A year (almost) in Afghanistan: Tanks for the memories
The national news media had finally found something good to say about Canada's military mission in Afghanistan.
If they squinted hard, they could see the soldiers in a role the Press could accept. Nay, a role they could embrace and endorse.
The sympathetic stories poured out. Canada was being abandoned by its NATO allies. Canada was doing all the fighting and dying and needed help. We were pleading. We were desperate.
How sad. How beautiful.
There was Canada on its knees at the NATO summit in Riga, Latvia, begging for countries like France and Germany to lift the caveats that kept their troops out of the battle zones of Afghanistan.
Oh woe is us. Canadian forces are doomed. Doomed. The reporters couldn't get worked up enough.
And then the military just had to spoil it all.
The new Leopard tanks had arrived in Afghanistan and Canadian troops were joyfully testing them out, playing with their new toys and looking for all the world like warriors. Not victims.
It wasn't supposed to be like that.
When Canadians arrived in Kandahar province in February, we were going to be the counter-Americans. We were going to show them how it should be done. We were going to be nice. We would meet with the locals and talk with them. We would respect their customs. We would learn their needs. We would respect them and they, in turn, would learn to respect us. We would join hands and sing Kumbaya, together.
But on March 4, 2006, Canada lost its virginity.
Lieut. Trevor Greene was holding a shura, a meeting with the elders in the village of Shingai, 50 kilometres north of Kandahar. He took his helmet off and lay his gun down in a sign of respect. He had just asked if there was a school for the children of the village when a teenager stepped forward and drove the blade of an 20-inch axe into Greene's head as he shouted "Allah Akbar".
Sgt. Rob Dolson grabbed his gun first. He pumped six shots into the attacker. Capt. Kevin Schamuhn, the platoon commander, and Pvt. Matt McFadden were milliseconds behind him, riddling the teen with their bullets.
"Once he was down, I realized the three of us who shot him were all in the same stance, knees bent, weapon up. We just reverted to the Gunfighter Program training without even realizing it," Dolson said later.(The Gunfighter Program teaches the doctrine of rapid-reaction fire without using gunsights.)
Taliban attackers started shooting at the Canadians from a nearby riverbank and fired a rocket-propelled grenade, which missed its targets. Greene, to everyone's surprise, wasn't killed. He's currently mostly confined to bed, his recovery long and slow and the outcome still uncertain.
Schamuhn said it was apparent the attack was well-planned. Minutes before Greene was hit, all the children were moved away about a hundred feet. Immediately after the shooting stopped, the Canadians found all the young men and elders had disappeared. When the elders showed up the next day, they claimed they didn't know a thing about the attacker or the planned ambush.
"Everything I've been taught about Islam, everything I've been taught about the Pashtun code of honour, has just completely been defiled in a horrifying way," Schamuhn told CTV.
The Canadians learned that the Pashtun code of honour includes murdering your guests and lying through your teeth. They wouldn't be fooled again.
The Taliban made Canadians special targets. They were afraid of the American military, but they saw Canadians as weak and easily intimidated.
Canada was taking over the security mission in Kandahar province, the literal Ground Zero of Taliban support, and they openly bragged that they intended to cause so many casulties that Canada would give up and leave Afghanistan.
Their first chance came with the dreaded, fierce, terrifying Taliban Spring. Every year, after the mountain snows melt, the Taliban returns to impose its will on Afghanistan. This year was going to be worse--- much, much worse. The Press said so.
The Taliban were supermen. Armed to the teeth with new weapons from Iran and Pakistan. Flush with new recruits from around the world. Backed by thousands of suicide bombers trained in tactics honed in Iraq.What chance did we have? We were doomed.
Well, by the end of the spring, Canadian forces had settled into their bases where there had been no government presence for years. The joint allied forces were killing the Taliban at a rate of a hundred to two hundred a week, disrupting their plans to overrun districts. The British had started arriving in Helmand province next door. The Dutch were scouting their field of operations in Uruzgan province to the north pending their arrival in a few weeks. NATO had officially taken over control of security and development in the south from the Americans.
The fierce Taliban Spring was pretty much a bust.
No matter, the Press was already trumpeting the arrival of the fierce, terrifying Taliban Summer.
The Taliban were supermen. Armed to the teeth with new weapons from Iran and Pakistan. Flush with new recruits from around the world. Backed by thousands of suicide bombers trained in tactics honed in Iraq.
What chance did we have? We were doomed, according to the Press.
