My first week back: Rocket attacks, bustling markets, TGIF

Derek Stoffel on the everyday life of Kandahar City and the Canadian base just outside it.
Canadian soldiers and a handful of civilians shelter in a bunker following rocket attacks at Kandahar Airfield on Friday, Jan. 29, 2010. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press)

Monday Jan. 25 — You'd think that the walls of concrete, barbed wire and guard posts would be enough to keep the bad guys out.

Well, it seems that security here on base at Kandahar Airfield has been jacked up in the last few days, because of the potential threat of a suicide bomber.

So, it means a new level of security for everyone on base — and there are about 20,000 right now — soldiers, civilian cooks and contractors, and a few of us journalists.

Normally, you can walk almost anywhere on this sprawling and dusty base.

But now, you need to carry your NATO ID everywhere. Soldiers in full "battle rattle" (flak jackets and helmets for those not up on the lingo) meet you every place you go.

Want to go to the gym in the morning? Bring your ID. Step out to the PX (the base store) for a Coke and some beef jerky, bring your ID.

Based in Toronto, Derek Stoffel covers southern Ontario for CBC National Radio News. He has also reported extensively from abroad, including stints in London, Washington and Normandy, France.

This is his fourth tour in Afghanistan. 

This is my fourth assignment to Kandahar and I've never seen on-base security like this.

Not sure where the intel about a potential suicide bomber came from, but it's just one of the reasons for the extra security.

The other came crashing down late Sunday night.

A rocket was fired from outside the KAF fence and left eight Bulgarian soldiers injured. It also came pretty close to the visiting Bulgarian defence minister.

Now, rocket attacks are pretty common here. Most of them don't come anywhere close to hitting anything. Sunday's rocket is a reminder that even behind the wire on this big base, with all its security and soldiers and alarms and states-of-readiness, there are still risks.

Tuesday, Jan. 26 — Took a break from the dining facility (or as it's known here, the D-FAC) and hit another place with a more famous acronym: TGIF.

Yes, Thank Goodness It's Friday's, the American restaurant chain dressed up in red and white, has opened it's latest location right here in the middle of the Afghan desert.

OK, the Kandahar branch of TGI-Friday's, as the chain likes to call itself now, is actually right in the middle of Kandahar Airfield, the sprawling air base that is home to the majority of Canada's soldiers stationed in Afghanistan.

The comforts of home? Not quite, but the cutlery is real. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

It's on the "boardwalk," an area where soldiers and civilians socialize, drink coffee and do their shopping.

Now, before a quick review of the TGI-Friday's, a little about the D-FAC first.

Overall, these great big cafeterias that dot the base serve up pretty good grub. But after a few weeks of chopped lettuce salad and 17 different varieties of rice, you start to look for something different.

So, a group of us headed over to try out the competition.

First thing to notice: There's real cutlery! Forget the plastic stuff. 

That's a plus. Being a dry base, we indulged in near-beer and virgin margaritas. The chicken wings were decent. The steak seemed a better choice.

As we walked back to work, I laughed at how strange it is to take a break from covering the Afghan war by popping into a chain restaurant.

But one soldier told me that not everyone is a fan of TGIF's.

Apparently, the NATO military boss here, Gen. Stanley McChyrstal, thinks these kinds of comforts make soldiers a little soft.

Maybe, but they did seem to be enjoying their burgers.

Wednesday, Jan. 27 — Went into Kandahar City for the first time this assignment. Not much has changed in a year. The streets were packed with beat-up Toyotas and rickshaws. The shops were busy as usual.

The stalls in the market in Kandahar City. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Mike Heenan, the CBC cameraman, and I went into Kandahar to shoot some video of a meeting between Brig.-Gen. Dan Menard, Canada's top commander here, and the mayor of Kandahar.

While they talked in private, a Canadian colonel walked us around the governor's palace compound.

We also checked out a bazaar just outside the compound. While it's a little strange to have four armed-to-the-teeth Canadian soldiers protecting us, given the security situation in the city right now, it was welcome.

What really struck me is just how friendly Kandaharis are.

As soon as we walked out to the market, people started to come over. The kids are especially curious.

Through a metal fence, they stretched out their hands and, in Pashto, called out for pens. They love to draw, the colonel told me.

We shot more video of a larger market from a military observation post. I'd never seen this market before, but it was really stunning.

All kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables were for sale. Beautiful cloths and carpets too. And while heads turned when people saw two Westerners — one with a big camera — taking their pictures, soon everyone was back to the business at hand: shopping.

The Taliban often target busy markets like this one. Almost in defiance of the insurgents, people were out on this sunny day, walking around, stopping to talk to each other.

The market view from a Canadian observation post. (Derek Stoffel/CBC)

Women were out, too. It felt like just a normal day in a Kandahar market.

Not long after we got back to base, the alarm started to moan.

It's been happening more and more these days. The siren signals a rocket attack.

Bad guys well outside the base perimeter send off what are usually old mortars or Soviet-era rockets and fire them randomly at the base.

Now, as a reporter, it's my training to want to report on where the rocket landed and describe the damage it caused. But I can't.

See, when journalists "embed" with the Canadian Forces, we sign a long document known as the embed agreement. It outlines what we can and cannot report on.

Before I start hearing cries of censorship, I should say that, on my fourth assignment here, I've never had the military censor anything.

The embed agreement, though, states that we cannot publish any material about where attacks occur on the base. Nor can we show video of the damage caused.

All for good reason. If I were to report that the latest rocket attack hit just shy of whatever building on base, the bad guys will use that to improve their aim.

Pictures and maps of Kandahar Airfield are out there. So if the rocket shooter knows he missed a building by just that much, he'll adjust his direction and, next time, maybe hit something. Or someone.

Yes, as journalists we want information to get out there. But like the soldiers and civilians on this base, we're residents here, too.

So, it's for the protection of everyone that we agree not to publish details of rocket attacks. Makes sense to me.

 Friday, Jan. 29 — Another rocket attack. Third one in three days.