Scarred by tragedy, our troops in Afghanistan forge ahead with their mission
CARRYING ON IN KANDAHAR
Scarred by tragedy, our troops in Afghanistan forge ahead with their mission
"You’re OK, jumper. Have a good one. Airborne!” Those were the last words that Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry spoke to four of his soldiers as their caskets were loaded onto a U.S. Air Force transport plane for the first leg of the long trip home to Canada. It was a fitting tribute—those killed by the bomb dropped by a U.S. Air National Guard jet were all paratroopers. They were exactly the kind of tough, highly trained and motivated troops that Canada requires for the peacemaking missions that
pop up with grim regularity these days.
Canada has had very real problems scaring up enough soldiers for its current mission in Afghanistan and other, ongoing commitments in Bosnia and the Golan Heights. Yet when a peacekeeping force for the West Bank and Gaza was mooted by the European Union and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan a few weeks back, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had his hand up faster than you could say, “Yes, sir!” Such Boy Scoutism makes Canadians feel good-—and so it should. These assignments have been honourable, and Canadians have made a difference. But ever)7 such perilous foreign adventure drains a fight-
ing force that has been almost running on empty since a seemingly endless cycle of six-month peacekeeping and peacemaking tours began with Croatia in 1991.
There was an outburst of sympathy for our troops in Afghanistan when the bodies of those killed were flown home and buried. Whether that will be transformed into public interest in giving the Canadian military the means to do its dangerous work is something else. The soldiers camped in the heat and grime of southeastern Afghanistan are part of Canada’s first combat operation since the Korean War. They have lots of other things to occupy them right now—from scorpions,
camel spiders and malarial mosquitoes to the possibility that they and other foreign troops may be targeted for assassination in Afghan cities. But they know better than anyone that Canadas cupboard is bare, and they’re concerned about how to maintain a frantic pace that, over the past decade, has seen Canadians sent to Croatia, Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Haiti, Kosovo, East Timor, Eritrea and now Afghanistan.
The bombing tragedy aside, Canada’s six-month tour in Afghanistan, which is now about half over, has by any measure been a success. The Princess Pats, based in Edmonton, have survived firefights with al-Qaeda and Taliban soldiers in the Afghan mountains. They have helped keep the peace by conducting dozens of foot patrols in the Kandahar area, where they are also investigating ways to build wells and schools for Afghan children.
The other fighting unit deployed with the Canadian battle group has had an equally adventurous tour. Troopers from the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), also from Edmonton, rescued helicopter pilots downed by bad weather in hostile territory and have used the high-tech electronics of their Coyote wheeled armoured personnel carriers—including thermal imagers—to spot intruders trying to fire mortars at the Kandahar air base,
where thousands of Canadian and American troops live.
But even with the most generous massaging of the figures, there is no disguising the Canadian Forces’ manpower problems. There are slightly more than 10,000 Canadian men and women actually serving in combat arms. Almost a tenth of those are in Afghanistan alone. Nearly every branch of the Canadian Forces has shortages. Engineers, signalers and doctors are most urgendy needed because, without them, combat units cannot deploy. “What we require is 30 doctors this summer— what we have now is only one third of that,” said Maj. Dan Vouliot, who runs the Canadian military hospital in Kandahar. “I don’t mean medical students—I mean doctors who already have experience. The doctors we are getting have less and less experience. Some of them have not even had time for basic training. If Canada is planning to do something in Israel, my question is: exactly whom do they plan to send?”
Others have similar concerns. “It all comes down to money,” said Sgt. Maj. Tim Power of the Princess Pats’ Charlie company. “The greatest need we have is an ability to sustain ourselves. We do not have the tactical airlift we require. It is American resources that dictate when we are going to move.” Power, who sports a magnificent bushy moustache, spoke to Macleans while standing in a sandstorm as his soldiers practised firing mortars on a makeshift live-fire range they shared with foraging sheep and goats and a young shepherd who cackled mysteriously as he said, “Bin Laden gone! Arabs gone!”
Canada has kept three CC-130 Hercules transport planes based at an airfield near the Persian Gulf for several months. They have done a superb job ferrying supplies to the Canadians in Afghanistan as well as performing other missions for the coalition. But the operations, which involve a lot of tactical flying over hostile territory, have taken a toll on the Hercs, which like so much in the Canadian military can be older than most of the pilots. And maintaining these planes in tough desert conditions is a laborious process.
The planes may be tired, but so are the soldiers. That Power, an infantryman for 28 years whose most recent tours were Somalia and Bosnia, is now serving in Afghanistan is an example of how
stretched the Canadian infantry has become. “We need more soldiers—that is obvious,” said Power, who is from St. Catharines, Ont. “We also need more time at home for integrated training. We cannot just have a narrow focus. We have to operate beyond our backyard. What we achieve with our resources, I don’t think anyone comes close to the Canadians.” Sgt. Tony Christopher of Corner Brook, who shares his Coyote with two other Newfoundlanders, was with the Strats when the vehicles, built in London, Ont., first made their name in Kosovo. The crews and their Coyotes were credited with catching the Russian army digging in at the Pristina airport soon after the NATO land force moved in. Several months later, they discovered and helped catch Kosovar Albanians who were trying to infiltrate into southern Serbia to make war. “We just seem to spend our time going overseas, being overseas or returning from overseas,” Christopher said as he supervised two Coyotes that stood guard while the Princess Pats fired mortars. “I’m not complaining, but being away so much affects a lot of things.”
That is not to say the Canadians in
Afghanistan are unhappy to be there. Even after the bombing incident, spirits have remained high. Those soldiers directly involved in the live-fire exercise that went fatally wrong were out patrolling again or training 48 hours later. And by the end of last week, many of the Princess Pats were off on a secret mission against supporters of Osama bin Laden. “Lor the professional soldier, it doesn’t get better than this,” said Maj. Tom Bradley. “Nobody has any questions about this mission. It comes with tangible benefits for the entire family. Someone declared war on us on Sept. 11 and our soldiers are committed.”
For Col. Stogran, who turned 44 the day before the four soldiers were killed, the biggest strain has not been on the troops serving on their fifth or sixth foreign tour. It is on the spouses and children they have left behind in Canada—again. But, he added, smoking a cigar in the small, spartan tent he shares with his regimental sergeant major, “The Canadian forces are masters at making things happen. The bigger the challenge, the keener a soldier is to do it. That’s why we are enjoying cohesion in the face of this tragedy.” E3
The meeting at George W. Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex., lasted five hours. And the message delivered to the President by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was blunt. The United States must do more to curb the actions of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon against the Palestinians-or face growing anger and instability across the Arab world. “If Sharon is left to his own devices he will drag the region overa cliff,” said Adel al-Jubeir, the crown prince's foreign policy adviser, after the meeting. “That does not serve America’s interests, and it does not serve Saudi Arabia’s interests.” There had been speculation prior to the meeting that the Saudis might threaten to use oil as leverage if the U.S. does not alter its Mideast stance (the desert kingdom is the second-largest foreign supplier of oil to the United States). Both sides, though, said that issue was not raised. “Oil is not a weapon,” said al-Jubeir. What was discussed—albeit with few details leaked to the media-was the U.S.-led war against terrorism and the possibility of an attack against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The United States currently has troops in Saudi Arabia. But al-Jubeir said Washington has not yet
fully developed its plan to move against Iraq, and that his country would not allow any attack from Saudi soil. “The administration is not at the point where they would ask that question,” he said. “Our response would be that it would not serve the interests of the region.” Bush’s overall account of the meeting was positive. “The prince and I established a strong personal bond," he told reporters.
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