Band Of Bothers

An Afghan Diary:
June 16-24, 2004

Days 1-2: Getting There

CFB Trenton is a 287 km drive from Ottawa.  The first 280 are no problem, but the last seven give me a little trouble.  Apparently I cannot read a map.  Thankfully the good people at Arby’s know where the airfield is in their town.

The terminal at Trenton turns out to be a check-in desk, a couple of waiting lounges and a metal detector, which means it is an airport without irritants.  There is no Sunglass Hut or kiosks of people trying to sell you Aeroplan cards.  On the other hand, there is no cafeteria and nowhere to buy a book, a newspaper or a magazine.

Our group assembles, a dozen in total.  We are eight university academics, seven men and one woman, ranging from a senior professor at the University of British Columbia to a smart young guy from the Maritimes who is about to complete his Ph.D. and who has been tapped to go into Sudan shortly as part of the UN mission.  There is also a historian employed by the Department of National Defence (DND), a senior representative of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and two escorts from DND.  Lane Anker, the civilian from DND who largely put this team together, is the youngest in the entourage, just shy of his 30th birthday.  Major Serge Quenneville, our military companion and the only one of us authorized to carry a weapon, will retire within the year.

We gather in a corner of the terminal to hear a briefing by an Afghani Canadian, a physician whose family fled his country and then returned.  The background thrum of air conditioning makes it next to impossible to hear what he is saying.  This much I do catch: Do not photograph women, do not make eye contact with women, do not smile at women and for god’s sake do not wink at women.  In effect, it would be prudent to treat women as if they were invisible, because every woman in Afghanistan has a husband, a brother, a father or a son who will misinterpret even your most benign facial expression.

He also mentions that traditionally in Afghanistan the “thumbs up” sign means “You’re a loser,” but the locals have come to understand that we Westerners mean quite the opposite by it and so have adopted our meaning of the gesture.  So, if we are speeding through the countryside and folks by the roadside show us the thumb, we are to interpret this as “Hooray for you” and not “Hello assholes.”

With an hour to go before departure we mill around.  The CIDA officer ducks out to buy a sack of candy suckers at Zellers, little presents for the kids we might meet in Afghanistan.  It is a beautiful day.  Way out on the tarmac there’s an aircraft the size of the Hindenburg with a wing span the length of a suspension bridge.  This is apparently the heavy lifting vehicle for the Canadian Forces.

In Afghanistan, half a world away, we have mobile cranes, two-ton trucks, armoured vehicles, refrigeration units in Atco trailers.  How did we get all that weight over there?  On a plane designed by the Russians and leased from the Ukrainians.

The terminal starts to fill up with some 30 regular troops rotating into Kabul.  Most of them seem to have been bussed in.  Only one has his family with him, a wife and two kids.  He and his wife walk through the parking lot hand in hand.

And then, minutes before we’re supposed to board the plane, these other guys show up.  There are 10 of them, maybe 12, I can’t quite tell.  They are dressed as though they’re on a package tour to a Cuban resort, or possibly have just come back from one.  They have sunglasses and baseball caps and flowered shirts.  Most sport sideburns, moustaches or a few days’ growth.  Apart from the fact that they’re all male, they’re a mixed bunch.  One is black.  One is short, Asian, with a shaved head.  One is a towering figure with a bull neck, like a Russian hockey player.  One looks like Owen Wilson, the movie star, right down to the dirty blonde hair and the broken nose.  They keep to themselves and don’t talk much, even to one another.

Who are these guys?  They can’t be oil rig workers because there are no oil rigs in Afghanistan.  I start to think of them as the Surfer Dudes, but there ain’t no surf in Afghanistan either.

We are cleared to board.  Single file, about 50 of us, we move across the tarmac to an olive green Airbus.  The two kids call goodbye to their father from behind a chain-link fence.

We fill the passenger compartment at the rear of the aircraft.  There is no assigned seating and I end up sitting in a row with three of the Surfer Dudes.  The flight safety video includes instruction on how to don your smoke hood in the event of a fire on board.  For the first time, I see the Surfer Dudes laugh out loud.  Being found dead with a bag over your head strikes them as funny.

Six hours later we set down and deplane briefly at Brize Norton, an RAF base outside London.  Smokers are allowed to step out of our holding room for a quick puff.  Not one of the Surfer Dudes smokes.

From England to Zagreb, and from Zagreb to Camp Mirage, which is in an undisclosed location where we set down for the night.  We are not allowed to talk about Camp Mirage, save to say it has a snake-handling kit prominently stationed outside the phone booths where troops can call home.

Day 3: Scorpions And Camel Spiders

Up at 4:30 a.m. at Mirage for baggage inspection.  Then our party troops off to be issued body armour and helmets.  In the midst of this, it’s discovered that there is no paperwork excusing us from carrying gas masks.  Not that there’s going to be a gas attack, but what if there were?  Bad publicity to have the academics asphyxiate because they didn’t have the right kit.  So we get gas masks too and learn how to use them.

The masks are slung in a pouch over the flak jackets and they are just another piece of equipment for us to fumble with.  (When we get to Kabul we will stash them in our tent and never touch them again until we leave.)  The flak jackets alone weigh 40 lbs and we’re not particularly dexterous in getting them on and off.  There is much huffing and puffing.  We have to help one another get untangled.

The jackets come in three layers.  First there is the fragmentation vest.  This, I gather, will prevent shards of a suicide bomber’s skeleton from penetrating our spleens.  Then there is a harness that holds two dense metal plates, each about the size of a hardcover novel, one covering the sternum, the other in the back.  This is the part of the garment that presumably makes the bullets bounce off.  Finally, there is webbing covered with pockets and pouches for storing knives, ammunition and whatnot.  Since we do not have any knives, ammunition or whatnot, I find the number of pouches just bewildering.  It’s impossible to remember where you put the sunglass cleanser.

