Interpreting Afghanistan

by Stephen J. Thorne

Photos: Stephen J. Thorne, CP

Photos: Stephen J. Thorne, CP

From top: Canadian paratroopers walk through ruins in Kabul, Afghanistan; Cpl. Greg Soucy shares a laugh with a group of Afghan children.

My fixer Manilay never ceased to surprise me. He had lied about his age, it turned out, to get the job working for me translating and attempting to overcome whatever obstacles my living and working in Afghanistan for 81/2 of the past 12 months would present. Manilay was just 18 during my second stint with the Canadian army in Kabul, but for what I thought he lacked in life experience he attempted to compensate for in dedication and hard work, most of the time.

A good-looking Pashtun, he could be prone to the impetuousness of youth, often looking for an angle, always seeking a better deal, sometimes fooling around when I needed him to be serious. I had taken to calling him my surrogate son because I imagined employing him was much like raising him.

Manilay was bent on joining his brother and sister in Canada and his English had improved considerably by the time I returned to Afghanistan last March. He kept a notebook and every time he heard a new word, like ‘surrogate,’ he would write it down, ask me the definition, and hound me until I used it in as many sentences as I could. Then, at some appropriate moment, inevitably weeks after I’d forgotten all about the incident, Manilay would drop the word into a sentence. This impressed me because he never got it wrong.

One day, we were driving around Kabul, my work for the day finished. We would often do this, partly so I would feel I got my money’s worth out of Manilay and our diminutive and very capable driver, Mohammed, and partly because I just wanted to observe and absorb and photograph life around the ever-changing capital. I would tell stories on these drives, or explain things about Canada, or else Manilay and I would discuss Islam. On this day, however, he was the storyteller, relating a tale of when he was 10, living with his family in a house along the Kabul River.

The civil war was raging. Multiple factions were fighting for control of various territories in and around the city. Manilay’s home was across the river from the headquarters of local commander Abdul Rub Rasool Sayaf; a Hazara stronghold was situated at a bridge about half a kilometre down river. From their position in the compound across from Manilay’s house, Sayaf’s forces had no clear view of the bridge. But Manilay’s house, especially a turret-like, third-floor room on the northwest corner, afforded an unobstructed view. So Sayaf dispatched five of his troops to set up a machine-gun post on the top floor of the house. They arrived and explained their intentions. As Manilay and his brothers and sisters stood by, their father told the troops there was no way they could enter his house. An argument ensued and, finally, one of the soldiers raised his gun to shoot Manilay’s dad. That’s when his mother stepped between them and told the soldiers the house was theirs.

So while Manilay and his family headed to the basement for shelter, the soldiers headed upstairs. Within minutes an all-out battle was in full swing. The noise was deafening and Manilay’s house—the top half of it, at least—was taking a pounding. And, while Manilay’s family huddled in the basement, the soldiers were dropping, one by one. Finally, there was only one left and he was out of ammunition. He wanted to return to his compound but his commander told him only to come back long enough to restock his ammunition and then return to his position. While Manilay watched through a beach ball-sized hole in the basement wall, the soldier started wading back across the river, only to be cut down in a hail of bullets.

Hours later, the notoriously brutal Hazara troops were making their way upriver toward the house. They were stopping at each Pashtun house, taking the men out and shooting them in the street, hustling the women off to face untold horrors. When they reached Manilay’s house, the young boy’s brother-in-law told the family to stay put, that he would go out and talk to the warriors.

Fully expecting to die, he headed upstairs and out, confronting the Hazara commander, expecting an AK-47 round to the head. But instead of anger, the commander began laughing. The man standing before him was not an enemy, but an old school chum. He told Manilay’s brother-in-law to round up his family and they would escort them out of the area. They did, and Manilay’s family didn’t stop until they reached Peshawar, Pakistan.

I had trouble believing this story until Manilay asked me if I wanted to see the house. Absolutely, I said. He and Mohammed took me through the now-peaceful Hazara district, with its crowded markets, and into a relatively nice, adjacent neighbourhood of walled compounds and mud homes. And there, alongside the river, across from a large compound, was the house. The top floor was a ruin. And there, on the river side of the basement wall, was a hole the size of a beach ball.

Stories of heartbreak, death, destruction and drought are common throughout Afghanistan. Yet Afghans persevere. The good news is their streets and neighbourhoods are being patrolled regularly by Canadian soldiers—they have been for the past 15 months. Most of the people here have had their fill of hard times and want them to end.

