Friday, August 24, 2012

The Afghan Combat Experience

Over the past ten months, I have interviewed fourteen Canadian soldiers about their experiences when serving in Afghanistan. I’ll call it a privilege because every one of these men impressed me with their readiness to answer all my questions, their strong sense of character, and their dedication to their profession. I am grateful for these interviews, because they gave me an insight into what it was like serving a tour in Afghanistan, an insight that I couldn’t get any other way. I knew that not all veterans are open to talking about their time in theatre. My initial requests to a number of units, asking if any of their members who had gone to Afghanistan would help me, were in fact met with silence. But the men who I finally found seemed to have no hesitation; and, in fact, seemed almost eager to talk to me about what happened to them (as I was just as eager to listen).

About three years ago, I published my book Courage Rewarded: The Valour of Canadian Soldiers Under Fire 1900-2007, which took the history of the Canadian army from the South African War to Korea. But I felt the book really was unfinished if it did not include a chapter on Afghanistan where the Canadian military renewed itself as a combat-effective organization. I therefore had decided to publish a revised edition, in which a full chapter would be devoted to Afghanistan 2003-2011. But I couldn’t really write about Afghanistan unless I spoke to veterans who could give me a personal understanding of the mission which can’t be found from newspapers and from DND press releases (not to mention that the war diaries are sealed from public viewing). These soldiers have helped with this understanding.

These are the fourteen men who have been so helpful and whose strong dedication to duty shines through:

Sergeant Dan Matthews, who suppressed fear and crawled forward under exploding ammunition to come to the aid of his comrades, Corporal Robbie Beerenfenger and Sergeant Alan Short, after their Iltis jeep was blown up by an IED near Kabul on 2 October 2003; he received the Star of Courage for his actions.
Master Corporal Sean Chard, a Coyote vehicle crew leader in the Royal Canadian Dragoons, who lived through two IED strikes, the second of which seriously injured him on 7 January 2009.
Captain David Turgeon who, as a Reserve Forces officer, was surprised to find himself appointed second-in-command of an artillery troop equipped with newly acquired M-777 guns, but eager for the mission.
Captain Jonathan Mineault who worked on construction projects around Bazaar-i-Panjwayi in an attempt to improve the life of Afghans.
Corporal Hal Hemming, who went out on daily patrols near Strongpoint Folad as a field engineer locating and removing IEDs, coming under insurgent fire on several occasions, ready to return on another rotation if asked.
Private Dan Charysz who readily accepted his role as point man, one of the loneliest jobs on the battlefield, on daily patrols around Chalghowr, a countryside littered with IEDs.
Corporal Grant Lambe who readily ran towards any fire fight, until the day he stepped on an IED near Salavat and lost his right eye.
Corporal Sean Volmer who managed to take the attitude, as a professional soldier, that the fire fights he experienced almost every day around Combat Outpost Panjshir were just “business as usual.”
Corporal Adam Leclerc who, as a college student volunteered for a tour in Afghanistan to experience what it was really like there, got his wishes fulfilled when he fought through several ambushes as part of a Police Operational Mentoring Liaison Team.
Master Warrant Office Shawn Mercer who provided inspired leadership to those under him as his squadron of the Royal Canadian Dragoons lost a number of members from IED strikes in the Arghandab in 2008.
Master Corporal Lucus Fuller who, in the line of enemy fire, helped rescue a fellow soldier who had been shot down by the Taliban while clearing a village near Pashmul, for which he received a Mention in Despatches.
Corporal Steven Bancarz who, when his patrol was ambushed near the Taliban village of Sangasar, got hit by the back blast from a RPG launch but recovered enough to cover the fighting withdrawal the patrol and be awarded the Medal of Military Valour.
Captain Rob Peel who fought through the summer of 2008 while mentoring troops of the Afghan National Army, finding it one of the most significant experiences of his life, and was awarded the Medal of Military Valour for his actions during a Taliban ambush.
Master Warrant Officer Richard Stacey who provided exceptional leadership for several hours while he assisted in fighting off insurgents that ambushed a convoy attempting to return to FOB Mas’um Ghar along the Arghandab River, for which he received the Star of Military Valour.

