For the first few days the platoon was uneasy. So much of everything was unknown. As a unit they were new to the war but they knew the war’s reputation for random savagery.
As each patrol was leaving the little fortified schoolhouse over the first days, the soldiers staying behind would come out to see them off, pretending to tease them. Or maybe they would really tease them. There were always a few sombre last moments as the guys gave each other thumbs up or fist bumps on their way out, and then it would start. ‘Have fun at the war soldiers,’ someone might yell in a girl’s voice. ‘Watch out for those IEDs, tough guys,’ another might yell cutely. It seemed pretty clear the soldiers were worried about each other.
The war has never really been what anyone wanted. There isn’t enough clarity, not enough linearity. The enemy are phantoms and their supporters hide in plain sight. They are everywhere and nowhere. Nothing really makes sense the way it should, least of all the combat itself.
When the violence comes, if it comes, it’s as unfathomable and bewildering as the war itself. The enemy has understood they won’t survive if they fight in the open so they have become masters at concealment, they encrypt themselves into the landscape; they become a part of the place itself.
For the Canadians deployed to Kandahar in the fall of 2009, for the men of 1st Platoon, Alpha (1st) Company, 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 1st Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group—the first of the first of the first of the first, the tip of the tip of the tip of the tip of the spear—the enemy’s ability to blend into the land is disconcerting, at least.
The enemy is here, all over here, but they’re bomb-planters and long-range potshotters, not soldiers. Instead of fanatical gunmen, it seems like the Patricias are fighting the land itself. The trees shoot at them. The dirt shoots at them. They shoot back at the trees and the dirt. They fear the ground will explode beneath them and the ground sometimes explodes and then their legs and their arms and their faces get blasted from them. War like this seems not only unsatisfying but cruel. It’s like going into a bar looking for a fistfight but getting cancer instead. They’re in a fight, but it’s not the fight they wanted.
First Platoon had come to Salavat, pretty much right in the centre of the infamous Panjwai district, heartland of the cancer, to live among the villagers and show them straight up and straight out that NATO is here to help. They will spend a while, maybe their whole tour, maybe just a couple months, trying to win the trust and support of Salavat’s citizens. They will be a combination military force, humanitarian force and police force. They will be the village combat police. It wasn’t a job they trained for, not really, and it wasn’t the war that many of them wanted, but it was their duty and they were going to do their best.
Whether they could win was unclear. What winning meant wasn’t totally clear either. But Legion Magazine was on the ground with the platoon for the first few weeks of their new war, watching as they came to grips with an invisible enemy, the seemingly boundless mistrust of the locals, corrupt officials and a group of Afghan allies that were at best inconsistent and at worse, traitorous. While the next few weeks would have many low points—being rejected by some villagers, having to post armed guards on the camp’s command post after a confrontation with the Afghan National Army (ANA) commander, endless communication problems, a spotty resupply system and the corrosive uncertainty of the whole situation—there were also many small triumphs and a surprise, climactic ending as the villagers of Salavat came together to vote once and for all whether to stay and co-operate with the Canadians or flee the village, leaving it to become just another battlefield.
Into The Heart Of Darkness
Salavat is a city of several thousand people. It’s a rambling collection of mud-walled compounds and mud huts crouched beneath the towering Salavat Ghar, a mountain directly south. Inside Salavat time seems to have stopped moving forward sometime about 850 A.D. The only electricity comes from one or two generators and the sewage runs in the streets. It’s one indication of the age of this dry, desert community that the sewage ditches have in some places been eroded to a depth of six feet or more.
The Canadians have been here off and on, impermanently, over the past few years but made the most recent push in the early summer of 2009. They had to blast their way into town, under attack, and they had to use a Leopard tank’s main gun to shoot their way into their new base, a school compound just a few hundred metres north of the city itself.
These white schools are scattered all over Panjwai, built with UNICEF money during a more peaceful time of the war back in 2005. The schools are now mostly disused, damaged or in some cases, famously destroyed. In 2006, one of the white schools became the notorious focal point of Operation Medusa, the massive Canadian-led effort to rid the Panjwai-Zhari area of Taliban elements.
The Canadians call it a ‘platoon house,’ and it’s their latest attempt to position soldiers out among the population. What the villagers of Salavat call it is not known, but it probably wasn’t ‘platoon house.’
Inside the compound in early October, a small village of foreigners had taken root, a colony of strangers who’d come to try their hand at remaking this Afghan world. The platoon house is a combination of a boys’ fort and something more desperate. The windowless windows are stuffed with sandbags, evoking a scene from Sarajevo circa 1995, and there are two rough-hewn guard towers standing watch. There are camo nets strung up and the showers are two big blue barrels of water with a little kerosene heater. The air smells like dust and fuel and shit. The various rocket launchers, machine-guns and occasional missile system reveal the fort’s tenuous position. One of the central dangers of putting small groups of soldiers out on their own is that occasionally the enemy will attack and once in a while they’ll manage to overrun a camp.
