Afghanistan

WITH CHARLIE PATROL

Canadian reconnaissance missions help keep Kabul safe from the Taliban

ADNAN R. KHAN July 25 2005
Afghanistan

WITH CHARLIE PATROL

Canadian reconnaissance missions help keep Kabul safe from the Taliban

ADNAN R. KHAN July 25 2005

WITH CHARLIE PATROL

Afghanistan

Canadian reconnaissance missions help keep Kabul safe from the Taliban

ADNAN R. KHAN

CANADA’S RECONNAISSANCE SQUADRON is on the prowl. Rumbling through the dusty back roads of Kabul Province in their Coyote armoured vehicles, its soldiers are scouring remote valleys and dilapidated villages for any signs of danger. They’re constantly on the hunt these days in restive Afghanistan, camping out in the rugged backcountry on the lookout for anything amiss: a truck where there shouldn’t be one on a route flagged as a potential threat, a gathering where people don’t normally gather, or goings-on in a run-

down village where moles have warned something might happen. It’s their job to watch, one of the most crucial roles in the security apparatus that has kept Kabul a relative safe haven in the otherwise unravelling realities of a nation still at war.

Reconnaissance, or recce (pronounced reeky) as it is commonly called among the men and women who ply this unheralded trade, is a Canadian specialty. These are the eyes and ears of NATO in Afghanistan, the best trained and equipped reconnaissance soldiers in KMNB, the Kabul Multi-National Brigade, keeping watch over the ragged

peaks and valleys of some of the more remote corners of Kabul province, surrounding the capital. They spend days, sometimes weeks, watching and listening for signs of enemy activity, surviving on military rations and sponge baths, hunkered down alongside snakes, scorpions and land mines.

On this mission, a three-day operation into the isolated

Taghar Valley about 30 km east of Kabul in what is technically a German area of

Du Vail and the rest of the unit give NATO eyes and ears around the capital

responsibility, Charlie patrol is watching for weapons smugglers. Taghar is a known backdoor route into Kabul, and NATO commanders have decided to send a message to anyone thinking of sneaking caches into the Afghan capital: we’re watching. Here, land mines are a real threat, lying in wait in and around the dry riverbeds, or wadis, that crisscross the barren landscape.

Charlie patrol’s Coyotes halt as Sgt. Kevin Mallot ponders an outdated Russian-era map of this isolated region. “It’s a guessing game sometimes,” he says. “These charts are usually a few hundred metres off the GPS reading.” Figuring that the route that’s been “designated”—a military term for a trail probably clear of mines—is the middle of three wadis banking off to the right of the dirt track, the 38-year-old Mallot pockets his map and the vehicles lurch into motion. But before they can travel even a few

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metres they stop again. A local farmer is approaching, waving his arms above his head. He warns Sgt. Jim Hebert, the patrol commander, not to go in that direction. “Very dangerous,” says the interpreter, mimicking the farmer’s arching arms. “Many mines.” Canada’s reconnaissance soldiers have come to accept land mines with the stoic indifference of those who regularly face the harsh realities of life in a war-tom nation. After conferring with Mallot, his second-in-command, Hebert, 35, decides to push on into Taghar. Occasionally, the patrol commander will abort an operation if he feels the risks are too great, but not today. The route mapped out on the charts was designated only a few days ago, and by the looks of the surrounding terrain, herds of sheep have passed through recently, a sign that at least the immediate areas are clear of mines. “Planning’s overrated,” says Hebert, who has led dozens of these patrols. “Our motto is ‘Wing it.’ You can do all the planning in the world but when it comes down to being on the ground out here, you have to be flexible, you have to think outside the box.” Following his intuition and the wealth of knowledge he’s gained from working the Afghan terrain, Hebert orders the patrol to move on, following the central wadi that Mallot had approved. As it turns out, the wadi is mine-free.

Over the past year, the main Canadian contingent’s role in Afghanistan has shrunk to guarding Camp Julien, its base on the southern outskirts of Kabul. The specialized recce squadron, though, has been working overtime. It is a key component in the security apparatus in Kabul, helping maintain a stable environment for the government of Hamid Karzai. It also provides some of the unsung heroes of the relative success NATO can boast of in this crucial capital region of Afghanistan. In fact, Lt.-Col. Jens Doeloer, the Norwegian chief of operations for KMNB, regards the Canadians as a key asset. Their recce patrols have been shot at and jeered, heard rockets scream overhead, faced off against some of the more unwelcoming parts of the Afghan cultural mosaic. For all that, says Doeloer, “they are the brigade’s most important surveillance asset.”

The job, however, can be so shrouded in secrecy that even the soldiers of recce themselves often have no idea what the bigger picture is. “Sometimes it’s ungratifying for us,” says Hebert. “We spend long hours out in these remote places without really any idea

of why we’re here, or what the end result will be.” But that’s just the nature of the job, he adds. It’s the war planners at NATO headquarters in Kabul who piece together the information his men and women gather.

