In recent weeks, there's been no place like base

Canadian troops have been sticking close to KAF

Canadian troops have been sticking close to KAF

A week into my second tour here in Kandahar, I received an e-mail from my assignment editor in Toronto.

"Have things calmed down markedly with our troops?" she asked.

Great question.

The last time I was here, in June and July 2007, field operations were going out every week. And there were offers from the military to get the reporters who are embedded here with them out on those missions. 

This time, for the first few weeks anyway, there wasn't a single mission leaving the base.

I must note here that I arrived in the middle of a change in rotation. The troops from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who have been here for the last seven months, were on their way home. They were being replaced by the Royal Canadian Regiment from Petawawa, Ont., and Gagetown, N.B. It takes a few weeks to replace about 2,000 troops, so most activity is scaled down over this time. 

But still, relatively few forward operations have been leaving the base.

Kandahar Airfield hasn't been completely quiet either, despite the Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr period, which traditionally sees a drop in insurgent activity. To the surprise of the military, there was actually an increase this year — including a spike in the number of rocket attacks at KAF — at the beginning of Ramadan. There were 80 incidents involving Canadian troops in the holy month's first 18 days.

Stories stall

Of course, there's also an election going on back in Canada.

The first indication that things were going to be different here during the campaign came with a new directive out of Ottawa.

The public affairs officers who work with the reporters here at Kandahar Airfield told us that they cannot grant interviews for the duration of the campaign. They said they were told that all interview requests with forces members must be cleared through the Privy Council Office in Ottawa. And it could take days before we get an answer to our requests.

Case in point: The CBC has been trying to do a story about a kids' football team in Winnipeg. The coach was serving here in Kandahar, and the team gave him its flag to bring with him, as a lucky charm. 

My colleague, Derek Stoffel, who was here before me, had requested an interview with the coach to talk about what the flag meant to him during his tour here. That type of interview is usually not a problem. It wasn't until I asked again that the public affairs officer said our request had been denied by Ottawa. 

No reason was given, but the public affairs officer just shook his head and admitted it made no sense whatsoever.

In the end, we managed to get the interview — but only through a chance encounter on the base.

Another story the CBC was hoping to do was about the medics out at the forward operating bases, who treat a lot of Afghans who are injured by insurgent attacks. 

It was set up. Derek and his cameraman, Marc, were all set to head out — and then it was called off at the last minute. Again, no reason was given.

Troops express frustration

One of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's first promises in the campaign was a new plan for withdrawing Canadian troops from Afghanistan by 2011. And it led to one of the election's first controversies. 

His withdrawal plan was harshly criticized by Jim Davis, the father of one of the fallen soldiers. Harper's communications director swiftly accused Davis of being a Liberal supporter, and was suspended as a result.

That was really the last time Afghanistan made the radar of this election campaign.

It's all been rather frustrating for some of the troops who are here. Several soldiers I've talked with say the politicians — and the public — at home need to be addressing Canada's mission here as a real election issue. 

If Canada is indeed pulling out in 2011, what's the point, they ask. If Afghanistan is not ready by then — as the new governor of Kandahar province has said may be the case — will every Canadian soldier lost between now and then have died in vain?