Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 2

Cpl. Becky Hudson with some little residents of Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Cpl. Becky Hudson with some little residents of Salavat.


This is the second part of Legion Magazine’s series on the men of 1st Platoon, Alpha Company, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry as they go headfirst into their new mission to secure the town of Salavat, deep in the heart of Kandahar province’s infamous Panjwai district. Stationed in a small, commandeered school compound, 1st Platoon now comprises what is known as a ‘Platoon House,’ the linchpin in a new strategy emanating from Kabul to get NATO soldiers off their big bases and out into the villages.

However, with the arrival of company commander Major Ryan Jurkowksi, his tactical headquarters unit—and with Alpha Company’s 2nd Platoon starting to show up as well—rumours swirl that there will be war in nearby Nakhonay. And so it seems that what was once a Platoon House is quickly becoming a kind of impromptu and wildly overcrowded staging base for the upcoming battle. And what was briefly a counter-insurgency effort is threatening to dissolve into another round of whack-a-mole, the deadly game where Canadians endlessly chase phantom enemy soldiers across bomb-infested territory.

Meanwhile, the struggle to win the allegiance of the villagers is floundering, and the effort to partner with Saed, the local Afghan National Army (ANA) commander, is about to hit its rockiest point ever. Follow the link to read Part 1, Assignment Afghanistan: The Struggle For Salavat – Part 1

Soldiers of 1st Platoon on patrol in Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Soldiers of 1st Platoon on patrol in Salavat.

The Trouble With War

In this part of Afghanistan everything is barbed, pointed, sharp, poisonous, debilitating, harsh or otherwise generally opposed to the existence of other things. This is just how it seems. The dust feels deadly. The plants make you bleed. The hot dry earth drains you via osmosis. The people, like their walls and compounds, are impenetrable. The people are confounding. They think aggressively beneath a thick cloud of misinformation and ignorance. They are equal parts fierce and unaware.

The whole place down here, on the edge of the desert, is from a time before medieval, except with cellphones, Toyotas and a great many AK-47s. It’s a place of unbending mysticism, where our smiling rationality doesn’t really make a dent in the things they want to believe.

The enemy pays local children to fly homemade plastic-bag kites whenever a patrol passes nearby and then illiterate men manage to kill Canadians with $10 bombs. The Canadian Forces have satellites and laser-guided weapons and officers with PhDs.

It’s not clear who has the advantage.

The enemy has a straight-up goal—to get foreigners out of their country—and they have all the time in the world to do it and a million corners to hide in, as well.

In order to engage the enemy, the Canadians need to gain access to their world, they have to develop relationships, build trust and then get rewarded with intelligence. In other words, the Canadians have to conduct a successful counter-insurgency strategy in order to earn their fight.

This fact does not sit well with everybody on the ground in Kandahar in October 2009. Many soldiers still dream of the hard knock—the possibility that they can achieve results through firepower. But gunplay, no matter how fine or fierce, is unlikely to push this situation any closer toward good.

Much like it was in 2008, Nakhonay is the place everybody talks about. They talked about it then, they talk about it now. The enemy is there in big numbers, digging in for a fight, the shooters say, their eagerness so clear.

But it’s untrue. If the enemy dug fixed positions right there, they’d be dead before the end of the week.

We outgun them, but they out-think us. Meanwhile, the villagers just want to survive.

Soldiers of 1st Platoon on patrol in Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Soldiers of 1st Platoon on patrol in Salavat.

Day 4: Operation Deep Thrust

In the morning, a mini-logistical conflict erupts over who can drink which packets of instant coffee and who can eat unsavory rations from which pile of unsavory rations. First Platoon’s warrant officer and general guardian, Dan Eisan, puts a sign on the stores tent reading, ‘For rations or water, please see Warrant Eisan. Do Not Just Take Them.’ The headquarters soldiers react by walking around talking loudly about how the coffee they’re drinking came from their own vehicles and how the water they’re drinking came from their own vehicles, too.