But by end of September, the British and Dutch had secured their own bases and Canada was the undisputed champion of Kandahar. The Canadian-led Operation Medusa in September resulted in the biggest Taliban defeat since they were driven from government in 2001. Almost a thousand Taliban were killed, hundeds arrested, and the power of the insurgency had been cracked.
Qari Mohammed Yousaf Ahmadi, the alleged chief spokesman of the Taliban, announced to the Afghan Islamic press Sept. 15 that Taliban forces had conducted "a tactical retreat" from the Panjwaii district in Kandahar province.
You remember the headlines:
"Taliban Turn Tail."
"Taliban Retreat Under Canadian Assault"
"Taliban Defeated in Panjwaii"
No? That's probably because THERE WERE NO HEADLINES.
Canada's clear victory in the corner of Afghanistan under their watch went unremarked in most of the Canadian press. So did the announcement in October of the medals awarded by the Governor General Michaelle Jean to four soldiers "who have displayed gallantry and devotion to duty in combat" during the tumultuous year.
- Sgt. Patrick Tower, of Edmonton and Victoria, received the Star of Military Valour, the medal just below the Victoria Cross.
- Sgt. Michael Thomas Victor Denine, of Edmonton, received the Medal of Military Valour.
- Master Corp. Collin Ryan Fitzgerald, of Shilo and Morrisburg, received the Medal of Military Valour.
- Pvt. Jason Lamont, of Edmonton and Greenwood, N.S., received the Medal of Military Valour.
Once we revered the values of bravery and self-sacrifice, values which inspired Canadians to overcome the odds against victory. Now, instead, the national news media attacked the military for even telling anyone how many of the enemy they were killing.
The Winnipeg Free Press railed:
"Canada's NATO allies have taken a decision that can only bring dishonour to the mission in Afghanistan. They have decided to resurrent a measuring of progress in fighting the Taliban that came to be seen as odious in Vietnam---they are reporting body counts.To some, these comparisons might sound like great victories, to others, mass slaughter. But either way, they really say little while raising false expectations that NATO forces are somehow invincible, while families of 34 dead Canadian soldiers know they are not."
When the CBC National (yes, that CBC) carried a series of reports last week on the military and the mission in Afghanistan, John Doyle, television critic for the Globe and Mail, went into a rug-biting fury.
"The CBC's obsession with the military bespeaks a diminution of journalistic standards that is reprehensible at any time, but the clear and obvious linking of the military with with the holiday season (note how he can't bring himself to say Christmas - ed.) is simply appalling. It sentimentalizes the armed forces and their action in Afghanistan.To sentimentalize is to fetishize under the guise of good feeling. To fetishize the military is to appeal to the authorities for respect."
How dare they? Respect the military? Hogwash.
Oh, wait, he added ( probably knowing he had gone too far): "The military command our respect."
But--- and there always is a but with people like him--- "The CBC doesn't need to drool over our soldiers at this time of year, self-doubt is still okay. Discomfort and disapproval, too."
We must doubt what we're doing is right.
We must be uncomfortable with fighting for democracy.
We should welcome disapproval.
The media mindset will not be changed. It doesn't matter that Canadians are accomplishing their goals in Afghanistan and preventing the Taliban from accomplishing theirs. We have to be losing. We can't win. Everybody knows that.
So the only numbers that count, are those that cast doubt on what we're doing.
Every story about Afghanistan mentions that almost 4000 people have died in this year in the fighting "most of them insurgents". But they don't say that last year (2005) about 1700 died, most of them insurgents. The additional deaths were almost all insurgents. Some Taliban resurgence.
The stories say that the Taliban has burned down 198 schools and killed 20 teachers this year. Last year they only burned down 150 schools. But Afghanistan has more than 4000 schools. Yes, many, if not most of them, are in tents or in the open air. The Education Ministry announced this weekend they plan to build another 1000 schools by March, 2007, with the help of the World Bank. There are 5.5 million boys and girls attending schools where there were almost none under the Taliban in 2001, and each student is a generation lost to the Islamic fundamentalists.
They won't all grow up to become soldiers fighting the Taliban, but they will grow up knowing that their freedom, and that of their children, depends on helping the authorities, on informing on the Taliban in their midst, and on supporting the international forces that have come to fight for them.
The Canadians are the spearpoint of those international forces right now. Kandahar is the battle ground where the Taliban expect to win or lose according to the latest intelligence estimates. Although they don't really care which.
"We will fight until we die. We don't care if we win or lose. Our only goal is to do jihad," the Times (of London) quoted a deputy Taliban commander in May.
