Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
A 21st-century war in a primitive land
We have the weapons, but the enemy has the time
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD — It’s too dangerous to travel more than a few hundred metres outside the perimeter of this sprawling military encampment, home to an estimated 30,000 coalition soldiers and civilians, without extensive protection.
I was one of seven journalists who were supposed to visit Kandahar City, just 16 kilometres north of here, during a military-sponsored media tour, but the plans were repeatedly cancelled because the special transportation needed for the short hop -- either a Chinook helicopter or armoured convoy -- was unavailable. The demands of military operations at the time were too intense.
The security issues are a problem for news gatherers. Full-time journalists here say they will not venture beyond "the wire" into Kandahar City without heavy protection because the risks of being killed or kidnapped are too great.
Insurgents aren't the only threat. Ordinary criminals, drug dealers and bandits of all kinds have free run in and around the city of about one million people, the second-largest city in Afghanistan.
Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team, which is working with the local government to introduce some form of civil society, is based in the city, but its staff of 330 soldiers and civilians is locked behind an armed and fortified compound.
The Canadian army is slowly attempting to secure the rural areas around Kandahar City in the hope that the city itself eventually will be ripe for pacification. The theory is that if the insurgents cannot move easily in and out of the city, they will be forced to leave the area.
According to Brig.-Gen. Dan Menard, the head of Canada's task force, Kandahar City remains "the centre of gravity" and "key terrain" in the counter-insurgency. Canada is responsible for about 1,500 square kilometres of territory around the city. (Winnipeg is 460 square kilometres.)
There is no doubt this is a war zone. Military jets of all kind, helicopters, aerial drones, and an assortment of other aircraft land and take off 24 hours a day, seven days week.
The inventory on this single-strip airfield includes the A-10 Warthog, a slow-flying killing machine that fires depleted-uranium armour-piercing shells from a 30-millimetre Gatling gun, Harrier jump jets that take off and land vertically, F-15 fighters, as well as the British Tornado, a low-level ground attack bomber.
There are no after-action reports for the media, but presumably they are turning up dirt somewhere in support of the troops, or in attacks on presumed enemy compounds.
There are four Canadian Leopard tanks in a repair and maintenance compound here. Two of them have dents in their hulls and look like they were beaten up in battle, while the tracks of two others have been blown off. Photographing the wrecked tanks is not allowed.
Some Canadians may have the impression that our soldiers in Afghanistan aren't doing much more than patrolling roads and villages in armoured convoys and occasionally getting hit by roadside bombs. In fact, the action is more intense and complicated.
On the ground, it's a war of slow and deliberate movement. The appearance of a culvert, or even a rock that looks out of place, is enough to bring a convoy to a halt while soldiers search for improvised explosive devices.
If children are seen playing in a field one day, but aren't there the next day, suspicions are raised and the area is swept for bombs and insurgents.
Every soldier, whether on foot or in an armoured vehicle, knows that every centimetre of ground is a possible killing zone. Sometimes the Taliban will mine a road or path after a column of soldiers has passed, forcing the troops to exercise the same caution on the return trip.
According to the army, Afghan women and children are frequently used as spotters and human shields for the insurgents, making everyone a potential threat.
This is not the war you see on the TV news, which focuses almost exclusively on the politics of the conflict, such as the detainee issue, withdrawal dates, the body count and whether we should have gone to Afghanistan in the first place.
Some soldiers operate out of Forward Operating Bases the army has built in its area of operations around Kandahar City, which serve as fortified outposts for further patrolling, reconnaissance and contact with villagers. Most of them are within 100 kilometres of the city, but smaller units of 20 to 30 soldiers operate farther afield in strong points in the search for deeper intelligence and contact with the enemy.
These soldiers live in the open desert, sleeping in shallow trenches they've dug in the ground, checking their boots in the morning for scorpions and snakes, and conducting raids on suspected enemy compounds while fending off small-unit attacks on their positions.
Pte. Kyle Johnston, 24, of the First Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, served in one of those isolated posts. I met up with him at a logistics base that Canada operates in a third country in southwest Asia.
His small unit came under attack numerous times from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.
"It's mostly shoot and scoot. They scrap it out for a while and then take off," he said. "The threat is always present. They're out there all the time."
His platoon's job was "to go out on patrol looking for the bad guys." He described the villagers he encountered as "big time primitive," lacking the most basic services but mainly people who "just want to get by, like everyone else."