First Platoon watches the display with undisguised contempt. “I went to war and a garrison broke out,” says a head-shaking Master Corporal Shane Stackpole, 31, the second-in-command of the platoon’s 1 Section.

Later in the day, Eisan would hit the frustration wall as the latest resupply came to fully stock the base with items like Perrier sparkling water and Doritos chips, but missing certain key supplies such as heater bags for the rations, or, well, the very vital toiletry supplies, commonly called ‘shitter bags,’ without which hygiene would become difficult.

Anyone who’s tried to keep an apartment or house stocked and going knows the nature of Eisan’s problem. In even a small household, things constantly break and go wrong and need fixing, supplies constantly need replenishing. Now, imagine you’re running a household for 100 aggressive young soldiers in the middle of a desert. “These supply things we request, it’s not a wish list, it’s not goodies for us,” growls Eisan. “We’ve got more than a hundred guys in this tiny compound and if we don’t have shitter bags it’s going to get very ungood very, very fast.”

Corporal John Little, 24, a diminutive and fiercely mustachioed young man who is in many ways the platoon’s ambassador and general-purpose entertainer, has been thrown quite thoroughly off his game by the arrival of the headquarters staff. He has, he admits, lost his spark. “I can’t help it, the camp’s been taken over by dirty filthy pogues,” he says.

Over time, the ambassador would prove himself to be a kind of binary creature, he was either upset or entertaining; he was either giving up to the idea that life was a joke or living to make new jokes.

For example, Little has created a new concept for a video game. It’s based on counter-insurgency (COIN) and it has, according to Little, “a million ways to lose, and no ways to win.”

Captain Bryce Talsma in northern Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Captain Bryce Talsma in northern Salavat.

He wants to create a new COIN video game for each militant Islamic country. “People will keep buying it because there’s no way to win,” says ambassador Little. “In the best case scenario you earn enough points where a secret ‘Pave Country’ button comes up, which you naturally press, but then you lose anyway because the ‘You lost hearts and minds. You Lose’ flag comes up.”

While I have now heard three separate jackings land on the ambassador’s head in the last 24 hours, this does not faze him. “Bring it,” he leans back in the sun and spreads his arms wide. “Send John Little home!”

“Little Johnny’s sad,” says Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall, having come up on the scene and observed Little’s obvious discontentment. “Live the dream. Live the filth,” MacDougall encourages.

It should be said, however, that discontentment on this level seems to be standard issue for many of the PPCLI’s finest soldiers, seems to be some kind of tradition, in fact. One suspects that if some future scientist were ever able to extract the essence of a PPCLI grunt, it would consist of two equal parts of what is essentially the same urge: “the bullshit reflex” and “let’s see if we can cause some trouble.”

A young Afghan and a Canadian soldier appraise each other. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

A young Afghan and a Canadian soldier appraise each other.

It seems that rebellion is a tradition for the PPCLI and officers bear the brunt of this. According to some kind of tradition, the first words out of platoon leader Captain Bryce Talsma’s mouth at a briefing are met by an instant chorus of  “this is bullshit” or sometimes simply, to save time perhaps, “bullshit.”

It’s also true that some stereotypes about the PPCLI can actually be observed to be factual. For example, it’s hard to believe that so many varieties and styles of tan desert combat boots are manufactured, but so far as I could tell, none of the 40 or so soldiers in first platoon had the same boots.

Later in the morning, I sit in the sun and discuss the war with an anonymous man, one of those figures that comes and goes in a combat zone without anybody being completely sure who they are, or were.

Omar (not his real name, assuredly) introduces himself as a Canadian-Afghan cultural adviser. And while he was born near Kabul, looks like an Afghan and speaks Pashto like a (presumably accented) local, he grew up mostly in Canada and speaks English as if it’s his first language.

Corporal John Little and his companion. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Corporal John Little and his companion.

Omar is, understandably, a long-term and well-motivated observer of the situation in Afghanistan. “The society is broken,” he begins. “People’s normal relations to each other—to some kind of governance, to an economy—all of it is broken.

