INDEPTH: A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE|
A World of Difference: On Patrol in Kabul
CBC News Online | February 16, 2004
Reporter: Peter Mansbridge
Part I: Morning Patrol | Part II: The Last Patrol | Part III: High-Tech Eyes and Ears
PART I - MORNING PATROL
This is week one for the new Canadian rotation. Somewhere between 1,700 and 1,800 men and women are settling in, adjusting to their new lives, knowing because they did just arrive that this is perhaps the most vulnerable point in their mission.
Canada has the largest contingent in ISAF, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Most come from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier. They include a battalion group from the Royal 22nd Regiment, the famed Vandoos.
The Canadians patrol the largest area. It's also the most inhospitable territory with the highest potential for danger. Three Canadians have died. The mission for the men and women is to maintain security in the city. Kabul gets bigger by the day. Thousands of people are teeming into the city daily, largely because it is safer now.
The city, though, and its citizens have suffered terribly. Both have survived the Soviet occupation relatively intact, only to be reduced to near rubble in a civil war, and then ground under the Taliban's foot.
Today was an important test for many of the Vandoos in Kabul, the first day they were really on their own. We had the opportunity to join one group as they went solo off the base. By the way, as part of our agreement with the military's desire to protect operational security, there are certain things we can't say. Unit strengths, precise destinations and certain mission tactics.
It's 7 a.m. and a Canadian Forces light armoured vehicle is roaring through Kabul on the way to some of the city's outlying villages. Since the suicide attacks of last month, ISAF vehicles are moving more aggressively, not taking any chances. Outside the city, though, the pace is more relaxed. The military now insists that embedded journalists like ourselves on this day wear flak jackets and helmets while on patrol.
For Captain Alain Aub� of the Vandoos regiment, it's his team's first solo mission since arriving in Afghanistan just days ago, a chance to meet locals in the district where he's been assigned. For the locals, it's a chance to make a pitch for Canadian help, either for more patrols or, as soldiers keep a careful watch over the crowd, for help for local improvements.
"What do you think of all the soldiers here? All these Canadian soldiers?" Peter Mansbridge asks a young boy.
"I think they're very good people. They gave peace to Afghanistan and last week they came to my school and they helped in the school," he replies.
"There are kind of two types of patrol," Capt. Aub� says. "The presence patrol and patrol that we dismount. When we do a presence patrol, it's just to show the population that we are here on the ground to make sure that the security is in place. And when we do dismounted patrol, the main aim is to ask people if it's going well or bad and to get some hint like if there is a weapon hide somewhere, if there is a security problem somewhere, if they feel threatened."
The Canadians seem comfortable working the crowd, but by mid-morning, Aub� has pulled away. The head of the area's intelligence unit they call themselves the secret police wants a private meeting. Inside his house, he explains that men have been coming into town forcing people to hand over money, threatening to take young women from their families. The men, he tells Capt. Aub� through an interpreter, are heavily armed.
"They have about five or four weapons. AK-47," the police chief says through an interepreter.
"Can you ask him who these people are? Are they in the drug business, or what are they?" Mansbridge asks. "Who are they?"
"The man says they are Taliban, they don't live in the village but come in during the night," the interpreter says.
Captain Aub� says he'll investigate but wants a commitment for local help. "If the police cannot identify where it is, could you jump in with the patrol and tell me where that is?"
The man agrees, but then after conducting the whole meeting through a translator suddenly switches to English to make his final point.
"Because we have to do this job. We have to finish those people if you want to bring a rule of government to make the country, we have to finish those people," the chief says.
There are a lot of old scores to settle in this country. For Aub� and his team, the challenge will be knowing who to trust. But as he reflected on the end of his unit's first patrol, that won't be his biggest challenge.
"Within my platoon, I have 37 people under my command and I want to go home with all the people at the same time. But you have to do the mission, as well. That's the main challenge, to keep everybody here and go back home with the mission fulfilled," Aub� says.
That's the Canadian perspective, but different eyes see different things. Most in Kabul appreciate the security, but some don't welcome the more aggressive patrols inside the city.
Michel Cormier has more on the emerging signs of a backlash in Kabul:
Said Feroz makes his living driving a cab in Kabul. He was happy to see ISAF take over security in the city, but now he's scared of the growing troops.
Since the recent suicide bombings, he says, ISAF soldiers are a lot more aggressive. "If you show some sort of reaction, they point the gun at you," he says.
But what about the Canadians? Feroz says he can't tell them apart from other soldiers.
Three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the sight of foreign troops patrolling Kabul does not make all Afghans happy. Ahmed Shah runs a small convenience store. He says things are getting better for him, but that foreign soldiers have outgrown their welcome. "I think they want to be in Afghanistan, and they want to reinforce their own forces," says Shah.