For three weeks before 1st Platoon arrived a group of Vandoos were here, building the base and closing out their tour. The official transfer of command for the Salavat platoon house occurred on Sunday, Oct. 11. It was a scene of dusty near-chaos as the Vandoos and Patricias crowded their LAVs and assorted vehicles into the safety of the school compound as the changeover proceeded. Seeing the two groups mix was a stark introduction to the different cultures of the two units. The Vandoos have an extravagant sense of style. Many of them favour headbands, complicated hairstyles and apparently tailored pants that create an impression of Gallic insouciance. First Platoon, on the other hand, seem to favour a much more casual look, kind of like snowboarders at war, but with large muscles and ironic moustaches.
On that first day, just how exactly the soldiers of 1st Platoon would go about winning Salavat’s heart wasn’t perfectly understood. On the night of Oct. 11, platoon commander Captain Bryce Talsma and his section commanders sat down to figure out a plan.
One thing is for sure, words alone won’t be enough. At this point in their history, now literally 30 years deep into an unending war, they knew the people were something beyond skeptical, way beyond distrustful, something closer to broken, at least so far as their ability to have faith in the best intentions of foreigners is concerned.
But beyond those considerations were many more practical concerns. Nobody, for example, had any real idea what was going on in Salavat as a kind of impasse had developed over the past few days wherein the ANA unit living alongside the Canadians at the Salavat base wouldn’t agree to patrol into the town until an observation post (OP) was established to give covering fire in the event of ambush.
The natural place to put this post was on the aptly named ‘Russian OP,’ which was a small mountain made by the Russians during their occupation of Salavat in the 1980s. While it was merely a few hundred metres from the Canadian base, getting up on top presented many problems, not the least of which was the last time any Canadians tried to get up there—and it was the Vandoos a few weeks before—they were blown up. While the Vandoos had gone up the hill in the most careful way possible, they’d been caught out by a linked series of IEDs—called a daisychain—that exploded right beneath them, causing several casualties but no deaths.
Talsma and his sergeants sit around outside the command post discussing their options long into the night. It gets cold, but they keep talking, excited by the challenge ahead of them.
Out of the darkness a visitor appears. It’s another Canadian officer, Lieutenant Andrew Stocker, 24. He’s with the Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) and he too lives on the base, here to work alongside Lieut. Saed, the ANA commander. Stocker’s been here for a few weeks already and he delivers to the newly arrived 1st Platoon a halting but articulate briefing on the local situation, the upshot of which is that nobody is sure what’s going on or who can be trusted, but that’s as far as hard intelligence goes. He’s pretty sure that a recent mortar attack came from the backyard of the local village leader, Hajji Pir Mohammed.
This happens to be the same man that Talsma had been told by his command was a probable ally, and a valuable one at that.
After hearing Stocker’s briefing, Talsma looks around at the faces of the sergeants, formerly energized, but now somewhat crestfallen as they consider the apparent complexity of the local situation. Seeing a need for an instant morale boost, Talsma jokes, sarcastically, that we’re gonna win it outright and be home by Christmas, complete with singing in the streets. It is perhaps a measure of the war that everyone instantly and completely understands how ridiculous this idea is, and so they laugh.
Enter The Pope
Before General Stanley McChrystal arrived, the war effort was, to be polite, somewhat fractured. There wasn’t any real control from the top down. While the military situation in Afghanistan has clearly been counter-insurgency since at least 2006, it didn’t mean that each of the contributing NATO countries was employing strategy or tactics appropriate to the fight. Instead, there was much improvisation, many large bases were built and way too many bombs were dropped, each new battle group charged the field in its own way, it seemed each one made a new estimate of how to proceed, their own guess. Across the south, others were making guesses too, similar or different, who knew. It was a whole world’s collection of armies guessing at the same time. The result was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a worsening.
McChrystal is an American general, a longtime veteran of the Special Operations Forces community, rather legendary actually for his intensity and focus, rumoured to sleep only a few hours a night and eat rarely, he had long ago been nicknamed ‘the Pope.’ The story on McChrystal was that he was the opposite of a politician; he was someone who would accomplish the mission at all costs, but not calculate whether the mission was worth the costs.
His plan, more of a philosophy really, was to shift the focus from dropping bombs and shooting bad guys to protecting civilians and building schools. Soldiers would get off the big bases and live among the people. Civilian casualties would be avoided even at high cost in allied casualties. These weren’t new ideas, but the difference now was that McChrystal was in charge of the whole show, and he gave very clear direction to everybody on how to proceed—in this way there was no doubt, the Pope was at least willing to lead, and his plan was an antidote for the horrific vagueness of the war so far.