“These people in Salavat need jobs and money. Then they won’t go to the Taliban. The Taliban will be nothing if they can’t pay people to do things for them.

“But the bottom line is that if we really want to bring peace, we can do it. I know we can do it. We had peace and democracy before in Afghanistan, we had democracy for ages. We call it the Loya Jirga.”

At 11:25 a.m., the air rather suddenly turns into a sucking, battering wave as a series of big bombs fall up north in Zhari district. It should noted that the war’s natural soundtrack is abusive, a symphony of angry ear-destroying technology. There is the crazy unwinding clatter of a Chinook 10 feet above your head, the diesel freight roar of the LAVs and, always, anytime, the high-explosives that pulse into your head with surgical intensity. It feels like my ears age 15 years each day.

In the afternoon, ambassador Little, having hit some new and deeper stage of melancholy, sits in the sand and reads poetry to passing soldiers. “‘A frightened monkey pilots my boat through the rapids,’” he yells after a fleeing soldier, who’s apparently not a fan of the poet Gary Michael Dault or his work, The Milk of Birds.

In the spirit of Little’s poetry, Lieutenant Andrew Stocker, the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) leader attached to the co-located Afghan National Army unit, throws out a famous stanza from Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Young British Soldier.

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,

And the women come out to cut up what remains,

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Go, go, go like a soldier…”

A passing soldier watches Stocker recite the poetry, then gives him a look that could only be described as admonishing. “What?” asks Stocker. “I just saved you six hours of conduct-after-capture drills.”

The plan for the day is a patrol into eastern Salavat, plus establish a checkpoint and stay after dark.

All day rumours swirl about the exact nature of the patrol. It’s a matter of high interest and so the rumour system seems to work faster than thought itself. It’s like men gossiping about the fate of their lives—which is exactly what it is.

As the patrol was getting ready to go out, it changed from another tip patrol into a much deeper thrust. “Now we’ve got a good patrol,” Sergeant Craig Donaldson growls at 1:30 p.m. “We’re not going to sit on a road somewhere for hours, we’re going right downtown,” he shrugs. “Why the hell not?”

Private Brian Makela (front) and Warrant Officer Dan Eisan patrol through Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Private Brian Makela (front) and Warrant Officer Dan Eisan patrol through Salavat.

Today’s patrol is duly renamed Operation Deep Thrust.

“What interpreter you taking?” asked Sgt. C.J. Flach.

“Mania,” said Donaldson.

“Does he speak English?” asked Flach skeptically.

“Not really, but I don’t think he speaks Pashto either, so it’s all good,” replied Donaldson.

The patrol winds endlessly through Salavat’s narrow alleys. If there was a pattern, and there probably was, it was not to be discerned easily, or at least, by me.

“This patrol reminds me of a shitty level of Super Mario Brothers,” says M.Cpl. Paul Guilmane in reference to the video game.

As night fell and the patrol began to look for a place to hunker down for a bit, the 1 Field Ambulance medic Cpl. Becky Hudson, 25, started making friends with a whole herd of local Afghan kids.

While most of the soldiers were slightly wary, at this stage, of the kids, Hudson was not. This was a peculiar quality Hudson had. On patrol, when others around her are wincing at some new threat or calamity, when you can see confusion and the slow approach of fear in their eyes, Hudson looks like she’s on a beach in Cancun. She looks profoundly undisturbed. While others look like they would rather be anywhere else, Hudson looks like she is in the place she wants to be.

Later on, as there were flares bursting in the night sky, Hudson explained some of this calmness. “I joined because I like a challenge. I like to do what people say I cannot,” says Hudson. “I always wanted to be a medic in a war zone. In chaos, people are going to look towards me for calm. It’s weird to say, but if I were the last face you were going to see, I don’t want it to be one of fear, do you understand what I’m saying? You can even tell with these guys, you have your big macho men, nothing can touch them, but when something happens, they turn into little boys again. A lot of people are asking what my purpose is, and I feel like I found that, I know why I’m here.”

Soon after, with no enemy sighted, the patrol stepped off to return back to base in the dark.

