Afghanistan

‘WE WILL LIKELY TAKE CASUALTIES’

ADNAN R. KHAN joins the first Canadian convoy to test the route to the dangerous Taliban heartland

July 4 2005
Afghanistan

‘WE WILL LIKELY TAKE CASUALTIES’

ADNAN R. KHAN joins the first Canadian convoy to test the route to the dangerous Taliban heartland

July 4 2005

‘WE WILL LIKELY TAKE CASUALTIES’

Afghanistan

ADNAN R. KHAN joins the first Canadian convoy to test the route to the dangerous Taliban heartland

“IT’S PROBABLY NOT MINED,” says Master Cpl. David Shaw, massaging his naked pate with the deliberate precision of a military engineer. “But just to be sure, I’ll drive over it with the Nyala a million times and then the other vehicles can go through.” He’s looking at a dirt track banking off the smooth asphalt of Afghanistan’s newly refurbished Highway 1, down the sloping bank of a dry riverbed and under the concrete supports of a bridge. Construction work up top has forced a Canadian military convoy of about 15 vehicles to go off-road into soft sand, ideal terrain for planting mines, and it’s no time for

taking chances. The Nyala anti-mine vehicle Shaw’s talking about rumbles into action. Capable of withstanding powerful explosions, it is an essential component of this trip south. Shaw’s Nyala checks the route, finds it safe, and the convoy moves on.

The Canadians in Afghanistan are on the move, and this new stage of their deployment is by far the most dangerous yet. This is the first convoy to leave the relative safety of Kabul, where they’ve been based for two years, to make the 960-km round trip southwest into Kandahar province, the Taliban heartland. Over the next two months, the Canadians will be making the trip dozens of times in preparation for their next assignment-taking the lead on security and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, in partnership with British and Dutch forces. Their mission is the third phase of a NATO expansion in Afghanistan that will eventually take over the reins from the U.S.led Operation Enduring Freedom.

AFTER MONTHS of pressing NATO to take a more prominent role in the country, U.S. forces, stretched thin by the war in Iraq, are finally getting their wish. This first convoy down has to identify threats and test the waters in a region still considered at odds with the emerging central authority. It’s a dangerous journey, along a route riddled with possible ambush points and home to

intransigent Taliban supporters in this mountainous country. “It’s a gutsy move,” says Capt. Angus Matheson, second-in-command of the force protection company at Camp Julien, the Canadian base on the southern outskirts of Kabul. “After we go to Kandahar, nobody will be accusing us of not stepping up to the plate. Going down there takes some political guts, because we will likely take casualties.”

Canadian soldiers have a bad association with Kandahar. It was on training exercises outside that city three years ago that four of their colleagues were accidentally killed by an American bomb—a friendly fire inci-

MOVING ON FROM KABUL

Canadians are taking over security duties in the southern provinces

dent that became the defining feature of Canada’s presence in Afghanistan. And the region is a hotbed of militant activity. The assassination of an anti-Taliban cleric in May and a subsequent bombing at his funeral paint a bleak picture of an Afghan insurgency learning from the tactics of its Iraqi counterpart. Roadside bombs are increasing in frequency (a day before this first Canadian convoy set out, an American patrol found and defused an improvised explosive device on Highway l). As are suicide attacks—a worrying development for Canadians who will be spending more time on the road than ever before during their four-year presence in Afghanistan.

As the trip begins, waving kids chase after the convoy and adults shake hands with soldiers: But as we get closer to Kandahar city, the faces of adults along the road become more stoic. A small convoy of pickup trucks packed with unidentified armed men—possibly local militia, possibly drug traffickers—sweeps fearlessly past the soldiers. Kids hurl rocks at the line of armoured vehicles. “They might have thought we were Americans,” suggests Capt. Steve MacBeth, the operation commander.

The level of distrust is a challenge Canadian troops will need to overcome quickly if the stabilization plan is to be effective. “That’s part of the job of the first wave of Canadians in Kandahar,” says Col. Walter Semianiw, commander of Operation Athena, the Canadian contribution to the NATO presence in Afghanistan. “They will be responsible for setting up the Provincial Reconstruction Team. The PRT will be the face of Canada on the ground.”

