Assignment Afghanistan: The Impossible War

September 7, 2011 by Adam Day

Near Zangabad in 2008 as a Canadian patrol dares to go no further into enemy territory. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Near Zangabad in 2008 as a Canadian patrol dares to go no further into enemy territory.

A Reporter’s View of Canada’s Combat Mission in Kandahar Province, 2006-2011

It was a heat-crazed Afghan afternoon in 2008 when I think maybe I saw through the war.

Zangabad is a bad memory, nothing but streaks of confusion and discontent. That day in April the village was mostly deserted, just a labyrinth of tawny mud walls, a few shifty farmers and a disaster of IEDs.

I was on patrol with the infantry. Their mission was to provide security for the construction of a new road passing through Haji and Zangabad all the way out to Mushan. The road was scheduled to bring peace and prosperity to western Panjwaii, the most hostile part of the most hostile district in Kandahar province, if not the country.

Their mission was not going well. The road was constantly being laced with IEDs. Canadians and Afghans were dying and the whole project was in jeopardy.

“We are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had—my reading of Afghanistan history—it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.”
—Prime Minister Stephen Harper on CNN, March 2, 2009.

Nor was this particular patrol going well. Its aim was to gather intelligence about insurgent activity and identify new projects in order to start rebuilding the community. But there was a hitch. The locals wouldn’t talk to them. Every time the patrol leader—a captain—and the civil-military relations operator tried to spark up a conversation, it went nowhere.

The locals were afraid. They wouldn’t co-operate with the Canadians because they feared Taliban reprisal. But the Canadians couldn’t protect them unless they co-operated by sharing intelligence.

It was a Catch-22. And it had to be resolved before the local Afghans would even think about supporting the central government in Kabul, which is what had to happen so that Afghanistan could move out of ‘failed state’ status, which is what had to happen so that Canada and other countries could be safe from Afghan-exported terrorism.

The task seemed barely possible, but it turned out to be even harder than that.

The patrol was on the edge of the village, near a bombed-out schoolhouse. In a matter of minutes the village fell completely silent. Radio chatter sparked up—the insurgents had set up an ambush just ahead.

What to do wasn’t obvious. Advancing might mean a gunfight; retreating meant the patrol had failed. An argument broke out among the Canadians. The captain leading the patrol was ordering a retreat, the civil-military relations sergeant wanted to push on regardless of the threat.

Both soldiers later told me what they were thinking.

Canadians under fire in Panjwaii. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Canadians under fire in Panjwaii.

The sergeant wanted to advance; he needed to clear the area of insurgents so that he could get to work on re-building the area. The captain understood this, but didn’t see how he could order an advance into a well-defined enemy position with so few troops and so little possibility of backup.

According to plan, this area had already been cleared of insurgents and these troops were here to build.

Meanwhile, the insurgents didn’t care for our plans and simply refused to stay ‘cleared.’

They were still here, and it was a problem because there weren’t enough troops to do anything much about it.

Over five years of reporting, four trips to Kandahar and more than six weeks outside-the-wire, the war had become so complicated that I’d lost track of the many ways that nothing made sense. But that day in Zangabad the normal opacity lifted and here was something I saw: The soldiers were on a mission at which they could not succeed.

A few months later, the road construction effort in western Panjwaii was abandoned, all the Canadian bases were torn down and the area was left to the enemy.

The Smell of Paradise is Rising

For Canada, the war began on September 11, 2001, when al-Qaida attacked the United States, and NATO responded by invoking its mutual defence pact.

After the Taliban essentially refused to turn Osama bin Laden over to justice, the military intervention began.

The mission was to destroy al-Qaida and go on the offensive against the Islamic militants.

Martyrdom approaches. This phrase was written by 9/11 bomber Ziad Jarrah in his personal notes leading up to the attack.

Beyond 9/11 and terrorism, however, this was in many ways a war about progress. About what progress means, and about who gets to set the basic rules for how a society, and the world, functions.

For bin Laden and al-Qaida and the Taliban, progress meant a kind of full-throttle reverse away from the direction of the modern world. Instead, they wanted to create their fundamentalist version of a perfect Islamic state, a savage kingdom of Shariah law and unlimited piety. Such a place had only ever really existed in a book—the Qur’an—and the Islamic militants’ perverse interpretation of this text left them with a goal that was nothing more than a Dark Age religious fantasy.