At one point along the way, a rather creepy Afghan guy stepped out from an alley and began staring us down, just a few feet away, his head twisting and an odd smile on his face.

Corporal Jesse Evanshen just calmly pointed his gun at the man. “I don’t get scared easy,” said Evanshen, smiling sort of scarily himself. He then lowered his gun and looked right at me: “You get scared?” he asked. I mumbled something about the fearlessness of my typing skills and left it at that.

In the patrol hot wash held very late that night, one of the soldiers expressed dismay at the constant holdups as Talsma and the interpreter stopped to speak with villagers. “We’ve got to keep moving,” he said. “If we stand there waiting, we’re sitting ducks.”

An Afghan girl smiles after receiving some Canadian candy. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

An Afghan girl smiles after receiving some Canadian candy.

Talsma watched with a curious expression on his face as one member of the patrol after another expressed their opinions. Many wanted to keep the patrol flowing, but not all. “Talking to villagers is the whole point of being out there,” exclaimed Little, finally, after the debate had started to drag. “We have to let the captain do his thing.”

It was an interesting discussion in that it neatly exposed the platoon’s divided priorities—many of the tactics which make sense in counter-insurgency do not make sense in conventional war fighting, and that was the problem here.

Talsma agreed with Little, then spoke briefly about the importance of connecting with the villagers, but also consented that stops would be kept as short as possible, in the interest of safety.

Day 5: Flach’s Claims Patrol

“Mooooooooooooorning Bryce, how’d the patrol go?” said Major Jurkowski as he walked up onto the patio where Talsma was eating his omelette with salsa and Tabasco sauce, washed down with Snapple iced tea.

Talsma outlines the various main pieces of information he learned: the locals are unhappy with the illumination missions as they’re scared of the potentially lethal casings that come flying off, and they’re also scared of when the illumination is timed incorrectly and hits the ground still burning, often starting a fire.

Jurkowski listens and nods. He tells Talsma to remember to also launch illumination rounds in areas where no soldiers are patrolling, just so the enemy doesn’t catch onto any patterns they can exploit.

Jurkowski then moves on to what could be called the ‘jacking’ portion of the conversation. It turns out he’d overheard a 1st Platoon soldier talking on the satellite phone, explaining how he’s teaching the kids to give the finger and swear in English.

“Are we really relentlessly protecting the population if we’re teaching them to swear?” asked Jurkowski.

Talsma kind of stammers.

“I’m not here to get in your business,” said Jurkowski, somewhat pre-emptively. “I’m here to enable you in your business.”

Talsma and Jurkowski, it has to be said, suffered through one of those weird relationships where neither was at their best around each other. That’s not to say they brought out the worst in each other, but it’s safe to say that they made each other un-calm in peculiar ways.

Regardless, they move on to discussions of the day’s plan. Apparently, there’s some intelligence that indicates the enemy is running a safe house in Salavat. “What I want to know is where this Taliban safe house is, then I want you to start blocking it, and in a few days we’ll go hit it,” said Jurkowski.

Jurkowski is, of course, very aware that the ANA assigned to the Salavat Platoon House has been, thus far, a limiting factor. “I’m being a little patient here,” he said of the ANA, “to understand the character of the situation before we start finding those pressure points to influence. I think it’s very important to build trust there, and we’ll do that through discussion, explanation and demonstration.

“The ANA have put limitations on themselves, and we are going beyond those limitations to show them what’s possible.”

Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall at the Afghan shop just south of the platoon house. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall at the Afghan shop just south of the platoon house.

Later, just after the day’s patrol had looped deep into southern Salavat, a well-dressed villager came up the path on a motorcycle and stopped. He took out a piece of paper and started talking, gesturing to it. He looked as if he meant business.

After talking to the interpreter, Mania, for a while, it became clear the man was holding some sort of signed damage claim from a Canadian patrol that had destroyed part of his field with a tank. He was looking for a way to get reimbursed.

“Tell him to go to the Platoon House,” Flach directed the interpreter.

