quotes from out of basically nowhere.
Meanwhile, the enemy was still out there somewhere. And the villagers still needed to be convinced of First Platoon’s good intentions. It was time for a patrol.
The schoolhouse the platoon occupies is set on the edge of a long and dry uninhabited plain. A thousand metres across the scrubland to the north is the village of Mohajerin, site of another Canadian Platoon House. To the south is Salavat and, beyond, Nakhonay. To the west are the inhabited outskirts of Bazaar-e-Panjwai, the district’s main town. To the east are a string of roads and small villages which remain, at this point, essentially unexplored.
The first task, then, is to search the road to the east for improvised explosive devices—the deadly bombs rigged or triggered by the enemy to explode if a suitably anti-Taliban target wanders within range.
The unenviable task of sweeping the road for explosives falls to the men of the 1 Combat Engineer Regiment attachment, led by Sgt. Travis Bramble. Wandering down the dirt road clasping metal detectors in a search for bombs of unknown construction, possibly plastic, well, it couldn’t be fun. But the engineers seem oddly happy to do it.
The infantry guys disperse widely into the fields as the bomb detectors go to work. When one of the engineers hits something that triggers his detector, Bramble walks 10 feet or so backward, away from the site. It’s a small move, but it says a lot about what has to happen out here to prevent multiple injuries or deaths from a single device.
As the engineer digs into the side of the road, looking for explosives, the infantry and the media hang well back from the scene, happy to observe and commentate on the proceedings. “The good thing is you’re never gonna feel it if you hit one,” says Private Tom Bryson, philosophically. “The bad thing is that you’re going to join the Crimson Mist Society.”
After several long investigations by the engineers, however, no bombs were found and the patrol moved off the road and into the outskirts of a village, having cleared its first objective.
Up until this point, First Platoon had been very cautious around Salavat’s residents—whenever patrols came across locals they would carefully search them before allowing the Afghans to intermingle with the patrol. For the first time, on this patrol, that protocol was abandoned. Indeed, after looping into southern Salavat and seeing no one, the patrol headed north, right through downtown at dusk. At first, with Corporal Little on point, the patrol took its time with every villager—stopping them, searching them, asking them questions, but after an hour or so some combination of impatience and confidence took over and the Canadians essentially rolled straight through the mud town, past literally hordes of Afghans, who stood off the narrow dirt roads, marvelling at the passing parade of armoured infidels.
While running the gauntlet through town was a change in protocol, nobody was really responsible for it. John Little was on point, as he almost always was, and if anything precipitated the new patrolling technique it was Little’s mounting frustration with the interpreter’s apparent inability to relay simple commands to the villagers: “You don’t pass directions very well, do you?” Little yelled at the interpreter after the third straight Afghan did the opposite of what he wanted.
Beyond the interpreter situation though, was the situation with Little himself. While certainly not abnormal among the soldiers in his love of edgy adventure, Little did sometimes seem to go a little hard in the direction of mayhem. If there was a dangerous situation, it was a pretty good bet that Little was there. Why it would be this way was a small mystery. Perhaps he took the lead so that no one else had to do it, possibly he did it for his own reasons, but on each patrol he was invariably out front, walking point, jauntily, acting in equal parts as human mine detector and ambush spotter.
Not surprisingly, Little sort of made a joke of his penchant for constantly taking risks. “I’ve just admitted defeat on this trip,” he said. “There are so many good things you can do in your life after you’ve admitted defeat and come to terms with death. You have special powers.
Later on, after the patrol returned safely, Alpha Company commander Major Ryan Jurkowski sat down for a few moments to explain his current concept of why operations should proceed slowly in Salavat. “We are waiting for the right time to see how we can help them further. We are waiting for that right balance of trust, and ANA command presence, to be able to see what exactly we can do for Salavat.
“In the meantime, we are having an impact on enemy operations. We’re seeing a lot of intimidation of the locals in the outlying communities. We’re trying to identify that and help break it. In time the insurgents will decide either to f–k with our lines of communication, go kinetic or just leave us alone.”
Day 10 — An Actual Shura Occurs, Saed Emerges As An Afghan Patriot Of Sorts
The day began early with an unmitigated tragedy at the camp, as two of the buckets being used for outhouse duty were stolen during the night or early morning. Early suspicions fell on the Afghan National Police (ANP) who had appeared at some point to play their role in the day’s scheduled Shura. The suspicions stayed firmly on the ANP throughout the day, though the buckets were not seen again.