Kabul is growing at an alarming rate, sometimes at all costs. The streets are choked with far more vehicles than the city can handle. The air is thick with dust and exhaust, and I was struck by the lingering sense that the peace here is a tentative one that depends not so much on the efforts of Canadian soldiers and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops as on the whims of those who would see Afghanistan fall back into chaos. At night, we would watch the arc lights of American air strikes and artillery battles not 40 kilometres southeast of the Canadian base at Camp Julien.

I left Afghanistan in mid-August, and as October’s presidential election approached, the violence was infiltrating the city and becoming more pronounced. Afghan election workers were getting killed on an almost weekly basis. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders had pulled out after five of its own were killed in an ambush. And the rocket attacks on NATO and neighbouring compounds were becoming more frequent. One night sitting outside my tent, peering into the darkness to the south of the Canadian camp, a rocket exploded before my eyes. Actually, it was a secondary explosion, but more spectacular than most rocket blasts. The initial strike had landed in an ammunition depot at an Afghan militia base adjacent to our camp. The secondary explosion was piles of ammunition going off.

It was one of two rockets that landed in the compound. Only one exploded. A third rocket was later fired from the same area northeast of Julien, exploding near the Chinese embassy downtown. No one was injured in either incident. The week before, a rocket landed near the Italian embassy in Kabul, killing an Afghan woman.

Of course, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, (ISAF), said there was no indication any of the rockets were aimed at NATO facilities. The embassies are located in a “target-rich environment” that included NATO, American, United Nations and other international compounds, said Canadian commander Chris Henderson, the chief spokesman at ISAF headquarters in Kabul. “It doesn’t really matter who was targeted,” said Henderson. “The point is not necessarily to hit anything, but to make a statement.”

The rockets are often fired crudely without launchers or tubes to guide them. A farmer had found two rockets west of Kabul rigged and ready to fire days before the attacks near Julien. They were propped up in the crotch of two sticks lashed together with a car battery attached to their primers. “If what you’re trying to do is create an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, it doesn’t matter what you hit,” said Henderson. “We are still making more frequent discoveries of these rockets before they are launched than after.”

A few days later, Canadian combat engineers discovered a sizable arms cache right under their noses—in the basement of a ruin just 250 metres from their base camp. An Afghan National Army soldier matter-of-factly mentioned the collection of rockets, mortars and other ordnance in a conversation with Canadian soldiers. “It was in the basement at the bottom of the stairs in an old building,” said Sergeant Martin Drolet, a combat engineer originally from Quebec City. “It was all rubble. It was all piled up and all mixed up too…. It wasn’t very safe the way that they had stored it but it’s OK for them, I guess. Most of the Afghan troops didn’t even know it was there.”

The stockpile included 86 Soviet-made 73-mm rockets, eight Chinese-made 82-mm rockets, three Soviet 82-mm high-explosive mortars and three Soviet 73-mm recoilless rifle rounds, plus fuses, grenades and a variety of other rockets. It was found adjacent to an ANA compound just west of Camp Julien.

Lieutenant-Colonel Stéphane Roy, commander of the 700-member Royal 22nd Regiment Battle Group that concluded its tour in August, said there is a clear link between the accessibility of weapons and attacks on friendly forces and other internationals in Kabul. “There are thousands and thousands of UXOs (unexploded ordnance), munitions and weapons inside Kabul, outside Kabul and in the country as a whole. These can be captured by outside forces and used against ISAF.”

He said Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance forces swept into Kabul rapidly during the war that ousted the Taliban almost three years ago. “I would guess the Taliban pretty much left their weapons where they lay. They’re not guarded; some people know where they are; others, by chance, we discover.”

The Vandoos battle group recovered and destroyed 40 tonnes of ordnance during its six-month tour. It found even bigger caches in deep caves among mountains further west of Kabul. Ordnance, including mines, was also seized in raids on compounds with Kabul city police and national security forces.

While the Canadians in charge of the NATO force made reporting these raids very difficult for media like me, I managed to get on one June 2. It turned out to be one of the more bizarre experiences I ever had in Afghanistan. It began with a polite knock on a compound door and ended with an invitation for tea at 3 a.m. It was part of a massive overnight sweep by more than 300 Canadian troops and dozens of Kabul city police. The idea was to disrupt criminal activity in Kabul.