The two Afghans talk between themselves. “He says he won’t go there because the Taliban will see him,” said Mania.

Flach nodded. “Tell him to go through the village elder, Hajji Pir Mohammed,” said Flach.

They speak at length. “He can’t,” said Mania. “He says the elders will take the money for themselves.”

Flach nodded. “Tell him to go to the district centre.”

More discussion. “He won’t,” Mania reported. “He said the district leader can’t be trusted with anything.”

Flach nods again. His face has hardened. He’s run out of patience. “Well, it wasn’t us who destroyed your field and I can’t personally do anything about it.”

The farmer shrugs.

“Have a nice day,” said Flach, and ordered the patrol to move off.

Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall speaking to children outside an Afghan shop. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Sergeant Dwayne MacDougall speaking to children outside an Afghan shop.

Later on, Flach would look back on this encounter with the villager as a missed opportunity to create a new ally in the village, and possibly gain some actual intelligence. “Our primary mission was to recce some routes around Salavat,” said Flach. “And I felt we were sitting in one spot too long. I gave him three ways to go about [making his claim] and couldn’t do much else. It was an opportunity, but it wasn’t the right time or place.”

It would later turn out that, unbeknownst to Flach or Talsma, there is actually a ‘claims day’ held periodically at Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Kandahar City, and it’s held specifically to overcome issues such as the one raised by the farmer on Flach’s patrol.

Much later on, Talsma himself would express his regrets that knowledge of the ‘claims day’ hadn’t been passed down to them. “There’s a disconnected flow of information. We operate in this little bubble. We don’t hear much about the outside world. It’s an interesting phenomenon. Soon you can only see your own room. The flow of information is shit. And I think that’s where people start getting discouraged. We’ve been here for years and we can’t un-fuck something small like that.”

After returning to the compound without incident, the patrol learns that Jurkowski and most of the headquarters section will have to return to Masum Ghar immediately, as the communications link out here is too unstable, or too insecure.

Once the company commander leaves, the boys emerge from their self-imposed hideouts to celebrate their renewed freedom—there’s hooting in the compound, shirtless soldiers surround the command post to talk, and then play foosball loudly into the night, also shirtless, despite the cold.

Very late that night, a clandestine event that can’t be described because it was orchestrated by a clandestine man who can’t be described caused a little tension in the unit when a couple of 2 Section guys were plucked to help out with the operation. They were sitting at the command post in their full battle gear, waiting for the launch order, when another soldier came up and started to ask questions.

“What are you guys doing?” he asked, looking at their gear.

“Just hanging out, killing time,” one of the soldiers answered, ignoring the intent of the question.

“No, why are you geared up?” he persisted.

“Don’t worry about it,” the soldier replied.

“Seriously, is there something going on?” he asked.

“Listen, you’re asking too many questions,” the soldier replied.

“Well fine,” he said, before swearing and walking off into the dark.

Day 6: A Difficult Ally

“I need garbage bags,” is the first thing I heard after waking up on Saturday morning. It’s the annoyed voice of a young soldier and whoever he’s speaking to in the command post is, I can predict, not going to respond well.

“All stores requests go through the warrant,” replied Talsma, somewhat dismissively.

“I’ll leave the garbage on the floor then,” said the frustrated soldier.

“All right, good chat,” replied Talsma, with equal parts sarcasm and aggression.

After finally getting off my cot, I make a gruesome discovery. In the days since the platoon has moved into the compound, the abundance of food waste and garbage had attracted a truly numerous rodent population. It seems that one of the creatures had decided to crawl under me for warmth during the night and had subsequently been turned into a furry pancake when I rolled over.

“Yeah, you’re definitely gonna die,’ said the medic, Hudson, laughing at me as I carried the dead mouse by the tail across the patio, loudly whining about my chances of getting some infectious disease.

Talsma gets a light from Master Bombardier Gerald Billard. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Talsma gets a light from Master Bombardier Gerald Billard.