Of course, a good plan isn’t worth much if it can’t be executed. McChrystal wasn’t just fighting that unruly band of Pashtun tribal zealots that we call the Taliban, his plan would also be coming into some conflict with the culture and training of the military forces under his command, most of which were seeped in the kind of conventional force-on-force conflict rarely seen in Afghanistan.
Lip service aside, there are few armies actually set up for counter-insurgency.
The nature of the army is violence. At night, infantry officers go to sleep dreaming of decisive engagements, of finding and killing enough of the enemy that something changes. And so the danger is that they’ll wake up in the morning and go chasing phantoms, creating violence when violence was unnecessary.
Soldiers don’t generally tell stories of how on a past tour they won the allegiance of a local shopkeeper, they don’t brag of their skills at village pacification. They are gunmen, shooters.
This is not a criticism, not a fault. They are soldiers after all.
Talsma and 1st Platoon were ready, however. Many had read their McChrystal. They knew the plan. They didn’t know if they could do it, didn’t know if it would work, but the seduction of Salavat was about to begin.
Day 1: The Start Of Their New War
The night was freezing. Truly and surprisingly cold. If you’re ever travelling to southern Panjwai in October, here’s a piece of advice: a summer sleeping bag is not appropriate. Not even close. And don’t be fooled by the heat’s wicked daytime intensity, the nights are equally but oppositely intense. Also, be prepared to die in a confrontation with any of the deadly local snakes, spiders or scorpions. On the Patricia’s first night in Salavat—and for the subsequent 14, in fact—the doorways of the little white schoolhouse didn’t have any actual doors and so everyone woke up bright and early and cold on Monday to see scorpions and camel spiders scurrying around their beds and boots. The braver soldiers attacked, most stayed tucked up in their bunks.
In any case, all 30 or so of the guys in 1st Platoon managed to survive the night in order to start a hasty rebuild of the camp’s defensive positions just after breakfast. It wasn’t that the Vandoos did a bad job building the bunkers and firing points, it was just that the Patricias wanted to do better. As the troops tore down the three-week-old structures, Talsma began to sort out the day’s plan—to start figuring out how to get up onto the Russian OP—but beyond that, he also talked a bit about his emerging strategy for his platoon’s conquest of Salavat.
“There’s a tendency in the army to be aggressive, especially in my regiment, and it’s an excellent attribute to have in a traditional army,” he said. “But we’re now adopting a new expression, ‘slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Walk to the fight,’ said Talsma. “Historically, Canadians were known as shock troops—we want to rush in, we want to attack—I think that’s inherent in our national psyche, to want to take it to them, to get in the fight. But in the way this Afghan conflict is now we’ve got to do it differently. We’ve won the combat and now we have to win against the insurgency. We won the fight, but now we gotta win the peace.”
Talsma, 29, is a self-described ‘Alberta boy’ and he talks with the affable calm of an athlete but can also fire off bursts of sustained thought that seem somewhat startling to his men. Prone to self-deprecation and possessing a slightly seditious sense of humour which was entertaining during briefings but seemed to get him in trouble with superior officers, Talsma was well-respected by his troops and NCOs, at least in the particular grudging and non-compliant way that Patricia enlisted men tend to treat even the officers they like.
“We’re trying to balance counter-insurgency with maintaining our manoeuvre force,” Talsma went on, sitting in a collapsible Legion chair outside the command post. “And there’s still that hangover from 2006, where everyone wants to be Colonel Ian Hope or Col. Omer Lavoie and kick the shit out of everyone here and show who the big dog is. I’m not sure if we as a battle group have reconciled to this new mission, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I have either.”
In a few sentences Talsma managed, in a way I would later come to see as characteristic of his thought processes, to sum up neatly the problem facing the platoon and the company and the battle group and, perhaps, all of the many armies in Afghanistan. The new mission was not find-fix-and-kill, not search and destroy, not hunt, not shoot, even. The new mission was all softness. The new mission was to make friends, to build up allies and try to get in between the enemy and the population. It was nation-building, from the dirt up, in the world’s most dangerous place.
And before they could even think about accomplishing it, 1st Platoon and all the other armies had to come to terms with the grinding, incremental nature of the job. It would be baby steps through a minefield, the whole way. And baby step number one was getting up onto the Russian OP.
“Priority number one is getting that observation post in place because that solves pretty much every problem of security for Salavat,” said Talsma, glancing southwards toward the town, looking mostly as if he wished the reporter would stop asking him questions so that he could get to work.
Working with the Afghans, however, would prove to be even more trying for Talsma. It’s not just the language that keeps the allies apart, but the slight and not-so-slight cultural differences that abound. On Monday, two Afghans were wandering around the command post looking for the ‘doctor’ but with little luck. Eventually, Talsma went and found the medic, the tall, fit and very female Corporal Becky Hudson of 1 Field Ambulance.