Breakfast, then out to the tarmac.  It’s not even 8 a.m. but the sun is already like an acetylene torch.  Once again, there are three separate units ready to ship out.  There are the regular troops, looking unnervingly relaxed in their desert camouflage body armour and khaki Tilley hats.  Then there are the academics, trying to look nonchalant while on the verge of heat stroke in our Mountain Equipment Co-op cargo pants and jungle green flak jackets.  And the Surfer Dudes are back.

Some of the Dudes have changed into camouflage pants and brown T-shirts; a few are still in their Cuban resort outfits.  None of them is wearing a flak jacket and all of them are armed to the teeth with snub-nosed weapons quite unlike the regular issue.  On the ones who are wearing webbing, every pouch bulges with something and it’s not sunglass cleanser.

We all file out to board the Hercules that will take us to Kabul — first the regular troops, then the Surfer Dudes, then us.  As the line approaches the plane, a member of the flight crew asks each person who is armed to clear his or her weapon, to make sure no gun has a round in the breech.  The regular troops do so in turn, one by one.  The Surfer Dudes step aside as a group and clear their weapons simultaneously, just as we walk past.  Each of them is carrying at least two firearms and the entire exercise takes a matter of seconds.  On an incandescent tarmac in the middle of nowhere, it makes the most astonishing sound.

The Herc is a splendid plane, both stable and nimble.  A 40-year-old piece of technology – and the one we’re on really is 40 years old – it is the workhorse of the Canadian military air arm, shuttling people and equipment almost anywhere they need to go.  It’s not a bone-rattler.  For the most part, the ride is perfectly smooth.  It is, however, exceedingly noisy and more uncomfortable on the rear end than a colonoscopy.  Plugs stuffed in our ears, helmets on, we sit in canvas sling seats in rows facing one another, knee to knee.  If, on D-Day, Ike had ordered an assortment of regular troops, heavily armed beach bums, and geeks with doctorates to parachute into Normandy, this is what it would have looked like.

The back of the Herc by the skid door is piled high with gear strapped to the deck on palettes.  To my eyes, there isn’t a square inch of free space on board.  And yet as soon as we reach cruising altitude the regular troops get up and manage to find places on the floor to sleep.  They wrap themselves around cargo containers; they prop themselves up against hydraulic pipes.  The Surfer Dudes, meanwhile, somehow manage to lounge and nod off in their seats as they feel like it.  We academics adjust ourselves to the discomfort in our own way.  With the sling seats cutting off the blood flow to everything from the buttocks down, for the next few hours we ward off thrombosis by squirming a lot.

Every once in a while a member of the flight crew has to head to the back of the plane to check on something mechanical, stepping gingerly between knees and picking through the carpet of prostrate bodies.  Occasionally one or two of the Surfer Dudes will head back too, presumably to check on their gear, but they go through the rigging over our heads, like Spiderman.

Finally, the announcement from the flight deck: “30 minutes to the combat zone.”  Flak jackets back on, strap ourselves back in.  The flight crew don their own flak jackets and break out automatic weapons.  We have been warned about what is going to happen.

In the half-hour descent into Kabul, the regular troops have told us, the pilot will take sharp evasive maneuvers to avoid rocket attack from the hills.  It will be a technicolour thrill ride.  “It’s gonna be a puke-fest.  The first guy to throw up sets off a chain reaction.”  Oh goody.  Air sickness bags have been distributed.  We wait for the roller coaster ride of our lives and hope privately not to be the first one to upchuck.

It never comes.  There’s a bit of chop, and the plane seems to descend in stages, but suddenly we’re on the ground and outside in blinding daylight.  Behind a sheen of dust, mountains rise in the near distance.  Most cities have a transportation conduit running through their centre, a river or a railway.  Kabul is bisected by a mountain range.  Apache and Blackhawk helicopters rotor in the background.  Our gear is unloaded within instants.

We never set foot in the arrivals terminal.  We pick up our bags right there on the airfield.  The Surfer Dudes grab their stuff first and fast, then disappear in nondescript white vans.  We toss our luggage into the back of a Bison, a windowless armoured personnel carrier, then clamber into a convoy of four other vehicles for the trip through the city.  There’s much joshing about how our luggage is better protected than we are.  Actually, as we will discover, we couldn’t be more wrong.

We’ve been warned that traffic in Kabul is hairy, but it’s Friday and there aren’t that many vehicles on the roads.  Most are Toyotas and almost all are jammed with people.  It’s not uncommon to see seven or eight adults stuffed into a two-door Corolla.  Almost every building we pass has been shelled or raked with gunfire.  There are lots of people on bicycles, men walking hand in hand, women in burkhas, donkeys every 500 yards or so.

We have arrived during a season known as the 100 Days of Dust.  Kabul itself looks like the capital city of Arrakis, the desert planet from Dune.  Dwellings with mud walls carpet the hillsides.  There is no running water and no sewage system.  Children fill jerry cans with water from hand pumps and carry them up the hill to their households.  Sewage runs downhill in open channels to the main streets.  “If you see something that looks like water,” we are advised, “it isn’t.  So don’t step in it.”

We haven’t been given an itinerary for our visit, partly for security reasons, and we assume we’ll be staying at Camp Julien, the big Canadian base.  Instead, we pull into the Canadian annex of Camp Warehouse, an installation on the outskirts of the city that houses bases for the member nations of ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.

The Canadian annex houses some 440 troops.  It’s a series of tents that sleep eight to 10, a kitchen and dining areas, an Internet café in an Atco trailer, a barber, a clinic, an electronic warfare station (cordoned off behind chain-link fence and razor wire), a Canex selling products from Freezies to sunglasses, a beach volleyball court, a climbing wall, a gym, a ball hockey rink, a bar – the “Almost Dry” – divided into a section for the enlisted and one for officers, and a number of bunkers constructed out of what are called Hesco bastions, basically wire-mesh bins the size of oil drums filled with gravel.  The whole thing is enclosed by a wall with watchtowers and gun pits at the corners.

