THE VILLAGE DECIDES
This is the final instalment of Legion Magazine’s series on the efforts of First Platoon, Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, to win the hearts and minds of the villagers of Salavat, a community in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. All of First Platoon’s efforts over the last weeks have led to one more meeting with the local elders, wherein the villagers will reveal whether they have decided to co-operate with the Canadians or, instead, flee the area for the safety of somewhere without coalition forces.
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, Part 3, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 3, and Part 4, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 4
Day 11 and 12: Pre-Dawn Patrols Of Seemingly Endless Length As The Villagers Decide What To Do
During the long-awaited Shura with the elders of Salavat held a few days ago, Captain Bryce Talsma, First Platoon commander, heard more than once that the villagers were, well, less than content that the Canadians were wandering frequently through town, armed and armoured for war. It wasn’t hard to see the villagers’ point—the presence of so many helmeted foreigners carrying such an array of guns and rockets would unsettle pretty much any neighbourhood in the world.
But still, Talsma was unwilling to stop patrolling lest the enemy attempt some mayhem during this crucial period of decision-making in the village. And so, after deploying his big brain against the problem, Talsma came up with a solution—minimize disruption by patrolling though Salavat before first light and then, having gotten south of the town, loop around though neighbouring Khairo Kala and back to base.
These patrols were to leave the base around 4 a.m. and could last until just before lunch. In the vernacular of the infantry, these sorts of outings were invariably known as a ‘bag drive.’
That said, however, even the prospect of getting up at 3 a.m. now elicited only minor grumbles from even the most famously grumbly of the Patricias. It seemed that, in a bunch of ways, right about now, time stops being so important. It’s not that time stops existing, it’s just that the soldiers don’t see so far into it anymore. Looking beyond the next few minutes or, at best, days, seems somehow counter-productive; it feels unwise. Like it is bad luck to assume anything but that the next few moments are survivable.
In this way, the soldiers seem to achieve a rare state, the peace that comes from living for the moment right now, the one that’s here. If a bunch of foul-mouthed grunts living harshly in a tiny fort out among the enemy could ever be called serene—and even if it’s the serenity of the potentially doomed—it’s still kind of cool. The soldiers sleep when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry and put all their attention into whatever is currently happening: whatever conversation or foosball game or argument about which ration is really the worst—the bag of salmon or the bag of clam chowder. Shallow theories aside, this apparent serenity could also just be some combination of an adrenaline high, lack of sleep and chronic dehydration. It’s hard to say.
In any case, it turns out that long walks at dawn in Afghanistan may be good for the soul, although certainly uncomfortable for the body. While the sun may come up fast and early, it has only weak light and no heat at all for hours. Then all of a sudden, it seems to blink on and everyone goes from shivering to sweating in about 30 seconds.
One of the central tasks of the patrols over these two days is for First Platoon to start exploring the southern and eastern outskirts of their new home. Immediately to the south of town is Salavat Ghar. It’s a huge craggy set of peaks rising many hundred feet and from which there are clear views of not only Salavat entire, but also Nakhonay, the ‘hive of villainy’ as Talsma calls it, across a dry streambed to the south.
Naturally, the objective of one patrol is to climb this mountain. Having spent several hours fumbling toward the base of the mountain in the dark, nobody was too excited about going up it. “If I don’t come back in 20 minutes,” said Master Corporal Paul Guilmane, glancing up the endless rocky slope, “wait longer.”
Eventually, Guilmane and a small group of soldiers wind their way up the side of the mountain. On top there are literally dozens of old fighting positions, probably dating back to conflicts in the last century. Meanwhile, in very recent military history unbeknownst to any of us at the time, I would later discover that a Canadian soldier was killed just after dawn on top of Salavat Ghar only a few months before, in July. Private Sébastien Courcy, a Vandoo, stepped on a mine near the summit and was blown down a cliff.
There was no such violence for Guilmane and his crew, however, and while the patrols were often tense, confusing and arduous, they all returned safely to camp.
Back inside the walls of the little school compound, the fiercest combat on First Platoon’s rotation so far saw Talsma and what was quite possibly an extremely deadly little snake in a no-holds-barred brawl on the command post patio. While at first the snake considered fleeing, he soon changed his mind and doubled back in a fierce ambush. Talsma stabbed at it with his knife while the snake snarled and tried to bite him. Sergeant C.J. Flach then appeared with the broom and also whacked the snake. While the two female medics cheered on the men, Corporal John ‘Ambassador’ Little saw this as no time for heroics: “I don’t like snakes,” he whined vigorously. “Look at me up on the box here.” And sure enough he was up on the wooden box, dancing and twitchy and hoping shamelessly that if someone were to be bitten it would not be him. The snake got away—wounded gravely though.
