PHOTOS: ADAM DAY
Canadian soldiers are fighting a war in Afghanistan.
In Spin Boldak, at the eastern edge of Kandahar province, the soldiers watch over the Pakistani border. At Forward Operating Base Martello, north of Kandahar city, they patrol the mountains. Across Panjwai, southeast of Kandahar city, they rebuild after taking part in Operation Medusa, Canada’s largest infantry battle since the Korean War.
Every morning the soldiers wake up to fight the war. Not always in the sort of big deadly events that make the nightly news, but daily they dodge suicide bombers and rockets, they work to deliver aid to the needy and they try to win the trust of a wildly distrustful people. Their bravery is astounding and their battle is truly difficult.
In the village of Bazaar-e-Panjwai, Warrant Officer Dean Henley and Sergeant Chris Augustine fight their own quiet war. For all of this war’s drama and violence, it may well be that theirs is the real battle. They operate a Civil-Military Co-operation (CIMIC) detachment and it’s their job to win the trust and support of the villagers by doing good works. Their enemy is not merely the insurgents, but also corruption and bad governance.
Canada’s Task Force Afghanistan is here as part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which includes more than 31,000 troops from 37 nations. The Canadian contingent is over 2,000 strong. The main battle group based at Kandahar Airfield comes largely from 2 Mechanized Brigade Group in Petawawa, Ont., while the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), based at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar city, is comprised of 220 soldiers drawn from across the Canadian Forces and includes representatives from the Canadian International Development Agency, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s most dangerous places. As of November 2006 it had taken the lives of 42 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat. In fact, the country has a long history of repelling foreign soldiers. The British fought three colonial wars to try and gain control of this landlocked, central Asian country. The first from 1839-1842 ended in utter disaster, the second from 1878-1880 didn’t end well either and the last, in 1919, resulted in Afghanistan’s total independence from Britain. For the next 60 years, Afghanistan was largely stable and independent–even becoming a destination for western tourists in the 1960s–at least until the Soviets invaded in 1979.
Though it took a decade of grinding, western-backed guerrilla war, the Afghan freedom fighters finally expelled the Red Army in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed soon after. But Afghanistan collapsed too. Unable to find any agreeable method of power-sharing, the two major ethnic groups–Tajiks in the north and Pashtuns in the south–spent pretty much the whole next decade engaged in civil war against each other and among themselves.
In the mid-1990s, however, a group of Pashtun religious students–called Talibs, meaning ‘seekers of knowledge’–began to gain power in the area around Kandahar. The Taliban quickly grew stronger and more popular as they clamped down on bandits and created a general sense of security, something the Afghan people hadn’t seen in a very long time.
Unfortunately, the Taliban were also Islamic fundamentalists who attempted to enforce absolute control over personal, economic and political life in Afghanistan. Furthermore, they were deeply intolerant, regularly committed savage human rights violations and didn’t care much for the international rule of law either.
By the time Sept. 11, 2001, rolled around the Taliban had gained control of almost the entire country, with just a small group called the Northern Alliance, largely Tajik, hanging on in the area north of Kabul, the country’s capital.
The Canadian Forces are now in Afghanistan not just because the Taliban were sheltering Osama bin Laden and allowing his al-Qaida terrorist organization to use the country as a training base, but because they refused to stop doing so, even after 9/11. Now that the Taliban has scattered, the struggle is to build a stable and secure Afghan nation that no longer poses a threat to global security.
“This is a country that allowed extremist terrorists to come in, set up and then attack Western countries,” explains Colonel Fred Lewis, the mission’s deputy commander. “Luckily a whole bunch of Canadians weren’t killed (on 9/11), but more than 30 were. So, that’s point number one, this is about Canada’s security. Then, point number two is that we are a country that has always exported its values. I don’t mean imposing a culture on somebody, but just exported its values in a good way; whether that was peacekeeping, or whether it was development work in the Third World whether it was World War I or World War II. This is the same thing.”
This is not a limited effort. It is a historical first for NATO to gather the alliance for such a large operation in an area so far removed from the North Atlantic. In Canada, much of the news is naturally focused on the Canadian contribution, but on the ground in Kabul or even walking around Kandahar Airfield, the sheer variety of international soldiers is amazing. There are French commandos, Dutch airborne troops, U.S. Green Berets, Danish gunners, Turkish infantry and British Marines. But that’s not all; there are Lithuanians, Irish, Icelanders, Belgians, Bulgarians, Australians, Swiss, Swedish Norwegians, New Zealanders and many more, too.
