It’s a dusty, dirty job for Canada’s men and women in uniform in the former Taliban tronghold of Kandahar
ON GUARD IN AFGHANISTAN
Canada and the World
It’s a dusty, dirty job for Canada’s men and women in uniform in the former Taliban tronghold of Kandahar
The sky over the scorched desert surrounding Kandahar airport has turned from grey to a menacing dark purple. Most people in this drought-stricken region—the spiritual home of the Taliban—are hoping the skies will open up with a decent rain for the first time in five years. But the weather, like everything else in Afghanistan, has a surprise in store for the 750 Canadian troops deployed here as part of the U.S.led Operation Apollo. Instead of rain, a sandstorm hits, slashing into the eyes of the soldiers, filling their noses, throats and clothing.
A day earlier, unknown assailants— maybe Taliban stragglers or Al-Qaeda fighters—peppered the base at the airport with gunfire, injuring two U.S. soldiers. Now, with visibility dropping, the international coalition of troops guarding the facility—it has been turned into a giant military base—are told to prepare for more trouble. No one knows what could be lurking in the desert just beyond the perimeter of the airport. But it’s clear this would be an ideal time for belligerents who have lived all their lives in the shifting, drifting sands to attack.
The Canadians are on alert.
From his bunker dug into the desert near the perimeter or “the front,” as the soldiers like to call this post, Sgt. Mike Gauley, 31, a father of two from Edmonton, hunkers down and watches for any signs of movement. A 12-year veteran of the Canadian Forces, he served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Cyprus. In spite of the danger, he is happy to finally be close to real combat. “This is the time and place for the army to be used as intended,” he says, wiping sand from the barrel of his C7 combat rifle. “It proves our training works. Were the first line of defence for the camp.”
Guarding Kandahar airport is not the only mission Canadian men and women, primarily from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, have undertaken on the front lines of the international war on terrorism. Nearly 40 soldiers from Canadas elite Joint Task Force 2 are also based at the airport and are closely involved in the hunt for Taliban and AlQaeda fighters. The troops are understandably vigilant. As well as the recent
gun battle at the edge of the base, there has been an “illumination”—military jargon for flares fired by the enemy to light up the night sky—and the death of a specialforces officer from Australia, killed when the vehicle he was in drove over an antitank mine.
Such events remind the Canadians just how dangerous their assignment is. But Kandahar airport has always been a key base in the struggle for control of Afghanistan. It was built by the U.S. in the early 1960s, when Washington and Moscow were squaring off in the Cold War and the U.S. was trying to contain the Soviet Union. The terminal once boasted stately archways, lavish rose gardens and reflection pools. But after two decades of war, the windows are blown out, the rose gardens are heaps of cracked earth and the pools are filled with debris and sand.
Now, the airport has once again become a focal point—albeit one without many amenities. A giant generator sitting on the edge of one pool is so loud that soldiers have to shout to be heard. Military jets land day and night, just a few hundred metres from the Canadian tents strung out through a nearby pomegranate orchard. Between the tent city and the airport’s perimeter is what the Canadians call the Russian graveyard: heaps of rustedout wrecks, including once-feared Soviet MiG fighters.
The living conditions are at best dreadful. There are no recreation facilities, no television, no e-mail, no workout room. The troops—both men and women— wash in waist-high stalls. Men urinate into pipes that disappear into the ground; women have metal pails to sit on. “This is the beans and bullets stage of the operation,” says Capt. Philip Nicholson, 38, from Kingston, Ont. “Food, ammunition and the bare necessities come first while we set up the headquarters. The lighter stuff will come later.” Nothing he’d ever experienced, says Lieut. Gord MacLeod, who has been in the army for about three years, prepared him for the rough surroundings and crude accommodations. In the first week, he says, one soldier suffered both frostbite and sunburn—the first from a training exercise near Edmonton in -40° C weather, the latter from standing sentry in the unrelenting sun in Kandahar.
