THE SHADOWY WORLD OF COUNTER-INSURGENCY
This is Part 3 of Legion Magazine’s series on the Canadian effort to win hearts and minds in Salavat, a restive community in Kandahar Province’s notorious Panjwai district.
It’s October 2009 and the men of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, have been on the ground just over a week and they’re beginning to grapple hard with the full range of factors that oppose them. Almost everything is in short supply—intelligence, allies, manpower, co-operation from the villagers, supplies themselves—but nobody is giving up, even after it’s discovered that their Afghan army comrades may be working with the enemy.
Follow the links to read Part 1, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 1 and Part 2, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 2
Day 7: Shooting Mountains, Suspecting Saed
For whatever reason, big questions don’t seem to mean much out in Panjwai. The soldiers don’t talk about them often, at least. Winning the war would be nice, spreading democracy through the region would be nice, educating girls and vanquishing terrorism would be nice, too, but these don’t really come up as daily issues.
Instead, the things that matter are small—mucking honourably through the day’s confusions, trying not to eat too much sand, avoiding poisoning by the poisonous creatures, the mission right here at hand—these are immediate problems requiring immediate decisions.
But even still, there is another level to the war—a battle so finely buried inside each soldier that it’s almost like magic. See, the IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) are everywhere, all the time, and after a while the whole thing feels like a high-stakes and very unfunny game of minesweeper. The black calculations are constant and unsettling, any tiny choice or any unnoticeable decision may mean the difference between life and destruction—where to step, where to sit, where to stand, where to look, what to think—in a place where violence is so random that it feels like fate, every decision becomes a suspect.
But even that doesn’t matter, it’s just another thing. Nobody talks about that either. Instead, everyone talks about the mission at hand: how is First Platoon going to win the support of Salavat’s villagers? How is it going to be possible for a bunch of armed Canadians, a few interpreters with rusty Pashto language skills and an untrustworthy group of Afghan army soldiers to somehow convince so many scared and suspicious Afghan villagers to believe that their best future lies in co-operating with foreign soldiers or their Afghan National Army and government proxies?
No one’s totally sure, but they’re going to try anyway.
Today’s first step towards victory for the Canadians is, oddly enough, making sure their cannons shoot straight.
The sun is already high and burning painfully as First Platoon scurries around the small school compound, preparing to mount up in their LAVs for an excursion across Panjwai’s barren southern expanse. It goes without saying that this is a dangerous thing to do.
Nobody says it.
Today’s patrol is an exercise in escaping fate. The purpose of the patrol is simple, logistical; the LAVs need to have their guns zeroed, which means everybody’s going to load up and go find a mountain to shoot. The task’s ingloriousness makes everyone tense. The soldiers deal with their issues as soldiers do: “I love LAVS,” says Private Matt Charbonneau, slouching into the thinly-padded metal bench in the windowless cage of the armoured vehicle’s hull.
“Why?” replies Pte. Bruce Hepner. “They’re rolling coffins.”
Everybody ignores him.
“Turn on the —*,” says another soldier. (—* is a classified security device meant to help defeat IEDs.)
After fumbling with the switch for a while, Charbonneau gives up trying to get the finicky equipment to work. “The light’s not solid green, bro,” he says.
“Doesn’t matter, we’re gonna die anyway,” grumbles Hepner. The choices have all been made. Everybody has decided to come, where to sit. All there is now is to wait and see what happens.
“If my face gets blown into scraps of beef, just pull the pin on my frag grenade and run the other way,” Charbonneau says, quite thoughtfully, to Corporal Becky Hudson, the medic, seated across from him. “We all know what will happen,” he goes on. “My parents will be like ‘we’re glad you’re alive and we love you so much’ but after a few years the love will wear off and I’ll just be this thing in the living room. They’ll be sliding roast beef and bologna under the door and I’ll be trying to rebuild my face with it.”
Hepner smiles. The engine roars as the LAV pulls off and everybody sinks into their waiting face to see if we’ll make the journey intact. IEDs suck.