In much of Afghanistan, the NATO mission is going quite well. In the last few years, Kabul has developed dramatically. The economy is booming and the streets are packed with vendors, business people and uniformed schoolchildren. In the north the situation is largely stable, employment rates are high and there’s little violence. The west of the country isn’t doing badly either. But the south, well, that’s a different story.
The current fighting in the south could be seen, at least in part, as a continuation of the civil war that started during the 1990s and never really finished.
The enemy is made up of Taliban, disgruntled warlords, drug smugglers, bandits and, to a much smaller degree, Islamic militants from across the Middle East and North Africa.
“There are the hardline Taliban, who are extremists, almost like al-Qaida guys,” says Lewis. “Then there are what we’re calling the ‘day fighters,’ guys who get recruited and paid to fight for the Taliban. Basically, the enemy is anyone who will be disadvantaged by having a properly functioning government in Afghanistan.”
In a conventional war the military objective is usually quite clear–use overwhelming firepower to destroy enemy forces and hold or capture territory. But that is not the case in Kandahar province, where success or failure depends, much like in a democracy, on the will of the people. If too many Afghans begin to believe their interests are better served by the Taliban, no amount of force will be enough to make it otherwise.
It is for this reason that the military objective for both sides in Afghanistan is to gain the support of the population. Firepower, even military strength, is of limited use. In this battle for the people, the Taliban have a huge tactical advantage because, quite simply, they are locals–they speak the same language as the villagers, they have the same history, they are often related by blood. In the fall of 2006, this struggle for the support of the people was the real battle taking place in Kandahar province.
Warrant Officer Henley and Sergeant Augustine are on the front lines of that battle. A reservist from the Gray and Simcoe Foresters in Barrie, Ont., Henley’s job in Afghanistan is detachment commander for one of several CIMIC teams based out of the PRT at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar city. Augustine, a reservist from Princess of Wales Own Regiment in Kingston, Ont., is second in command of the CIMIC detachment, which numbers well under 20 guys.
It’s their job to go out into the villages and find out what the Canadians can do to help. “You can’t win the insurgency by killing insurgents,” says Henley. “You can’t kill the insurgency, you have to take away its support base. It’s the only way.”
In September and October 2006, Henley and his team were based in Bazaar-e-Panjwai, south of Kandahar. The little market town is just a few kilometres from the Pashmul area, where Operation Medusa was fought. It is by no means a safe area.
The team lives in a high school compound inside a cleared-out classroom. The conditions are rough, most particularly the bathroom arrangements, which consist of a steel chair with a hole cut in it and a toilet seat glued to the top. If you have to go, you pick up the chair and walk into the field. But watch out for landmines. “People are now recognizing the CIMIC detachment as a positive source for the village. We’re hiring a lot of people as day labourers,” says Henley. “You can see the difference, they may not necessarily like me but they like what I’m doing. As long as they realize I’m out here to help them. I think it’s just a slow process.”
On Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006, Henley and Augustine hold a large town meeting across the road from their schoolyard base. More than 45 local elders, mullahs and leaders show up to talk and listen. The room quickly gets hot and crowded. The CIMIC security force stands guard around the perimeter.
Henley and Augustine don’t have the authority to make promises or hand out money on the spot, but they will listen to all the issues and take notes, copious notes. They begin by speaking to the group. “We can’t promise to solve all the problems in Panjwai,” Augustine tells them. “We’ll do our best, but the real change has to come from all of you.”
“And we can’t do anything without security,” says Henley. “If people are trying to kill us or blow us up, then we can’t help.”
One of the oldest men present–tall with a white flowing beard–stands up to assure Henley that so long as they are helping, they will be safe. It’s a good start.
Over the next hour or so the villagers take turns listing the things they want the Canadians to fix. Almost all of them are mosque repairs, additions or renovations, including a request to complete the construction of a local mosque that was started by the Taliban but only half finished. Augustine and Henley exchange a quick glance after this one.
Once the requests are in, they begin a question and answer session which very quickly goes off course when Augustine asks the crowd if they are satisfied with the distribution of humanitarian food supplies. What starts as three or four people talking at once turns into about 15 minutes of sustained shouting. After a few minutes even the interpreter stops trying to keep up.
The people are livid. The problem is that the hungry villagers aren’t actually receiving the food. One man stands up: he swears that 99 per cent of the food is being stolen and sold for profit. The rest of the men nod in agreement.
It turns out that someone in the chain of authority is diverting the food for his own purposes. Another man stands up: “The government and the agencies must change the way this is being done, or they must stop giving this aid.”