This afternoon’s patrol is the big one. Every available soldier is gearing up to walk right into downtown Salavat. And it’s going to be co-ordinated so that the patrol splits into three sections, with each entering the town from a different direction.

In the first hour of the patrol, Omar interviews a shopkeeper in eastern Salavat. “The village here is empty,” said the keeper. “The truth is: they left because of you.”

The Canadians check all the motorcycles they see because the local insurgent commander has a screwed-up right hand and has rewired his bike to have the accelerator on the left.

The ANA keep freaking everybody out by letting locals enter the patrol lines without searching them.

Before the patrol makes it all the way downtown, the northern nemesis (see Part 1) reappears and tells the Canadians to stay out of the village. “He’s a fundamentalist,” says Omar, kind of dismissively.

On the way back to the base, MacDougall stops by the local shop and makes plans to buy some vegetables and eggs.

MacDougall has in many ways become the focal point of the Afghans’ attention. Not only does he seem to find his way onto every single patrol, but he tends to find his way to the front of the patrol and can most often be heard shouting ‘Manana’ (good day, in Pashto) loudly and affably in every direction. Villagers have now begun to shout ‘Manana!’ whenever they see him.

One way or another, MacDougall also tends to give such a volume of acute tactical advice that he becomes the de facto leader of many patrols. And, it should be said, he doesn’t necessarily follow orders exactly. His patrols have their own flow, their own purpose. He will deviate from the plan if he feels it’s the right thing to do, but his boisterous aggression, no matter how rowdy, doesn’t mask his actual concern, his observed and observable desire to do the right thing, both for his men and for the Afghans.

After the patrol returned to base, a couple of the sergeants sat down with Talsma for a general strategy session. “We were trying to figure out how we could work ourselves into the community,” said MacDougall of his new effort to buy local supplies, such as eggs. “On the first patrol we saw the bazaar and then immediately when we got back I just thought ‘let’s start to contribute by buying the local produce or if we could, even a goat.

“Our idea was to use the bazaar to have that big feast that we had. But we turned it over to the ANA, gave the money to them, and they went to Bazaar-e-Panjwai because they had a better market, but that wasn’t the intent.

“So I walked right into their store, into the bazaar, and there was interaction, a business thing and a friendship-building moment, too. The men were actually pushing their kids to come see me, and it’s only been a week and we can see the fruits of our labour already, it’s already starting to show.

“The owner said he was sorry he didn’t have the eggs that I wanted, but that he’d have them for tomorrow morning. And this is like developing a relationship back home.

“I think we’re starting to see it. I see my young guys trying to learn the language at a low level. We’re starting to build relationships.

“Now, when we were training and talking about coming here, there was none of this, there was little or no preparation for this kind of mission. But we’re adapting.”

MacDougall then turns his attention to another new problem. With a major operation in Nakhonay shaping up, it seems the platoon will likely be moved out of Salavat at some point, maybe soon. “We can’t be uprooted. It would suck, because I think we’re getting something started here. We’re making progress, even at an early stage.”

The long talk is interrupted by a sick kid arriving at the front gate. The command post leaps into action—Talsma, Eisan, Hudson and Omar go out to meet with the child. In short order, they hustle him into the medic’s room. This is a big moment, the first time any villager has dared come to the base for assistance.

Sadly, it turned out that Hudson could do very little to help the child, who seemed, she said, to be suffering from some kind of neurological disorder.

After the strategy session reconvenes, Talsma begins to discuss another one of their recurrent problems, which is that when the combat road was built to link the Platoon House to the main supply route, the Canadian builders rather unwisely ran the road across one of Salavat’s main irrigation ditches, effectively cutting off a significant section of the town’s water supply. “I understand military necessity,” said Talsma, ruefully shaking his head, “but if you cut off their water, and if it’s a desert community, I’m pretty sure they’re going to be pissed off. We’re like a blind man with his pants down.…

“Plus, we should never have been here. We should have built a platoon house on the [old] Soviet OP (observation post). This was just the easiest. But we’ve taken away the town’s only school.

