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.