This is why they were our enemies: they wanted to destroy us and turn the world into a perfect vision of their totalitarian paradise, where women are slaves and men are pure and god is king. It’s a world the barbarity of which can be glimpsed in the deeds of the Taliban themselves: using iron bars to beat women on the street, dousing young girls in acid because they wanted to learn to read, murdering anyone who opposed them.

But of course these extremists were, and are, deluded—weak radicalized losers who couldn’t resist the lure of brotherhood in a death cult, whose only answer to the relentless challenge and difficulty of a modern world they can’t understand was to seek its destruction, to find paradise by creating it on earth or dying in the attempt.

There was never any doubt we would fight them. Canadians have always opposed the idea that one group can force its ideas onto others at the cost of their freedom. We call it fascism and any group of men stupid enough to threaten the world with it should expect the wrath of the world upon them.

But this is where things get complicated.

Because while this enemy was worth fighting, that’s not always who we were fighting in Afghanistan.

Medevac after an IED strike. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Medevac after an IED strike.

Fog of War

In June I ran into a soldier in a bar in Central Canada. He and I had spent a couple of weeks in Panjwaii once. I told him I was writing this story, trying to write a brief history of Canada’s war in Kandahar Province. I told him my idea was to try to tell the truth about the thing.

It was dark in the bar and the music was kind of loud and he just shook his head and smiled the kind of smile you offer to someone too dumb to know they’re dumb. “Good luck,” he said.

What exactly he meant by that, well, it’s hard to say. But let me try.

He knows there is really only one story I can tell that means anything. It’s the soldier’s story; the story of Canadians sent to a distant land to fight and follow orders and try their best to do the impossible and try not to die or lose their legs. It’s not a story of tumult and triumph, exactly. It’s a story of complexity and strangeness and a war fought against long odds.

It is, he knows, a story that, in all probability, no one wants to hear.

The Canadian Forces went to Kandahar in 2006 in order to bring order and civility to the entire province. Originally, the battle group was intended to provide security for the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which was intended to complete all manner of good works projects.

That didn’t happen.

Instead, from the beginning the war was kind of wild and rolling and kinetic, a constant state of emergency wherein the battle group rolled across the entirety of Kandahar Province, and even into Helmand Province, squashing insurgent activity wherever it could be found.

Over the years, as the scope of the opposition became apparent, the Canadian area of operations shrank from the whole province to just a few districts around Kandahar, to, eventually, just about half of Panjwaii district.

In the bar in Manitoba, I told the soldier, “I’m trying to explain this…contraction.”

“You might as well call it failure,” he said.

Might. But the story of what happened is more than the story of failure.

Panjwaii, 2010. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Panjwaii, 2010.

A New Generation of Veterans

There is a dirty sort of secret to being a Canadian at war. This generation of soldiers have joined a historical fraternity—those people who have seen far below the surface of civility, far beyond the politicians’ speechmaking, those who have been through the great crack in the veneer into something brutal.

The downsides of this experience are vast. Patrolling among the bombs is like a great reverse lottery where in one heartbeat the unluckiest lose everything entire.

And when you spend long enough time out there, your number will come up.

The mission in Kandahar cost the lives of more than 150 Canadians. Many hundreds more lost legs, arms and were wounded in every way imaginable.

But even that wasn’t the total cost.

The war’s survivors—tens of thousands of them—faced risks that are hard to imagine, literally difficult to understand.

Unless you’ve walked across western Panjwaii, from Patrol Base Sperwan Ghar to Police Sub-Station Zangabad, unless you’ve strapped into an unarmoured G-Wagon for a ride into the violent heart of Operation Medusa, unless you’ve been detonated in a Bison on Route Hyena, detonated in a LAV, detonated in a Nyala, been shot at in a Griffon, a Blackhawk or a Chinook. Well, then it’s going to be tough to understand what this generation of Canadian soldiers have endured. And it will be forever impossible to understand the exact dimensions of their personal sacrifice.

Here’s one aspect: When you don’t know how long you’ll live, you stop thinking too specifically about the future. The spectre of violence pushes you into a state of temporary timelessness. This is a problem, because once you start ignoring the future, it’s hard to forget that you know how to do it. Which is to say that once you’ve experienced what it is to detach from life, once those connections are cut, well, good luck hooking everything up again after you’re home.

