Winning in Afghanistan
Worry over the toll of recent Canadian casualties is obscuring the very real progress being made in reconstruction. And that’s exactly the way the Taliban wants it.
SEAN M. MALONEY
It is 03:37 hours at a dusty forward operating base near Zharey district, in the Kandahar province of southern Afghanistan. It’s a clear night under the stars of the Milky Way, but it’s far from quiet. The deep, throbbing rumble of Leopard tanks undercuts the higher-pitched LAV III motors as a combined Afghan-Canadian force of 200 men prepares to move out of the gates. In the back of the command LAV III, the “situational-awareness camera” has already been switched on: the white and grey night vision imagery catches a Canadian soldier as he stubs out a cigarette and ambles past a Ford Ranger pickup full of soldiers from the Afghan National Army. While Canadian troops wait inside their amoured vehicles, the Afghans are busily putting on their body armour. They’re all part of an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team—nicknamed “omelettes” over here—and they’re getting ready for battle. Overhead, you can just hear the hum of the unmanned drones orbiting the area, standing by to tell us what lies ahead.
I am in the lead LAV with Lt.-Col. Rob Walker, the commanding officer of the battle group, and his staff. We all know, as the LAV plows through the cool, damp wadi air, that the lead vehicle is the most vulnerable to mines, so the gunner on top keeps a close eye on the road, looking for ground that’s been disturbed, while others scan beside us with night vision equipment in case the enemy has anticipated this move and prepared an ambush.
Troops from the Royal Canadian Regiment’s India Company, along with soldiers from the Afghan National Army and tanks from the Lord Strathconas’ Horse, have been keeping Taliban forces off balance for the better part of the spring and summer. The combined effects of last summer’s operations in Zharey district, the blunting of the enemy’s fall offensive, and the anti-leadership campaign that killed enemy commander Mullah Dadullah, have set the conditions for today’s mission. The target is a series of drab compounds south of a town called Howz-e Madad, in the western end of Zharey. Howz-e Madad is important: it’s here that the vital east-west route,
Highway 1, curves off into the desert toward Helmand province. It’s the last place the Taliban can ambush truck traffic and then escape into the densely packed vineyards, wadis and compounds of Zharey district. If they try it further west, air power can be brought to bear to kill them in the open, where they have no civilians to hide behind.
A quick thrust into Howz-e Madad will send a message that the Afghans and Canadians can go anywhere at any time and have no compunction about close-in fighting, unlike certain NATO allies who refuse to commit forces to the region.
At 04:35 hours, as the command vehicle pulls into position north of the compound complexes, the staticky call of “contact” comes over its radio speakers. I look out the hatch and a stream of red tracer fire arcs in the distance, followed by several bangs. Two more contact reports come from India Company, and the battle is on. Canadian infantry dismount and move into the first complex. As the Leopard tanks roar in with the Afghan infantry moving parallel with them, the Taliban opens up with rocket-propelled gren-
ade (RPGs) fired from a grape hut. Two Afghan soldiers are wounded and an armoured ambulance is sent forward to collect them, once a Badger armoured engineering vehicle breaches a high mud wall so it can get through.
The Afghan infantry clean out this complex room by room as the Leopards stand watch. The ANA are a much more professional force than even a year ago: they are uniformly kitted out, they are confident and their clearance tactics are fluid. India Company prepares to move to a new objective but then takes fire from another grape hut. Two tanks move to support, as India Company’s platoons fire every weapon they’ve got at the Taliban fortification. Just then, an aerial drone spots the enemy moving in small groups in pickup trucks to reinforce a line just south of the two objective areas. Canadian M-777 artillery is called in and a succession of six rapid “wumps” sends shockwaves through the morning air, and makes short work of the Taliban.
But amid all the noise and destruction, something even more remarkable is going on. As I stand on the rear deck of the LAV, I can see that civilian truck traffic has not let up along Highway 1. The battle is less than one kilometre from Kandahar province’s equivalent of Highway 401, but that hasn’t put a dent in what passes for the morning rush hour here. Taxi cabs swing north into the desert next to us—they’re tracked by the LAV’s 25-mm cannon just in case—but even as artillery, small-arms fire and tank rounds go off, truck after truck after truck continues on the way to Helmand, Herat and beyond, carrying Kandahari produce to market.