The ANP were here, it turns out, as an escort for Hajji Baran, the stout and heavily bearded leader of the Panjwai district who was currently, and kind of oddly, on the roof of the compound’s little white schoolhouse, pacing back and forth in his giant robes. It wasn’t clear how he got up there.
A small group of soldiers were staring upwards, watching him, wondering why it was that such a prominent local figure was on the roof of their sleeping quarters. “That is a strange sight,” said M.Cpl. Paul Guilmane “That is not usual.” He turns to speak to another soldier. “I saw him go up there, but I didn’t do anything about it. I figured somebody knew what was going on.”
“He’s probably pacing the place out,” said another soldier.
Soon enough, however, Baran got down off the roof as real excitement rippled through the Platoon House—actual elderly Afghans were approaching the base: It looked like the Shura was about to happen.
It turned out to be a false start. As the three white-bearded Afghan men made their way across the field from Mohajerin to the north, Baran and Talsma went out to meet them.
Baran began by scolding them. “Why are there only three of you?” he chastised. “I am here and so all your village elders should be here to see me.”
“There are evil animals in the village,” one of the men replied. “The others are scared.” Another of the men produced a letter from the Taliban which had been nailed onto a door the night before. According to the translator, the letter promised death for any villagers who attended the Shura.
Baran was not impressed. He told them to kick the insurgents out of their town.
“I cannot create security,” replied one of the villagers. “You are here to do that,” he said, motioning at Baran and the Canadians.
Baran was unmoved. He scolded the men at length for their village’s cowardice and then unceremoniously sent them away.
With the Shura evidently over before it began, Talsma gave a curt nod and a smile as he watched the men walk away while Baran huffed and puffed about his pride. It seemed like Talsma was getting used to the unexpected and was now beginning to enjoy being surprised and disappointed.
Talsma turned to look at me. “How’s your hope now?” he asked.
“I don’t know what that word would even mean out here,” I replied.
Talsma stopped and thought for a second. “When Pandora’s Box was opened and all the horrors of the world were visited upon them, all that remained was hope.”
I just looked at him. He smiled and walked off to do unknown things, probably start planning another Shura.
Back inside the base, Baran and his crew of suspected bucket thieves were warming up their tan pickup trucks for a hasty departure. Just then, word came down from a one of the guard towers that a crowd of 30 to 40 Afghans was approaching the base from the south. It was the elders of Salavat, and they were coming to talk.
It was a momentous development. After weeks of steady Canadian presence—it was the Van Doos who established the base, and held it, in the summer and early fall—there had been little sign of co-operation from the villagers, but 10 days after First Platoon arrives, the elders come out to talk.
Talsma whipped up a reception party and began to prepare a meeting area in the abandoned field next to the base.
The villagers streamed in. Dozens of bearded Afghans took seats on the hard ground surrounding Baran, Talsma and Saed. “We are scared that ISAF (International Security Assistance Force soldiers) are going to shoot our kids,” says one elder.
“Tell the insurgents not to fight in the village and that won’t happen,” replied Baran.
“It’s not the best solution to patrol through the town like they are,” said a villager, gesturing at the Canadians.
“We can go where we want,” replied Baran, with a serious deficit of diplomacy. “We can put checkpoints anywhere we want. Nobody can stop us.”
It was probably Baran’s incendiary attitude that kicked off the squabble, but in short order a solid dozen of the village elders were shouting over top of each other as Baran shouted back. The interpreters gave up interpreting.
And then something unexpected happened. Saed took charge. As Baran stayed seated, bickering with the locals, Saed stood up and delivered a nearly 20-minute speech. The speech was a marvel of rhetoric, standing up there in front of all the seated villagers, speaking angrily, sometimes yelling, tossing his hat around, gesturing wildly, the ANA lieutenant showed all the charm of a strongman.
The speech also gives interesting insights into the shape of the conflict directly from the mind of an Afghan, which is rare enough to be notable.
“Believe in god,” Saed began. “Don’t believe in the words of men. I was here in the time of Taliban and I fought the Russians and I’m here now.
“The uniform I wear, this is not an American uniform. This is my uniform. I’m not a coward. I know other Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis come here, but my pride will not allow me to let them intimidate you. If you have any problems, show me where, who, and I will take care of it.”
One of the main themes of Saed’s speech was a plea for unity among Afghans to achieve peace and security. He even went so far as to say that should the Taliban prevail, he would work for them. At the same time, he argued against the Taliban’s brutal methods. “The Talibs are not strange to me. He is an Afghan. He is my hand, my arm, my knee, a part of my culture, my people, no matter what happens. If a Talib is doing things to support his family, come to us, we will support you; we will give jobs to you. You don’t need to destroy your village and your people.