Earlier on, before the patrol, platoon leader Captain Bryce Talsma had called a meeting of his unit’s leadership to discuss the new revelations concerning Lieutenant Saed, the Afghan National Army commander living in the school compound who just last night had come under suspicion of working with the enemy. The situation had been deemed so fragile that guards had been posted, would remain posted, on the Canadian headquarters to ward off an attack by the ANA. “We have to go assess whether there are Taliban in the area just south of us, as there’s a possible platoon house going in down there, between Salavat and Nakhonay,” Talsma told the assembled soldiers.
“Why not just ask Saed?” asks Master Corporal Paul Guilmane, a perpetually funny 27-year-old who seems to have a knack for always saying the right thing. Everybody laughs.
Behind the scenes, it had turned out that Talsma’s suspicions about Saed had been at first rejected by higher command, and then corroborated and accepted. In between these two events, however, much drama had unfolded. Talsma had been told by higher that he would have to apologize to Saed and somehow make things right, despite his suspicions. This caused no small degree of consternation at the Platoon House.
After more evidence against Saed was discovered, Talsma was vindicated, and the earlier jacking he’d received was forgotten. “Be slow of speech and incorruptible, the weak chatter and chatter will bring you to your grave,” grumbles Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall, standing near the back of the assembled soldiers. “He [Talsma] was told to suck up his pride and apologize to Saed, but now [higher] is the one that has to humble himself and everything Talsma did is…great.”
Indeed, there was a veritable phalanx of higher ranks now converging on the Platoon House to deal with the issue.
And while they were set to arrive later in the day or tomorrow, other issues were quick to intrude. The stress and heat and cold and bad food and constant duty was having an obvious impact on the platoon—the guys were aging, and fast. The fresh faces were now mostly gone. “Keep your finger on the heartbeat, because the troops are getting…disgruntled over the lack of support we’re getting out here. They’re losing confidence in the system,” Sgt. Craig Donaldson told Talsma after the meeting’s end.
And true enough, one of the main enduring gripes for the men is that they were told to pack for three days before coming out here and so they don’t have extra socks or underwear or anything. Things are starting to get uncomfortable and the lack of any imminent hope that their stuff will show up isn’t improving things.
Beyond the snivel gear, as they call it, there is still no sign of their well-extraction kits or the C-3 rifles for their designated shooters.
The patrol out to shoot the mountain, meanwhile, was a success. Not only were the LAV guns zeroed and proven accurate, but most of the soldiers along for the ride took their opportunity to raucously fire their weapons off into the mountain. It was a display of heavy weaponry certainly not missed by anyone in Panjwai.
After last light, the final task was to get ready for tomorrow’s meeting of village elders, the Shura. Talsma was excited. He was going to meet the men in power, the men with influence; he was going to get a chance to begin the actual mission.
They were expecting dozens of people to show up and they were prepared for anything. Naturally the enemy might be interested too.
“What troops do you want for the Shura?” Donaldson asks Talsma.
“Whichever you choose.”
“Well, it’s your bodyguard.”
“I have full confidence in any of your troops.”
Hopes were high.
Day 8: The Return of One-Niner and the Egg Patrol
Major Ryan Jurkowski, Alpha Company’s commander, better known as One-Niner, was making his way back out to Salavat from the Canadian base in Masum Ghar. While it was only a distance of maybe 10 kilometres, it was no easy commute. From the nearby Platoon House in Mohajerin, just a few thousand metres away, there was a rough combat road which needed to be cleared manually by troops every time a convoy came through. Which, of course, took hours.
Jurkowski was coming to take part in the Shura, but also to deal with Saed, who had been keeping a very low profile in the camp since the blow-up two days ago.
Inside the white walls of the school compound, the encampment was swarming with activity in the morning, everyone preparing to receive the villagers of Salavat at a meeting place just outside the base’s wire.
If the Shura was a big deal, it was mostly because the local big man, Hajji Pir Mohammed, was scheduled to show up. While rumours about him were not at all good, he was still important. “Is that the same Hajji Pir Mohammed who was suspected of launching mortars at our base?” asks a First Platoon soldier. “Could there be two of them?”
