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White guys with guns: Canada’s military in Afghanistan


The current incarnation of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan began in February of 2006, and followed earlier military commitments beginning in the fall of 2001. Now operating mainly under NATO command as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the array of Canadian Forces’ roles has several notable aspects, some of which overlap: about 1200 troops make up the Canadian battle group headquartered at Kandahar Airfield, along with several hundred support personnel; over 100 soldiers comprise the bulk of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) based out Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City; the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team (“omelette”), which embeds with and trains Afghan troops; and the Strategic Advisory Team (SAT) which is embedded with various Afghan government ministries in Kabul. In total, some 2500 personnel make up the conventional forces deployed in Afghanistan. Additionally, an unknown number of JTF-2 special forces work alongside special forces from the US and other countries as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Very little is known about their role.

 

With a few exceptions, media coverage of the mission has been generally sympathetic to the claims and actions of Canadian military officials. It is the purpose of this essay to shed light on the less-reported aspects of the mission, about which our military and government officials rarely speak.

 

The spectacle at Kandahar Air Field (KAF) seems reminiscent of the bar scene in Star Wars. An enormous, Russian-built complex, KAF sits on the edge of the vast desert in southern Afghanistan which straddles the border with Pakistan amidst Pashtun territory. Journalists describe a steady of flow of soldiers from several countries, many of whom are off-limits to reporters. American and Canadian special forces, for instance, cannot be interviewed or even mentioned by the press. And those troops may not be the only ones keeping a low profile, as “a senior British officer said there last autumn that he was convinced the Taliban had many spies on the base”.[i]

 

Apart from the multinational tutoring in special ops and media relations, there may be other important skills being disseminated at KAF. A Norwegian newspaper caused a stir early this year when it reported on sworn testimony by several US interrogators who had worked at the base and described some of the goings-on, including the widespread use of torture.[ii]

 

But what about off-base, where the mission actually takes place, among the Afghan population? There, NATO forces are engaged in what military strategists term the “inkspot strategy” of counter-insurgency. Essentially this means that NATO ground troops, with air support, clear a given area of armed insurgents and hand over control of the territory to Afghan National Army (ANA) troops who in turn hand off the area to Afghan National Police (ANP) units. Then, development projects are launched with the intention of strengthening the population’s allegiance to the national government.

 

The mission of the Canadian Forces is of a type which is wholly new to them, and seriously at odds with what many feel is the traditional role of our forces – i.e. peacekeeping. A Globe and Mail editorial marks the shift: the “new era of peacemaking”, we are told, demands “pitched battles over a few metres of road”.[iii] Others are not so quick to put on kid gloves when describing the mission. Scott Taylor, editor of Canadian military magazine Esprit de Corps, skips the linguistic niceties and describes Canadian troops in Afghanistan simply as “occupying forces”.[iv]

 

How do soldiers themselves view their task? “Hours of boredom and then an intense moment of adrenaline,” says one 25-year-old Canadian Forces gunner. “One fellow compares the subliminally percussive sensation to sex”, relates a Toronto Star reporter.[v] Another soldier reports vengeance and geopolitics as his motivator: “I have absolutely no problem killing them,” asserts a battle group sergeant. “They started this on September 11. We’re just bringing the fight back to them”.[vi]

 

Indeed, many soldiers have taken up their tasks with gusto. Others, meanwhile, have been disappointed when the fight wasn’t as hot as they expected. Shortly after arrival in Kandahar, members of the Van Doos regiment “étaient un peu frustrés de participer à une mission de reconstruction et auraient préféré combattre à leur arrivée en Afghanistan.” (“were a little frustrated to be taking part in a reconstruction mission and would have preferred to fight upon their arrival in Afghanistan“).[vii]

 

If all this Rambo-style readiness sounds to some like an echo of American military bravado, there may be good reason for it. Working in close quarters with their US counterparts seems to have caused a certain mindset to rub off on Canadian officers, exemplified by NATO spokesman James Appathurai. “NATO forces have the right and the responsibility to protect their mission,” asserts the former employee of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “That includes the right — and indeed, if the commander deems it necessary — the responsibility to take pre-emptive action”.[viii]

 

The M777 – ‘Take that house out’

 

One of the key tools in Canada‘s version of “peacemaking”, the British-made M777 Howitzer gun, which can shoot 6 inch-diameter bullets a distance of 30km (22 miles), has reportedly been dubbed the “Desert dragon” by insurgent fighters. Acquired by the Canadian Forces in the fall of 2005, the weapon has gained a devoted fan base among military brass. “When the infantry, for example, come up against a couple of houses where they would suffer casualties going in and clearing that house of the enemy, even though they would win, it’s sort of nice to be able to stand back and turn to the tanker and say, ‘Take that house out.’” So explained retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, who has been doing near full-time public relations for the war.[ix] Afghan bystanders, ceaselessly endangered by NATO operations, might disagree with MacKenzie that the experience is “sort of nice”.

