Friday, October 19, 2007

Canadians in Afghanistan part 2

Today I feature David Markland's second part to his White Guys With Guns. See Part 1 here.

White Guys With Guns: Canada's Military in Afghanistan

Civilian interactions

Turning now to the issue of Canadian and allied soldiers and their interaction with civilians, it bears noting (since the media seldom do) that there is often confusion on the part of soldiers as to who is civilian and who is enemy. We have already seen the difficulties troops can have trying to identify unarmed Taliban, a task for which they often employ their mercenary scouts. But there is also the vexing problem that many Taliban are simply local men who have picked up a gun and thus slip easily between their roles of fighter and farmer.

An American army lieutenant who along with his unit was mentoring Canadian Forces soldiers in Panjwaii explains his experiences pursuing the Taliban: "The problem was, that's where they lived. A lot of them, we'd kill them and their house was only 10 metres away." Evidently, some insurgents have even infiltrated the Afghan government and security forces. "The ministry of interior police that we use to secure ourselves in the day become the Taliban at night," explains Stephen Appleton, the leader of a UN road construction project. "We don't know who all the bad guys are, but they have penetrated everything from the government infrastructure to our own organizations who we deal with in the daytime in terms of business. They are easily working against us at night."

So what about local people who don't moonlight as insurgents, how are they regarded by the foreign forces? Well for starters they receive a close-up lesson in peace. "We've warned people they may see soldiers shooting in their villages. I tell them this is the price of peace and freedom," explained an American Lieutenant-Colonel. For their part, Afghan civilians themselves seem less than enthusiastic about the foreign forces. Local people often cannot (or don't care to) distinguish the forces of individual countries of the NATO operation, referring to them all as "white guys with guns," according to one correspondent.

US and NATO forces in turn make their own generalizations concerning Afghans civilians in the form of collective punishment. In Kunar province, where American forces claim to be fighting Al Qaeda, counter-insurgency tactics amount to a direct attack on civilians. According to ABC News, US military units there employed "a new tactic - sanctions" which are aimed at residents of the Korangal Valley, who are open supporters of the insurgency. These locals, mostly subsistence farmers, endured a blockade on essential items such as sugar, tea and cooking oil. But the blockade of the Korangal wasn't limited to staple goods. A Himalayan Times correspondent spoke to one local who explained their predicament: "[W]e cannot even go to the hospital as the forces have blocked the road to the south of the valley. We cannot move our lumber which is our main source of sustenance".

Captain Hansen, commander of the American unit involved, explained the brutal logic of the blockade: "They are going to need all those things that make their lives just a little bit better. We are providing them with the hard decision. Either you work with the government of Afghanistan or you have the effects of not working with them. It's in their court."

The tactic of collective punishment is a part of the Canadian arsenal as well. "Any people that are found to have been helping the Taliban will have their houses seized by the government, their property seized. They will be left with nothing," promised Lieut. Craig Alcock, a Canadian platoon commander. This statement aroused zero commentary. Yet, as numerous reports indicate, civilians "helping the Taliban" are often doing so against their will. And this concern is prior to the question of whether this threat, if carried out, would violate Geneva Convention prohibitions against collective punishment. Article 33 of the Fourth Convention (1949) says, in part: "No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed."

In villages

"Canadian soldiers block exits on either side of a village, while Afghan army soldiers, backed up by Canadians, slowly advance through the community, searching homes and peering down back lanes. Suspects are searched and questioned. If grounds for suspicion are uncovered -- pockets full of batteries and Pakistani rupees, or evidence the suspect has recently fired a gun -- the suspect is arrested and turned over to Afghan authorities." That's how Canadian Press reporter Bob Weber describes one of the Canadian Forces' "squeegee-like manoeuvres" to "cleanse" the Taliban from the Zhari and Panjwaii districts of Kandahar.

In Kandahar City, meanwhile, Canadian troops insisted upon regular searches of a cemetery despite being forbidden from entering the grounds as are all non-Muslims. In any case, the cemetery was used as a staging ground for a botched suicide attack despite (or maybe because of) the periodic military presence.

Other accounts similarly reveal serious public relations problems encountered by the Canadian Forces. "While the Canadians think their relationship with the people of Gumbad is somewhat cordial, villagers are quick to say that they are deeply offended by the use of bomb-sniffing dogs," according to a Vancouver Sun report. The same reporter describes a "show of force patrol" in a different village in the same district. The patrol sought intelligence from locals following an attack on Canadian forces. Evidently the “force” brought some measure of progress: "One village elder was pretty shaken, but they've given us a couple of leads to pursue," explained Major Kirk Gallinger of the Canadian Forces.

It is small wonder that seasoned observers of Afghanistan give NATO a failing grade on the project to win hearts and minds. "What they have failed to do is make allies of Afghans. Instead they have made enemies of ordinary Afghans," says Kathy Gannon, a veteran reporter on Afghanistan, commenting on the Canadian mission. In response to increased insurgent attacks, she observes, troops have "gone from having an idealistic idea of what they want to do, to being terribly frightened."

Infrastructure destroyed

Apart from the direct effects visited upon civilians by NATO/US military operations, there has been untold damage done to civilian infrastructure. The indirect and long term effects of this are no doubt serious, considering that Afghanistan is scarcely developed in the first place and reconstruction has been slow at best.

A journalist from the London Times, accompanying Canadian Forces soldiers for part of Operation Medusa, offers a revealing glimpse of combat in Kandahar province. "Throughout the day soldiers on foot combed the area for rebels. Heavy gates to walled compounds were blown open, a warren of Taleban tunnels and bunkers were destroyed by explosives and grenades were thrown into wells and fired through doors," writes Tim Albone. Similarly, the Toronto Star's correspondent observed Canadian light armored vehicles (LAVs) driving over dikes and destroying them while another dispatch describes a Canadian soldier "who boasts of driving his LAV through walls and shooting down telephone poles with a 25mm chain gun".