We unload our bags and get the drill.  In the event of rocket attack we will hear an alarm (“like nothing you’ve ever heard before”) and are to head to the nearest bunker with helmets and flak jackets on.  In the event of fire or incursion (enemy presence inside the camp) we are to sit tight in our tent.  The likelihood of incursion is extremely remote.  The camp is tightly guarded and the fences are equipped with electronic sensors.  Rocket attack, on the other hand, does apparently happen from time to time but the troops seem blasé about it.

It develops that some of us were not prescribed malaria pills before leaving Canada.  Tsk tsk.  They are ordered to report to the camp doctor, who in turn issues the pills.  Though there are no cases of malaria at Warehouse, there are two at Julien and the military is taking no chances with us.

Janine Krieber, the sole woman in our party, an expert on international terrorism who teaches at the College militaire royal just outside Montreal, heads off to her sleeping quarters and the rest of us lug our bags to our tent, which proves to be the least sumptuous – if that’s the word – of any on the base.  Those that house the troops who’ve been here for months have been divided by their occupants into compartments using hanging carpets so that they have some measure of privacy and can read at night without unduly disturbing one another.  Their tents are also girded by walls of Hesco bastions.

Our tent has no such protection, no compartments, a floor made out of wobbly plywood sheeting impossible to shim despite our best efforts, and is adjacent to the beach volleyball court so that when the wind picks up, as it does with unerring frequency, sandstorms blow through.  Within hours, our cots, sleeping bags and gear are coated in a fine particulate dust that cannot be dislodged.

When we arrive, it’s sports day and the troops are playing volleyball and hockey in 44 degree heat.  That evening there’s a barbecue at the Almost Dry – so named not because it’s the only source of refreshment in the midst of the dust but because the troops are permitted a ration of only two alcoholic beverages a day, beer or wine.  We are issued beer cards which the bartender punches each time we order.  We eat burgers and sausages and nurse our two beers.

We are joined by Brig. Gen. Jocelyn Lacroix, the Canadian commander of the Kabul Multi-National Brigade (KMNB), the international force tasked with keeping security in the city and surrounding area.  He asks if we had a new or experienced flight crew on our way in.  We have no idea how to tell the difference.  Easy, he laughs.  The new guys are the ones who take the vomit-inducing evasive maneuvers.

Lacroix is relaxed, impressive and forthright, qualities we’ll find are common among almost all the troops we’ll encounter, from the most senior officers to the enlisted men assigned to protect us.  He is clearly genuinely proud of what the Canadian military has accomplished here.  On the other hand, he is under no illusions about what confronts the international community in its efforts to help the Afghans.  Insurgency is ongoing, heroin poppies are the chief cash crop, banditry remains rife in the countryside, local warlords – the Mujahadeen who defeated the Taliban – are the de facto political authorities in much of the country, and the central government is as yet a tenuous entity built out of Byzantine cross-compromises and deal making.

As he talks with us the sun goes down and the Friday night movie begins, projected onto a screen mounted on the side of a cargo container on the patio of the Almost Dry.  The soundtrack issues from speakers at high volume, carrying across the camp and over the walls.  Since the movie is Blackhawk Down (in French, since the Canadian regiment currently on the ground is the 22nd – the Vandoos) the immediate vicinity reverberates to the sound of Arabic music, Hollywood explosions and gunfire.  Lord knows what the Afghans on the other side of the wall think is going on in here.

The general departs and with nothing better to do we stay at the Almost Dry, chatting.  It turns out Jean Martin, our DND historian, is missing his bag.  The Surfer Dudes apparently grabbed it by mistake at the airfield.  We now know who they are – as suspected, they are members of Joint Task Force 2, the elite Canadian commandos.  We imagine they are out in the hills somewhere, trying to garotte some al-Qaeda bad guy with Jean’s underwear rather than piano wire.

Between 10 and 11 p.m. we all drift back to our tent, amble over to the shower to hose the dust off ourselves, and settle down on our cots.  The Major pulls a pair of his wife’s pantyhose out of his luggage, cuts the legs off, and rolls them over the top of his boots to keep scorpions from climbing in during the night.

By now we’ve heard about the scorpions, and the vipers, and the camel spiders.  It’s the camel spiders that tend to creep us out.  They’re about the size of a kid’s baseball mitt, they can move at 30 km/hr, and they’re aggressive buggers.  They will lie in the dust until a camel passes over them and then they’ll jump up, attaching themselves to the underside of the camel’s belly.  First they anesthetize the spot where they’re about to feed, then they tear chunks out of the camel’s flesh.  Some of our party saw one advance on a guy back at Camp Mirage.  He stamped his boots threateningly to scare it off.  It scuttled round a cabin and came at him again from behind.

Since we’ve all had only about four hours sleep since setting down at Mirage, we all expect we’ll slumber long and soundly.  Fat chance.  Given the heat during the day we’ve been instructed to carry bottled water at all times and to drink continuously.  There are refrigerators throughout camp well stocked with water, although the heat is such that even refrigerated bottles are almost warm to the touch within minutes.  Though we dutifully drink during the day there is next to no urge to urinate: our bodies are absorbing the water.  At night, though, when the temperature drops, all the day’s intake of water seems to seep into the bladder.  One by one, and repeatedly, we get up to relieve ourselves throughout the night, stumbling over one another in the dark, rocking one another’s cots on the wobbly plywood floor, making the trip to the toilet tent while scanning the ground with flashlights, looking for camel spiders.

Eventually, I wake up for the last time at 3:30 a.m. and cannot get back to sleep.  I go to the Internet café to send an e-mail to my wife (better not tell her about the camel spiders) and check the situation in Afghanistan as reported by the Canadian media (a local governor in the interior has been deposed by a warlord unhappy that he has not been given a more prominent government position).  I make myself a hot chocolate in the empty kitchen open around the clock and sit in the dark of the Almost Dry patio smoking cigarettes.  I am not alone in my insomnia.  Others of our group drift in.  We talk to a Warrant Officer who says this inability to sleep is not uncommon upon arrival and may last days.  We ask him what he’s working on and he tells us they are trying to crack traffic in children’s organs.  I had always assumed these stories of children being abducted for their organs were apocryphal.  If true, this is beyond lawlessness.  This is incomprehensible evil.