After the battle, Little calmed down and, while reflexively reordering his moustache, congratulated Talsma on his bravery. It should be noted that Ambassador Little’s moustache has grown so ferociously luxurious that it’s kind of become its own entity in the camp. Sometimes you can see the moustache before you even see Little. It not only precedes him, it has sort of come to dominate him so that when you speak with him, it feels like you are in conversation with it. You begin to suspect, in fact, that it was possible Ambassador Little had simply become a life-support system for his moustache.
Later on Friday, the day before the villagers were to make their decision, the old problem of Lieutenant Saed re-emerges when his battalion commander and the OMLT commander, Major Steve Macbeth, both show up to try to bring some clarity and harmony to the simmering conflict between Talsma and Saed.
While the details of what went on in the meeting were kept fairly concealed, Talsma seemed at least somewhat satisfied that things were going to get better. “Saed has changed his tone, but I think that’s more having to do with him recognizing that there’s a lot different dynamic working with the PPCLI than the Vandoos. He’s become a lot more accommodating.
“However, the die is cast as far as I’m concerned,” he went on to say. “There are some serious issues. I went in projecting on him as if he were a Canadian, whereas the obvious truth of the matter is that he has a completely different set of motivations and perceptions than I have.”
The issue of Saed, like so many other issues First Platoon has faced, is emblematic of Afghanistan itself, where it seems no crisis is ever really resolved, it just gets replaced by some newer problem.
In any case, it seems the Salavat Platoon House may have been a ruse, a thin gesture toward counter-insurgency theory while the intention all along was kinetic mayhem in Nakhonay. To this end, the snipers have appeared and they are eager to begin shooting. Hours after they entered the camp, one of them approached me and asked me if I had any pictures of local ‘High Value Targets.’
“I’m a reporter,” I replied.
“Oh,” he said and walked away quickly.
In addition, Recce Platoon is coming. And Second Platoon, the ‘strike platoon,’ is camped in the alley behind the school. The company commander and his tactical headquarters team are here again, too. The Platoon House seems to have become a staging base for the invasion of Nakhonay.
In the early evening, some amusement came from the radio and the connection it provided to higher command back at Kandahar Airfield. In the semi-regular distribution of orders to all the outlying Canadian positions, someone back in Kandahar thought it advisable—and perhaps quite rightly—to remind everyone that communications on the Internet could be monitored by the enemy. And so, just as it was getting dark, Talsma called together his leadership to read them the order from command instructing everyone to be aware of violating operational security on Facebook or Twitter. The soldiers look around, bemused. Barely any of the lights worked at Salavat, the water situation was frequently dire and people were going to the washroom in buckets. There was no Internet access here. And then, out of a million possible jokes, a soldier says, “I don’t think anybody out here even believes in the Internet.” It was perfect.
Day 13: Decision Day For Salavat
On the morning of decision day, the camp is frantic, the kitchen is stuffed well beyond capacity and the soldiers are eating whatever scraps of rations remain. “Of all the skills you learn in the army, the infantry learns how to suffer,” said Talsma ruefully as he was about to eat an omelette with mushroom sauce out of a bag, cold.
Just before the Shura, as the elders were beginning to trickle in to the compound next door, Major Ryan Jurkowski, Alpha Company commander, took a few minutes to think aloud about what it all meant.
In pretty much every way, today’s decision is huge. If the people choose to leave, it’s a loss. Near enough to a total loss. If they choose to stay, it’s a victory. This is about as clean and decisive as a battle gets in a counter-insurgency. “If they decide to leave, it is a symbolic vote of non-confidence,” says Jurkowski. “It is a referendum on our capability to protect them.”
And it is interesting for once to be on the other side of a rushed and probably unnecessary action. Normally it seems like it’s the coalition forces in this position. But now it’s the villagers, who really don’t have enough information to make a good choice about what to do and instead of seeking more information, they have simply decided to act. “If the locals stay or leave it doesn’t change what we’re here to do,” says Jurkowski. “If they do pull out we have to continue to demonstrate our resolve. We will not leave Salavat regardless of their decision.