Meanwhile, back in the complexes, the Afghan troops have discovered something. The Canadian tanks and infantry go into a “hedgehog,” a defensive posture south of the objectives. Close air support has arrived in the form of two U.S. Air Force A-10 “Warthogs.” A Leopard tank crew then spots two Taliban RPG teams, and fires off a 105-mm round that obliterates the enemy before they can fire. Reports flow in that more Taliban are trying to reinforce from the south. An A-10 is sent to overfly the enemy to ensure collateral damage is limited—as we all know, air power can be a blunt instrument—and word comes in that a U.S. army Blackhawk
helicopter is ready to extract the casualties. The battlefield is suddenly becoming a very crowded place.
Then a sound like the heavens being ripped open with a chainsaw overrides everything. And again. The A-10 has just sprayed the enemy reinforcements. Another Leopard fires and destroys a Taliban pickup truck with a mounted RPG team. India Company has got into their objectives and are fighting for them, sometimes at ranges of less than five metres. So far, there are only four Afghan and two Canadian wounded, but no “VSA” or Vital Signs Absent—the new euphemism for Killed in Action. Enemy weapons litter the field and they’re used as bait: when a Taliban tries to retrieve one, a sniper takes him down—one way to discourage their recovery and reuse against us.
By 07:33 hours, small-arms fire has grown sporadic and the enemy resolve slackens. The Afghan company commander is jubilant: his men have uncovered a cache of RPG rounds, launchers, shells and other explosives. More importantly, components for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, including artillery shells, wiring harnesses and detonators, have been found stockpiled in one location.
These are the devices that have caused so much carnage this spring and early summer, and it’s both gratifying and sobering to find them before they’re used.
Lt.-Col. Walker decides that the mission has succeeded and it’s time to break contact. The Afghan and Canadian infantry move toward the highway, screened by tanks, LAVs, and two AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships. The threat now is from suicide IEDs or ambush along Highway 1. The troops are tired but still pumped from the action this morning and keep a close eye out as they return to base. Officially, there are 20 confirmed enemy dead, probably more, but the effects of this operation are greater than the body count. An IED cell has been taken down. It could take the enemy weeks or even months to replace it. There were no civilian casualties. Highway 1 is more secure, for the time being. The Taliban were forced to commit scarce resources to this fight, which can no longer be used against Kandahar city. They were forced to use scarce medical supplies for their wounded, which strains the smuggling routes back to Pakistan and overloads the covert hospitals in Quetta
and elsewhere. Taliban wounded, as an Afghan police colonel told me, may even pretend to be civilian or police casualties to gain admittance to hospitals in Kandahar city.
uccess would soon be overtaken by tragedy. Even as thatjune 20 battle in Zharey was still raging, in the neighbouring Panjwai district three soldiers from the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were killed in a massive explosion as their M-Gator vehicle hit a cleverly laid mine stack. Was this designed to draw resources away from the Howz-e Madad fight? It’s
unclear. But it was the biggest single-day death toll for Canadians since April 8, and it would be the exclusive focus of media reports from Afghanistan on that day. The success of the morning’s operation in Zharey would be completely ignored.
So it has gone for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan over the past few months, with worry about the rising toll of casualties all but drowning out any consideration of the very real progress being made. In the wake of the three soldiers’ deaths, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, for the first time, that his government would not extend the mission past 2009 without the consensus of the other parties in Parliament. Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, responded with the vow that his party would not support an extension; the two other opposition parties have
long opposed the military part of the mission. Then came last week’s IED killing of she more Canadian troops, the worst single-day death toll since the mission began. That brought more hand-wringing, leaving, it seemed, only the military, and those ordinary Canadians lining the highways as the hearses rolled past, to offer unconditional support.
Lost in all this, and in the wilful ignorance of decision-makers back home, is the fact that victories are actually piling up in Afghanistan. It’s a country, particularly in the southern areas where Canadian troops are most active, very much under reconstruction.
The best way to look at Canadian and Afghan operations in Kandahar province is to divide them into “shield” operations and “build” operations, understanding that they are interwoven and dependent on each other.
How much change has there been? What effect is this all having? And how do we measure it in an environment like Afghanistan?
‘FAMILIES AREN'T LEAVING THE WAY THEY WERE. AROUND. THERE I NOTICE ARE MORE THE POLICE CHILDREN PRESENCE.’
It is easy, as one of my military colleagues puts it, to be “blinded by the math,” with all the stats pumped out by consultants to the various aid agencies. I met a group of friends for chai in Kandahar city, and asked Rashid, whom I have known for five years, what was qualitatively different. (The names of the Afghans have been changed at their request. The fear of retribution by the Taliban remains real.) “Kandahar seems more secure than even last year,” Rashid said. “Families aren’t leaving like they were. There are more children around. I really notice the police presence, especially their vehicles and the checkpoints. We know they’re still pretty corrupt, there are still bombings, but there is at least a feeling of security.” Mohammad interjects as the chai is passed around: “The big threat last summer from the districts west of the city is gone. It is not looming like it was. We can get on with our lives. There isn’t this feeling of imminent peril.”