Day 4: Our First Casualties

At 8:45, decked out in body armour we clamber into our vehicles for a quick tour of the rest of Camp Warehouse, which is the main base for the other nations’ contingents that make up the KMNB and the ISAF presence in Kabul.  There are 35 nations in ISAF for a total complement of 6,500 troops, but the two largest contingents by far are the Canadians and the Germans at just shy of 2,000 troops each.  The contributions of some other nations are more symbolic than substantial.  Iceland and Poland, for example, are represented by one soldier each.  Still, let’s not underestimate the value of symbolism.  It’s nice to see that the famously neutral Swiss are here, even if only with four troops.

As well, each contingent seems to bring a necessary specialty to the effort.  The Turks, with their 150 troops, provide the Blackhawks.  The 24 Dutch troops provide the Apache attack helicopters.

The Canadian annex is not a separate camp, but part of Warehouse.  And the European forces have no two-beers-a-day limit.  So it is perfectly possible, if one were so inclined, to simply walk from the Canadian annex over to European territory under cover of dark and visit one of the other bars.  Far be it from me to suggest that any of our party would do such a thing during our stay.  I can tell you, however, that the German bar is called the Drop Zone, the music in the Italian bar (the Flying Carpet) is for some reason piped in from Ottawa’s The Bear, and the Spanish cantina has a bus parked inside it that has been outfitted like a Moorish conversation enclave, with throw pillows and low-slung tables.

For our protection, we are being ferried around in G-wagons, the new Mercedes jeeps the Canadian forces in Afghanistan took delivery of in March, and a South African vehicle, a Mamba, that rides high off the ground, seats six in the back and has a turret for a gunner.  The Forces don’t normally use this thing as a personnel carrier.  More commonly it’s used in demining.  If a convoy has to go somewhere in a hurry, the Mamba takes the lead and the other vehicles follow in its tracks.  If it hits a mine, the deep wedge-shape of its armoured underchassis will deflect the blast.  The wheels will be blown off and the occupants will experience a ringing and enduring headache, but they’ll be alive.  It is the only vehicle in the Canadian arsenal that can withstand a landmine.  The Bison, the windowless armoured personnel carrier that took our luggage in from the airport, may look safer, but it isn’t.

Our conveyance may be designed to keep us safe from mines and suicide bombers but it can’t, alas, keep us safe from ourselves.  More than once the Mamba bounces over potholes and those in the back, sitting behind the rear axle, clatter their heads against sharp edges in the armour-plate roof.  Geoff Hayes, a military historian from the University of Waterloo, stands well over six feet and keeps forgetting it would be better if he sat toward the front.  If not for his helmet, he’d probably be in a head trauma ward today with saliva drooling out of the corner of his mouth.

The back door of the vehicle opens and closes with a heavy metal latch.  On the one brief stop on our morning tour round the European precincts of Camp Warehouse — barely 20 minutes into our first full day in Kabul — Brian Job, director of the Centre of International Relations at UBC, manages to crush his own thumb in the latch.  This won’t be the last time furniture will draw blood from our unit.  It’s a nasty injury, and to his credit Brian shrugs it off.  Jean-Sebastien Rioux, Canada Research Chair in International Security at Université Laval, has other ideas.  “When I tell this story, that thumb will be hanging by a flap of skin.”

A quick field dressing for Prof. Job and then it’s back into the vehicles and off to ISAF headquarters, where we are to be briefed by Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier, the Canadian in command of ISAF.  We are ushered into a conference room where a young, attractive blonde woman is waiting for us.  She steps forward.  She speaks.  She says “Hi Professor Dornan.  You taught me in first-year journalism at Carleton.”  (Later, George MacLean, associate director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, will cruelly observe: “Did you notice?  He went from Hugh Hefner to Mr. Magoo just like that.”)

The young woman is Catherine Phinney, Gen. Hillier’s political adviser, who took a degree in political science at Carleton before going on to graduate work in England.  She is not the only Carleton connection in the room.  Hillier’s son Steven is going into third year in my own department, in the Mass Communication program.

Afghanistan is divided by the international community into two halves.  The north is the responsibility of ISAF, which is running Operation Athena, a peacekeeping mission.  The south is the province of Operation Enduring Freedom, led by the United States, which continues to fight a war against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Hig, the latter being the militia of a particularly nasty warlord who has no specific religious or ideological agenda.  He just wants to run the country.  (The suspicion is that the attacks in Kabul province are mainly the work of the Hig.)  Hillier projects a map of Afghanistan overlaid with zones of Taliban, al-Qaeda and Hig activity, heroin production, banditry, warlord militias, and areas where there is no stable authority to speak of.  With the exception of the pocket of relative security in and around Kabul, it looks like a Venn diagram of danger.

The aim of the international community is to dislodge the warlords or persuade them to subscribe to a common good, disarm the militias, reintegrate the gunmen into a peaceable economy, contain and eradicate the narcotic harvest, establish the rule of a just law consistent with the traditions of a multi-ethnic culture and get everyone to abide by it, register the population for legitimate elections, build up a social infrastructure, train a professional army and a non-corrupt police force, and do all this without being seen and resented as an occupying force.  This in a country, remember, that has known nothing but war for the past quarter-century; a country whose last government was a hideously regressive regime that enforced an extreme perversion of Islamic creed at the point of an AK-47; a country in which the very concept of trust had been all but exterminated.