For ISAF and Canadian troops, the battle for the minds and hearts of Afghans is a very delicate one. Its public face is friendly patrols in the streets of Kabul, its hidden side, night raids to capture suspected terrorists. ISAF goes to great lengths to say that these raids are headed by the Kabul city police, not its own soldiers, that local officials made the arrests, detain and interrogate suspects. The reason is to avoid the impression that ISAF is an occupying force, and to promote local security forces.
The latest raid happened last Saturday night. In its statement, ISAF said its soldiers supported the Kabul city police in arresting a suspected terrorist. The statement goes on to say that, "One person was apprehended and is being held for questioning by the Kabul city police."
But the police chief says that's not true. "The man we arrested on Saturday was taken in by ISAF," says this general. He was never in the custody of the Kabul city police. Not only that, his policemen only play a supporting role in the raids, he says. "And," he adds, he is not kept informed by ISAF of the results of the investigation.
After first saying the suspect was held by Kabul city police, ISAF now says in a subsequent statement that, "...details regarding the detention of the individual will not be released due to the impact that such information could have on security for all parties involved."
Well, Michel Cormier is with us now. Michel, this is your fifth trip into Afghanistan since 9/11, three weeks on this visit. What are your impressions as you get ready to leave?
As you just saw, it's hard to know what to believe sometimes even from the people on the same side, but it's a very complex place. On the one hand, you have a sense that things are picking up, especially here in Kabul. People are coming back into town, the economy is growing. At the same time, there are fears that al-Qaeda or the remnants of the Taliban are bringing their war back into town in the form of suicide bombings. People are taking more precautions now, so the big test will be in the spring and whether the UN will be able to hold presidential elections. The security is very tight in some areas, hard to do the census. This is where the fight is going on now for the hearts and minds of Afghans, and this may be the ultimate test for the time being.
You're off to Iran after finally getting a visa in there. Michel's based in Moscow but hasn't been home lately. Good luck in Iran, thanks.
PART II - THE LAST PATROL
It's a chilly morning here at Camp Julien. The sun is just coming up now.
This camp and the nearby city are nestled in the Kabul Valley. Over the last 30 years, through Soviet occupation and civil war, rockets and artillery shells have rained down mercilessly from the surrounding hills and mountains. Just one of the casualties in this wounded city, the imposing King's Palace, for 80 years the home of King Amanullah, now a haunting skeleton littered with mines. It stands as a silent sentinel over the camp.
All across this sprawling base, the changing of the guard. For soldiers on night patrol, it's time to rest. For others, it's off to breakfast as they await orders and briefings. Most are on their own now.
To prepare for this day, members of the newly arrived Vandoos regiment have been teamed with members of the departing RCRs, the Royal Canadian Regiment. It was a time for some advice, some parting thoughts. This weekend, we had a chance to ride along with one of the very last of those final patrols.
Lieutenant Rodsh Mik� is going home. After six months patrolling the streets of Kabul, it's time to pass the baton.
"The main occurrences of enemy activity today at Violet 2 on the route up to Camp Warehouse, there was an R.C.E.D. [remote control explosive device] that was found and confirmed," Lt. Mik� tells his soldiers in the briefing. "Intelligence assesses that there is the possibility of an ambush-style attack. Then they will attack us with small arms and RPGs. We're good to go."
Lieutenant Phillip Grandia, commander of the Vandoos "B" company is at the other end of the handoff.
Lt Rodsh Mik� of the Royal Canadian Regiment (Right) briefs Lt. Phillip Grandia of the Vandoos.
The message from the RCR lieutenant in the Iltis jeep is clear: the friendly touch is always on.
"Salaam!" Lt. Mik� calls out as he drives past.
Pedestrian etiquette on the other hand is out. Master Corporal Jeff Donaldson of the RCR is at the wheel today.
"You must be constantly vigilant, constantly aware, constantly changing your modus operandi, your tactics, your surroundings to defeat their surveillance," Donaldson says.
"I don't want to say police because we're not, but that's one of the things that we do." Lt. Mik� says. "A presence patrol can be very much for deterrence, so especially at night, it's more for the fact that although we don't see any kind of immediate result, we understand that in the long run, just the fact that we're outside, we're there, they see our lights, they see our presence, it can start to deter people as time goes on."
For Grandia, the incoming Vandoos lieutenant, a native of Kamloops, B.C., the sights and sounds of this very different mountain city are overwhelming.
"I'm absorbing absolutely everything," Grandia says. "There's a lot for us to take in. On the one side, of course, there's the beautiful mountains. It's absolutely amazing. On the other side, you see the way the people live, and it's the culture shock, of course, and it's very hard to adapt to."
As many of these patrols involve visits to local officials, this final patrol is a chance to announce the changing of the guard.
This time, it's a trip to a police detachment and its local colonel.