My other companions vigorously nodded. “But there are still the bombings,” an ex-Communist security man told me. “These are a problem. After one attack, the governor chided the wounded in Mir Weis hospital. He told them this wouldn’t have happened to them if they and their families passed information to the security forces. This is starting to happen more and more. The NATO Spetsnaz [special forces] have been hunting in our neighbourhoods at night,” he smiled.
Sometimes, however, the math is meaningful, because there are other important developments in Kandahar. The Kandahar
Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT) working with the Afghan government and aid agencies is the “build” part of the equation. Lt.-Col. Bob Chamberlain is the commander of the KPRT ; he and his staff offered up some startling statistics. First, a polio vaccination program has nearly eradicated the disease in Kandahar province and throughout southern Afghanistan. Second, infant mortality in the region has taken a dramatic downturn. In my travels, I also noticed more and more children in evidence, many around the ages of 4 to 6, possibly the results of a post-Taliban baby boom. In other words, the next generation has a higher assured survival rate than the previous one, which was severely depleted due the effects of nearly 30 years of war. Even an Afghan friend of mine who
lost both legs last year in an ambush is the proud father of a baby girl.
The need to nurture and protect this generation is obvious if Afghanistan is to survive as a viable nation. Co-operative aid projects with the Afghans might well make that possible, and these are finally getting to the areas where Canada has been most active. Bob Chamberlain’s KPRT force protection company, from the 1st Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment, is the “delivery system” for the Foreign Affairs, RCMP, Correctional Services Canada, CID A and USAID representatives who either mentor the provincial government, assist Afghan agencies in assessing the state of affairs, or deliver direct aid. Known by the Afghans as “the Tabernae people,” sorties of Van Doos, over here from their base in Valcartier, Que., probe into an ever-expanding number of rural districts, at great risk. This is part of a new approach designed to help the Afghan people become partners and not merely aid recipients.
The tacit recognition that inefficiency and corruption were interfering with the development agenda almost as much as the Taliban produced new tactics. This is a sensitive topic (the Afghans are a proud people), but Rezik explained that “we had to bypass the donkeys [a derogatory reference to corrupt officials] to get to the people.” Rezik described the community development council concept that’s linked to a large pot of Kabul-based money called the National Solidarity Program. (The NSP itself draws on World Bank and IMF money because of a close partnership between the Afghan government and the Canadian Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul.) “We approach a village community,
originally in a more secure location but sometimes in a contested area. We tell the village leadership that we have resources allocated for development, but it is up to them to develop a consensus on how it will be used. They have to come up with priorities. This forces them to discuss it among themselves, to take ownership. We then take this back and see how it can be reconciled at the provincial level with NSP funding levels.” The community is also invited to contribute manpower, perhaps in a cash-for-work scheme.
There is also an “Afghan first” policy to prevent overreliance on Pakistani companies and aid organizations and to encourage Afghan small business, particularly in construction. The Taliban have nothing to offer that can compete with the community development council approach. They can only interfere with it, which, according to Rezik, has resulted in armed local people telling the Taliban on occasion to go away. The implication that aid monies could be cut off if the security situation in those communities didn’t improve was an obvious incentive. “The CDCs are still new, but about half of Kandahar province receives National Solidarity Program funding right now,” Rezik explained. A year ago, there was little NSP funding and it was completely uncoordinated. A year before that, when I was in Kandahar, the idea that the CDC could work like this was considered untenable.
Rasul is a teacher from a strong religious family. He knows I am a professor and a frequent visitor to Afghanistan, so we discuss the state of education in Kandahar. “We have a number of problems that many are unaware of,” he confides. “People don’t trust politicians. They don’t trust the police. They trust the army, but the army can’t be around all the time. Our mutual enemy has been attacking us in areas that are being ignored, attacking two institutions the people do have trust in.” Meaning mosques and schools? “Correct. The Taliban attack and burn the schools because they know that education will defeat them. They infiltrate the mosques knowing you [the International Security Assistance Force] can’t or won’t come in. They assassinate mullahs who preach against their hate. Buildings have been burned down, teachers beheaded and students shot, including two girls killed and another four wounded leaving school last month.”