Can it be done?  Not tomorrow, but ever?  There is a reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires, and it could just as well be the graveyard of good intentions.  If the country has any hope of returning to peace and security, it’s going to require the long-term commitment of the international community and all the competence of people like Rick Hillier.  The best intentions are not enough.  We have to be able to implement them.  Which is why one aspect of the General’s presentation gave particular pause.  As he spoke, Canada was only weeks away from scaling back its presence from almost 2,000 troops to less than 700, and relinquishing responsibility for all sorts of key elements in the ISAF command structure.  And yet as he spoke the international community still hadn’t decided who exactly would replace the Canadians.

Kabul, we will be told, is actually a safer city than Washington, D.C.  That said, on June 16, almost around the time we were setting off from Trenton, the very installation we are now sitting in was the target of a rocket attack.  That evening, Catherine Phinney had gone into town without her driver to visit a friend, and when the attack came no one seemed to know where she was.  That brought a rebuke from the chief of security, who was compelled to remind her that as a blonde, Western woman and a prominent aide to the commander of ISAF, she is a highly visible potential target.

In the afternoon, we visit the Canadian embassy, where we are met by the ambassador, Christopher Alexander.  A tall, boyish redhead in his mid-30s, everyone speaks of Alexander with admiration and we can see why.  He is poised, articulate and instantly likeable, the youngest ambassador in the Canadian foreign service.  The embassy itself is located in the most upscale neighborhood in Kabul, but it’s still a dump for which the Canadian government pays through the nose.  In 1979, the population of Kabul was some 800,000.  There are now twice that many people jammed into the city, and with the influx of the international community rents and real estate prices have skyrocketed.  (An international aid worker will later tell us that he lives in a tiny apartment costing more than what he would pay in Manhattan.)  Then it’s back into the vehicles for the quick trip over to the ambassador’s residence.

If Catherine Phinney is a potential target Christopher Alexander is all the more so, and for the only time during our trip I can see our military escorts getting itchy.  Even I notice that a guy in a Mercedes seems to be tailing us.  We are urged to move with dispatch from the vehicles into the residence.  While we’re inside, our protection will roust the chap in the Mercedes.

The ambassador and his deputy, Eileen Olexiuk, have arranged for us to meet with a number of Afghans: an economic development officer, an entrepreneur setting up a cell phone company, members of the law faculty at the University of Kabul (who, in a country with next to no judicial system, have their work cut out for them) and the governor of the Bank of Afghanistan.

The governor cuts quite the figure.  A member of the technocratic upper class who fled the country and now has returned, he has a house in Rhode Island and is dressed impeccably in a designer suit and silk tie.  It is like meeting Omar Sharif.  He talks bravely of rebuilding the Afghan economy, but the academics are skeptical.  There once were factories that made shoes, textiles, bread, but all that was destroyed by the Russians and the war.  Now, the legitimate economy consists of some natural gas exports, subsistence farming, and small-scale production of furniture, soap and cement.  The illegitimate economy – heroin – may account for as much as half of the entire Gross Domestic Product, and when there is an industry that lucrative against almost no alternative, it is difficult to see how the country is going to right itself economically.

The governor also seems to be a hard-core neo-conservative.  The economic development officer talks proudly of gains made via a micro-economics program in which modest grants stimulate small business growth.  The governor dismisses the initiative because it is based on awarding grants, not interest-generating loans which must be repaid.

Ambassador Alexander offers an example of how the country might go about returning to a manufacturing economy consistent with its traditions.  He invites us to look at the carpet at our feet.  Its design is quite distinctive.  It doesn’t look like an Indian, Pakistani or Turkish carpet.  It is the product of an Afghani family who moved their business into Pakistan but who are now bringing some of their manufacturing capacity back home.

Unfortunately for us, the ambassador’s residence is air conditioned, and with the drop in temperature comes the need to go to the bathroom.  We’re rather crammed into the living room and as the ambassador is speaking one of our number, Rémi Landry of the Université de Montréal’s Group for the Study and Research of International Security, gets up to go to the john.  He has a bum hip and walks with a cane.  As he leaves the room, he bumps a table and spills a Coca-Cola all over the expensive Afghani carpet.

It gets worse.  Just as Rémi re-enters the room, the chair holding Mike MacKinnon, the young doctoral candidate from the Maritimes, collapses underneath him.  As he goes down he hits a dish, which shatters and cuts his forearm.  It’s not serious but it is a trifle embarrassing, though as usual Prof. Rioux has other ideas:  “When I tell this story, blood’s going to be gushing out a vein.”

Our discussions and the destruction of the ambassador’s living room having concluded, we are served a buffet of delicious Afghani food.  The ambassador has also thought to lay on a small lake of chilled beer.  Alas, Capt. André Berdais, the public information officer with primary responsibility for us, points out that whatever we drink here counts toward our two-beer limit.

Poor Capt. Berdais has a thankless job.  He has to get us from one place to another on schedule – so that we don’t keep our high-echelon hosts waiting – and in one piece.  He’s very good at it, but academics are a tough bunch to shepherd.  University presidents can’t get them to do what they want.  How are you going to handle a group who mangle their own thumbs in truck doors and shatter chairs just by sitting in them?

Back at Warehouse, the Band of Bothers continues to bond.  We do so in the time-honoured way of all military units: through merciless off-colour ribbing.  In a group of academics, what are the odds that at least one will be a sanctimonious stick-in-the-mud?  But we seem to be blessed.  In putting the team together young Lane Anker has done his job well and Maj. Quenneville is just the commanding officer our platoon needs.  The entire entourage is extremely funny, each in his or her own way, and we are having a whale of a time.  Much of the mood is set by George MacLean of the University of Manitoba and Jean-Sebastien Rioux of Laval, both of whom are gifted mimics.  We’ve also begun to notice that, for all our Goof Troop tendencies, at least two of us handle themselves with an assurance uncommon in your garden variety tweedhead.  There is a reason for that.

Rémi Landry used to be a Lt. Col. in the Vandoos.  He smashed his hip jumping out of one too many airplanes and is scheduled for hip replacement surgery only weeks after we return to Canada.  Hence the cane.  He is hard as nails.  And Jean-Sebastien has dual Canadian-American citizenship.  Before he went to university he spent three years in the U.S. 101st Airborne.  No wonder they’re the ones who had no trouble with the flak jackets.