Soldiers like Johnston are never really alone. Modern technology has introduced real-time communications to the battleground. At the operations centre here, highly trained soldiers are in constant communication with the troops via special cellphones, computers and aerial drones.
There is even a form of Twitter, although it is more sophisticated than what we are used to.
"Whatever you've got out there in the civilian world, we've got 10 times better," one soldier said.
During a tour of the operations centre, four giant screens similar to those used by NORAD to monitor air space were covered up for reasons of secrecy, but they give staff officers here a clear view of various battlefields in real time.
Some soldiers even carry special cameras fixed to their helmets that relay video to headquarters so officers can see exactly what the troops themselves are looking at. There are other forms of high-tech gadgetry, but the military prefers they be kept secret to give their soldiers an edge.
It's a 21st-century war in a primitive land and it sometimes seems like overkill, but military leaders say their enormous arsenal and sophisticated technology are saving lives.
Technology is not much use, however, in one of the most important efforts of the campaign -- the recruitment and training of an effective Afghan army. The fact that most Afghan soldiers are illiterate and uneducated is a problem.
In one case, according to an officer here, a large group of detainees was herded onto an Afghan army base, but the soldier in charge could not tell his superior how many people he had. He simply could not count.
To address the problem, the Canadian army and other coalition forces have established Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (which they call omelettes) to train Afghan soldiers.
Lt.-Col. Martin Kenneally is in charge of Canada's OMLT, which consists of about 190 troops. They work in teams of five or six with Afghan army companies of about 60 men. Other OMLT teams are training Afghans in battalion and brigade level management.
The Canadian trainers live in the field with the Afghan army units and conduct operations with them.
"It's a tough life," Kenneally said. "The accommodations are primitive, they're living in tents ... and they run the risk of being killed."
Just getting to an Afghan army post is itself "a combat mission," the officer said, noting that the insurgents are constantly testing and attacking the Afghans.
The bravery of these Canadians, who are forced to trust the Afghans with their lives, is remarkable.
Canadians who are training Afghan police officers are even more at risk. Last month, five British mentors were killed by an Afghan police officer. Two U.S. soldiers were murdered in a separate incident.
Despite these setbacks, Kenneally said he believes progress is being made. The Afghan troops are "tough as nails" and very good in small groups, he said.
But they are weak in planning and sustainability -- the Afghan Army operational plan for this fall's presidential election was just two pages, Kenneally said.
The Afghan troops are well paid, about $300 US a month, but a high number are frequently AWOL. Many of them return to their homes in northern Afghanistan to work during farming season, returning to army life when they are ready, he explained.
About 3,000 Afghan soldiers normally live on a base just outside the airfield, but it was nearly deserted during our visit because the men had returned home for the Muslim festival of Eid. The small group that was there, however, was dancing and singing traditional songs.
The base was clean and tidy, with flower gardens and newly planted trees, a stark contrast from the drab and colourless airbase. The soldiers were genuinely warm and hospitable, although none of us took up their invitation to join them in dance.
A 200-strong unit of the Afghan army is currently working with a Canadian battlegroup under Lt.-Col. Jerry Walsh to clear two villages of insurgents. Walsh said the Afghan soldiers were invaluable in identifying danger zones and possible insurgents. The army intends to occupy the villages and prepare them for development with the aim of winning the confidence of the people and turning them against the insurgents. The coalition's goal is to repeat this process across the country until the insurgency has been marginalized and the Afghan army can provide the security for continued growth.
The question is whether enough progress can be made to meet America's demand for results within 18 months, the tentative deadline set by President Barack Obama for success or failure.
Strategic patience, an Australian lieutenant colonel told me, is not one of the coalition's strong suits.
A fog has settled over the battlefield and the mission, an ambivalence about whether the goal is achievable and whether the cost is worth it. The regional strategic issues, including the roles and interests of Pakistan, India and Iran, also complicate the question of how to achieve success.
Lt.-Col. Dan Drew, a former deputy commander of the OMLT who currently is in Afghanistan on other business, said that while the battlefield itself is confusing -- "you only understand five per cent of what you see" -- the political, cultural and human terrain is even more challenging.
Western assumptions about the rationality of ending corruption and closing down the poppy fields, for example, may not be appropriate in Afghanistan, a country where corruption is an economic system and not a symptom of moral decay.
"Afghanistan," Drew said, "is like a smelly onion. Every time you peel off a layer, there's another smelly layer below."
It's an onion that is sure to produce more tears and disappointment before the last layer is peeled.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2009 H1
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