Another man stands up to deliver a blunt warning: “We are in the middle, we aren’t with the Taliban and we aren’t with the government. If you help us we will be with you. And if not….”
Over the course of an hour the villagers hash out a new plan to circumvent the corrupt officials by distributing food through the area mosques, of which there are about 65. All of the people present agree: everyone trusts the clerics who run the mosques, they will be fair.
Henley and Augustine don’t automatically agree to the plan, which turns out to be wise, but they do pledge to do their best.
With the uproar subsided, another elderly man stands up: “The solution for every problem in this area is to do this,” he gestures to the room and the crowd, “listen to the people. If you really want peace and security, just listen to the people, because the leaders are just here to steal.”
After the meeting, Henley and Augustine return across the street to their compound, where they begin to draw up a plan. One of the first things to do was report back to PRT headquarters and fill them in on what they’d learned. The conversation with his operations officer doesn’t go too well. “The people are very upset about the food distribution. It’s a swaying factor, if we get the food to the right people, they love us, if we don’t then we’re creating a whole lot of angry people,” Henley says into the satellite phone.
In one sense, the whole effort to rebuild Afghanistan comes down to this. The battle group and all the PRT staff are all here to make it possible for these two reservists to connect with Afghans, make some positive changes in their lives and thereby gain their trust. But there’s a problem. Henley makes his point more emphatic. “The system is failing,” he tells his operations officer. “We’re going to create 10,000 angry people that are going to turn against us.”
Despite the blunt warning, it’s not an easy sell. The old system may be corrupt, but the mechanisms are already in place. Henley is told that circumventing those mechanisms may undermine confidence in the government. This is hard to understand, because a lack of confidence in the government is exactly what led to the problem.
However, as PRT commander Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Hetherington later points out, there are some other factors to think about. “I’ve been burned several times by groups saying they represent the people of the region when in fact they don’t, I later learn,” says Hetherington. “I have one choice and that is to support the legitimate government of Afghanistan.”
Hetherington confirms what Henley discovered. The food cannot be distributed through the mosques.
So, despite the setback, Henley and Augustine begin planning how to start their mosque repairs, already looking forward to new and different ways to prove to the villagers that the Canadians really do want to help. Plus, they haven’t given up trying to get food to the hungry. “I think what we’ll try to do is work with that government approach, but if we identify that there are people in need that aren’t getting stuff, then we’ll try to augment that system. Hopefully that doesn’t undermine the efforts of the government. But at the same time we don’t want to disgruntle fairly fragile populations in a region we’re working,” says Augustine. “We’ll see how persuasive we can be,” he adds with a wry grin.
Standing in Panjwai, it’s hard not to feel the weight of history. The enemy won’t stop and they won’t go away, one way or another they’ll have to be dealt with. But, as Colonel Lewis says, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. “There are truly evil people in this world. And I think that sometimes Canadians can be very naïve, because of the country we live in. I think sometimes Canadians…they don’t experience enough of the world. They say, ‘no, no…just let the Afghans sort their own problems out.’ Well, you know what? They can’t because there are evil people that won’t let them sort it out.”
If you wish, there is ample evidence to show that almost everyday some part of Afghanistan gets a little worse–violent deaths have increased every year since 2001, as has drug production, for example. However, you can also see it another way. From the reborn Kabul to the functioning democratic government to the small victories Canadian soldiers achieve over enemy forces almost every day, there are many signs of success too.
In the end, Afghanistan is big enough and wild enough to contain almost any perception. It may be that Afghanistan is getting better and worse at the same time. If that’s true, it would be because this right now is the middle of the fight. Not the beginning and certainly not the end, but the messy part in between, where nothing is certain.
But there is a larger picture too. If you hang out on any big ISAF base in Afghanistan you’ll see soldiers from many countries–Germans, Austrians, Estonians, Latvians, Macedonians, Italians, Croatians and Czechs–and they’re all working together, fighting together in many cases, to prevent the resurgence of a kind of totalitarian thinking that we’ve all agreed is the enemy, a kind of thinking that doesn’t belong in the future.
If one thing is clear in Afghanistan, it’s that the world has come a long way. It wasn’t too long ago that many of the countries here were fighting world wars to prevent this same kind of thinking from taking over. Now, that fight is largely over and there aren’t many bad guys left. The few that do remain are trapped in the world’s dusty corners, hiding in mountain caves or living disguised among the villagers. It’s a tough battle, it won’t be quick and victory isn’t guaranteed, but NATO is clearing them out. Canadians are leading the fight.