Tensions emerge between our fighting troops—and those dedicated to rebuilding
ADNAN R. KHAN
It’s a troubling moment, that realization that what was supposed to be an exercise in nation-building is in reality a war: an honest-to-goodness guns and mortar fight to the finish. Over the past few weeks, with Canadian forces in southern Afghanistan under attack with startling regularity, soldiers of our Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry are wondering what exactly they are supposed to be doing.
Afghanistan is a war zone. If there was any
doubt about that, the volley of Taliban attacks should set the record straight. Any talk now of a soft approach is losing steam, and no more so than for the men and women doing the fighting. Yet despite the harsh lessons being learned in the brief few months of Canada’s deployment in volatile Kandahar province, senior officers are sticking to their guns about Afghan “reconstruction.” “We cannot adopt a siege mentality,” says Maj. Erik Liebert, second in command of the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar city. Giving in to what he describes as “provocation” would play into the Taliban’s hands.
The PRT, along with the Civil-Military Cooperation team (CIMIC), is the blunt end of Canada’s contribution to the Afghan
nation-building effort, responsible for the “hearts and minds” component of what Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier often refers to as the “three-block war”: humanitarian assistance, peace support operations and high-intensity conflict, all within a relatively small area, i.e. three city blocks. This is the other side to Canada’s rather menacing military firepower: the friendly faces of the soldiers who meet with locals, and build schools and medical clinics as well as relationships. As far as the top brass is concerned, this role is as important in Afghanistan as that of the front-line soldiers.
But not everyone agrees, especially not
the soldiers themselves. “Someone dropped the ball,” says one officer from the Patricias, requesting his name not be published. “There’s still a lot of fighting to be done out here, but they’re using too many resources on CIMIC.” In operations like April’s Peacemaker, which sent troops into one of the most dangerous areas in the northern parts of Kandahar province, the relationship between combat troops and CIMIC borders on hostile. “Sometimes they like me, sometimes they don’t,” says Capt. François Provencher, the robust and soft-spoken commander of a CIMIC team arriving at the patrol house in the village of Gumbad, the home base for Operation Peacemaker. “These guys are trained to kill Taliban. I’m trained to build relationships. Sometimes we clash, but we have to remember that this is a learning process.” Afghanistan is a testing ground for the three-block war, which still has some wrinkles. Provencher, for example, has come to Gumbad to negotiate with local farmers over compensation for the destruction of fields by helicopter landings and troop movements, as well as finding a local contractor to fix the village road, a section of which has become an impassable mud pit because of heavy armoured vehicle traffic. The negotiations have gone well, especially with the contractor, who invited Provencher to tea at his house. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for,” says Provencher. “I want these people to see me as a person, not a uniform. I even bring pictures of my family with me to show the locals, so they see me in this light.”
But the road issue has turned sour. Less than an hour after the meeting with the contractor, one of the officers at the patrol house approaches Provencher.
“That road is a security risk,” he says, rather brusquely. “We need it fixed.”
`THESE GUYS ARE TRAINED TO K
“The contractor is starting work on it first thing tomorrow morning,” Provencher replies. In the meantime, convoys can continue to skirt the destroyed section, as they’ve been doing over recent days.
“Too late,” says the officer. “I’m sending soldiers out to fix it now.”
Provencher shrugs. “No point in getting upset about things like this,” he says. “You’d give yourself an ulcer.” But the damage has
been done—the relationship he built has been weakened, if not replaced by mistrust. Strapping on his body armour, the CIMIC commander heads back to the road, where a handful of Canadian soldiers, a few of them waistdeep in mud, futilely attempts to divert water from a destroyed irrigation canal away from the mud pit. The Afghan contractor watches with a bemused smile while Provencher assures him that he still has the contract.
This incident highlights how difficult a task Canadians face. Military planners are playing a tricky balancing act in Afghanistan: taking a measured approach while soldiers die risks damage to the morale of Canada’s fighting men and women. Phrases like “the developmental warrior,” used by Lt.-Col. Ian Hope, commander of First Battalion of the Patricias, when he addresses troops at Gumbad, often fall on deaf ears for soldiers who have seen friends hit by attacks. “How much longer are we gonna be taking it from behind?” one soldier asks Hope—a question he has difficulty answering.
Bringing together combat troops and reconstruction teams is the crucial task Canadians will face as their mission in Afghanistan spreads out over the whole of Kandahar province. But for now, a fissure remains: combat soldiers say they are not getting enough respect from other Canadian troops whose job is reconstruction, and they’re beginning to grumble. “That will change,” says Hope to frustrated battalion members. “When they see you come onto the base from outside the wire, they will respect you. Eventually. In the meantime, remember, you are professional soldiers.” Stirring words. But for men and women who thrive on action, only words. M
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.