“You’re looking for the medic?” Talsma asked what had to be the meanest looking Afghan soldier in the camp. “This is her,” he said, nodding to Hudson.
“Her?” the Afghan said, looking like he definitely did not believe it. “Really?”
Talsma nodded. The Afghan shrugged as if the whole thing was impossibly distasteful but, reluctantly, he nodded towards the infirmary and off they went.
“Crazy Canadians,” Talsma said in a parody of the Afghan soldier’s reaction before stalking off to check on the status of the camp’s defences.
Just after 3 p.m. on Monday a patrol of just over a dozen 1st Platoon soldiers and an assortment of engineers from 1 Combat Engineer Regiment went out to do a reconnaissance of the Russian OP. It was their first time outside the wire and, while it was still within sight of the wire, it was a tense operation due to the known IED threat.
Just south of the base, while the patrol was stopped to figure out a route to the base of the Russian OP, two Afghan boys came along the road with a wheelbarrow full of weed and wanted to get by. Cpl. Jesse Evanshen radioed patrol leader Sergeant C.J. Flach who answered that, yes they could pass, but they had to be searched and to ‘make them stick their own fucking hands in the wheelbarrow.’ Evanshen asked the boys five different ways to lift up the marijuana so he could see and nothing worked. He grew a little frustrated. ‘Lift the fucking vegetation,’ he said slowly, angrily. And they sort of magically understood. And this was the first of the many difficult interactions 1st Platoon would have with the villagers over the coming weeks.
As for the Russian OP, there was no good news. Getting on top would be no easy matter, and not just because of the potential for daisy-chained IEDs, but there’s also a graveyard on one side and the locals are using the top to dry grapes, both of which factors will require negotiations before the Canadians can take over the hill. Furthermore, the engineers were not confident they could ever really clear the place of mines, at least not without more manpower.
Flach, having processed all this information, kind of put the nail in the coffin on the whole project. “And what if we got to the top and it’s just another angle on a new blind spot?” he asked to no one in particular.
There had already been undercurrents of disagreement about the Russian OP, it should be noted. Several of the platoon’s senior enlisted men didn’t like the idea of taking direction from Saed, didn’t like the idea that the ANA’s hesitation would be allowed to limit their movement into Salavat. Whether Talsma agreed with this position was unclear, at least on Monday. His position would become very clear in a few days.
What was beyond doubt, however, is that enemy were out there, plotting, the villagers had hearts and minds that needed to be won and the Russian OP project stood in the way of both. Also, it should be noted here that the almost heart-shattering irony of the fact that we are using Vietnam war terminology, in the shadow of a Soviet fortification, while we conduct a spiraling counter-insurgency ourselves, is not lost on anyone, least of all Talsma. In the near future he would begin plotting to change the hill’s name from the ‘Russian OP’ to something more neutral like ‘Heartbreak Ridge,’ though it wouldn’t work.
At 4:48 p.m. on Monday there was the third large unexplained explosion of the day. It’s hard to say how far away it was, maybe 1,500 metres or more, but it had the disconcerting effect that high-explosives have on the human body, even at long range. The first indication you have that there’s been a blast is felt rather than heard, as the shockwave smacks sub-sonically against your eyes and ears and sucks air from your lungs. The soldier’s have a peculiar lack of curiosity about these explosions. Well, it’s not that they aren’t curious perhaps, but instead that they know from long experience that they’ll never find out what it was anyway and so any attempt to investigate is just a waste of energy.
And this is something unique about being in a war zone—information seems to have a negative flow to it. On the ground, in the sand, the things you learn don’t really build your knowledge so much as they undermine the things you thought you knew. With each random explosion you are less sure what’s actually going on in the neighbourhood, for example. And so, with each passing moment you seem to know slightly less than you knew the moment before.
It is perhaps for this reason that rumours have such vital currency among the troops and are traded with relentless vigour. For example, there’s a story going around camp that yesterday an Afghan National Policeman (ANP) got a little too high on hash and fired a couple of rounds off into the camp’s kitchen wall. While no (recent) bullet holes could be found after a cursory investigation, the story refused to die, indicating that even if it didn’t have a factual truth, it still held some kind of meaning—evidently that the ANP weren’t exceptionally well trusted around firearms.
In any event, despite its possible wounds, the kitchen did manage to make the troops happy after their long day of sandbag filling and construction as, during the day’s base cleaning labours, a stash of frozen hot dogs and chicken was discovered, which led to a hasty barbecue. And so dinner that night was a chicken patty, two slices of processed cheese and some Cajun powdered seasoning, topped with another patty, accompanied by some warm Arabian water and a package of what looked to be counterfeit Oreo cookies. Not only was the font and graphic design on the Oreo package plainly wrong, but the cookies tasted like stale chalk. It was a war, after all, and the real food, which would be the last for more than two weeks, was definitely better than the stodgy rations.