I was with Para Company of the 3rd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regt. I have been deployed with all of Canada’s infantry and armoured regiments since 1999 and I can say with confidence that, while each regiment has its quirks—French or English, Patricias or Vandoos—the paratroopers and the recce troops are the same across the board. They are exemplary professionals, switched-on warriors with an esprit de corps that is unmatched.

On this night, my guys were patrolling their sector and setting up vehicle checkpoints when word came from local residents that criminals were living in a nearby compound, complete with armed guards. Under the silvery light of a full moon, paratroopers and city police armed with assault rifles fanned out swiftly and silently. They quickly surrounded a high-walled adobe fort that reportedly had been manned by armed guards earlier in the evening. Even with the reassuring sound of helicopter blades and whir of an unmanned spy plane overhead, the eight-metre-high walls, riddled with damage from previous battles, were an imposing sight. Gun ports could be seen along the ramparts and in the badly pocked towers at each corner. There were no guards to be seen.

While dogs barked and paratroopers swept the area, their rifles bristling in every direction, the veteran police chief who said he’d been doing this for 24 years walked right up to the door with two of his officers and knocked. It took a while, but one of the residents finally answered and was promptly told he was surrounded, not only from around but from above. There was no argument and no resistance. The door swung open and Kabul city police officers, along with a handful of paratroopers highly trained in close urban warfare, rushed inside. A dog stood atop one of the towers, barking. A soldier pointed his rifle at the animal, his infrared light marking a red dot on its forehead. He didn’t fire, but the dog seemed to know when to shut up because soon after that, he did.

Inside the compound were five men, two women and several children. The men were huddled in the middle of a courtyard beside a gas lamp and two horses. Their expressions were grim as flashlights cast scattered beams throughout buildings inside the compound. Police and soldiers were searching for weapons and contraband.

The huddled men were either innocent or the luckiest criminals in Kabul. All the searchers could find was a single shotgun; no contraband. The police chief expressed his regrets, explained the purpose of their actions and prepared to leave. The men who had knelt so sullenly were suddenly, joyously relieved. They posed proudly with their shotgun and invited the Afghan police and the Canadian soldiers to stay for tea—an Afghan tradition, even at 3 a.m. The formerly uninvited guests politely declined and disappeared the way they came.

On Aug. 1, members of the Vandoos battle group began joint patrols with their European replacements, fanning out across the Afghan capital with Belgians, Hungarians and Norwegians in the final stage of their six-month tour. The European battle group would take over Canada’s area of operations within five days, patrolling a sprawling mix of crowded urban streets and alleyways to remote mountain passes and goat tracks. They would do so with a far smaller contingent than their predecessors—approximately 550 troops compared with a Canadian battalion group of about 700.

Their work would be supplemented by a company of soldiers from 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry out of Edmonton, who took over duties on the gate, at observation posts and in emergencies. An armoured reconnaissance squadron from Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) in Edmonton took over the work of an additional 150 armoured Canadians who had been venturing north and south into Taliban country, conducting reconnaissance and running medical clinics on behalf of the NATO-run Kabul Multi-National Brigade.

While there had been months of debate in Ottawa over the state of the Canadian Forces, the smaller number of Europeans took over an escalating theatre of operations with the minimum of equipment to do the job, some of it inferior. Ottawa accelerated the purchase of new Mercedes G-Wagons—an armoured, four-door jeep with bullet-proof glass—after two Canadians driving in an unarmoured Iltis were killed and three wounded in a mine strike Oct. 2. Another Canadian riding in an open Iltis was killed by a suicide bomber Jan. 27.

But the Hungarians came into an ever-hotter Kabul, driving recently purchased, open-topped, soft-sided Mercedes MB-270s, whose floors were covered in sandbags, their windows wrapped in wire cages and their seats padded with Kevlar blankets. The Norwegians took the same measures with similar equipment. The only jeeps the Belgians had were a handful of Iltises, plus several lightly armed Pandurs, an Austrian-made armoured vehicle.

With temperatures soaring above 45 C, the Norwegian-led battle group began its Afghan rotation just as the weather—and the political climate—were heating up. The week before they took over, interim President Hamid Karzai dropped his powerful defence minister, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as his running mate in the presidential campaign. The move caused Canada and the rest of ISAF to step up patrols in case a disgruntled Fahim mobilized his massive military force against the government.