Assuming these reports are true then here again, Canadian forces may be in breach of the law. Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions (1977) states: "Parties to the conflict shall at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives." Unlike the case of the mercenary convention cited above, Canada has ratified the Protocol. (The US, however, has not.)


While more than two million Afghans currently reside in Pakistan and Iran as refugees, often overlooked are the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. The lack of attention which our media gives to this problem is perhaps explained by the fact that Canada has played a big role in producing those IDPs. Indeed, two and a half months after Operation Medusa, reported to be NATO's largest operation of 2006, Amnesty International was "particularly concerned" that air strikes as part of NATO campaigns had displaced up to 90,000 people. The most serious clashes at that time were in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.

Months later, Canadian and NATO officials, with great fanfare, announced the arrival of a trickle of returnees to the districts where Canadian troops operate. However, few observers suggest that IDPs are returning home in great numbers. By July 2007 the Senlis Council's Edward McCormick was dismissive of the claims of military officials: "The claim that 6,000 families went back to their homes - I think that's false... I can tell you the internally displaced camps are growing rapidly."

Yet the thousands who fled Panjwaii and Zhari during Operation Medusa may have considered themselves lucky, as an unknown number of civilians could not escape to safety. Reporting at the outset of that battle, the Globe and Mail's correspondent wrote that "those who are lingering are either farmers who won't abandon their crops or are too poor to find shelter elsewhere."


In light of such unsavory happenings, it's not surprising that Canadian military officials have tried to paint their role in Afghanistan as one supportive of democracy and development. They are thus quick to boast of the numerous shuras (councils) which Canadian troops initiate in their areas of operation. The supposed purpose of these meetings is to hear what local (male) elders want from NATO forces. (It is also an opportunity for intelligence gathering, as Afghans are well aware.) The military is particularly keen for direction on quick impact development projects, often carried out by the PRT. On assignment in Kandahar over the Christmas holiday, the Toronto Star’s Oakland Ross witnessed a shura. His account is revealing:

"[Non-commissioned officer Frank] Grattan's job [was] to engage the people of Howz-e-Madad in a peaceful dialogue about their future... If things went badly, however, Grattan would be belly-to-the-ground... with the stock of an automatic rifle flush against his shoulder". In the event, however, there were no elders assembled for the shura which these foreign forces had arranged. So Grattan opted to wait for some elders to materialize - until his patience ran out.

"Finally," Ross writes, "Grattan had had enough. Accompanied by a half-dozen soldiers armed with C-7 automatic rifles," he searched the village to scare up some participants for their exercise in democracy. "Eventually, about a dozen bearded envoys filed down to meet the Canadians in their secure position, submitting to body searches without complaint."

Ross' description verges on the absurd as the press-ganged elders "professed to oppose the Taliban, to repudiate its values, and to welcome foreign troops" present in their country. The dubiousness of the scene is obvious to Ross as well as at least one member of the military brass: "'What would you do?' one Canadian officer said later. 'You're a poor guy who just wants to hold his family together. What would you do?' You would probably say whatever you thought the men with the rifles wanted you to say."

A similar concern with democratic form rather than democratic substance is seen in another reporter's account of a shura held a few months after the one Ross witnessed. A soldier with the Kandahar PRT "moves the shura along when it threatens to get bogged down in the wrangling of village interests", writes Rosie DiManno. "If you can't achieve consensus, I will simply look at the district leader and ask him to move forward," explains Sergeant Jason Henry. "For all the consultation," observes DiManno, "ultimately a district elder will cut through the conflicting agendas".

Agricultural policy

One of the more controversial aspects of the Afghanistan mission is the eradication of opium crops. Afghan and US officials are spearheading opium eradication which some expect will involve aerial chemical spraying, as in Plan Colombia. Canadian officials, on the other hand, claim that our forces are not, and will not, be involved in opium eradication.

However, scarcely a word was said by officials or commentators in response to the Canadian military's known involvement in destroying marijuana plants - presumably someone's livelihood - in Afghanistan. A widely-circulated report in the fall of 2006 related a tale of Canadian soldiers struggling to operate in an area where insurgents could take cover in fields of 10-foot cannabis plants. The plantations, some of which were burned, were able to withstand attempts to ignite them using diesel and white phosphorus.

In any case, opium eradication continues apace, with effects that should concern anyone who hopes to see improvements in the lot of the Afghan populace. As Canadian UN official Chris Alexander explained to journalist Jon Lee Anderson, “In Helmand and Uruzgan, eradication has been subject to political manipulation and corruption. It has also proven virtually impossible to conduct in districts where the Taliban are relatively strong, thereby inevitably penalizing farmers in pro-government districts”. Anderson also cites officials who told him that eradication efforts often spare the crops of politically well-connected tribes (such as President Karzai's Populzai tribe) while targeting less-fortunate tribes - thus driving these tribes into armed opposition to the foreign forces.

Anyone who reads the foregoing as a description of impending (or ongoing) humanitarian disaster would not be alone. Indeed, serious and sober international observers of the conflict have offered their own damning assessments of the NATO/US role in Afghanistan. A major report from the United Nations Development Program released in 2005 includes a harsh assessment of the role of foreign military forces in the country. "The privatization of security and the spread of a military mentality,” the authors conclude, “has led to a climate of fear, intimidation, terror and lawlessness in many parts of Afghanistan."Similarly, a report prepared earlier this year by a Canadian Senate standing committee makes a bold assertion about Canada's effect on life in Kandahar province - and one that suggests a simple solution: "Life is clearly more perilous because we are there," the report concludes. Such is Canada's contribution to the new Great Game.

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