Another of the relentlessly discussed issues on that Monday night was when and how the platoon would make their first move into the outskirts of Salavat. Yesterday, the Vandoos had described what they’d done as foreplay only; they hadn’t gone deep into Salavat. They’d done, they said, everything other than the real thing.
Almost immediately, the troops starting talking about the inevitable first patrol in Salavat in sexual terms, quoting a famous scene from a recent comedy movie and calling the upcoming recce the tip patrol. It’s “just the tip, just for a second, just to see how it feels,” they joked. “It’s no big deal. We’ll still be friends in the morning. And if she closes her legs hard on it, we’re not gonna get violent, we’re not gonna get mad, she’s just obviously not ready. She just needs some more caressing.”
But first, there was the tactical impasse represented by the Russian OP. “The enemy know before every push into Salavat that we occupy that hill to get overwatch, so they IED it, so we have to clear it first. But clearing it is time-consuming so we don’t want to clear it until we can leave a force up there,” said Talsma.
Just after last light, Talsma called a section leader meeting to figure out a patrol plan for next day’s clearance patrol around the area of the base. Because 1 Section hadn’t arrived yet, manpower was critically short. There were about 30 Canadians on the base, but not all of them were infantry. In the end, after enquiring (with due sarcasm) whether Legion Magazine could please carry a weapon on the patrol, Talsma did manage to shuffle the guard schedule in order to dig up the bare minimum for the patrol.
Day 2: First Patrol Into Salavat
The night was again cold, desert cold, but at dawn, just after 6 a.m., the birds begin chirping and the soldiers are snoring and the sun is streaming in through the sandbags to bring light to our otherwise dark and slightly damp concrete hut.
The rooms smell like old socks and, strangely enough, hockey equipment—it’s that smell of sweat-soaked gear, left to dry and then reused in a never-ending cycle.
From the beginning not only was the enemy a problem, not only was the war a problem, but the more domestic concerns were also troubling, especially for Warrant Officer Dan Eisan, the indefatigable 42-year-old tasked with keeping the little base running and everybody happy and comfortable, despite the halting, if not downright non-functioning, nature of the supply system. While rations themselves were thankfully not in short supply, pretty much everything else was, from the basic tools of hygiene to batteries to, at one point, water.
As would become routine over the coming weeks, the soldiers congregate outside the CP to sit around and discuss their predicament. On this morning the discussion is of the possibility of installing some snipers (who had yet to arrive) up on Salavat Ghar to provide clear and definite information about possible enemy movement in the area. Eisan, overhearing this conversation, sighs and shakes his head: “Yeah, we need shitter bags before we get snipers,” he says wearily.
The soldiers are unimpressed with Eisan’s domestic concerns and once he leaves they begin to discuss what would become a very pressing matter—the rumoured infestation of Persian Vipers and other deadly snakes into the base.
“If we don’t get cats we’re gonna get giant mice and then we’re gonna get giant snakes,” said a soldier.
“Yeah, but then we’re gonna need giant dogs to get rid of the giant cats,” replied another.
In fact, the snake infestation would become distressingly real all too soon, and would culminate in a knife fight between Talsma and a snarling attack snake as the media representative screamed and ran for his life. But that’s another story.
Later in the morning, the carefully laid plans for a patrol to the east dissolved in a flurry of ANA reluctance as today they had a feast scheduled and they weren’t as keen on war-fighting. Instead, there were goats to be slaughtered.
At the CP, as the confusion over the ANA is getting sorted out, two Canadian Griffon helicopters call in to report they’re “on station” and available for whatever Salavat might need, such as checking out nearby compounds or scanning routes for IEDs. It’s hard to describe the subtle kick the soldiers get out of having the Griffons overhead. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is a little bit more than happy to see the Griffons thumping around up there.
As the choppers clatter noisily overhead, the guys recount different versions of an event a few days ago when the Griffon door gunners unleashed all manner of chain-gun fury on a dumb insurgent who apparently was unaware the Griffons operated in teams. When one flew by, he emerged to shoot at it with a PKM belt-fed machine-gun, and while he got off a few rounds, the trailing Griffon took it personally and the guy’s days of machine-gunning Canadian choppers came to a sudden end. Or so the story goes.
Somehow, Talsma managed to convince Saed to change his mind and the patrol was suddenly back on schedule. The relationship between Talsma, Stocker and Saed was fraught with difficulty. Talsma’s directive was to ‘partner’ with the ANA in general and Saed in particular and Stocker’s directive was to help make that partnership work. For his part, as would become clear later, Saed had his own intent and his own ideas for Salavat, only some of which were allied with Talsma’s.
