On patrol near Kandahar: The dangers and the diplomacy
CBC News Online | March 7, 2005
The big Canadian presence in Afghanistan had been in the capital, Kabul. Now it's more than 400 kilometres to the south in Kandahar, which is Taliban country.
From The National
March 6, 2006
Reporter: Patrick Brown
Producer: Kas Roussy
Colonel Ian Hope, the commander of the Canadian Battle Group, and Regimental Sgt.-Major Randy Northrop give the final briefing.
They've been soldiering together for 20 years. Col. Hope outlines what to do if things go wrong.
"Throwing rocks (at) the carrier, no problem at all," he says. "Then, if there's trouble," Hope says, "Look to me. I will dismount. RSM (Northrop) will mitigate the rest of the column, any damage that's done to the column. Organize the column if there's no damage. Be prepared to move, dismounted, with me towards the threat."
One key to this mission is to reach out to local people.
"We're there for us to help them," says Sgt.-Major Northrop.
He reminds everyone what to do if things go right.
"They are not our enemy, the people that we will be engaging on these type of ventures. They're not our enemy. Don't give them the steely-eyed cold look, all right. They don't deserve it."
Heading north from Kandahar, the convoy passes construction crews rebuilding the road. It is a vital supply line for Canadian outposts and for Dutch troops that are moving into neighbouring Oruzgan province. The road is vulnerable to Taliban attack.
"The road here, the Tirin Kot Road, runs from Kandahar City, which is about 45, 50 kilometres to the south, to Tirin Kot, which is about 25 kilometres to the north," one soldier says. "Taliban leaders are in those caves. We know they visit this village. We know there are safe houses in some of these villages."
Today, Col. Hope isn't looking for enemies, he's looking for friends. There are frequent stops for meetings known as "shuras" with local leaders, trying to build bridges, discussing alternatives to growing opium poppies.
"I'm going to ask the district leader to identify which villages are growing poppies, which we can change to these fruit trees in the next three, four, five weeks," Col. Hope says.
The shura is interrupted by the arrival of a district security chief concerned that the men guarding the road construction are intruding on his jurisdiction.
"They should take care of their own project," he says, "everything else is our responsibility."
Col. Hope is keen to keep the peace between local rivals. "We need his security forces because of the Taliban," he says, promising to keep the road contractor in line.
In the middle, trying to help Canadian soldiers and Afghan villagers to find common ground, is the colonel's interpreter, Bashir, a former Vancouver teacher.
"I'm an Afghan-Canadian. By coming here, I actually do something for both countries. Yeah, I love this country. I want to do something. These people, they suffered a lot. I know what they went through," Bashir says.
People gather when the convoy stops.
When a Canadian convoy arrives for the first time, the villagers are sometimes suspicious, even fearful. But with several return visits, several long conversations over tea, and a few gifts, the welcome gets warmer every time.
The convoy makes an unscheduled stop to help out farmers with a tractor stuck in a dried out riverbed. This is more of a neighbourly helping hand than a combat operation, but combat operations will get nowhere if local people aren't on the Canadians' side. They got a chilly reception here a few weeks ago, for example.
"It was pretty cold, pretty wary, not very trustful, but little acts like this go a long way," says one of the soldiers.
By late afternoon, it's time to make camp and test the guns.
The day ends as it began, with a briefing about what comes next.
As night falls, sentries are posted, including the best sentry of all, the radar mast known as "the barber chair," which can spot anything that moves for 30 kilometres.
It keeps watch while the camp sleeps.
Area: 647,500 km sq. (same size as Manitoba)
Population: 28,513,000 (2004)
Head of State: Hamid Karzai
GDP (2003): $20 billion US (est.)
Exports to Canada (2003): $618,889
Imports from Canada (2003): $9 million
Median Age: 17.5
Life expectancy at birth: 42.46
Ethnic groups: Pashtun 42%, Tajik 27%, Hazara 9%, Uzbek 9%, Aimak 4%, Turkmen 3%, Baloch 2%, other 4%
(Source: CIA World Fact Book, Government of Canada)