“No, it’d be the same one,” replies Lieutenant Andrew Stocker, the Operational Mentor Liaison Team leader.
Moments later, an ANA soldier appeared on the headquarters patio and unceremoniously reported that the Shura was cancelled. The villagers didn’t want to come. Talsma just shook his head and walked inside the command post.
A little later on, Jurkowski made his presence felt in the camp when he objected to the combat engineers doing work projects around the camp, like rebuilding the latrines, as they were currently doing.
“Do you see something wrong with this?” he asks Talsma.
Talsma looks around, trying to guess what could be wrong. “Yes sir, we should get some infantry out here working.”
“Nope, we should have locals doing this.”
Damn, thought Talsma, so close.
Talsma went and found Warrant Dan Eisan to tell him to stand down on any work projects that don’t involve self defence until they could somehow recruit locals to do it for them.
Eisan gives him a withering look. There were no local volunteers.
“I can’t move. I just cannot move, left, right, or centre,” says Eisan, dancing on the spot.
Just after noon, Jurkowski gathers the platoon to give them an official update on the situation, the plan and everything. “This is the battle group’s main effort,” he says, looking around the camp. “We are the leading edge. There is nothing between us and Nakhonay right now.
“They’re waiting for a fight [in Nakhonay] we’re going to make them think it’s coming every 72 to 96 hours, but it’s not coming for three weeks.
“The enemy doesn’t know what to do with us. But don’t let that sit in your heads, don’t think you’re safe. You go out on patrol, walking down the main street, helmets off, shaking hands, and you’ve got the…killers on the side, ready to take down any target.
“What’s the mission? It’s called deepening the hold and that’s how shit spreads. The gains made in Dand District are rippling through south Afghanistan. We need to do the same thing we did in Dand, here. That’s why we’re here.
“This is a campaign plan driven by General Stanley McChrystal and embraced by Brigadier General Jonathan Vance. Our battle space has shrunk so we can focus on the population instead of just going out to engage the enemy. The mission is the relentless protection of the population.
“Second Platoon is conducting strike operations out of here in support of your commander’s plans. Then they will likely make the next leap, to create a patrol base [to the south], and you will move down to become the strike force.
“Don’t expect to be in any one place for more than three or four weeks. We want to hand over these places to the Afghan security forces so we can get the f–k out of here.”
After the speech, it was time for First Platoon’s first real offensive operation in the battle of Salavat—Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall, who was rapidly earning his nickname as ‘the one-man village pacification system’—was about to lead a patrol to the nearby village store to buy a whole load of supplies, mostly eggs. It was an idea he’d hatched a few days before, and it was intended to be a grassroots effort to win allies by starting to become a part of the community.
And so, once again, for what already felt like the millionth time, a patrol of Canadians and ANA spooled up inside the compound. Everyone assembled into a line in the dusty courtyard, strapped their helmets down tight, chambered a round, and prepared to go outside the wire.
It was not, however, a long walk. The store was just a few hundred metres away from the camp. Along the way the patrol passed the Soviet OP, the man-made hill which was the site of a devastating IED attack against the Van Doos a few weeks back and an early strategic objective for First Platoon, but which had now since faded into irrelevancy.
The Afghans at the store knew the Canadians were coming and there was a large crowd waiting as the patrol rounded the last corner. There were more Afghans than anyone expected, but MacDougall didn’t hesitate. With his now characteristic Pashto cry of ‘manana,’ he charged into the wary crowd and began shaking hands and handing out candy.
Nobody could resist. MacDougall pushed his way into the tiny and dark dirt-walled store, his massive load of body armour and personal weaponry clanking into the flimsy shelves, and he half-heartedly bartered for two dozen eggs and a kilo of rice. The bartering was only half-hearted because he didn’t mind overpaying, even by double or triple, because the price was still merely two or three dollars.