Saed faced a great many problems, in fact. His unit hadn’t had time off in many, many months. They were far away from their families and they weren’t being paid a very significant wage. They’d also reportedly seen a great deal of intense combat. As a result, desertion was a major problem. While in theory they were a company commanded by a higher-ranked officer, Saed’s boss was himself currently AWOL and his troops numbered only about 30.
It may not be a surprise then that discipline among the ANA was low, or that Saed seemed increasingly intent on avoiding conflict with local insurgents. As the mixed patrol of Canadians and Afghans formed up in the middle of the compound, the stark contrast between the two military forces was clear. The Canadians looked eager in their combat gear, all high-tech and buckled down, like sportsmen ready for a championship game. But the ANA were different. For some reason as they stand there in their ill-fitting uniforms, helmets on sideways, looking disastrously misplaced, it’s hard not to think of them as lost, as coming from nowhere and going into nothing, fate’s unfortunate in search of the hardest easy money going.
With considerable delay, the patrol leaves the base and moves east along a gravel road, across an expanse of desert scrubland several thousand metres wide. It then moves south through grapefields and into the eastern edge of Salavat, to be met by smiling children and old men proffering tea. Tea was duly drunk.
While it took only a paragraph to write, it did take many long hours to do. Movement was slowed as the patrol split into two sections, and then three, and communications broke down all around as the personal radios the soldiers carried proved to be either broken or unsuitable to the terrain or both. There was confusion, and there was tediousness, and eventually the two merged and the afternoon slipped gracefully away as we took turns observing the utter strangeness of the village around us.
Whatever order you are used to in your life, the Afghans of Salavat do not share that with you. Here, they keep their goats on the roof and their toddlers begin working pretty much as soon as they can walk and when they smile and act friendly you’ll never ever know if they really mean it. Also, they are sometimes impossibly uncivil to each other.
For example, I was given a piece of Afghan fudge by Cpl. John Little, who had been given it by a local shopkeeper with whom they were having tea. I in turn gave it to a small and dirt-encrusted little Afghan girl lurking nearby. She looked elated and a little scared when I gave it to her. Moments later I saw why as a gang of young boys rushed at her. She did not try to run, she just tried to get the fudge in her mouth before they got to her. She mostly failed. Two boys launched into her and smacked her head off the hard wall and she went down in a lump, no longer clutching the candy. She got up and looked at me with tears in her eyes, wearing the apparently universal facial expression of a child who has been beaten and robbed of their candy. I had nothing else to give her. I felt far worse than if I’d never given her the candy in the first place. I don’t imagine she was too happy either.
In their first real meeting with the villagers, the soldiers had hoped to learn about the area and the enemy and especially any intelligence about the presence and location of IEDs. While friendly, the villagers had nothing to say, which was frustrating. This frustration came out in odd ways. “Do you feel like playing a game I call mine detector?” The question came from one of the soldiers, directed at a little Afghan boy as we walked away from the village and back into the uncertain terrain near the base. The boy looked at him quizzically.
After the patrol, Talsma conducted a ‘hotwash’ to concentrate and distil the platoon’s observations. Sgt. Dwayne MacDougall went first. The leader of the as-yet-to-arrive 1 Section, MacDougall was a former boxer, firebrand and all-round focal point of the platoon’s character. While he would later be called ‘the one-man village pacification weapon’ by company commander Major Ryan Jurkowski, he too was still finding his feet in this new mission. MacDougall’s main concern on this day was the many incredibly deep and dangerous open wells the patrol had run into. These wells were no small matter, one Patricia had already died falling into one of them and they represent another one of those threats—much like IEDs—that seem to consume the soldiers. Not only did MacDougall want to chart the wells on their GPS units, he also wanted to press the supply situation so that a well-rescue kit could be procured. (It would be a long, long time before it showed up, however.)
Talsma then proceeded to go around the room looking for information. There is no school in Salavat, a soldier had learned. There used to be, but now the Canadians were living in it. They heard from the same man that there are a few Taliban in the area of the base and that they were working the fields here about two days ago. He also said he knew there was ‘a bunch’ of local Taliban in Salavat itself. They discovered a need for soccer balls particularly, but also pens, crayons and colouring books. They urged each other to stay calm and be friendly, to take their helmets and glasses off when they go for tea. “But what about Trevor Greene?” asked an engineer, referring to an incident in 2006. “He took his helmet off and he got an axe in the head.”
His point was shot down immediately.
“That was one guy,” the platoon chorused.
“You can’t be too scared. If something bad is going to happen, it’s going to happen, you can’t spend your entire tour afraid,” said Little.
The hotwash got a little contentious over the issue of how fast they should be walking. Because the patrol was sort of split into three sections, and because the communications were broken, the first section kept on losing the last two sections. The leader of the first section, MacDougall, said it was up to the other guys to keep up. “If we slow down anymore, we might as well fucking camp,” he said. For his part, Talsma resolved to sort out the communications before venturing outside the wire again.