“Their leaving would indicate a shortcoming in our collective gauge on how much influence the Taliban have in Salavat,” he went on. “But it’s a very grey world, nothing’s failed, that’s the Afghan way of dealing with problems, just getting up and leaving. But if they leave, they will come back. It’s just a regional way to ensure self-preservation. I don’t see it as a failing. I see it as a need to readjust our approach.
“The village state looks after itself. Foreigners aren’t expected to help in that village state—whether from another country or another valley over—and once you admit you need help, you owe whoever is helping you.
“The other interesting piece to this, that we’re missing, is that it’s the district leader’s responsibility to make sure his people stay. If this is such an important day for Salavat, where is Hajji Baran?”
As the Shura was set to begin, there was no Hajji Baran. The district leader was absent. Instead though, with all the village elders seated, it was again Saed who stood up first and offered his greetings and a (long) speech.
Even if it is a small victory, and a complicated one, given Saed’s complexities, it is noteworthy to finally see a member of the Afghan National Army in this position of leadership.
After Saed’s speech, in which he once again promises the villagers solar panels, rugs for their mosques and a number of other things which it isn’t clear he can deliver, one of the elders stands up. “I will never listen to the speech of a devil, never,” said the elder, stone-faced, quite likely talking about the Canadians. “But I will stand with you.”
The villagers, it became immediately clear, were going to stay.
The other thing made clear was that Saed has succeeded in his apparent goal of becoming the local strongman.
Now it was time for a negotiation. The villagers, since they were staying, want some concessions from the Canadians.
They want a medical clinic—and they want it in the schoolhouse currently used as the Canadian base.
More than anything, however, they want the Afghan and Canadian forces to stop coming into their compounds and to stop patrolling through the village itself.
One by one they stand up and express their fear that if the patrols keep coming through the village, eventually there will be violence. It doesn’t appear they are concerned about who exactly controls the area, just so long as no one is shooting in their town or blowing up their children, they will be satisfied.
Alpha’s company commander breaks up the chain of villager complaints in order to introduce himself.
“Thanks again for having me here, and thanks to Saed for explaining many issues to me. For those who don’t know me, I am Major Jurkowski, I work with Saed’s commander. I’m very happy that we’re all here, discussing where we need to go together, led by Saed and the ANA (Afghan National Army). There are two observations I want to make, one is on development and the other is on security. We are the International Security Assistance Force, we work for the ANA. We are here to provide security for the village of Salavat. And this ties in directly to development, as security and development are linked. Once my reports go higher, that Salavat is secure, the development will follow. Until that time, we can only work on little projects here and there.
“We want locals to help us with our small projects. We are currently doing a project to put gravel in the school parking lot, but no workers came from Salavat. So get me some workers and I will cancel that project and get you guys working on this. Another thing I can do is help you winterize your village.”
And then Talsma stood up to address the elders, many of whom he’d met over the last weeks in the town and in front of their compounds. Talsma did not speak for long, but he hit several high notes, telling the villagers that “fear is darkness and evil triumphs in the dark. Together we can push away the darkness and bring light to Salavat.”
The interpreter, who had been idly picking at the grass while Talsma spoke, waited until the speech was over before giving an extremely brief summation of it. Talsma looked at him quizzically.
Later it would turn out that the interpreter had done a very poor job with both Jurkowski’s and Talsma’s speeches, the low points being when the interpreter told the villagers that Jurkowski wanted to help bring winter to their villages and that Talsma wanted to bring lights to their homes. This explained the villager’s slightly mystified facial expressions.
It has to be said, the Canadian inability to reliably communicate with the villagers makes the task of winning their hearts and minds exponentially more difficult. Language is a very powerful weapon in this fight, and it’s not that the assets don’t exist—there are translators skilled enough to handle complex events like Shuras and negotiations, it’s just that there aren’t enough of them out in the field with the soldiers who need them to complete their mission. Soldiers being sent to war without the necessary tools to win is not a new story, but it still hurts to see something so basic and predictable as language undermine the mission.
After the Shura, Talsma immediately sent a patrol out on a big looping arc through Salavat and into the neighbouring village of Khairo Kala, intent on showing both the villagers and the enemy that First Platoon was still active.
There was a remarkable difference out in the villages on this patrol. It was the children; they would no longer take candy from us. Whenever it was offered they would stand looking around guiltily with their hands clasped, unwilling to take the risk of being caught by whoever—probably the enemy—had warned them to stay away.