After the purchase, MacDougall clambered aboard a horse, which had appeared from nowhere, and paraded up and down the dirt path in front of the store, much to the amusement of the Afghans and the chagrin of his soldiers, who tried to stay alert even as the atmosphere became carnivalesque.
Just as the patrol was gathering itself to move off, the surly old hardliner known as the northern nemesis came sauntering past the store and took turns launching menacing glares at the Canadians and local Afghans, in turn.
“We’ll break him,” MacDougall says, watching him walk away.
As the patrol was wandering around northern Salavat, another Canadian Platoon House about a kilometre to the east, called A-10, came under attack. Heavy machine-gun fire, even when it’s 1,200 metres away, sounds plenty loud.
The gunfire continued for some time, only ending after an ear-splitting artillery strike by Canadian M-777 guns. “It’s gonna sound strange,” M.Cpl. Shane Stackpole jokes on the way back to the base, “but that’s one of my favourite things about being here—when you’re out on patrol and you hear the M-777s and explosions and machine-gun fire. Yeah. It sounds like freedom.”
Later on, the report would come in that a lone insurgent with an AK-47 attacked the base. The extreme barrage of Canadian return fire, it should be said, was certainly stretching the limits of standard counter-insurgency theory. The villagers of Salavat, for their part, looked distinctly unimpressed by the display of destruction.
Meanwhile, back at the schoolhouse, an opinion about Saed was emerging among the Canadian leadership. And it was this in a nutshell—whatever Saed’s up to doesn’t much matter because there’s no one to replace him and nothing to be done about it except be careful. “The Afghans and Pashtuns have a particular way of operating and ensuring their self-interests are met,” says Jurkowski, sitting just near the command post patio after dinner, “and I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’d never fault anybody for making sure their families are fed and not killed or murdered. Whatever that means they need to do—they need to do that.
“One thing the Afghans are good at,” he went on, “is that they will not show their hand either way until they make their commitment; they will play both sides until their security is assured. In the shadowy world of counter-insurgency, there are certain things that need to be accepted. We just need to look after our own security and be there for the people when they ask for it, and even when they don’t ask for it.”
While being a veteran officer in the Afghan National Army may look like commitment to a Canadian, to Saed, as would later become clear, it only meant he was committed to the idea of serving in the Afghan army, regardless of who was in charge in Kabul. It’s a meaty distinction.
Lieutenant Andrew Stocker, 23, the OMLT team leader at the centre of the Saed storm, put it somewhat more bluntly than Jurkowski. “This is a war where everyone knows someone in the Taliban; that’s the nature of civil and tribal wars,” he says. “Both the perception and the possibility [that Saed is actively working with the Taliban] are real problems, because the perception destroys trust whether or not there’s any basis and if there is a basis, it’s undermining the whole war effort.
“Saed is a very good commander who hasn’t had a rest cycle in too long and has therefore, to some degree, lost his perspective on things,” says Stocker. “AWOL and desertion is a problem. The ANA have 30 guys here and 20 in Mohajerin and they have a paper strength of 140 men. And their commander (a captain) was due back from leave three weeks ago.”
Saed was staying. While suspicions about his motives and worthiness are undiminished—Talsma openly distrusts him—there’s just no easily identifiable mechanism to replace him, even if there was someone to replace him with.
Later that night, First Platoon staged its first foosball tournament. The Canadian Forces as a whole, but the PPCLI in particular, are fanatic foosball players and that a table had materialized at this tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere was not, actually, a surprise. “It’s one of the two good things about going to Afghanistan—the pity sexy beforehand and the foosball during,” says a soldier standing by the table.
Just after kickoff, the company sergeant major came by and with no fanfare at all shut down the whole tournament. The player’s headlamps, he says, might alert the enemy to the base’s location. Once he leaves the soldiers scoff at his argument, but the tournament is still over. “The only thing that makes us different from the Taliban is foosball,” grumbles a soldier as he trudges off into the night.
In the next issue: Saed makes his power play, Talsma survives a knife fight with an angry Afghan snake, and the villagers of Salavat appear to give up on NATO.
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