What I Saw On My “Team Canada” visit
Words cannot adequately describe the poverty and desperation of the Afghan people that I witnessed when I traveled to Afghanistan in March for a week long Team Canada tour to spend time with our Canadian soldiers. I didn’t realize how focused their mission was on improving the quality of life for these people, especially the women and children, trying to turn the tide of violence that has permeated their history for most of the 19th century.
Canada has a long history of helping people around the world; Bosnia, Cypress and Somalia to name a few. It will take generations to complete the task at hand in Afghanistan, I’m told, and will not be completed by the time we are scheduled to pull out in 2011.
The first order of business upon arriving at Kandahar Airfield (KAF) was a briefing from task force commander Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance about the mission’s objectives and overall progress. A major focus of the Canadian mission is humanitarian. Our troops are there to help establish some democracy and decency to the Afghan people, mostly women and children, he said.
Afghanistan has been a battleground for a series of wars starting in the mid 1800s between Britain and Russia, and more recently in the late 1970s with the Russian invasion. The countryside is still littered with old Russian tanks and various hardware.
When you look at the country’s position on a map you start to understand why Afghanistan is so important to the region’s stability. It’s land locked and shares borders with six countries, including Pakistan, Iran and China. As a buffer zone, it becomes critical, especially when you’re concerned about nuclear nations like Iran and Pakistan.
General Vance explained that the physical location, wedged between countries that basically hate each other, is the main reason that Canada and the coalition forces are spending so much effort to stabilize the country. The main concern is if either Iran or Pakistan invaded, it would potentially create a very unstable region and both countries have nuclear technology. Unlike the U.S. and Russia, which posture with their nuclear weapons, these two might actually use them.
The theory is that by our hands-on efforts in the remote villages, the goodwill can win them over from the Taliban. In a country with such deep poverty, many of the villagers are still loyal to the Taliban. Small monetary payments or death threats to their families is enough to keep control of certain pockets of the country.
In villages where troops have penetrated and set up goodwill missions, progress is evident. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough troops to cover all the places that need work so they have to move around, often getting deployed elsewhere before completing their task and allowing the Taliban to gain back control when they turn their backs. Still, these small successes can grow and work their way back into the large cities like Kandahar, which is a Taliban stronghold and very difficult to penetrate.
Just outside the Kandahar base on the edge of Kandahar city is one of the PRT locations. A local police headquarters and school are two of the main projects undertakings there. Guided by General Walt Natynczyk, chief of defence staff, I was able to see a new school project built to allow girls to gain access to an education. Still such an accomplishment can be overshadowed by horrendous incidents of violence, such as last November’s battery acid attack by Taliban militants on a group of female students.
General Natynczyk also took us to visit a local Afghan village “outside the wire” and meet some of the children. Their handler used candy as an incentive for them to assemble by the school. Their ages ranged from five to 12 years, and the segregation between boys and girls was evident. The girls were trembling, with their faces partially covered by their burkas but peeking now and then to see their special visitors, and the boys were openly cocky, not shy at all to jump into position for a picture.
A main focus of the Canadian mission is to develop equal rights for women. One soldier based on the PRT explains how Canadians have set up a special market day each month exclusively for Afghan women, giving them an opportunity to share in the profits. One market is located just outside the security gates at the edge of the village and another on the perimeter of the Kandahar base. There wasn’t a market day while I was there, but the soldiers told me they sell a lot of carpets. The main buyers are military and civilians who are part of the operations there.
Another opportunity for an “outside the wire” trip brought me to FOB Wilson in the Zhari district of Afghanistan. Due to the extreme risk of improvised explosive devices (IED) on the roads, all of the travel off the main base was done via helicopter. Once landed, I had the opportunity to try a little target practice on the shooting range. This involved climbing over the wall of the base and venturing into the countryside.
As soon as we starting firing weapons, about 10 Afghans started making their way towards us. I was amazed at their boldness and total disregard for danger as they moved towards our firing area. A soldier explained that the approaching Afghans, mostly women, are so desperate for money that they are trying to gather up our empty shell casings to trade in the village for a few pennies. When the soldiers pushed them back, they started screaming at us in their native Pashto language. It was time to climb back over the wall into the relative security of the base.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CNN in a March interview that the war in Afghanistan is “unwinnable.” I understand why he would make such a statement. Progress towards ridding the country of the Taliban insurgents has been painfully slow and the cost in Canadian lives had been substantial with no end in sight. Many of the soldiers I spoke to know that they are making small improvements to a large problem and it will take generations to correct this mess — and is certainly not possible before the scheduled departure in 2011.
On the other hand, it’s a proverbial kick in the face to the soldiers who are working so hard to make things better to hear their Prime Minister make a statement like that. They are making a difference especially in the areas dealing with women and children and take great pride in their efforts.