It gets so that the only thing that makes any sense at all is going back. The soldier in the bar, the only thing he was really worried about was that the war was over.

Infantry in Salavat. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Infantry in Salavat.

Mission Unexplained

Of course, the war is not over. But Canada is leaving the battlefield. It is the first time in history that Canada has retreated from combat before the war was won.

Why did this happen? Well, it’s complicated.

In 2006, I interviewed Colonel Fred Lewis, who was at the time the deputy commander of the Canadian task force in Kandahar.

Pinned on Lewis’ wall at Kandahar airfield was a very important document—it was more or less the Canadian campaign plan—a diagram of what needed to happen to establish a functioning Afghan state. And the key element in the campaign plan was, interestingly enough, the Canadian public.

Here’s what Lewis said about the plan.

“The will of the Canadian people is our centre of gravity. So, define centre of gravity as our strength. If our strength fails, we lose.”

I found this amazing, so I asked him, “How does a military force bolster or maintain the will of the Canadian people?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “You know, that’s the 64-million-dollar question. It is a hard thing to do.”

Beyond the fact that the military is not equipped or even permitted to influence Canadian public opinion—that job is left to the politicians—the basic outline of the mission was always going to be a tough sell. And the questions are valid: is fighting a protracted counter-insurgency in Afghanistan really the best way to combat the Islamic extremists? How exactly did it come to be that in order to defend New York and Washington and Ottawa, young Canadian men and women had to travel to a Third-World country on the other side of the earth in order to fight to the death against xenophobic Afghan farmers and diehard religious fanatics?

While strategically the mission made sense—al-Qaida had to be destroyed, the Taliban vanquished, and Afghanistan made into a stable place where terrorists could no longer find refuge and train to attack us—in the court of public opinion, the whole thing was a bit of a stretch.

The polls tell the story: Canadians never really believed in the mission. The data is extraordinarily clear. In at least 30 major public opinion polls, taken between early 2006 and late 2010, more than 50 per cent of Canadians indicated that they opposed the mission in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the Harper government was largely unwilling to make a strong case for the war’s strategic underpinnings.

Instead, an effort was made to find a way to make the war more palatable to the dubious. In 2006, the government ran a series of focus groups in seven centres across the country in order to find the most agreeable messaging for the war.

The entirety of this exercise was documented in the article Losing Heart: Declining Support and the Political Marketing of the Afghanistan Mission which appeared in the Canadian Journal of Political Science in 2009.

“The report advised that…support could be strengthened among “soft supporters” of the mission and those wavering between support and opposition. Both should be targets of an aggressive “information campaign” emphasizing “concrete examples of progress (focusing on women and children), UN and NATO involvement, and clarity around the need for security and stability in order to provide aid and undertake diplomacy.”

That there was a political desire to conduct a public relations campaign to spin the war probably comes as no surprise.

Whether the war ever truly entered the reconstruction phase at all is the real question.

Not being able to clear Kandahar Province of insurgents was the mission’s Achilles heel. No matter how finely crafted it is, no theory of counter-insurgency nor any public relations campaign can compensate for the lack of boots on the ground.

Better and Worse at the Same Time

Then what did we accomplish? In 2006, Bazaar-e-Panjwaii was a ghost town, the insurgents were inside the city; the school was a military base. In 2010, I went on a mission out of Masum Ghar, we walked straight through Bazaar-e-Panjwaii, the school had hundreds of students, and the markets were thriving. And then the patrol got in a gunfight inside the city, within sight of the Canadian wire at Masum Ghar.

The insurgents were still inside the city.

So while the situation has improved in many ways, it’s also still just as violent and unruly as ever.

In 2009, after returning from Panjwaii, I was wasting time on the computer, playing with the latest state-of-the-art search engine called Wolfram Alpha, which claims to be able to answer any question, no matter how difficult. So I tested it with the hardest question I knew: “What’s the problem in Afghanistan?” I typed.

All it gave me was a country data sheet, which at first was disappointing, but then I started reading. The sheet told me this: Afghanistan has 2,430 kilometres of border with Pakistan and 936 kilometres with Iran, a life expectancy of 44.6 (217th in the world), a median age of 17.6 (204th in the world), there are four major ethnicities with five major languages, a 28.1 per cent literacy rate, a per capita GDP of $217.79 per person (233rd in the world) and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent (14th highest in the world).