 

Getting into the spirit of things, the Globe and Mail’s Gloria Galloway extols the benefits of the M777: “They are a good negotiation tool; in trying to persuade Afghans not to help the Taliban, Canadians can demonstrate the consequences of bad behaviour by radioing to a launcher many kilometres away, and suddenly the Afghan farmer is left with a large hole in his field and a new appreciation of NATO firepower”.[x] Galloway seems to be using the word “negotiation” in a technical sense; others less skilled in journalism or public relations might use words like “extortion” or “coercion”.

 

Foreign troops mentor from a distance

 

The use of the long-distance “negotiating tool”, combined with “close air support” (CAS), underlines the sometimes cautious, circumspect nature of NATO’s presence in southern Afghanistan. Indeed, various media have reported on the hide-and-seek nature of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. “The U.S. and NATO forces only venture out to conduct special operations. Routine patrolling and intelligence gathering is the responsibility of the nascent Afghan National Army,” writes John Cherian. Further, he asserts that “loyalty of the Afghan Security Forces cannot be taken for granted… For instance, General Bismillah Khan, Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army, is a former warlord”.[xi]

 

Writing from Helmand province, the Globe and Mail’s Graeme Smith remarks that “British troops were effectively under siege at their patrol base in Sangin [Helmand province] last year”.[xii] And this fact isn’t winning many friends for the foreign forces: “Those foreign [expletive deleted] say there is security – it’s a lie,” charged one Afghan army commander. “They don’t risk their asses out here. There are Taleban right in the district centre, but the British and the Americans stay in their holes”.[xiii]

 

While Canadian soldiers appear to have been spared such disparaging accusations, it is worth noting the disproportionate share of risk alloted to Afghan forces. Afghan army and police officers accompanying NATO troops sustain about 90% of the total combat injuries.[xiv]

 

Mercenaries

 

So what is an occupying army, huddled behind the wire, supposed to do? Well, if you are NATO then you go ahead and pay some trustworthy locals to fight for you. That is, you hire mercenaries. Under the headline, “British hire anti-Taliban mercenaries”, the Times of London reports on “newly formed tribal police who will be recruited by paying a higher rate than the Taliban.”[xv]

 

Canadian forces, too, are getting in on the action. “For five years Col. Toorjan, a turbaned, tough-as-nails, 33-year-old soldier, has been working alongside U.S. and Canadian forces in Afghanistan as a paid mercenary commander,” reports Canada‘s National Post. “Today, his militia force of 60 Afghan fighters guards Camp Nathan Smith, the Canadian provincial reconstruction team site (PRT) in Kandahar, and guides Canadian soldiers on their patrols outside the base.” Toorjan and his armed men “wield significant influence in Kandahar‘s complex security web”, making him a treasured ally, though before 9/11 he was “in effect a warlord”, said the second-in-command of Canada‘s Provincial Reconstruction Team.[xvi]

 

The use of mercenaries, it should be noted, runs counter to the International Convention on Mercenaries (1989). Canada, however, along with the USA, the UK and many others, is not a signatory to that treaty.

 

Air strikes

 

The use of mercenaries isn’t the only indication that NATO/US troops are ill-equipped for this war. The reliance on air power, which has been a vital part of this confrontation since the US-led assault began in October of 2001, has brought wide-spread condemnation for the risk to civilians which it entails. Thousands of civilians have perished under US and NATO bombs since 2001, prompting numerous calls by Afghan President Karzai for more caution on the part of western forces.

 

In the current situation, it is largely American aircraft which carry out air assaults. (The British, French, Germans and others have also committed aircraft, which are largely used in transport or surveillance.) Called “close air support” (CAS), these war planes are routinely called in by ground forces when they locate insurgent fighters. The CAS might deliver bombs, missiles, shells or simply a “show of force” to destroy or deter those fighters. But these attacks are a blunt instrument, and civilian casualties are a frequent consequence. “[P]ushing into insurgent-held territory”, writes Terri Judd of the Independent, “increases the danger of civilian casualties, especially when outnumbered troops call in air strikes”.[xvii]

 

The results of this type of assault have been a humanitarian and public relations disaster for NATO and US forces. “NATO’s tactics are increasingly endangering the civilians that they are supposed to be protecting, and turning the local population against them,” observed Sam Zia-Zarifi, the Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.[xviii] Yet the foreign forces appear to have expended little effort to ameliorate the situation, as the rate of air attacks through the summer and into the fall of 2007 demonstrate: Close air support missions have been launched at a remarkably steady rate of about 40 per day.