Lt. Mik� introduces Lt. Grandia to the police colonel.
"We try to link up with him [the police colonel] to either plan joint patrols, gain information, and especially it's a good method of cross referencing the intelligence that we get with the intelligence that the police are getting, for example," Lt. Mik� says. "So we can see how sophisticated their systems are, you know, are they getting information that we're getting? Are they getting different information? How are they evaluating their information and what they're doing about it. So basically all these kind of meetings just help us see at what level the police are, both professionally and just in the sense of what their activities are."
Back on the unusually snowy streets of Kabul, Lt. Mik� is spending his last few hours in the back seat of an Iltis jeep. The controversial vehicle, much maligned for its lack of protection for the troops on board, presents a dilemma both for the old and new crews. While they recognize the dangers, they're also keenly aware of the reasons the forces wanted these jeeps here.
"I don't think it has so much to do with the vehicle as the way we want to patrol, which means open and clear contact with the rest of the people and very face to face so that we can reach out and literally touch them if we need to, speak to them directly. And that gains a lot of trust," Lt. Mik� says. "You'll hear people talk outside that they have a lot of respect for us because some even say we're crazy. They look at us and say, you know, you're driving in the pouring rain when everyone else is going inside and you're doing that to provide a presence and help protect us, and they appreciate that."
"We just have to put ourselves in the mind set every day that there are things that are more important than being afraid of what's out there and that we should always not forget, not try to forget that those things happen or not try to think about them because we always have to be vigilant in our actions, but at the same time we can't let it overcome... we can't let the fear that we have overcome us," Lt. Grandia says.
"For our specific area, one of the main threats is on the mountainside. Once she starts to slope up, it tends to get very mined," Lt. Mik� tells Lt. Grandia.
"The fact of the matter is, you know, it's time to go home and I appreciate that, and as much as I would like to see some things done here, I know we'll be passing off to someone who is very competent to finish it off," Mik� says. "The other thing is that it may take some getting used to going back home. When you see all this sort of thing for six months, you get in a little bit of a mindset. So we'll have to go back and then just make sure we kind of ease ourselves in to it."
Well, joining us now, the commander of the men and women of Task Force Kabul, Colonel Alain Tremblay. Colonel, let's talk about this rotation issue for a moment because some people feel six months just isn't long enough, you're still sort of getting to know the area, and suddenly you're training another new group to come in and get to know it. Is six months long enough?
Colonel Alain Tremblay (Commander, Task Force Kabul):
Well, obviously we have a long experience with regards to those rotations and our deployments overseas over the past 10 years or so, even more actually. So there's a very, very elaborate protocol put in place that we're following allowing us to capture the bulk of the corporate knowledge of the previous people and allowing us to perform and continue and maintaining the momentum of the mission. But it's a compromise, obviously, because we have to balance the life of the people and the soldiers that are coming down here with the mission, and six months is what is just right for a deployment overseas with all the stress and the pressure that such a mission bring to the soldiers.
The other compromise, perhaps, is the Iltis jeep because you have that debate going all the time. You know, is it too vulnerable in terms of safety, or is it too valuable in terms of being closer to the people? Where do you stand on the Iltis?
Col. Alain Tremblay:
Well, there's obviously a lot of discussions around the Iltis. I've been personally operating with that vehicle for 20 years. It is a compromise; it is a compromise between force protection and the mission you have to accomplish. One of the key issues here is certainly to be closer to the population. In order to be close to the people, you need to expose yourself and this is a compromise you have to do. But the Iltis is also bringing to the theatre some characteristics that are quite unique. If you go in the back roads and patrol the areas that the Canadians have to patrol, there's very, very few vehicles allowing you physically to do those patrols. So it is a compromise between accomplishing the mission and the force protection, which is paramount in this case.
You mention the closeness to the people, we've heard a lot of the soldiers talk about it already, how important it is for them to have that opportunity to talk to the people on patrol. We've sensed here in the last couple of days, there's kind of a concern here in Kabul because the tactics have become much more aggressive on patrol, high speed through the centre of town, not wanting to stop in too many places, that that's having the reverse effect in terms of how some of the residents feel about the ISAF forces. Is this new aggressive tactic going to last for much longer?
Col. Alain Tremblay:
Well, obviously this is something that we have to balance actually on a daily basis. Depending on the threat assessment, we will take some more defensive and protective measure than other days, but I can assure you that as soon as we're going to be able to feel that the threat environment is stabilizing again, we will revert back to the modus operandi of connecting with the population because it is an essential part of the mission.
Last quick point. Many Canadians watching right now are looking at you and they're going, I know that guy, I know that face, and they're not sure where it was. Well, it was from Oka 1990, when you were a young major then just starting off and played a key role in what was a very tense situation there in helping resolve it. When you look back at the Oka experience, are there any lessons there that actually can translate to here?