With these fourteen men, I found my objective was achieved in being able to interview a cross section of Canadian Forces experience in Afghanistan: ranks from private to captain; infantry, combat engineer and artillery; OMLT and POMLT; some who received awards for valour and others who did their duty well although they received no such reward.

My thanks to all.

Friday, August 17, 2012

What's Wrong in Afghanistan - From the Grunt's Level

This book is about the reality of war in Afghanistan, as told by a British documentary journalist who spent a lot of time with the troops on the ground. If Rajiv Chandrasekaran, in his book Little America, tries to show how the higher level decision-makers have fought the war the wrong way, Ben Anderson in this book gives a neutral but ultimately damning picture on how we are not winning the war at the grunt level. To do so, his time there is spent entirely in Helmand province, first with a rifle company of the British Grenadier Guards in 2007, then with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th US Marines in 2009 and finally with the 1st Battalion of the 6th US Marines in 2010. In the most revealing episode, he lands in the heart of the Taliban stronghold of Marjah with the assaulting Marines in Operation Moshtarek, perhaps the biggest offensive that took place in Afghanistan, and stays with them as they consolidate their hold.

Anderson’s presence is at first just tolerated by the troops who are suspicious of any journalist watching over their shoulders as they try to face their daily challenges to keep alive, but they all come to accept him as he shares their dangers. In this sense, he is much like Sebastian Junger who spent all his time in a combat outpost in the Korengal Valley to write his book War, or like Canadian Legion correspondent Adam Day who lived in many Canadian army platoon outposts throughout Panjwayi District and wrote Witness to War. They belong to that rare breed of journalist who all seem to thrive on risking their lives in a combat zone, to bring readers a truer story than they could get from any other source

In writing the book, he uses the video tapes he liberally took of what he observed to present the exact words used by soldiers and by civilians. In doing so, he unfortunately shows too many times how troops, trained to eliminate the enemy by force, have at times a complete lack of empathy to the plight of local Afghans caught between the insurgents and the Western military. The result is a lot of death and destruction in the villages that the Western military is trying to clear and pacify, resulting in bitterness, resentment and immense sadness among innocent victims. There is also a feeling of futility when he writes about the Afghan National Army, giving many examples of how they lack discipline and any sense of responsibility: the British continue to try to mentor them but can’t help mocking them, while the Marines give up in frustration and carry out operations by themselves as much as possible.

Throughout the narrative, another constant theme that keeps coming up is the question of where is the Afghan government in all this? After major efforts are made by the British and American troops to clear areas during which they suffer too many killed and wounded, they find there is no Afghan presence to take over the newly-won territory. They question what they are fighting for but carry on because they are professionals trained to follow their orders.

This would be a good book to pair with Little America to try to understand how the war in Afghanistan is going wrong.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Little America: the War Within the War for Afghanistan

This book could have been sub-titled “How to Lose a War;” or perhaps “Why has Everybody Screwed Up This War So Badly? “ This is the sinking thought a reader gets as Washington Post Journalist Rajiv Chandrasakaran argues in his book, Little America, that America’s recent surge in troops, foreign service and foreign aid workers, and huge investments of money have failed to turn the war in Afghanistan around. He begins his narrative with the interesting history of America’s previous attempts to make changes in Afghanistan, going back as far as 1951 when they tried to transform the arid lands of the Helmand River valley into a model farming community. Despite the infusion of tens of millions of dollars over a twenty-year period, numerous attempts failed to make any significant change. And, when the author returns in 2009, he finds that the same ineptitude, lack of vision and bureaucratic attitude is leading to failure again. What makes it worse now is that the lives of thousands of troops and hundreds of millions of dollars are at risk.

