Saturday, March 06, 2010

The face in the field on our Afghan mission/And in the simulated field

A splendid, lengthy, front page piece of on-scene reporting by the Globe and Mail's Josh Wingrove. One of the best I've seen from a Canadian journalist, take the time to read it:
Last exit from Kandahar
With a year left in a mission that’s cost billions and 140 Canadian soldiers’ lives, Canada takes new risks to win over villages – but is it too little, too late? [some headline writer couldn't resist the Globeite agenda; how "too little" with all those US Army forces now involved and coming to Kandahar, more here and here?]

Haji Baba, Afghanistan - Standing on the roof of this mud compound and armed with only a bent seven-iron, Corporal James Riley is dealing with the changing nature of the Afghanistan mission, writ small.

He has finished the “stick” part of his day, a patrol through the harrowing, bomb-laden dirt roads that connect the nearby villages of the volatile Panjwaii district of Kandahar province. Now, on this typically hot and sunny Afghan winter afternoon, Cpl. Riley has moved on to his “carrot” strategy: One by one, he clubs golf balls into the rolling fields. Children scream with excitement and run to fetch them.

One returned ball is worth two candies – in theory. In reality, he has to barter with the kids. This is, after all, a war for hearts and minds.

A few months ago, this place was nobody's idea of a driving range. About 15 kilometres southwest of bustling Kandahar City, the villages of Haji Baba and Nakhonay, a few minutes' walk apart, are staggeringly poor. Life moves slowly in this area of perhaps a few thousand people. The roads are lined with solid mud walls, wide enough for a small car or a donkey pulling a cart but not for armoured vehicles.

Occasional breaks in the barriers make for a labyrinth of peering eyes and possible threats. Everything is covered in dust or mud. The small homes and shops have few windows. This is a place closed to outsiders.

The compound where Canadian soldiers now live was home to insurgents and drug traffickers, who used the villages as bases – “Taliban central,” says Major Wayne Niven, the head of Canada's Delta Company, which has embedded three platoons around these communities. Canada swept in and took over four months ago.

Now, the compound is held by Captain James O'Neill, the hard-nosed but informal commander of Delta's 11 Platoon, and officially called Combat Outpost Shkarre (a Dari word meaning “to hunt”). However, an older name has stuck, inspired by the Afghan graveyard across the road and, perhaps, the bloody toll Canada has paid here.

Welcome to Camp Tombstone.

It's all part of the Key Village Approach, introduced last year by Canadian Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance as a way to stabilize this country. Nakhonay was one of the first places to benefit. Once in their compounds, each platoon stays put, fast-tracking development, wooing locals and warding off the Taliban. It's what has Cpl. Riley alternating gun and golf club

Josh Wingrove/The Gobe and Mail
Canadian Corporal James Riley hits golf balls off the the compound roof in Haji Baba, Afghanistan.
Update: BruceR. at Flit has some excerpts of his own from later in the story:


Capt. O'Neill says he doesn't spend too much time worrying about endgames. “It is what it is. Taliban have been around here for, you know, decades, you know what I mean? They're not going anywhere. If we pulled out of Afghanistan today, it'd probably take a couple days before the Taliban took this place back over again,” he says. “That's just the reality of it.”

Bingo! Also this:

“For me, I have a hard time understanding. It's their [the ANA's] country. If they want it to get better, then you'd think they'd want to be out all the time doing whatever they can.”

As the article mentions, the ANA sergeant has been in the ANA for seven years, and has certainly spent at least the last 4 of them in Kandahar Province, and will probably spend another 4 there. Capt. O'Neill has a few months left out of his six months in situ. You just need to factor that in when putting the sergeant's priority of volleyball over patrolling into perspective. So long as the Canadians are here, let them do the risky stuff, he's likely thinking. O'Neill's assumption is that Afghan soldiers should be hoping for a better future for themselves out of this. My experience was that they don't, and so behaved accordingly. Hope doesn't come in a seacan.

On the upside, what the Canadian platoon is doing here is exactly what every counterinsurgent theorist has always said we should be doing given this kind of situation. Finally.

Meanwhile, back at Fort Irwin, California, getting ready for the field (nice work by the Sun papers, the exercise is now over):

1) Theatre of war
Canadian soldiers perform training exercises in Mojave Desert

FORT IRWIN, California — You know the play is intense when the cast arrives armed.

Though, you couldn’t tell the villains from bit players as they milled around props, strewn across an elaborate outdoor set. And the plot was a shifting, urgent, hard to follow storyline, where translators were required and climaxes happened on stage right just when attention was turned to a ruckus in the balcony.

This was a $50-million California dress rehearsal for 2,800 Canadian troops who will soon ship off to Afghanistan [more here]. Largely from CFB Petawawa, 170 km. northwest of Ottawa, the soldiers will comprise the third-last major deployment to the war and reconstruction zone [more here]...

The soldiers are more prepared — army brass boast — than any previous deployment.

“Each rotation gets better and better,” Brigade Commander, Col Wayne Eyre, assured after watching a skirmish from on top of a hill...

During Maple Guardian [more here at a US Army site], Canadian soldiers found themselves facing welcoming, confused, anxious or angry locals — played by military stand-ins or immigrants from South-Central Asia, who spoke to them in Dari and Pashto...
2) Ambushed in a fake Afghan village
FORT IRWIN, California — Deadly mistakes are welcome here.

You learn from being blown up. Rethink your position when shot as someone offers you water. Perhaps reconsider who is a friend and who is foe.

But soon enough, in a similar place, there will be real world consequences in each step, word and reflex.

The town of Shar E Tiefort is only as real as the plastic fruit in its central market.

One of several mock Afghan villages built into the U.S. military’s vast national training arena, its purpose is to be a backdrop for the art of desert survival

Like a desert mirage, the town of Shar E Tiefort — created to be a backdrop for modern warfare training - waits for Canadians troops to arrive. Though quiet, actors playing iarmed nsurgents wait inside many of the buildings. (THANE BURNETT/QMI Agency) [also the reporter]...


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