The Canadians have set up camp in a designated area overlooking the Taghar. Seated in his Coyote, Cpl. Elie Du Vail, 26, fine-tunes a monitor of the thermal camera, a state-of-the-art surveillance device that can produce crystal-clear images, day and night, from as far away as 15 km. “You see that village?” he asks, referring to buildings perhaps 1.5 km away. “It doesn’t look like there’s much going on there, but watch this.” Du Vail focuses the camera in tight, and you can easily see women and children going about their business. Around the clock for the next three days, he and others will be monitoring one of the camera’s observation terminals set up in their vehicles. It’s a routine task for the soldiers of Charlie patrol, who’ve logged more hours out in the field in their four months in Afghanistan than most soldiers would see in two six-month tours.

From this viewpoint, on a small tongue of flat earth surrounded on three sides by potentially mine-infested hills, the villages below look like miniature sandcastles. Aside from the wind gusting wildly against the patrol’s sand-coloured canvas tents, the only

sounds are the buzz of insects and the lyrical hum of birdsong. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep yourself separated from the calm,” says 30-year-old Cpl. Melissa Paquette, manning her observation post atop one of the Coyotes. “But we have to stay focused. You could sit for hours with nothing happening, and then suddenly, you see something.”

The things they’ve seen range from heavily armed men in pickup trucks to pyrotechnic

‘OUR MOTTO

is “Wing it,” ’ says the commander.‘On the ground out here you have to be flexible.’

bursts from rocket launchers. Without going into too much detail for security reasons, Doeloer says recce has helped stop attacks on Kabul, including rocket assaults. But its task is to watch and listen, to patiently gather whatever information comes its way. And—frustratingly—not to get engaged.

That’s because the squadron is not currently mandated to confront suspicious activity, though it is well prepared and equipped to do so. That constraint can be hard on soldiers who trained for months as a cohesive

group in Canada before being deployed. They have eaten, slept, taken vacations and confronted Afghanistan’s uncertain future together for the better part of a year. Riding out the last few months of their tour sitting and watching is somewhat taxing.

Sunrise on the second day of the operation brings with it stifling heat, a counterpunch to the windblown chill of the night. Weather conditions at these altitudes can be unpredictable. Still days tumble into blustery nights, storms rumble over the mountain peaks threatening fury but passing with barely a whimper. Recce patrols have to be ready for any eventuality: sleet and snow as well as ambushes and land mines. “Reconnaissance is a thinking man’s game,” says Hebert. “The situation changes rapidly and you have to adapt rapidly.” Still, Hebert knows full well that a conflict zone would be a truer test of his troops’ mettle—a test that may not be too far off.

Canada will be leading the NATO expansion into the restive south of Afghanistan by next February, a commitment that ushers in a new phase for recce and, undoubtedly, will provide occasions to use all that training. “We have such a wide, robust capability,” says Hebert. Recce soldiers can function for weeks in harsh conditions, in armoured vehicles in the more accessible areas, or on foot in the mountains. Their sniper section, shrouded in mystery and barred from speak-

ing to the media, is specially trained in point reconnaissance, often assigned to watching a single target for days on end with the patience for which snipers have become famous. These skills will be crucial in Kandahar, Canada’s southern destination in the Afghan nation-building project.

Until then, recce will stay focused on providing stability in and around Kabul in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for September. But the move south is on everyone’s mind. “It will be a challenge,” says Maj. Ross Ermel, recce’s commander at Camp Julien. “But we won’t be doing anything different down there. Reconnaissance is reconnaissance, regardless of the environment.” Still, everyone knows that it will be Canada’s most challenging deployment yet in Afghanistan, and the role of recce will have to evolve. More of its missions, currently overt, will turn covert, and engagement with insurgents is almost a given. The south is the conflict zone of Hebert’s musings, the Wild West of Afghanistan where simply being on the ground is a liability.

The experience of an elite U.S. Navy SEAL reconnaissance team that went missing in early July after being ambushed by Taliban fighters in the mountains of southeastern Kunar province highlights the dangers Canada’s recce squadron will face. One of the U.S. team’s members escaped, the other three were killed. But Hebert remains sanguine. Every time recce goes out, he says, it’s prepared for any eventuality. “We have the firepower to deal with any kind of attack,” he adds. “We also have the training and equipment to know before the enemy does that a confrontation is imminent. That’s a huge advantage.”

Canada’s own JTF2 elite special forces team—already sighted by some journalists working in and around Kabul—is a confirmed addition to the 2,000-member battalion heading for southern Afghanistan, according to Gen. Rick Hillier, chief of defence staff. Recce will likely play a support role for the JTF2 commandos, securing and manning remote bases from which the elite soldiers can launch operations.

For the time being, members of Charlie patrol are keeping their guns in their holsters. Until after the elections, they will continue to play the watch-and-wait game in Kabul province, working hard to maintain that edge soldiers need when they’re out in potentially hostile territory. 171