So, the country is the equivalent of a poor, illiterate group of young people living in a bad neighbourhood with no real hope for their foreshortened future. Yes, that is the problem.

Peace is hard to envision for Afghanistan. The ethnic tension and rivalry, the vast corruption and lack of education, the availability of weapons, a meddlesome, if not downright destabilizing, neighbour in Pakistan. Sometimes it seems like Afghanistan is a country made for civil war. In 2006, Canada waded into the heart of it; in 2011 we left Kandahar. What change we made in the lives of Afghans and to the modern history of the country are unclear.

The mission was not without successes, both big and small, but among the Canadian public there remains huge doubts about the war. Not too long ago, somebody asked me if it was worthwhile, if the things Canada gained from the mission were worth the things we lost. I thought about it for a second, and my only answer is that it’s the wrong question to ask. It wasn’t a fight that anyone would have wanted or chosen. It would have been impossible to leave al-Qaida ensconced in Afghanistan, protected by the Taliban. There are things worth fighting for, fighting against—and this qualifies. The Taliban are scattered and Osama bin Laden is dead. That is a result.

The cost for this was high. The Canadian military, for example, has been changed deeply. In the early days, back in 2006, it was largely an army of careerists—35-year-old master corporals were common, and they were very competent, doing what they loved. In the last couple of years, the infanteers have gotten younger, guys who’d joined up to go to war, an army of guys who didn’t intend to run a whole life in uniform. This had an effect. I talked to a 19-year-old private in Salavat in 2009 and I asked her why she joined the forces. She had a ready answer: “I figured that going to war would look good on my resume.”

If anything, perhaps we’ve now earned the sense of humility that comes from realizing your vision has exceeded your capability, that your ability to imagine an outcome sometimes surpasses your power to make it happen.

Victory is a State of Mind

The road into western Panjwaii was finally completed in the spring of 2011. It took a veritable legion of American troops to create security for the construction, but Canadian soldiers were there to see it happen, too.

In time, nobody may even remember the road to Mushan, but many Canadians died for it.

Not long after the road opened, Prime Minister Stephen Harper travelled out to Panjwaii one last time in order to give one final speech.

“The vicious Taliban regime bludgeoned its own citizens, and welcomed the world’s worst killers—men so immersed in their own evil that they believed their appalling ambitions to be nothing less than the will of God.

“The world came to Afghanistan because it was such a brutal place that it had become a threat to the entire world,” Harper told reporters. “Whatever the troubles and challenges that remain, Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

It was nothing less than a declaration of victory. And while it was bold—as Afghanistan is not exactly free of terrorists at the moment—only history will determine if Harper was correct in any greater sense.

Let me propose a way to know: If Mushan and Zangabad and Panjwaii ever become peaceful and hospitable enough that Canadians can build memorials to their war dead and come to visit as they please, perhaps then we can declare victory.


Overheard In Kandahar

Jokes, quips and asides from five years of war

“If you believe in hell,” asked a soldier, staring out at a village in Panjwaii, “how can you be sure that this isn’t it? Surely there is enough suffering to qualify, and it gets pretty hot, too.”

After a long day of dealing with IEDs a soldier sat wearily against a mud wall and described the situation: “The whole world is f–ked up,” he said, “this place just amplifies it.”

As an operation went slightly off the rails, a soldier looked around and said: “This is all a great illustration of the 3rd Battalion motto: ‘There must be a harder way.’”

A favourite joke among one platoon in western Panjwaii was to imagine shouting through a bullhorn at insurgents. “Greetings! We are from ISAF. While we respect your right to attempt to kill us, due to our engagement policies we will not be able to return fire for an estimated 45 minutes. Please stand by.”

One sergeant deployed deep in the field was annoyed by an e-mail he received from headquarters. The message stated that on Canada Day all personnel at Kandahar Airfield not otherwise tasked were to report to the ball hockey arena for a Sports Day. The sergeant made a counter-proposal. His idea was to have a Taliban Hunting Day where all unnecessary personnel loaded up onto helicopters to go help the infantry clear some villages. His idea was dismissed as unworkable.

“As with everything,” said the company commander on the eve of a risky operation, “we will flounder and we will improvise and we will do the best we can.”

Check our complete Assignment Afghanistan coverage. Click on ‘Defence Today’.

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