Just after the ANA’s festival lunch, Talsma got an intel report over the radio covering enemy activity in the area of operations. Among the many minor, but possibly important things—such as, the enemy have stolen an ANP truck, numbered 29 and are now up to unknown activities; a local elder was seen in this area carrying an insurgent with an AK-47 on the back of his motorcycle; a reported 100 insurgents are walking towards Kandahar from Pakistan; there was a rocket attack at Masum Ghar; kids are flying kites of a certain colour to warn of convoy’s advance; the enemy has begun using multiple IEDs within single compounds, and using double the explosives; etc.—there was one fat hanging unknown: insurgents are preparing to launch a major attack on a school compound containing coalition and ANA forces, location unknown.
Also shooting out over the radio was the unexpected news that the company headquarters, led by Jurkowski and known as 1-Niner Tac (Tactical Headquarters), is coming in tomorrow with 40 guys and that another Alpha Company platoon is moving into an austere position outside the school gates.
These developments are met with unhappiness at Salavat.
With the headquarters and another section moving in, MacDougall begins pushing for a fortified compound closer to downtown Salavat from which they can operate as they wish. “When this happens it almost restricts our ability to impose our intent,” said MacDougall, pacing up and down on the little patio outside the command post. “If the company commander is here, he’ll end up taking over, and it minimizes our input and our effectiveness. I saw it in training, when we were left alone we blossomed, and we worked as a team. And that only happened when he passed on his intent and left us to it.”
Day 3: The Tip Thrusts Deeper, The Major Arrives
The morning begins with the discussion of more rumours in the kitchen. Not only is the prospect of a major attack against the base now being frequently discussed, but everybody is starting to think more closely about what kind of protection they’ll have if mortars and rockets start flying into the compound.
That the platoon house has not yet got any real bunkers or hard points is a fact not lost on anybody. In the event of a mortar attack the school itself would be unsafe because the roof is unfortified and the shell would likely come straight through into the room, turning it into an unholy experiment in sudden death for those inside.
Talsma orders one of the LAVs to park inside on the inhabited side of the compound, just by the command post. It’s our new bunker.
Speaking of rumours, it turns out that an ANP member really did fire his AK-47 off into the kitchen wall on Sunday as confirmed by several soldiers who showed me fresh bullet holes to prove it. Not all rumours are false, it should be noted.
Later on, with the news of 1-Niner Tac’s imminent arrival, and the apparently even less welcome news of the potential arrival of the manoeuvre platoon, 3rd section collapses into humourous bickering.
The crux of the problem was this—the soldiers wanted to go on missions against enemy targets, but they knew that the arrival of the headquarters and the manoeuvre platoon meant that in all probability they would be relegated to base defence while their company brethren went out to fight.
“We’re not soldiers anymore, we’re pogues,” said one.
“I used to be a soldier,” groused another.
“I don’t want to be a pogue,” chimed in a third.
“I might defect to the Taliban,” said another, dejectedly.
Somewhat later, a more immediate problem comes up when a report ripples through the camp that the ANA in the south tower were relaxing, if not outright sleeping, during the night. It is quickly confirmed by a number of soldiers. This, naturally, enrages Talsma.
“If those guys are asleep, the enemy can see that and come over the wall and start slitting throats,” he says angrily to no one in particular, staring out at the ANA portion of the camp. “This is not a safe place,” said Talsma. “They know where we are. We have to start keeping our heads about us.”
At a moment that couldn’t possibly have been more poorly timed, MacDougall comes roaring onto the CP patio to tell everyone there are ANA smoking hash at the guard post in front of the base.
The OMLT commander, Stocker, is in tough. His unit is getting little support from the Kandak (Afghan battalion headquarters), and the ANA are starting to come apart. “We’ve had a ton of guys go AWOL. If they feel the Kandak doesn’t care about them, then they don’t care about the Kandak.”
With MacDougall’s latest report he goes running off to the front of the base to see what’s going on with the ANA.
“It might be time for a reassessment,” Talsma says to MacDougall.
“I’m not happy with what’s going on right now,” said MacDougall, standing up, pacing around the patio. “I feel like we’re being compromised. Not only are they keeping us from going into Salavat but they can’t even do guard duty.”
When Stocker returns, Talsma wastes no time in jacking him up. “I went from having positive feelings about the ANA to heebie-jeebies in 12 hours,” he scolds. “You’ve got to bring this stuff up with them.”
“The biggest thing we’re looking at, from his perspective, is combat fatigue. This unit has been shuttled from place to place for years,” said Stocker.
Beyond the drugs and bad watch-duty discipline, the real issue is Saed’s resistance to going into Salavat without troops on the Russian OP. But everyone is getting tired of this resistance. And they all know that without clearance patrols the enemy will come. “We can’t force them to do what they don’t want to do,” said Flach to the small group of Talsma, Stocker and a couple of other members of 1st Platoon, “but we can’t restrict what we need to do because of them.”