At least the temperatures—20° C during the day—aren’t that bad. And the oth-
erwise severe conditions don’t seem to bother Master Cpl. Tara Avey as she bends into the wind and heads to a lookout post at the edge of the airport. “We’re breaking new ground here,” says the 34-year-old as she cradles a C7—a smear of dirt on her lip and a smudge of mud on her nose. “The last time Canadians joined forces in such a large international effort,” she says proudly, “was the Gulf War and before that, Korea.”
Avey, a mother of two children—Sam, 2, and Emma, 3, are in Edmonton with their dad—is one of 60 female Canadian troops in Kandahar, performing the same duties as the men. “I do whatever has to be done,” Avey says. “I fill sandbags and build bunkers.” She is probably speaking for many soldiers when she says that, if confronted by an Al-Qaeda or Taliban fighter, she hopes “my years of training would kick in and I would do what I had to do to make sure I see my children again.”
The international coalition of soldiers at the airport base are backed by elite commandos—a collection of crack troops from several different countries, including Canada’s JTF2 contingent. Although civilians are not supposed to know who these soldiers are, what countries they are from or what clandestine deeds they perform, their distinctive demeanor makes them easy to spot. Looking as though they just stepped out of a Rambo movie, they are usually older, fitter and more confident than the others. To protect their identity, they don’t wear regulation uniforms, and display no rank or insignia. And they often sport pieces of Afghan clothing—a scarf, a hat, old army pants and fleece jackets. Most have facial hair and some wear black face masks.
At least the JTF2 commandos get off the base, which is more than most of the other Canadian soldiers can hope for. On Feb. 20, six-man patrols, riding in U.S.supplied Humvee all-terrain vehicles equipped with top-mounted machine guns, patrolled outside the perimeter of the base for the first time. But mostly, says Nicholson, there is a siege mentality. “All Eve seen of Afghanistan,” he says, “is this base. So I don’t have a great description of the country.” And like it or not, the airport base is likely all he’ll see of Afghanistan in what will probably be a six-month deployment. He sums up his
feelings for the country by repeating what he says is an old Islamic proverb: “After God finished creating the world, he took the leftover bits and called it Afghanistan.”
The airport isn’t a firing range with popup targets. It’s a two-way shooting gallery, with real people hiding in the desert who can fire back. As troops detonated bombs captured from the Taliban, the ear-shattering booms underscored the warning offered by MacLeod. “The worst thing you could do here,” he says, “is let your guard down and take a relaxed posture.” Pte. Angie Abbey has learned that lesson first-hand. The 24-year-old from Norwich, Ont., on her first foreign mission, is a weapons specialist in charge of maintenance. She was at a forward lookout post the night of the attack on the base. “I could see tracers going up,” she says. “Then I heard grenade launchers.” She says she wasn’t scared but admits, “I was very excited and very alert and wondered whether this was a diversion and what would happen next.”
On lookout, Abbey’s job is to report anything that could be a threat—a vehicle, a person, any unexplained movement. But the desert often plays tricks on soldiers’ eyes. What first appears to be a group of attackers may actually be a pack of wild dogs. There’s no way to be sure— and no time to relax. “We need to stay vigilant,” says Abbey, “and watch each other’s backs.”
While there is a tremendous sense of solidarity among the Canadians, some have mixed feelings about whether they should have accepted a combat role. “When you’re peacekeeping there’s a lot of pride in delivering humanitarian aid and being nice to people,” says Nicholson. “This mission doesn’t leave me with the same satisfaction.” Others, like Gauley, are happy to finally be in full battle gear, facing the possibility of a real fight. “Canadians think of us as peacekeepers,” he says. “But we don’t train for peacekeeping, we train for this.” And if fighting does break out, Gauley—who says he is even learning to enjoy having sand under his fingernails, in his sleeping bag, even in his food—hopes to be in the thick of the action. “If we stay on perimeter defence while the others do nasty stuff,” he says, “we’d feel we were not contributing 100 per cent.”
The deployment of the Canadians to Kandahar has been awash in controversy.