“We seem to be really willing to make quick gains against long-term un-fucking of the situation. Everyone seems to come in thinking, ‘I have six months to make my mark,’ but that’s not good enough, we need a 25-year model.

“I mean, we’re fighting an enemy with a 100-year campaign plan. It’s going to be difficult to fight that with a six-month strategy.”

Just then, Stocker comes walking quickly into the command post. He looks uncomfortable.

“Yeah, you’re in for a shit storm [later],” he says to Talsma. Apparently Saed is “furious” because he thinks the western third of today’s patrol got confused, deviated from the plan and went to visit Hajji Pir Mohammed’s house.

“Why would he be furious if we went to Hajii’s?” asked Talsma.

“Because it wasn’t in the plan,” said Stocker.

“No. No.” Talsma wasn’t buying it. “There’s more to it than that. He’s furious because he doesn’t want us to make contact with Pir Mohammed.”

Stocker looked unconvinced. “I think it’s because in the old Soviet system he was trained on, you either did the plan or you got shot.”

“He better get with the program, because we’re not going to a Soviet model. If he wants to, he can fuck off….”

“Well, hopefully his (commander) will be here soon,” said Stocker.

And with that there was a short pause in the conversation. Talsma and MacDougall exchanged a couple of long glances. Stocker looked mostly at the ground.

“No, it’s a control thing,” said Talsma. “I think he’s setting himself up as warlord with Canadian muscle backing him up.”

Stocker kept looking at the ground. “It could be possible,” he said.

“I think it would be naive not to consider that as a possibility,” said Talsma. “Every time an elder approaches, Saed goes off with him and makes sure we don’t know what was said or anything about it. There’s a lot of controlling here that I’m going to have to push higher.”

“Well, if he explodes tonight, I’ll have to get my [commander] in here to sort it out, because he was no longer logical in there,” said Stocker.

“If he wants to sweat the small stuff, it’s going to be a long tour because we’re not going anywhere,” said Talsma, now clearly agitated. “I’ll fight fire with fire on this one, we’ll see. He’s going to find out that Canadians have easy smiles, but only until he tries to manipulate us.”

“HUAH,” yelled Eisan in encouragement from deep within the sleeping quarters.

As it would turn out, the meeting between Saed and Talsma did not go well. No understanding was reached and acrimony between the allies reached a new low.

It is saying a lot, a great deal in fact, that Talsma doubled the guard on the LAV parked in the ANA section of the camp and posted an armed guard in front of the command post and his sleeping quarters. To protect us all from the ANA.

Day 7: Confusion Abounds

The day began early in another spasm of unco-ordination. The ANA were supposed to be going to Masum Ghar for a training day but they hadn’t arranged to have a 1st Platoon clearance patrol go out in advance and scour the culverts for IEDs. They were now waiting in their trucks for a patrol to be conjured up in order to provide their safe passage.

As that patrol is heading out the front gate, Talsma calls an important co-ordination meeting with all the platoon’s central characters present to hear about last night’s revelations. “It’s come to light that the ANA have been withholding information from us and preventing us from making contact with the village elders,” said Talsma. “When Saed thought we went near Hajji Pir Mohammed’s yesterday, he lost his mind. There are suspicions now that he may be co-ordinating with the Taliban and that would be the reason why things are so quiet right now. He certainly has the phone number of the local Taliban commander on his phone. [Jurkowski] is coming in today to look at the issue, as well as all the leadership of OMLT and Kandak.

“In all the time the Vandoos were here, they never identified any problem, and we were here for a week and we identified something that could have impossibly compromised our mission here,” said MacDougall to the assembled crowd.

At the end of the meeting, Talsma gave an ominous conclusion. “All of our previous intelligence reports are being re-vetted now in light of the new situation,” he said. “And we’re going to keep two men on shift in order to keep eyes on the ANA at all times. People do some crazy things once their hand has been caught in the cookie jar, and I don’t want to get my throat slit because of it.”

And the day had barely started.

In the next issue: Captain Talsma and Saed reach a new understanding as the villagers of Salavat begin to show their cards.

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.