Day 5: Buy This Carpet!

Once a week, the authorities at Warehouse allow licensed Afghan peddlers to set up a market for the troops just outside camp.  This is as close as we’re going to get to the real market, because we won’t be allowed to wander around downtown.  Probably just as well, because we’ve heard tell that at the big market on Flower St. you can buy a block of hashish the size of a suitcase for $10 U.S. and a round for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher for $50.  I’m not sure I want to be wandering around a market with those kind of wares.  It’s a long way from the Great Glebe Garage Sale.

The camp market is going to close today at noon because there’s a heightened alert and rumours of a possible rocket attack.  The market itself is a series of stalls selling jewelry, chess sets, knives, shawls, carpets, furs, wooden chests … and all of it pretty much junk.  You can even have a suit made, if what you want is to end up looking like Groucho Marx.  The vendors are a tad aggressive: “Welcome.  Look at my stall.  Excellent carpet!  Buy this carpet!  LOOK AT MY STALL!!”

An officer shows me one of his purchases, a DVD of Troy.  “Jesus,” I say, “that’s still playing in the movie theatres back home.”

“Yea,” he says, “and look at the packaging.  This is the real thing, not one of those knock-offs videotaped off a movie screen.”

I see him the next day and he looks sheepish.  “It was videotaped off a movie screen.”

Gen. Lacroix had told us he’d issued a vending license to a women’s collective, but all the vendors are men.  There are lots of kids, but all of them are boys.  What’s amazing is the kids’ ability to hawk wares in any one of a number of languages.  Remember, there are 35 nations in ISAF and these kids seem to be able to spiel in whatever language the customer speaks.  Meanwhile, back in Canada it takes 12 years of French immersion to master the passé composé.

With so many kids underfoot, Paul Turcotte, our CIDA officer, figures it’s time to dole out the Zellers lollipops.  Bad idea.  This is a guy who’s been all over the developing world and has experience at this sort of thing.  Here, he all but incites a miniature riot.  He looks like a tall man being dragged under by an enormous rugby scrum of Munchkins.

Once the last of the urchins has been forcibly removed from the pockets of Paul’s cargo pants, we head over to ISAF Psyops – Psychological Operations – which is run by the Germans.  I imagined Psyops as some Machiavellian nerve centre running mind games on the locals.  In fact, what they do is publish a newspaper – in Dari, Pashtu and English – produce spots for Afghan TV, try to convince the kids to turn in their toy guns, distribute kites with the ISAF logo (clever branding that – the kite is a traditional toy in Afghanistan but was banned by the Taliban) and poll the local population to within an inch of their lives on how ISAF is doing so far.

Next, there’s a briefing by Col. Richard Giguere, Chief of Staff to the commander of the Kabul Multi-National Brigade.  A tremendously amiable soul with a ready laugh, Col. Giguere is not only a soldier and an administrator but an intellectual.  The mandate of the KMNB is to bring security to Kabul.  The colonel parses the concept.  What exactly do we mean by “security”?  If we mean safety from threats, what kind of threats?  Is a country without a functioning economy “secure”?  A country without a civil society?  A country whose land has been overgrazed, deforested and stripped of topsoil?  We are listening to a political philosopher with a pistol strapped to his thigh.

Then we’re treated to a crash course in the pragmatics of multilateral intervention.  Of necessity, Kabul has been divided into areas of operation for which different countries have responsibility.  But different countries have different rules for what their military can and cannot do.  Even the zones of operation have their absurdities.  Canada has responsibility for a village which, on a map, looks as though it’s perfectly within our designated area.  But in reality, to get there our troops have to leave the Canadian zone, get permission from one of the international partners to traverse their area of operation, and double back in.  Literally, you can’t get there from here.  That’s Afghanistan for you.

Day 6: Corn Dogs And Chowder

Enough about peacekeeping.  Time to hear how the war is going.  We head over to CFC-Alpha – Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan – for a briefing from the U.S. commanding officers.

Just like ISAF HQ, the American HQ is bustling with armed, uniformed personnel.  But there’s nothing threatening about ISAF.  It’s as though the ISAF people are highly efficient, weaponized civil servants.  CFC-Alpha feels … well, more like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.  Whereas the ISAF mission occupies the complicated terrain of nation-building, the mission of the U.S.-led coalition is much blunter: defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and deter the re-emergence of terrorism.

Which is not to say the Americans aren’t smart and impressive in their own way.  The enemy, we’re told, has changed his tactics.  He used to engage coalition forces using large formations of 100 or more in rural areas.  That didn’t work out for him.  Now he’s operating in small units of six or seven in urban and rural areas, targeting the Afghan government, the United Nations and humanitarian organizations.

In many respects, the Americans confirm what we have been told by ISAF, namely that security is threatened not so much by terrorism as by a general lawlessness in a country with no judicial traditions, no effective police force, and in which almost everyone has an RPG and a grudge against someone else.

Like ISAF, the U.S. coalition is concentrating on what is known as DDR: getting the warlords’ militias to Demobilize, Disarm and Reintegrate into a non-combative society.  The problem is that, as yet, there is little for them to reintegrate into.  One U.S. officer goes so far as to suggest that the aggressive focus on DDR and busting the narcotics trade may be counter-productive, because it will only lead to more instability.  The end result will be a bunch of ex-poppy farmers with no livelihood and trained thugs with no masters who turned in their rusty Kalashnikovs but kept the good ones at home.

In a clear echo of what we have been hearing from the Canadians, he argues that the focus needs to be on governance: judicial reform, rule of law, a banking system, a civil service, trained police.  Then one can go after the drugs and the warlords, because then the people can be presented with an alternative.