It remains to be seen whether that face will be welcomed or resented. Military convoys have been a rare sight in this part of the country. American forces prefer to use Chinook helicopters for air transport rather than risk the vulnerabilities on a road like Highway 1. Canadian forces do not have that luxury. “If we had a few of those,” says a convoy gunner, Cpl. Chris Spriggs, as he watches an American Chinook thunder into the sky, “it’d make this move to Kandahar a hell of a lot easier.” Semianiw agrees. “In this theatre of op-

erations you need helicopters,” the colonel says. “The chief of defence staff has said it. I know he’s looking at how we can increase the capacity of Canadian forces in this area, because it would be something that could facilitate operations in this terrain.” But the lack of air support is not preventing Canadians from doing their job, says Semianiw. They have various options for moving equipment and personnel south, including local transport trucks and C-130 Hercules transport planes.

Nonetheless, many experts on the Canadian military are questioning whether our forces are properly equipped to handle this new task. Canadian operations for the past year have been mainly limited to securing the immediate area around the home base, Camp Julien. In Kandahar, though, Canada will be taking the lead in bringing security to the region, deploying a full battalion comprised of 1,800 troops by next February. That number matches the height of Canada’s contribution to Afghanistan, from August 2003 to August 2004.

The LAV III armoured vehicles taking part in the convoy have seen relatively little work in Kabul. But the Canadians will learn soon enough if they’re up to the task. They already know that their Coyotes—one of the world’s most sought-after armoured reconnaissance vehicles—have been pushed to their limits on the more remote mountain terrain. It’s not encouraging that breakdowns plague both vehicle types on the first convoy south. But most soldiers, from the senior ranks down to the grunts, express confidence in their hardware. “The important thing to remember,” says Cpl. Keith McAllister, a vehicle technician at Camp Julien, “is that these machines need work to keep them in top shape. I think you will see less breakdowns as the transition to Kandahar moves forward.”

The entire mission will also be road-testing a novel, somewhat controversial Canadian strategy for bringing order to war zones. “This is all very new territory for the Canadian military,” says Semianiw. “The transition to Kandahar and the set-up of a PRT is part of what we call the 3-D approach to rebuilding Afghanistan, the three Ds being diplomacy, development and defence.” Still in its planning phase, that strategy will enhance the already close relationship in Afghanistan between the military, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Foreign Affairs Department. Under military command, they will work in concert to address the complex web of social and security issues facing Afghanistan as it struggles to emerge from nearly three decades of war. “It’s a holistic approach to nation-building,” adds Semianiw. “It recognizes that security, development and political stability are interconnected.”

Historically, CIDA has worked at arm’s length from the military establishment. One risk in functioning as a part of this operation, says Nipa Banerjee, counsellor for development and head of aid for the agency, is that putting a military face on development projects could undermine the independence of aid work. But CIDA’s focus in Kandahar province will be on security-sector reforms rather than development projects, and on stabilization, not on reconstruction-functions, she says, that lend themselves well to military co-operation. Despite some initial resistance to the plan among CIDA officials in Canada, she believes the Canadian military approach is well suited to this type of collaboration.

Having the Canadian Foreign Affairs representative on the ground in Kandahar liaise with local Afghan leaders and report back to the military may be more contentious. “In my opinion, diplomats and the military have no business working together,” says one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It blurs the line between diplomacy and armed confrontation.” But if the plan is to succeed, the official adds, it will depend largely on the leadership style of the commanding officer on the ground.

“That’s a key point,” agrees Semianiw. “This is not going to be a situation in which a military commander will be ordering around CIDA and Foreign Affairs officials. It will be a co-operative effort, with the military acting as the information hub to ensure efficiency. That is what 3-D is all about.” What’s important to remember, Semianiw adds, is that the Canadian military approach has always been more interactive than that of other nations. Canadian patrols in Kabul regularly engage the local population; soldiers are encouraged to wave and shake

hands whenever the opportunity arises. Whether this friendly Canadian way will work in a region as volatile as Kandahar will now be put to the test.

At Camp Julien, Matheson puts the mission in graphic perspective. “There is going to be an element down there that will have

‘THERE’S going to be an element down there,’ warns a captain, with ‘a vested interest in killing Canadians’

a vested interest in killing Canadians,” he says. “It’s wishful thinking to assume we are going to go into Kandahar with Canadian flags on our backpacks and have everybody love us.”

For now, the Canadian forces will focus on maintaining a stable environment in Kabul province for the national elections scheduled for September. Then comes the move south. They’re already preparing themselves both psychologically and physically for this new phase in their Afghan assignment, a mission that could last years. “This is our time,” says Cpl. Chris Marshall, a medic on the first convoy to Kandahar, “and we’re ready for it.” Hfl