The counter-insurgency effort is kind of like this too—an effort to successfully get candy into their mouths. For many reasons, it’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Finally, the patrol rounded the last corner, heading back to base—just near the store where so much goodwill had been built up with Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall’s egg-buying spree a few days before—and there was the northern nemesis, the intolerant elder of northern Salavat who had seemingly done all he could to make First Platoon feel unwelcome these past two weeks. He looked at us impassively as we walked toward him. MacDougall cheerily shouted ‘Manana,’ his infamous greeting, and incredibly the old curmudgeon’s face broke into a wide grin. He stood up and shook MacDougall’s hand and offered him tea.
It was probably more of a victory than anyone had expected.
Moments later the patrol was safe back inside the over-stuffed base. The pee tubes were overwhelmed, all the cups had mysteriously disappeared and the only satellite phone was now broken.
Everyone just sat in the dirt and told jokes.
Day 14: First Platoon Withdraws For A Rest
On the final morning before the rest and refit, an American Blackhawk helicopter slammed across the base, maybe 30 feet off the ground, raining flares, which of course hit the tents and soldiers at high velocity, still flaming. A soldier from second platoon was nailed in the leg and was thereafter very unhappy. Some sandbags were set on fire. It was just one of those things.
Looking at the Blackhawk’s mystifying run over the Platoon House, it was not hard to see why the sometimes random and often terrifying displays of war-fighting machinery make the villagers wary—or beyond wary.
The threat of violence is ever-present, and sometimes unpredictable.
Talsma, for his part, sees the villagers’ issues clearly, but for him the struggle is worth the potential result. “The way I see it is that we are temporarily destabilizing an area when we go in—helicopters, illumination missions, troops patrolling, all of that. The villagers are sitting there saying, ‘really, I’m not feeling any safer’ and that may be true. But in a longer-term context, everyone’s better off because there will be roads and clinics and a better life. But we can’t build it until the fight is over. And we’re not going to let the Taliban take over.”
Talsma sat grinning—a trademark grin. He was just getting rolling. “I am an idealist. I truly believe in freedom and liberty and that these are values that should be made universal for everyone. I meant it when I said that fear is darkness and evil triumphs in the dark. If we hold true to those ideals, then I think we can make positive change, maybe not for a nation, but for one person here or there. I have to believe that’s true. And I think it’s a corruption of our national character that we are so scared of imposing our will on someone else. I think the Taliban are wrong and that every man should be free to live their life as they see fit.
“And, of course, the irony is that we’re forcing it on them with violence,” Talsma added, displaying one of the central traits of his particular kind of intelligence—the ability to think his way so deep into a problem that it’s not easy to find a way out.
“But that is the nature of warfare, I guess. We go in with one intent—with the intention of drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘no’ to terrorism. And right now,” he says, looking around, “this is not the best place to be training to export terrorism. So, that’s victory.
“But now we face the unintended consequences of that action, of not having sufficient troop numbers to begin with, and because this was a failed state to begin with. Now that we’ve pushed Humpty Dumpty off the wall, we’re left with the pieces, and no one will be able to hold their head high if we go into a country and kick the shit out of it and then leave, because not only will Afghanistan go back to square one, it will be way worse. So in a lot of ways we’re fighting the repercussions of our previous actions.”
It is, as Canada’s military leader in Afghanistan, General Jonathan Vance acutely points out, “like building a Rubik’s Cube and trying to solve it at the same time.”
Except for that it’s also not a game, it’s a violent and spiralling ethnic conflict in a country seemingly made for civil war, where our best intentions don’t really seem to translate so well into the local vernacular.
Only time will tell if the small beachhead the platoon has made in Salavat will turn into something bigger and better. There is a dream out there among the leadership of First Platoon, it’s the dream of a thriving Salavat. In this dream there’s a big generator to provide power and a local Afghan to manage it, there’s a school full of teachers and little girls, there’s a health clinic, there’s trust between the locals and the security forces and there is happiness.
There is also fear, however. Fear that any sign of progress and deep co-operation will attract the enemy and they will come to wreck what they can and then there will be war in Salavat.
For a few days there near the end of October 2009, the dream didn’t seem so impossible.
It was the first round of the battle of Salavat and not a shot was fired. Who won? First Platoon did.
Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat—the entire 5-part series available at legionmagazine.com
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com