So, with the help of the mainstream media, the Taliban announced an unprecedented, but still fierce and terrifying, Taliban Winter. They skipped the Taliban Autumn this year, maybe to give time to replenish the number of virgins needed in heaven for the new martyrs to come.
The Taliban Winter turned out to be a series of suicide bombings, including six in 9 days in Kandahar.There have been 100 or more suicide bombings in Afghanistan this year. In 2005 there were 26 according to the Pentagon (although some news accounts say 21, 17 and 11).
The attacks have killed about 280 people, including about 20 foreign troops. However if the death toll includes the bombers themselves, then the number of non-Taliban killed stands at about 180.
The detractors always point to the death tolls when they feel it helps denigrate the military mission. Why aren't we doing more to provide humanitarian aid, they cry.
The answer came at public hearings in the Senate in October.
Brigadier General Al Howard told a Senate committee that the military has been dipping into its own funds for development, $1.9 million, to pay for a variety of projects. The projects are underway quickly and completed as soon as possible to demonstrate the commitment of Canada to helping rebuild Afghanistan, he said.
But Canada has promised Afghanistan $100 million in aid, of which $10 million is earmarked for Kandahar province. And barely a penny has been spent. Why?
Because its in the hands of bureaucrats. CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, to be exact. And CIDA bureaucrats are taking their own sweet time to get going. They've been holding meetings with Afghan officials, followed by more meetings with village elders, followed by more meetings to discuss the progress of the meetings.
The Senators were aghast.
"The troops have been there for how long and we're waiting for funding from CIDA still? Why are we waiting," asked Sen. Colin Kennedy, chairman of the Senate committee on national security and defence. "The assumption we had was that the funding was taken care of."
Until the bureaucrats discover a sense of urgency, the military mission depends on the soldiers on the ground. This week, they were back at it. And they brought their tanks.
Afghan Army Takes Fight To Taliban's Heartland
Gethin Chamberlain, Sunday Telegraph,
The Taliban were out there, somewhere in the darkness to the north of the jagged peaks of Masum Gar, just the other side of the Arghandab river. They had fired one rocket. Now they were ready to fire again.
The light had faded about an hour earlier. Inside the compound only a few tiny chinks of light, spilling through the gaps in the doorway leading into the warren of vaulted underground cellars, betrayed the presence of the Afghan soldiers and their Canadian counterparts.
Suddenly, two huge explosions shook the night. And on the other side of the river to the north, where a moment earlier two men had been crouching down preparing the rocket, there was nothing left but the craters where the shells fired by the Leopard tank had detonated.
The Taliban are back. They were driven west from their traditional stronghold in the Panjvai area of southern Afghanistan by Afghan and Canadian troops in Operation Medusa three months ago. Now they have returned from neighbouring Helmand.
Afghan police and army commanders report that about 250 hard-core fighters have moved into the area, including men from Chechnya, Pakistan and Syria, and at least three suicide bombers are feared to be preparing attacks. The Afghans blame Pakistan for failing to secure its borders, but this was always the Taliban's heartland.
The Afghan army is determined to stop them and with the help of Canadian forces, it is finally taking the fight to the Taliban.
Afghan and Nato forces are to launch Operation Falcon's Summit - or Baaz Tsuka - against them in the next few days in an attempt to show local people their determination to defeat the Taliban. The Sunday Telegraph travelled with units of the Afghan National Army (ANA) as it geared up for a new offensive.
About 250 Afghan soldiers and a similar number of Canadians are dug in at Masum Gar - 20 miles west of Kandahar and scene of the heaviest fighting during the opening phase of Medusa - bringing in tanks and setting up heavily armed observation posts on the hills around the forward operating base.
It was from one of those observation posts that Afghan soldiers managed to locate the Taliban fighters on Monday night, moments after a rocket had been fired in the direction of the main base.
In the radio room of the headquarters, inside an old house set into the ground at the heart of the base, French, Dari, Pashtun and English voices spilled out of the radio sets stacked on the trestle tables lining one wall. Bare bulbs cast a dim yellow light across the room.
Over the radio came the message from the observation post that two men had been seen on the far bank of the river, apparently setting up another rocket. The Afghan signaller pulled on a cigarette while his senior officer spoke over the radio to the men on the hill.
In the Canadian headquarters about 50 yards away, they were also mulling over the information. The fighting had emptied civilians from the area; there was little doubt that the men were Taliban. The tank fired once, missed, and fired again. The second time it hit its target.
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Don't miss a heartwarming Christmas story from The Black Rod. Tomorrow.