Westerners often forget that the separation of church and state doesn’t exist in a traditional Islamic society. Canadian policymakers are skittish about getting involved with religion, but ought to understand that the enemy gets his message directly to the people through wandering mullahs in the rural areas and via the mosques in Kandahar
city. Radio, TV and newspapers can’t counter this approach. Only education can. Rasul and others I spoke with thought that teachers and mullahs needed to be paid and registered. Indeed, madrasas teaching moderate Islam needed to be established. “We have people lining up to learn, of all ages,” Rasul told me. “In Kandahar, there are institutes that teach English in the morning and com-
THE ONLY WAY THE TALIBAN CAN WIN IS TO GENERATE DOUBT AND FEAR IN CANADA, AND HOPE FOR A WITHDRAWAL OF TROOPS
puter skills in the afternoon. This is our future bureaucracy, our future middle class. Yet the development programs don’t seriously address this and are too focused on the rural areas.”
The main conundrum for the effort in Kandahar province is the connective tissue between security and development: the police. I spoke with Yusuf, an official working in security sector reform, and it became clear that there are too many cooks in the kitchen and some of the ingredients are rotten. The failure of the German government to develop an effective police job over the past five years led the European Union to take over that “pillar” this year. At the same time, the United States has committed several billion dollars to police reform, without serious coordination with the EU. “We are afraid too much of this money will wind up in the pockets of foreign-contracted training companies and not go to the police themselves,” Yusuf said. In Kandahar, there are the regular Afghan National Police, the NDS secret police, standby police, auxiliary police, counter-narcotics police, and a SWAT-like group called ANCOP. This would be normal in a totalitarian society where the police watch each other; indeed, some of these agencies report to provincial authorities, some to federal authorities, and some to nobody except themselves. But in Afghanistan, where it is critical to know who’s responsible for what security measures, it’s a recipe for chaos.
To complicate matters further, there is a debate over how police should be used. “Are the police a militia? Are they a paramilitary organization? Or are they, as your RCMP calls it, ‘beat cops’? It is unclear,” said Yusuf as he sketched all these groups out on a pad. It was also a question of short term versus long term. The short-term view sees flooding checkpoints with a large number of partially trained police acting as militia for immediate security gratification, and the long-term proponents are focused on building a professional police force that could investigate
crime. Finding the middle ground will be difficult. Lt.-Col. Chamberlain explained that a police force was only part of a legal triumvirate consisting of police, courts and jails. Those elements remained underdeveloped at best, so there was a leaning toward shortterm solutions. Stabilize now, develop later.
In an ideal world, military forces would clear a district of overtly operating enemy forces. Police forces, both paramilitary and patrol, would move in, followed by the government, which would dispense construction aid and govern. The local people would in theory provide the police with information on insurgent activity and the appropriate response (army or police) would be deployed to counter it, which in turn forces the enemy to operate elsewhere. Over time, all districts would be brought into the fold. In Kandahar, however, coalition forces can clear an area, but the police cannot occupy it effectively, which in turn makes governance difficult. On the plus side, the enemy cannot be everywhere at once either. The competition continues.
A complicating factor is interference in the Afghan conflict by Iran as well as Pakistan. Though some progress has been made in pressuring Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf to co-operate more effectively, the Tehran regime is doing little to prevent a significant arms flow into Afghanistan through the westernmost provinces. Indeed, the appearance of sophisticated Iranian-made “explosively formed projectiles” similar to ones used against Israeli forces by Hezbollah, and against American and British forces in Iraq,
is a disturbing development. EFPs require precision tooling, unlike the more easily manufactured IEDs. Reports that Iranian sources have provided the Taliban with shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles are equally disturbing. International pressure will have to be brought to bear on Tehran to stop these and other covert activities.
But the more critical battle—the enemy’s fight to destroy Canadian resolve—will continue. The only way the Taliban can succeed is to generate doubt and fear in Canada, and hope that those Canadians opposed to helping the Afghan people are able to generate a consensus for withdrawal. The only tool the Taliban have right now to accomplish this is a mass-casualty-producing attack like the one that killed six soldiers on July 4There’s little doubt that the Taliban know that Canadian sentiment is wavering, and that such attacks affect public opinion. More importantly, they’re aware that support for the mission is weakest in Quebec, and that a battalion from Quebec is on its way. The anticipated deployment of those troops and the divisions in that province over this war (like divisions in Quebec over other wars in Canadian history) will not be lost on the al-Qaeda-funded analysts supporting the Taliban war effort.
Given the improving socio-economic situation in Kandahar province, withdrawing now would be like retreating from the beachhead in Normandy immediately after landing. Canada has sacrificed too much to pull out when those incremental measures we’ve talked about for two years are just starting to have an effect. M