 

The sheer danger of these air operations has not been lost on international observers on the ground. Human rights expert and UN official in Afghanistan Javier Leon Diaz, responding to concerns over mounting civilian casualties, expressed his opinion that NATO/US air attacks may constitute a “grave breach” of the Geneva Conventions.[xix] Here, Diaz no doubt refers to Article 51 of the 1977 Protocols, which bans “indiscrimate” attacks, defined as attacks which harm civilians and/or civilian objects “which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

 

Engaging (suspected) Taliban

 

While western military officials repeatedly affirm their desire to protect the Afghan population, at least one account indicates that NATO efforts to avoid causing harm to civilians are less than vigorous. Canadian military historian Sean Maloney, writing in Maclean’s magazine, describes a nighttime attack by Canadian Forces in Kandahar province: “Canadian artillery thundered to cut off and destroy the escaping enemy. Little was left to chance: troops knew the enemy had depopulated the area so there was little fear of civilian casualties.”[xx] Note that if Maloney’s account is accurate, Canadian troops relied on Taliban fighters to ensure the battleground was free of civilians.

 

Armed confrontations aren’t the only situations where civilian lives are put at risk, for “sometimes all it takes to be labelled a terrorist is a smart turban and pocketful of Pakistan cash”, remarks journalist Richard Foot. Foot writes of witnessing one such incident where a suspect was fruitlessly interrogated and finally let go. “For two hours, Canadians questioned, cursed at and threatened their suspect in search of answers,” he writes. “They bound his wrists and turned him over to the small unit of Afghan army troops who had accompanied the Canadians”.[xxi]

 

Sometimes Canadian troops go beyond curses and threats, according to correspondent Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail. Smith’s April 2007 dispatches, featuring a series of testimonials by Afghan prisoners, sparked what has been called the “torture scandal” by Canadian media; the term denotes torture of suspected Taliban by Afghan security forces, which caused quite a stir. But none of the barrage of commentary which followed from his reports made mention of possible abuse by Canadian soldiers. One of Smith’s sources makes precisely that accusation, however faintly: “Tila Mohammed, 18, said Canadians detained him at a farmhouse where he had been living and working as a labourer for a wealthy landowner. He claimed the Canadians kicked him a little as he was being detained, but added that the troops later helped him stay cool in the late summer heat by spraying him with water.”[xxii]

 

A similar lack of outcry greeted a pair of incidents nearly a year earlier. Following an August 2006 suicide bombing in Kandahar City which killed one Canadian soldier, Afghan journalists “reported being fired upon by the Canadians when they tried to capture video and pictures at the bombing site”, according to the Canadian Press. But the attacked journalists were the lucky ones that day, as a young Afghan boy was shot dead by jittery Canadian troops who had recently begun their mission in the country.[xxiii] However, the deputy commander of the Canadian mission assured everyone that the tragic incident was not the result of inexperience: “Initial impressions right now are the soldiers did what they had to do,” commented Col. Fred Lewis.[xxiv]

 

Dave Markland, a member of the Vancouver Parecon Collective, organizes with StopWar.ca and contributes to their blog chronicling Canada‘s war in Afghanistan: www.stopwarblog.blogspot.com



[i]Independent (UK), Jun 3, 2007.

[ii]see BAAG Monthly, Feb 2007.

[iii]Globe and Mail, Oct 17, 2006.

[iv]Toronto Star, Jan 4, 2007.

[v]Toronto Star, May 1, 2007.

[vi]Brookes Merritt, Edmonton Sun, Jan 29, 2007.

[vii]See Presse Canadienne, Jun 16, 2007.

[viii]Radio Free Europe (online), Jun 19, 2007.

[ix]Globe and Mail, Sept 11, 2006.

[x]Globe and Mail, Feb 26, 2007.

[xi]Frontline (India), Dec 3, 2005.

[xii]Globe and Mail, May 19, 2007.

[xiii]IWPR, Jun 19, 2007.

[xiv]See John Cotter, Canadian Press, Jun 26, 2006.

[xv]The Times (London), October 8, 2006.

[xvi]National Post, March 27, 2006.

[xvii]Independent, Jul 1, 2007. On civilian casualties in Afghanistan, see Dave Markland, “Media blind to civilian deaths”, ZNet, Jan 1, 2007. Also, see the work of Mar W. Herold at http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mwherold/.

[xviii]See James Ingalls and Sonali Kolhatkar, Foreign Policy in Focus, Jun 13, 2007.

[xix]See UNAMA press briefing, May 28, 2007; also Pajhwok Afghan News, May 28, 2007.

[xx]Maclean’s Sept 11, 2006.

[xxi]Ottawa Citizen, Apr 15, 2006.

[xxii]Graeme Smith, Globe and Mail, Apr 24, 2007.

[xxiii]Canadian Press, Aug 22, 2006.

[xxiv]Canadian Press, Aug 24/06.

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