As intelligent as that analysis was, we are then allowed to watch a CFC press briefing, which is enough to curdle the brain.  Held outdoors at noon in an unshaded grass courtyard – probably the most expensive piece of lawn in Kabul – it is like listening to Pravda.  A robotic U.S. military spokesman stands behind a podium and drones about how the government of Romania has donated 15 trucks to the brave people of Afghanistan to help in ridding them of the scourge of the opium poppy and yadda yadda.  One soundman from a Western news agency is so disinterested in the press conference he is reading a novel as he is recording it.  I swear to god the second question asked during the Q&A is “Why do you insist on holding these press conferences outdoors at noon?  It’s sweltering.”  And that question comes from a member of the local media.

With that as food for thought, it is time for lunch.  The food we’ve had thus far in the Canadian mess has been pretty darn good.  A typical lunch at Warehouse might be a choice between chicken curry, penne pasta and pork chops.  On the Americans’ turf, we are served corn chowder (not bad, admittedly), grilled cheese sandwiches (congealed), and corn dogs on a stick (egad).  I know an army travels on its stomach, but a steady diet of that sort of stuff and you’d have no choice but to travel on your stomach.

Still hungry or now bloated, depending on whether we ate what was offered or pushed it around on our plates, we head into the countryside to tour a sample of CIMIC – civilian-military co-operation – projects.  Traditionally, the humanitarian agencies don’t like to get too cosy with the army.  They don’t want to be “militarized” and one can understand why.  However, in a conflict zone it does no one any good if the aid workers are unprotected targets who wind up dead.  So in Afghanistan there has been collaboration between ISAF and the organizations sponsored by CIDA.

This time we leave the Mamba behind and go out in G-wagons.  The troops are very happy with the G-wagons, let me tell you.  For a start, they go like a bomb (forgive the expression) and they will go almost anywhere.  We barrel down narrow country roads bounded by mud walls, routes that would be impassible to the U.S. forces.  Their Humvees are too wide.

This current generation of G-wagon is not perfect.  It doesn’t have a turret for a gunner and you can’t roll down the bullet-proof windows, so if someone starts shooting at you it’s impossible to shoot back.  The troops don’t like not being able to shoot back.  The newer models, however, will have a turret.

We visit a water station, a reservoir, a school, a well – all made possible by CIDA.  The well and reservoir are high in the hills outside Kabul.  Just to drive home the point that this is a country littered with landmines and anti-personnel devices, in the space of 15 minutes we hear two distant explosions echo through the hills, probably mines triggered by goats.  Where there are goats, however, there is a goatherd, usually a 12-year-old boy.  Zipping around in the past few days we’ve seen too many kids with only one leg.

Day 7: The Boy With The Bad Heart

We’re on the move, relocating to Camp Julien for the duration of our stay.  (Or, as the Canadian civilian employees of the ISAF newspaper called it, Camp Jail-ien.  At Julien there are no European bars tantalizingly within walking distance.)

Compared to the Canadian annex at Warehouse, Julien is massive.  In sheer area, it’s almost the size of the Carleton campus.  It’s also extremely well designed and constructed.  And our tent – luxury!  It’s identical to our tent at Warehouse except that there are mattresses for the cots, the floor doesn’t wobble, and there are reading lamps and small fans hanging off the walls.  It’s the little things that make all the difference.

And it has a hell of a view.  Julien is located on a plain between the King’s Palace and the Queen’s Palace, two enormous, grandiose buildings that are all the more imposing for having had the crap blown out of them by the Taliban.  They bracket the Canadian contingent as relics of a war we are lucky never to have witnessed.  Why do we stand on guard?  So that something like that never happens to our home and native land.

Unpack and off to a briefing on the operations of the Recce squadron.  These are the troops who carry out the “door-kicking” missions, trying to put the arm on the bad guys.  Turns out the spearhead of our Recce operations – the guys first in through the door – are 14 Slovenian special forces who have trained with the British SAS and the U.S. Navy SEALS.  The officer conducting the briefing is a huge fan.  Apparently the Slovenians needed to practice jumping out of helicopters, but they didn’t have any helicopters.  So they jumped off the roofs of two-ton trucks moving at 30 km/hr.

The Recce squadron also supports the Canadian Medical Outreach Team, which heads into the countryside to do what it can for villagers in the region.  As it happens, the team is out in the hills this very day.  Later in the evening I will meet Steve Thorne of Canadian Press, who tells me that the team examined a little boy with a badly damaged heart who will certainly die without proper medical attention.  The decision has been taken to fly him to Ottawa to be treated at CHEO.  Within days of our return home this young boy will be a national news story and a household name in Ottawa.

In the afternoon we split up into two groups and head out in the G-wagons.  One group visits a school and goes on foot patrol through a village.  Our group visits the King’s Palace, where we see the room where a suicide bomber planning to detonate himself inside Julien miscalculated and blew himself up.  He’s still there, in the form of scorch marks on the walls.  We also visit a school, and a bizarre structure perched up in the hills that used to be the Soviet officer’s mess but looks for all the world like the headquarters of a Bond villain.

Wherever we go, kids run out to see us and give us the thumbs up.  I still can’t quite tell if they are happy to see us or not, or what they mean by the thumbs up.  They definitely want things.  In a climate this hot, dry and dusty, to them our wealth of water probably borders on the obscene.  Everywhere, they ask for our water bottles.

Cruising through a little village, a knot of kids runs up to greet the passing jeeps.  They are all smiling, but I see one little boy, maybe nine years old, surreptitiously pick up a rock to throw at us as we drive by.  He sees me notice him, his smile fades – he’s been caught — and for a few short seconds we just look at one another.  He never throws the rock but neither does he drop it.  That, for me, captured the problem of the international presence in Afghanistan in a nutshell.  Either we get to the point where it never occurs to them to pick up the rock in the first place, or sooner or later they’re going to start throwing them.

