Originally published in Abu Dhabi’s The National.
At the entrance to the Afghan police and military base in Zhari district, half a dozen wrecked police trucks sit in a small dirt lot. As a first sight greeting visitors to the base, they are a poor recruitment tool for new policemen. The most intact truck is missing its windscreen and a door, and has caked blood on one seat; it will never drive again. The worst off is a twisted clump of metal, scorched so badly that any blood would probably have cooked away in the fire that followed the initial blast of the roadside bomb that did it in.
For the Afghan government and for Nato, pacification of Zhari – an area just outside Kandahar, twice the size of Dubai – has gone about as well as those trucks suggest. Part of the hostility is due to terrain: the foliage and ditches favour the insurgents, and not the armoured Canadian and Afghan soldiers who have been there since 2006. But it is also attributable to Zhari’s special place in the history and mythology of the Taliban. Zhari and neighbouring Panjawii claim most of the Taliban leadership among its former residents and native sons. Mullah Obaidullah, the former Taliban defence minister, and Mullah Aminullah, now shadow-governor of Kandahar, both hail from Zhari.
And in 1994, in a subdistrict called Singesar, the one-eyed charismatic Mullah Omar assembled the first Taliban militia. The Afghan civil war had reached a level of violent chaos that required drastic measures; Omar’s militia promised prompt and pitiless justice. He targeted rapists first, hanging them on the barrels of tanks and watching them writhe and choke while tank barrels lifted them up. Fighting remained low in Zhari until a few years after the Nato invasion, and now it has crescendoed.
“They started here,” says Muhammad Hassan, who as an openly serving major in the Afghan intelligence service is Zhari’s most visible collaborator with the Canadians. “Now they want to restart here.” The district is strategically critical: as the Pashtun heartland directly adjacent to Kandahar city, Zhari would provide depth for a Taliban assault on the jewel of southern Afghanistan. Who controls Zhari controls Kandahar, since without a staging ground near the city, little can threaten the city itself. Hassan estimates that there are 1,200 Taliban fighters in Zhari. “If they controlled it they could take over Kandahar city in one day.”
Over the last three years, the Canadian military and Afghan security forces have fought the Taliban to a bloody stalemate. The Afghan police and army routinely drive over roadside bombs on Highway One, Zhari’s main road, which is bumpy with filled-in craters. In Zhari’s villages (there is no settlement larger than a cluster of a few war-demolished mud buildings), insurgents mount ambushes nearly every day. The Canadians, for their part, have tried to fight the war cleanly, with at times absurd levels of attention to law and rules of engagement. And despite being a modern and impressive fighting force, with armoured vehicles and innovative counterinsurgency tactics, they have died at a rate alarming even for a war zone – over 100 since 2001, in a force of only 2,500 (many of whom are not in combat roles). That death rate exceeds not only the US death rate in Afghanistan, but also the US death rate in Iraq.
The Canadians and their Afghan collaborators have maintained the initiative, says Brig Gen Denis Thompson, the top-ranking Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. But they have had to concede ground – including Singesar itself, the birthplace of the Taliban. In May 2008, the Canadian and Afghan base in Singesar closed after just months in service. To resupply the base, Thompson says, required a battalion-level operation once per month. And on each mission the supply vehicles took fire. “The calculation is: ‘How much of this ground can we physically hold?’” Thompson says. The base could have remained open as long as the Canadians chose. But considering the demands it placed on resources, and the greater effect the same resources could have elsewhere, it had to be shuttered. Nevertheless, the closing was almost certainly a propaganda victory for the Taliban.
Out on patrol, Canadians and Afghans face dangers everywhere. On a morning walk out the front gate past the bloody trucks and into the farmers’ fields nearby, the soldiers are an easy target. Anyone can see them coming from hundreds of metres away. Chatter between insurgents on open radio channels indicates they know immediately that a foreign contingent is out for a stroll. What saves the Canadians from dying more often in ambushes, says Paul Sprenger, a big friendly sergeant, is that the Taliban have battered old weapons, can’t shoot straight, and know nothing about how to spring a proper ambush, even on a force that moves on foot over open ground, leaving from the same place every day.
The point, in any case, is not to sneak around but to tramp noisily through the very fields where the insurgency enjoys its best cover. The fields are typical of Zhari: hot, dry and inhospitable to most crops. No modern farm equipment (or modern anything, really) is visible anywhere. Dried poppies, leftovers from the April harvest, are on the dirt footpaths, and the fields on either side are full of the greenery of vineyards and pomegranate and hemp groves. To establish a presence, the Canadians greet everyone in Pashto. A few Canadians have mastered selected Pashto phrases to amuse kids. “I am a robot man,” says one, robotically, and when kids look at him – plated with armour, bristling with antennae and gun barrels, wearing ballistic helmet and shades – they giggle at how plausible that seems.