The United States and other western powers have taken on the task of trying to create a new government in a land they do not understand. Afghanistan remains one of the most complex societies in the world where any political initiative crashes against long-standing tribal conflicts, where the rule of formal law has never been known in most of its corners, and the cooperation of corrupt strongmen seems necessary to gain any headway. The author traces the debate at the highest levels of the US government over strategy. Richard Holbrooke believes negotiation with the Taliban is necessary but his egotistic manner clashes with others. General Petraeus, newly appointed commander of US and NATO forces, wins out to direct a surge of US troops to follow his COIN (Counter insurgency warfare) doctrine over the objections of Vice President Biden and others who argue for a strategy of counter terrorism.

Chandrasakaran arrives in Afghanistan to find the first wave of the surge going to what he believes is the wrong place: Helmand province. He laments the fact that, although the powerful US Marine force sent there will make good progress in wresting control back from the insurgents who have successfully opposed the British forces, they should have been deployed to Kandahar province which is the key strategic centre of southern Afghanistan. Even when US army troops finally arrive in Kandahar, they should have been in greater strength and are led by a rogue commanding officer whose aggressive attitude violates all the principles of COIN doctrine.

Chandrasakaran spent time in Afghanistan talking to military and US government on the front line and in Kabul, and to senior officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department back in Washington. He writes of some officials and military officers who are dedicated to getting it right, but he observes too many others who are simply incompetent or concerned only with their own internal rivalries. Yes, this book is one-sided – there are undoubtedly many who did a great job and not enough of the successful stories are told. But this is not a history of the war from 2009 to 2011: it is critique of how the United States is managing the Afghan war, of how it is failing to deal effectively with a task which was very difficult from the start. It is in fact a record, as Chandrasakaran writes, of how “the good war had turned bad.”

This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about how we are going to proceed into a 21st century that is full of great political and military risks; the cost of making these mistakes again is too great.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: The Battle for Musa Qala, 2007

The story of the coalition battle for Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s Helmand province is one worthy of a TV drama: political meddling, intrigue by tribal interests, desperate periods of combat, celebration of success, and the final discouragement of failure to secure a strategic area from insurgents.

Musa Qala had become a Taliban stronghold in early 2007 and an important centre of opium production. But Helmand province overall had become a hotbed of insurgency by that time and the British brigade there chose to leave Musa Qala alone as it had its hands full keeping control of the main towns along the Helmand River. However a shadowy figure named Mullah Salaam, who lived on the outskirts of Musa Qala, contacted President Karzai, claiming that he was a Taliban leader that was ready to ally himself with the government. He said that he would lead his tribal fighters to capture Musa Qala for Karzai if he received weapons. This led to secretive meetings and negotiations in the following months which excited Karzai to such an extent that he insisted that the British not only assist Mullah Salaam but in fact mount a major operation to drive the Taliban out of the town.

Despite the British misgivings, the political pressure resulted in Operation Snakebite, the battle to retake the town in December 2007. It was a tough battle that involved numerous British units, a brigade of the Afghan National Army, and a battalion of the 508th Paratroop Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division which carried out the main assault on the town. Stephen Grey, a British journalist, does a good job of drawing out this complex story of one of the biggest battles of the Afghan war, having interviewed 250 participants throughout the US, UK, Afghanistan and Pakistan, from the highest levels of government to front line soldiers who came close to death or saw their comrades die.

This is one of the important readings for anyone wanting to understand the war in Afghanistan.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Book Review: Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign

Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan CampaignCables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign by Sherard Cowper-Coles
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In May 2007, Cowper-Coles arrived in Kabul to take over as the Ambassador of an upgraded British Embassy. These are the memoirs of his experiences over the next three and a half years, as he made a great effort to try and steer the British goverment's effort in Afghanistan. It is not a book of history however but a memoir and, as such, can be a bit of slog. He describes the life of an ambassador, with all the diplomatic demands, week by week. He gives a clear picture of the daily life he had to lead and gives much credit to his staff in assisting him. He also gives a record the international effort that went on, as he flew out of Kabul back to London or to Washington or to some other capital to brief offials, or to participate in meetings that were organized to try and find a solution to Afghanistan. Buried in his memoir we get glimpses of his views on Afghanistan and his criticism of the emphasis on a military solution with the lack of strategy on the diplomatic or governance level. These views are informative, but you have to dig them out. It's a valuable book for anone intereseted in this subject but not one that is an easy read for the average reader.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Book Review: Not A Good Day to Die: The Untold Story of Operation Anaconda

Not A Good Day To DieNot A Good Day To Die by Sean Naylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Book is a good account of a battle in Afghanistan that is not sufficiently well-known: Operation Anaconda. This took place in March 2002, the late days of the initial invasion of Afghanistan when American forces were attepting to clear out the last traces of Al Qaeda from that country. Soldiers from elements of the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divison were air lifted into the Shahikot Valley, near the border with Pakistan, where Al Qaeda was attempting to set up a mountain stronghold. Snipers from 3 PPCLI took part in this operation and received Mentions in Despatches for their skill and valiant conduct, but they are not mentioned in the book.

The narrative is somewhat complex and the author has tried hard to assist the reader, but there are times when it is still hard to keep all the names and actions in memory. I think it would have helped a lot if he had given names to chapters which assist the reader in folloiwng the chronology. It has many examples of courage in the face of the enemy and fortitude in facing horrible weather in the mountains. At the same time, the screw-ups in command, control and communications are depressing and one assumes the military learned its lessons from this - but it is a hard way to do so.

Overall, it is an important book in understanding the early days of the war in Afghanistan.

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Book Review - Fighting for Afghanistan by Sean Maloney

In his third book about his visits to Afghanistan, Sean Maloney records his experiences and observations on the operations in which he participated when he travelled to Kandahar province in the summer of 2006. The book is divided into three major parts related to the time he spent there: first, with Task Force Aegis, the brigade headquarters for Regional Command (South) at Kandahar Air Field; then with Task Force Orion, the Canadian battle group built around the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, carrying out suppression and clearing operations; and finally as he traveled with Orion’s tactical headquarters during the intensive combat actions of late summer.

Because he knows many of the senior Canadian officers and other ranks on a first name basis, this “rogue historian” lives up to his nickname by gaining full access to discussions both at Aegis’ Joint Operations Centre and at meetings with senior Afghan government officials, as well as when he joined the battle group tactical headquarters whenever it headed off into remote parts of Kandahar and Helmand provinces. The vote of confidence accorded him by the fighting troops is very evident when, as the battle group prepares to head out on one key operation, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Hope calls out to him to get his kit. “You’re coming with us on this one.” This rare access, probably not provided to such an extent to any other historian or journalist, allows Maloney to describe the events in all these operations better than any other source has done, even quoting statements made by participants at critical moments. For example, to get the record right, he even makes notes during a night fire fight by the light of a red-filtered flashlight on a field message pad in a lightly-armoured G-Wagon.

Sean Maloney earns the military’s respect by easily sharing the dangers on operations and as a result has more than one close call with death or injury. He was especially lucky to survive the last one. On returning from a major operation in a northern district of the province, the G-Wagon in which he was travelling struck an Improvised Explosive Device on the edge of Kandahar City. Maloney’s luck held and he escaped this one only with temporary deafness, although two Canadian soldiers were seriously injured and nine civilians killed.

The reader is rewarded by this unconventional historian by his ability to bring together the most complete picture yet recorded of the how the Canadian military met the challenges it faced in developing its ability to wage a counter-insurgency war in southern Afghanistan. The year 2006 was probably the most dynamic period of Canada’s combat mission, as it sought to establish an effective multinational headquarters while deploying a keen but untried battle group into a region rife with tribal politics, undefined power struggles and a cunning insurgency. How well did we do? Sean Maloney answers these questions through his personal experiences and keen analytical eye.