“We’re not scared of the Taliban. I have people beside me and they are very brave people and I will put a soldier in each house if I have to and if they still want to come they have to come through me. I am willing to sacrifice. We shouldn’t fear these Taliban. We only fear god. We don’t fear men who destroy schools and kill people. This is not Islam. This is not a jihad. The Koran does not say to do this.
“God didn’t give me the power to kill children or police or ANA. Even as a Talib, if you come to power tomorrow, don’t you need the ANA? The ANP? So why do you kill us? We are all Afghans.”
The villagers sat quietly as Saed spoke. It went on and on. He attacked the Taliban on pretty much every possible front, even arguing that the Taliban are motivated mainly by money. “If the Taliban want to achieve something, why don’t they come here and talk to me, let them come, we will talk. We have our pride. We have our history. But when we see money, we melt. We sell each other for money. The Talibs are me—my father, my uncle, my brother. Maybe they are being forced to do this. They do it for money. This is not a jihad. The Taliban are doing this for their pocket; it is not part of Islam. They do the jihad to fill their pockets on the name of Islam. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, or what you will do, at the end you are going to die, and the day you face god, what will you tell him about how you lived?
“People of Salavat, please do not make religion part of your business, do not make money on your religion.
“God will not appreciate this, and you will have nothing to say to god. You will not go to paradise. Everybody has come to bombard us, whether it’s western countries or Taliban. They want to make paradise in Afghanistan. I don’t want this paradise.
“What kind of jihad is this? Are you going to behead innocent people? What kind of jihad is this? The prophet never said to make suicide bombers in the bazaar, to kill innocent women and children. This is not Islam. And if I am lying now, someone please stand up and tell me.”
In a part of his speech that, once translated, would give some Canadian officers reason to pause, Saed made several promises to the villagers that were essentially impossible to fulfil. “I know everybody has a weapon, if you don’t have it, come to me and I will give it to you,” he said, before going on to add: “I said before that I will bring light to every house and if this doesn’t happen, I will not build a single wall.”
In the final part of his speech, Saed gave the villagers an ultimatum. It wasn’t a threat, but it was a forceful direction to the villagers that they would have to stop playing both sides and choose who to support. “I am here for your security. This is your right. Ask for your rights and you will get them. Make your demands. Let’s get on the same path. Let’s try harder. When you see these foreigners, these ISAF, they are here to help you. We invited them here. President Hamid Karzai invited them here. If they were here to take over the country by force, then I would also be on the Taliban side, fighting them.
“Whatever you do, as long as you don’t lie that’s the most important thing in Islam. Here, from our youngest child to our elder, everyday we lie. We tell lies. This is wrong. You people lie to me. You cheat me. Be good to me, or be bad to me, so I know who my enemy is. You have to make a decision—you’re with us or against us. Then I can see my enemy, and I can fight him. You people have to come to an agreement among yourselves as to what to do. If you are not happy with what I’ve said, you can shoot me.”
And with that, Saed sat down. The villagers stayed silent for a few moments. It had been, in the words of the Afghan-Canadian who translated it, a “hot speech.” It had been equal parts bold and threatening, and in it Saed had indeed sought to establish himself as an authority in the area.
Talsma had an intently interested look on his face. He would later say that the snippets of Saed’s speech he’d heard through the translator had him intrigued. It wasn’t until after the speech was translated that he’d learned Saed had promised the villagers electricity and weapons. And told them they had to choose whether they were with us or against us.
The villagers talked amongst themselves and then an elder stood up to give a reply. The meeting was over, he said, the elders would now go away and decide what to do. Either they would stay and begin to co-operate with Saed and the Canadians or they would all leave the village.
They would come back in two days with their answer.
If they chose to leave, the Platoon House in Salavat would be almost instantly rendered irrelevant. If they chose to stay, it would be a first step towards success. It was as close to a decisive moment as is likely to occur in a long counter-insurgency effort. The villagers were about to have a referendum on whether to side with their government, or not.
Later on that night, the First Platoon leadership sat around discussing the events of the day with some amazement. Saed had emerged as an entirely different type of player and now the struggle for Salavat was getting interesting.
If the villagers stay, said a soldier, it will be kind of like winning a battle.
Warrant Eisan raised his head at that. “In this war, there is no ‘winning.’ People talk about ‘winning’ but I don’t think it can happen here.”
Nobody disagreed with him.
In the final instalment: The villagers vote on the future of Salavat.
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