Last week, Defence Minister Art Eggleton appeared before a parliamentary committee to defend himself over allegations of lying in the House. At issue: when had Eggleton known that JTF2 commandos had taken three Al-Qaeda prisoners and turned them over to U.S. troops? Eggleton has also been criticized for the fact that the Canadians lack proper desert uniforms and have had to make do with
green outfits. But Gauley says the debate doesn’t affect the troops in the field. “Give most guys here a wool blanket and a boltaction rifle,” he says, “and they’ll be right in there getting the job done.”
While Gauley and the others continue to dig in, there is one lone Canadian in Afghanistan who is filling Canada’s usual peacekeeping role. Maj. Shandy Vida, who was on a three-year assignment with the British army, has ended up on a sixmonth posting with the Third United Kingdom Division in Kabul. His job, along with the other 4,700 troops assigned to the International Security Assistance Force in the capital, is to provide security for the interim government. He’s been in Kabul since Dec. 31 and the changes he’s seen in that time have been encouraging. The capital, he says, has a long way to go, but it’s more peaceful than it’s been in years. After decades of deprivation, all manner of goods are now available, from computers to vehicles (although few can afford them). Still, the residents are worried and often ask Vida, “Are you going to help us in six months— or a year from now?”
When patrolling, Vida often reaches into the pouch pocket of his utility belt and pulls out tiny Baby Gap socks—the kind with the anti-skid marking on the sole. “There’s food here now, but they can’t buy socks,” he says, handing a pair to a woman with a baby whose bare feet are exposed to the elements. “You think about things like that when you have kids of your own.” Back home he has two: three-year-old Taylor and 18-month-old Aiden. His wife Heidi is pregnant and expected to deliver their third child at the end of February—alone. Heidi is also the one who not only sends Vida the socks but plenty of other things to give away— toy cars, notebooks, pencils, lollipops and Frisbees.
No matter what role the Canadians play in Afghanistan, the assignment comes with much heartache. They miss children, spouses, lovers and families. But they’re also aware there are larger issues at stake. One is helping to defeat terrorism. The other is proving a point to Canadians. “Now everyone knows that Canada can deploy rapidly into a combat zone,” says Warrant Officer Ralph Thornton, 34, who has five-year-old twins at home. “Our soldiers are ready.” That’s something they like to boast about on Canada’s front line in Afghanistan. CD
DEATH OF A JOURNALIST
DANIEL PEARL’S family prayed that, somehow, their son would emerge from his ordeal in Pakistan alive.
But a videotape delivered to police in Sindh province confirmed their worst fears: he had been executed by his captors. Reportedly, on camera, they stabbed him repeatedly and then slit his throat Later, he was apparently beheaded. Pearl, 38, had been a reporter for the Wall Street Journal since 1990 and the paper’s South Asian bureau chief for the past two years. He disappeared on Jan. 23 from a restaurant in Karachi, where, in pursuit of a story, he had agreed to meet Sheik Gilani, a militant Muslim cleric. Shortly after his abduction, his kidnappers began communicating with police by e-mail and accused Pearl of being an agent of both the CIA and Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. In another e-mail, Pearl’s captors said they intended the kidnapping to be part of a campaign of retaliation against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who rallied to the U.S.-led war on terrorism and cracked down on Islamic radicals. “Our intention is not to hurt Pakistan,” they said, “but to rid it of the slavery of America.”
Musharraf denounced the murder and ordered an all-out, nationwide manhunt for the killers. Pakistan could also extradite a prime suspect in the case, Ahmet Omar Sheikh, a Britishborn militant who is being held after he told police he was involved in the crime.
In Beijing, where George W. Bush met with Chinese officials to discuss the U.S. campaign against terrorism, the President issued condolences to Pearl’s family, including wife Mariane, who is seven months pregnant with their first child. But Bush said Pearl’s death only stiffens U.S. resolve to rid the world of terrorism. Meanwhile, at the Journal offices in New York City, Pearl’s colleagues were devastated. “We’re heartbroken at his death,” said managing editor Paul Steiger. “His murder makes a mockery of everything Danny’s kidnappers claimed to believe in.”
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