Words then become action. MacDougall asks to get a night patrol around the southwest area of the base. Talsma picks up the map and looks it over. “With a corresponding illumination mission (to light up the night)?” asks Talsma. MacDougall agrees and continues to look at the map.
And just like that it was on. First Platoon had decided to push Saed and the ANA a little harder—deeper into Salavat and later into the night—but that was for after. For now there was still another patrol into the outskirts to conduct.
And so the group of just over a dozen Canadians and slightly fewer Afghans leave through the base’s back door at 1:30 p.m., in the highest Afghan heat, which feels more like being cooked in a sand furnace than could ever be comfortable. It loops southward in a kind of benign confusion, the Afghan troops disinterestedly shuffling along while the Canadians, still jumpy, not accustomed to being outside the wire yet, nurse their decrepit radio system and fumble with their directions.
A few women appear on the path, a man loading a donkey, an old man and a small child, then another group of women and children who turn and flee when they see us up the trail.
At a bazaar just south of the base a stern bearded man tells the patrol not to go any further south, towards town, because the children are afraid of soldiers. Meanwhile, as he’s saying this the patrol is surrounded by children laughing and vying for attention.
This is the platoon’s first introduction to a man dubbed ‘the northern nemesis’ because he lives in northern Salavat and is a vocal and strident opponent of our presence there.
As the patrol gets deeper into town a report comes over the radio. “We’ve just been informed they’re going to bomb an IED compound,’ said the radio operator.
“Where?” asked Flach.
“Hopefully not beside us,” he replied.
A short time after that patrol gets back, another patrol heads out the front gate to sweep the road for IEDs as Jurkowski and his tactical headquarters is coming and there are a couple of culverts that have been assessed to be insecure. The enemy likes to plant huge bombs in the culverts.
Moments after arriving on the base Jurkowski gets a briefing on the tactical impasse created by the ANA demand for an overwatch position on the Russian OP. Jurkowski pauses to think. And he says forget the tip patrols, the whole unit is going down into Salavat centre on Friday.
“I’ve had enough of ‘well we need this and that.’ No, you don’t. Watch me,” he says as he rumbles off into the night.
Indeed, the arrival of Alpha Company headquarters has created a whole new situation in Salavat. In the few hours since they’d arrived on the base all talk now had become of Nakhonay, a town to the south of Salavat that was rumoured to be an insurgent stronghold of epic proportions. The rumour now was of war, all-out war. McChrystal might have wanted to protect the population, to get platoons out among the villagers, but the war had a trajectory of its own. And the enemy had been sighted.
Long after everybody else had disappeared from the CP for the night, Talsma sat up thinking about what was going on, and thinking about what to do. “Very soon we’re going to get some more fidelity on how it’s going to play out. As far as 1st Platoon goes, we’re still moving forward at best possible speed to secure Salavat, and while the intention is Nakhonay beyond, this is the anchor.
“As it stands right now I have a little more of a que sera, sera attitude, what will be, will be. Give me a problem and I’ll do my best to solve it and try not to take things personally, no matter what.”
But now that it had become clear to everyone that the Salavat platoon house was going to be used as a staging area for an eventual battle group attack on Nakhonay, there were a whole host of new considerations. Would all this massed firepower inadvertently attract insurgents and create a battlefield in Salavat? Was it still possible to conduct soft and friendly counter-insurgency operations while gearing up to attack a village 1,500 metres or so away?
One thing was certain, the previous mission of village-building in Salavat was looking doubtful. Talsma became philosophical at the new, unexpected turn. “It comes down to a question of ‘is our way right? Is our way just?’ I truly believe our way is the best way and I know that they believe in theirs just as much. However, if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.”
As he reconciled himself to the prospect of combat, once again, he let go a little of the softer nation-building ideas like the promotion of liberty, gender equality or early childhood education, many of which were dubiously introduced in the first place by politicians or generals searching for easy public support. “Those are selling points for people back home; they’re good, but they don’t solve a lot of the basic problems in Afghanistan. And we’re here because of those problems. You simply can’t have a country exporting violence. What it is, this country, it’s a line in the fucking sand, it’s a statement to the rest of the world, if you do shit to us, we’re coming for you.”
Way after dark, the camp was illuminated by an artillery flare fired from Sperwan Ghar. It revealed a base stuffed absolutely full of Canadian armour, each vehicle surrounded by little illuminated bubbles of fabric as the new arrivals huddled under blankets, on cots or in the sand.
In the next issue: First Platoon storms downtown Salavat and relations with Saed reach an all-time, gunslinging low.
Email the writer at: email@example.com
Email a letter to the editor at: firstname.lastname@example.org