But hey, we have our own problems.  At dinner that evening I’m seated between a francophone officer in the Vandoos and a Corps Engineer from Alberta.  We’re in the midst of an election back home and our conversation turns to the campaign.  I mention in passing that a member of our party, Prof. Krieber, is the wife of Stéphane Dion.  The francophone officer’s eyes narrow.  “He’s a traitor.”  The Albertan engineer allows that Stéphane Dion is one of only two federal politicians he admires.  Ah, a little taste of Canada on the opposite side of the globe.

Day 8: The Black Durango

We take another casualty, this time a serious one.  There are germs about and we have been instructed to wash our hands frequently.  Prof. MacLean has been probably the most fastidious of us, but he’s the one who comes down with the ailment whose symptoms are best left to the imagination.

Feeling faint, he reports to the field hospital.  Just as he approaches the admitting desk, he realizes he needs a toilet pronto.  He asks the nurses on duty where he might find the nearest one.  Not realizing he’s in distress, they point him outside.  He discovers to his alarm that it’s a Port-a-Potty, but by now he has no choice.  The temperature in there is stifling.  He starts to lose consciousness.  It occurs to him that if he passes out no one will find him for hours.  He will die of heat stroke and a gut virus, and his coffin will be an upright plastic outhouse.  He rallies himself long enough to stumble back into the hospital where they take one look at him and jam an IV into his arm.

He has contracted the Norwalk virus and will go through three IV bags in the hospital before he’s released.  Professor Rioux: “When I tell this story …”  As bad as it is, there’s another patient in there with two spider camel bites on his chest.  The spider managed to get into his sleeping bag in the night, crawl under his shirt, and take two gouges out of him.  Apparently the medics had a devil of a time extracting the mandibles.

Meanwhile, the rest of us troop off to have a look at the UAV, the unmanned reconnaissance vehicle that’s been so much in the news.  Back home, everyone seems to think it doesn’t work because it crashes all the time.  In fact, according to the artillery crew who operate it, it’s “a sweet piece of kit.”  Yea, a couple of them crashed.  But it’s a new technology.  Test pilots crash all the time.  And there is no truth to the rumour that one of our UAVs landed in President Karzai’s compound.  That was one of the German UAVs.

The machine itself looks like a super-sized radio-controlled airplane, which I suppose it is.  It’s a million-dollar-plus machine, but most of that cost is in the payload – a nest of sophisticated cameras and global positioning systems in a bubble in the nose.  Once aloft, fired from a truck-mounted industrial-strength slingshot, it flies on a two-stroke Bombardier engine.  It is basically a snowmobile with wings.  So if it crashes, big deal.  As long as the payload isn’t damaged, and it has air bags to protect it.

The gulf between the impressions on the homefront of the Canadian military and the reality in the field is worth mentioning.  I suspect most Canadians by now accept that our forces are under-resourced, ill-equipped, demoralized and therefore unable to do what is asked of them.  That may be true in the big picture, especially if they are called upon to do too much, but in Afghanistan, at least, the troops are well-equipped, well-housed, well-fed, know exactly what’s expected of them and are very good at their jobs.

The German army, by comparison, is a conscript army.  Its enlisted troops serve for nine months in national service.  That means they get three months training and then suddenly they’re in Afghanistan.  Even the vaunted U.S, army is staffed in the main by people who are 20 years old.  Canadian troops, by contrast, are older.  They are 26 or 27.  Many of them have been in Bosnia and Haiti.  They know what they’re doing.

And not a few of their leaders are charismatic individuals.  On our last full day in Kabul, we are briefed by Col. Alain Tremblay, the man in charge of Camp Julien.  Most of our military briefings have been conducted, of necessity, in conference rooms.  Col. Tremblay ushers us into vehicles and drives us up to the Queen’s Palace so that we can look down on the camp while he fills us in.

There is a parapet around the palace with a straight drop 40 feet down.  For the most part, this is hemmed in by a balustrade.  But there is a section of the balustrade that has been blown away.  Tremblay stands exactly at that section, his heels half an inch from the edge with the sheer drop behind him, while he talks to us for 30 minutes.  He does so as a means of getting our attention.  Believe me, it works.

He has slung across his chest a jet black machine gun unlike any we have seen before, even on the Surfer Dudes.  Eventually we have to ask him about it.  He explains that it is a weapon used by the Canadian navy.  In his position, he has to get in and out of vehicles often and quickly, so he needs a gun with a short barrel.  It’s a nice rationale, but even we can tell he carries it because it’s distinctive.  Plus it matches the colour scheme of his vehicle.

As the commanding officer of Camp Julien he is presumably also a target.  By all rights, he should move around as inconspicuously as possible.  Instead, he travels in a black Durango.  I can’t imagine there are many other black Durangos in Kabul.

If I weren’t too old and too painfully unsuited for the job, this is the kind of guy who would make me want to enlist.

Day 9: Heading Home
I never do get over my insomnia.  On our last morning, I’m up at 4:15.  And then, in the half-hour ride to the airport in the Bison – a notoriously uncomfortable vehicle – I sleep the whole way.

Col. Giguere shows up at the airport to bid us goodbye.  He presents us all with military maps of Kabul province.  Jean Martin’s, because he has a security clearance as a DND historian, is classified.

We file on board the Herc along with regular troops rotating out.  By now we don’t look like geeks or greenhorns anymore.  The dust is ingrained in our clothes.  We drop into the sling seats as though we’re used to them.  On the way out, the pilot takes evasive maneuvers, swooping back and forth about 200 feet off the deck and then abruptly pulling straight up.  It’s fun.

As soon as we get to cruising altitude, we take off our helmets and stack our flak jackets in a confined space without being told and without consulting one another.  Rémi Landry starts reading The Origin of War by Donald Kagan.  Jean Martin pulls out his map – stamped “ISAF Restricted” – and pores over it.  Paul Turcotte, who has a pilot’s license, is invited onto the flight deck and into the pilot’s seat and to all appearances seems to be flying the plane.

Eventually, we catch some of the regular troops eyeing us the way we once eyed the Surfer Dudes.  Who are these guys? eg