The adults are more circumspect. Muhammad Nader, 37, nervously shakes hands with a soldier, and explains his predicament. Even the slightest interaction with Canadians, he says, can mean death. “Eight months ago, one of my cousins was smoking hash, and so they put him in jail a little bit,” Nader recalls. “After three days, when he came back, the insurgents were waiting for him, and they killed him.” The Canadians know that the conversation is endangering him, so they have it in public, within earshot of others. But they don’t have an easy answer to the question of why he should help them.
“The insurgents are always here,” Nader complains; the Canadians come and go, and they rarely use the firepower needed to convince local people that they are serious. “If you really want the insurgents gone from this area, where is your chopper? If you guys get fire from the insurgents, you’ll have to move to them and push them away. A chopper could see them and shoot at them. Why aren’t you doing that?”
One answer – a simple enough answer, but one the Canadians were too sheepish to explain to Nader — is that the entire Canadian military does not have a single attack helicopter. When they do get air support for an operation in Zhari, it’s because the US or European partners in Kandahar have a helicopter free. But the more complicated answer is that the Canadians have, through their experience as a relatively small and efficient force, learnt that large military hardware can only help so much. In 2006, when the Canadians first arrived to take over Zhari, they obliterated over a thousand Taliban in conventional warfare in Operation Medusa, the largest Nato land battle to date. They could do so again, at a time of their choosing. But the heavy approach would create no enduring effects.
“Kill some guys, and more will come into the area,” says Maj Bob Ritchie, the officer who runs Zhari. “Yeah, you’ve killed two people, but in the macro picture you haven’t really affected a lot.” What’s needed, Ritchie says, is visible improvements in the quality of life for Afghans, so they have incentives to rat out insurgents. (Of course, one might counter that an effective way to improve an Afghan’s life is to hunt and kill his enemies with an Apache helicopter.)
Brig Gen Thompson also points out that decisive firepower sometimes prevents the training of Afghan soldiers who will not have access to sophisticated equipment when ultimately asked to fight on their own. “If we kept constantly stepping in and doing it for them, they’d never be able to stand on their own. So there have been some painful lessons learnt.” As a result, when Canadian soldiers and their Afghan counterparts go out on joint missions, they sometimes scurry on foot across perilous open fields to attack insurgent positions that could be obliterated safely, and in short order, with a single air-strike or three minutes of attention from a gunship. The Canadians put themselves at risks that are not, in the short term, necessary, but that in the long term are the only way the Afghan National Army can hope to train its soldiers.
After the conversation with Nader, the Canadians circle back to the base. Having walked a couple kilometres out, they look at live footage from drones that were monitoring their progress. About 20 minutes after they passed by one village, the video indicated, two men in a motorcycle arrived and set up a checkpoint. The warrant officer who led the patrol, a stubbly Yukoner and veteran of Bosnia and a handful of other overseas military deployments, shrugs. “They could be insurgents, or just local thugs,” he says. “We know they’re there, but we can’t just bomb them, even though we’d like to. You can’t just drop a bomb on a Canadian criminal, and you can’t drop one on an Afghan one either.”
If the warrant officer’s reluctance to bomb a possible insurgent checkpoint seems narrow and legalistic, consider the meeting going on back at the base. Muhammad Hassan – the intelligence agent – is, with others, addressing a meeting of local leaders. He starts his speech with a “bismillah”, then launches into a talk about the difficulty of interrogation when the government demands rule of law. Other officers scowl at the suggestion that they follow rules about having to release detainees within a day or two of arrest if they lack evidence to charge them. How are the security forces supposed to collect and document evidence, when nearly all of them are illiterate? The executive officer of the Afghan National Army unit in Panjwaii district warns, perhaps too bluntly, that if soldiers and police know that suspected Talibs are likely to be freed on a technicality, the soldiers and police will take no chances. They’ll shoot suspects on sight.
“It’s not a simple situation,” says Capt Jason Snider, who coordinates these meetings, and who in private life is a Crown prosecutor in Red Deer, Alberta. “If a roadside bomb goes off, the Afghan civilian who’s nearby could very well just be a farmer in a field, and not an insurgent. There are laws to follow, and we’re here to assist and train an army and a government, not to just lock up or shoot anyone who happens to be close by.”
So far, these attempts to instil law and order have produced at least law, but certainly not order. On Boxing Day last year, Pte Michael Freeman’s vehicle hit a mine in Zhari, and he became the 105th Canadian killed in Afghanistan. Who, in the end, is more patient? The Canadians have big appetites for do-gooderism, but the war is unpopular, and 2011 is set as a pull-out date. The Taliban’s devotion to Singesar has paid off: they can operate there with impunity. In a few months the mountain passes between Afghanistan and Pakistan will clear, and by April a new poppy harvest will be complete. The fighting season starts then, and if past is prologue, 2009’s season will be a bloody one.
Graeme Wood is a writer and editor at The Atlantic.