Col. Alain Tremblay:
It's part of our professional background, and I can assure you that in my case, it was my first real operational commitment, and the leadership experience of having to be able to operate in a real environment was certainly something which is helping me today adding a better sense of how to perform and how to address the complex issues that we're facing on such a theatre of operation here in Afghanistan.
Colonel, it's been good talking to you. Good luck on the mission.
Col. Alain Tremblay:
It's a pleasure, thank you very much.
PART III - HIGH-TECH EYES AND EARS
Nothing can substitute for the kind of intelligence that can be gathered by working the dusty roads, through the eyes of a Canadian soldier on patrol in Afghanistan doing his part to make a world of difference.
There are about 1,500 Canadians at Camp Julien outside Kabul.
Each one has a story to tell. This is Major Andrew Zdunich's story. They are known as the "Rece" Squadron, more formally as the brigade reconnaissance squadron. On this morning, Major Zdunich is with just a few of the men who make it their job to be the eyes and ears of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.
From the dusty streets of Kabul to the hills above this sprawling city, I rode along with Major Zdunich to talk about the challenges of his work here as well as his own personal journey as a soldier and peacekeeper.
"We got a building here on the right that I find fascinating. It's a school. What I remark about this, and it makes me think about my service when I was in Africa, there's not a window in the place. You know, a bombed-out building but they're still doing all their classes," Zdunich says.
"It's not a safe country and it's not a safe town in the traditional sense. There's the mine threat. You never know who's going to peek out from behind any one corner. You know, with the incident that happened with Corporal [Jamie] Murphy [killed by a suicide bomber on Jan. 27, 2004], that happened in a road that was well-travelled and that we consider secure. So you just never know. That uncertainty is our biggest threat, and that's our biggest challenge."
For this military commander, reminders of war are everywhere, from the bombed-out buildings of recent conflict to 2,500-year-old fortifications that line the hills.
Through the centuries, Afghanistan has had its share of unwelcome foreign invaders, so, as far as it's possible, from the turret of his heavily armed Coyote, Zdunich is trying to present a different image.
"So it's very important when we go by in an armoured vehicle to make sure that we smile, we wave, we acknowledge the people that are there, especially when they wave to us, and show them that even though it's a big... you know, that it's this imposing presence coming by, that it's not an occupational presence. That it's there, it's a security thing and that we're there with them," Zdunich says.
A typical day for Zdunich means meetings with other commanders and soldiers from any one of the 30-odd countries in the multinational force.
Today it's a discussion at an observation post with the Germans on the safety of nearby roads. Besides the patrols, the reconnaissance major has other tools to help him track threats. Inside their vehicles, soldiers use sophisticated cameras to monitor their surroundings.
There's a new tool for the Canadian forces: unmanned aircraft that take off from Camp Julien to get a bird's-eye view of Kabul and its surroundings.
But nothing can substitute for the kind of intelligence that can be gathered by working the dusty roads.
"I get to do exactly what I want to do. I mean, look around you. This is my life. This is my career, my profession, and I can't think of anything else that I'd want to do, especially with the people that I do it with," Zdunich says.
He's already done tours in East Africa and Bosnia where he learned a difficult lesson.
"We'd always pass by and in the usual fashion you try to give candy and chocolates in a general sense. There was a little girl that was always there, that was more enthusiastic than the other kids, a really big smile, a really captivating smile. Her name was Holla. We always made sure when we handed out whatever we had extra that, you know, she always had a fair chance to get it.
"For a little while, this carried on. One time when we were going through the village, we noticed she wasn't there any more. The next time she appeared, she didn't come close to the vehicle. She was standing on the side. When she turned, we saw that the entire side of her face was bandaged and she was staying away from the vehicle. She wouldn't come closer.
"We found out later on, and I can't remember exactly how it was that we found out, but what had happened is the kids had seen that she was a little bit the centre of attention, and they burned the side of her face to make her less attractive so that she wouldn't be the one up front getting all the candy all the time.
"It's really hard to really put into words what it says to you. I mean, I remember me and my crew, we felt incredibly guilty because we didn't so much blame the other kids for doing it. We blamed ourselves because we put her in that situation. We created the situation.
"It made us realize that you want to help and you want to do nice things, but you have to put it in the right context and be careful when you do it. As we get ready for peace support operations, we need to educate all of our soldiers that that could possibly happen."
But Zdunich and his soldiers are still trained to fight, trained to spot trouble in a land where there is plenty.
"There's a nobility about it that has always been attached to doing military service. The fact that you put yourself... that you put yourself at your country's beck and call, so to speak, that there's this unlimited liability about what you do and that you have to do this in the service of your nation.
"I mean, it's because of people that have done that that we have the great country that we have today and to be able to be part of that profession, to me, it's a privilege to be part of that profession."
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