Commandant Jean-Pierre Wuestenberghs of the 1st Battalion Parachutists out of the legendary town of Diest, Belgium, said he was wary as he began his tour. “This is not a Kosovo,” said the senior captain, explaining that lines between Serbs, Albanians and Gypsies were more defined in the Balkans than the more murky allegiances in Afghanistan. “Here, it seems very secure but it isn’t at all, and that makes it very difficult for the guys. Luckily enough, we have veterans in every squad.” He said the Belgians have had excellent training but for all the subtle skills they’ve learned at winning hearts and minds, “you can’t train for a suicide bomber.”

For the Canadians, it marked the last stage of a gradual pullout that reduced their total contingent in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf to about 900 soldiers from 2,300, and shifted the primary focus of their efforts outward from Kabul.

By fall, Canada had reduced its overseas military deployments to just 1,200 personnel, down from 4,500 a year ago. Deep cuts in troop commitments to its two biggest NATO missions—Afghanistan and Bosnia—and the withdrawal of naval ships from the Persian Gulf will give the country’s armed forces a much-needed respite. “It’s all with the view to allowing the force to renew itself, to regenerate and be ready for whatever comes next,” General Ray Hénault, the chief of defence staff, said during a visit to Kabul in June. “It will put us on a solid footing for future international commitments.”

The number of troops in Bosnia is now fewer than 100 observers and surveillance troops supporting a European Union mission, down from 650 earlier this year. There will continue to be nominal deployments in Africa, the Middle East and Haiti, where an infantry company has been reduced to a couple of UN staff officers.

Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan now goes only to next August but, as the only country making year-long commitments to ISAF, it is widely expected it won’t be the last time Canadians lead the multinational peace-support mission. Hénault said he expects Canadian troops to remain in Afghanistan “for years” to come, likely expanding their numbers again by next August. Canada’s overall role will probably evolve into non-military areas like judicial reconstruction, police training and re-establishing self-sufficient security systems, he said. They will likely venture beyond in the form of a provincial reconstruction team—a small contingent, with big logistical demands, deployed as a security and training force in smaller cities, probably late next year.

NATO needs the help. Over the previous year, the number of nations participating in ISAF had fluctuated from 34 to 23 and back up to 35, confounding efforts to plan expansion of the force mandate.

Canada’s future in central Asia seemed more certain in August when Defence Minister Bill Graham was expected to sign an agreement committing Canadian army trainers to Afghanistan through 2008, the first long-term undertaking Ottawa has made to the war-ravaged country. The long-awaited deal with the U.S. military and Afghan government would also allow Canadian advisers to accompany Afghan National Army troops to the war front. “Canada is looking at repackaging and redefining a whole new mandate custom-made for this work,” said Col. Alain Tremblay, former commander of the Canadian contingent.

Training a national army and breaking the 1,400-year dominance of Afghanistan’s warlord culture is probably the most critical element of the country’s reconstruction, he said. “No central government will be able to survive in such an environment without the proper institutions—the judicial, the military. It took us six to eight months to…convince Ottawa of the strategic value and return investment of getting into that initiative.”

Until then, Canada’s role in the U.S.-led training program had been ad hoc, based solely on Ottawa’s relatively short-term commitments to ISAF. However, the program, which aims to train the first 70,000 ANA troops, is independent from NATO and its Canadian Operation Athena. Only the second time Canada has been involved in large-scale training of a foreign military force—Sierra Leone was the other—it is called Operation Archer. To mid-August, fewer than 15,000 soldiers had so far enrolled with the ANA, which is slowly shoring up its numbers as the country’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration program retires regional militias. The total training process, from recruitment through deployment, lasts two years. Tremblay said he expected Canada to stay with the training program regardless of its future role in ISAF. “It’s not a short-term commitment,” he added. “It takes a long time to bring them to a proper and decent level of efficiency as a modern military force. You cannot think that you can be playing at this on a six-month to six-month basis. It cannot work that way.”

At the behest of their first contingent commander, Maj.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, small groups of Canadian soldiers had been embedded with ANA and U.S. troops since the fall of 2003, training two kandaks, or battalions. But when it came time for their trainees to deploy, the Canadians had to stay behind. “The whole team was very frustrated by that,” explained Maj. Sylvain Rhéaume, the officer who commanded the training group between February and August. “We have trained these soldiers to do a job and when it was time to do the real stuff, we were not allowed to be with them. We developed a really good relationship and trust and it was very, very difficult to let them go.”

Asking the Americans to accompany Canadian trainees was humiliating, he said. “There was a loss of credibility for us in the eyes of the Afghans and the Americans. It’s difficult for the Afghans to understand why every time they went somewhere, we could not go. The Americans always asked us: Why?”

It was also difficult for the Afghans to invest time and trust in Canadians only to be deployed with, advised by and sometimes ordered by American officers they did not know, Rhéaume said.

As 16 Edmonton-based soldiers from the PPCLI came into theatre, they expected to deploy to a secret location with an Afghan support battalion for two to three months, helping them provide reconnaissance and security for October’s presidential elections. Commanded by Maj. Brian Hynes, who served a combat tour with 3PPCLI out of Kandahar two years ago, the Canadian trainers were to be provided with slightly more robust rules of engagement than their NATO colleagues are allowed.

Yet, in what they saw as a major blow to their credibility in Afghanistan, the Canadian soldiers were forced by federal policy officials to abandon the Afghan army battalion they trained and nurtured bonds with for more than seven months, just as it was to deploy. Hynes had to inform his charges on the day he was supposed to lead a preparatory reconnaissance mission that American troops would be going instead.

“The past three or four days have probably been the most embarrassing I’ve ever had in my career,” a veteran member of the Canadian embedded training team said at the time. “Our vehicle was packed and ready to go. Trust is now gone. The Americans are pissed off. The ANA guys were ecstatic that Canada was going with them; you could see it in their faces. Now they’re crushed.”

The inexplicable delay by bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Office and in the office of the deputy chief of defence staff forced the training team to adopt a new battalion that remained in Kabul through the Oct. 9 presidential election. Ironically, Kabul was expected to be more dangerous than the region to which they were to deploy. It was at least the fourth time since last September that Canadians had to abandon their trainees before a deployment, frustrating the Americans, who are in charge of the program, and forcing them, in this case at least, to make last-minute plans.

It’s hard to gauge just how damaging such things are, but consider that, while they are a welcoming, hospitable people, Afghans are highly mistrustful of foreigners and harbour deep psychological and physical wounds from past military presence in their country. ISAF is constantly fighting those ghosts with a comprehensive hearts-and-minds campaign that includes civilian-military co-operation, or CIMIC, projects and daily schmoozing with all manner of politicians, commanders, pedestrians and shopkeepers.

The Canadian army’s 30-member CIMIC unit in Afghanistan completed 152 projects over six months under Major Richard Sneddon. The team spent $414,600 on such things as schools, orphanages, bridges, culverts, policing equipment, water projects and garbage collection points.

It was all part of a low-key but persistent campaign to win the hearts and minds of a people who, historically, have never been “won.” Ever since World War II, when fighting was no longer limited to battlefields, and civilian populations began reaping more of the whirlwind of war, the need for reconstruction and humanitarian aid has escalated. Afghanistan is a country ravaged by 25 years of war, seven years of drought and countless shifting political, religious, ethnic and social undercurrents that pull its beleaguered populous in multiple directions at once.

At the same time, the threat facing Canadian and other NATO troops making peace in a sprawling, crowded city of 3.5 million people is largely indefinable, unpredictable and untraceable. Always a critical element of any military operation, intelligence gathering takes on a whole new character in a country like Afghanistan, where lines defining friend and foe are blurred, if lines exist at all.

The primary role of CIMIC’s good works is protecting allied troops by fostering good relations with the populace and reinforcing the assertion that ISAF is not an occupier. Indecision and lack of commitment do immeasurable damage to such efforts.

During my last five months in Afghanistan, young Manilay proved his mettle time and time again. He stood up to an irate Afghan prison warden who was threatening to have him beaten and thrown in a cell, ultimately humbling the man with logic. He didn’t flinch on another occasion when Afghan police rushed up to him and one raised his rifle butt, threatening to strike him in the head. My fixer stood there quietly, stoically, as these same police yelled at him, insulted and threatened him—all for trying on my behalf to facilitate an interview with an Afghan woman. My angry replies only made it worse for him, and when I complained to their superior, he told me I’d have to forgive them, they were illiterate.

I left Kabul on Aug. 14, saying goodbye to Manilay and Mohammed for what may be the last time in Afghanistan. I fully expect to see Manilay in Canada someday. Meanwhile, he has returned to school in Peshawar, perhaps with a broader view of the world. I, on the other hand, came away with a profound respect for this impetuous, fun-loving kid I had so greatly underestimated.



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