Sunday, February 24, 2008

Home Sweet Home

I am going home! After being in Afghanistan for just shy of seven months, it is time for me to leave. I will admit, my departure is bitter sweet. Although I am eager for my life to return to normal and to reunite with loved ones, there is a part of me that will miss Afghanistan. Over the past seven months I have met many incredible individuals who come together to do their part to make this world a better place. There is something to be said for working alongside such dedicated and admirable individuals. I have formed friendships that will no doubt last well beyond my departure and will allow me share our common experiences together for many years to come.

But aside from those coalition forces present in theatre, I have also formed strong relationships with some of the Afghans that I have had the pleasure to work with. It is incredible to think that although we do not even speak the same language, we were still able to express our personalities and find some common ground necessary to form a friendship. It is my hope that these ties can continue to thrive after my time is complete.

After seven months it is difficult to simply walk away and revert back to who you were without taking a piece of this experience home with you. I have experienced a nation that is in need of assistance. In Canada, it is easy to hear of such things on the evening news and quickly dismiss all thoughts on the matter once the story ends. But, when you live it for such an extended period of time, it is not so easy to dismiss. I have witnessed the struggle. I have seen firsthand the results of 30 years of war and the damage and destruction caused by years of fighting. I have seen the effects that this has had on the Afghan people and the conditions in which they now live. But most of all, I have seen their desire to survive. I have seen them continue to fight against the odds and persevere. Although the fight continues, I can see that there is hope.

As this will be my last post, I want to take the opportunity to thank you for visiting my site. Over the past seven months I have posted a weekly blog on a number of different topics. It was a chance for me to simply get some thoughts out and share those with anyone who was willing to stop by and read. It was my wish to provide some insight into the life of a deployed soldier but also to provide some information on our role in Afghanistan. I have received lots of feedback and I hope that I have fulfilled my promise.

So with that, thank you for your support and for your wishes for a safe return. I wish you all the best and I will sign off, until the next time when I am asked to dawn my uniform once again in order to help those who are unable to do so on their own.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Valentine’s Day

For most people in Canada, Valentine’s Day is a time to unleash the hopeless romantic in all of us and do something out of the ordinary for that special someone in our lives. For others, it is nothing more than a hyped-up greeting card holiday meant to get consumers out of the winter blues and into their local retail outlets to spend, spend, spend.

Well, in Afghanistan, it is neither…we simply call it Thursday. I will admit that this year Valentine’s Day did not even make it onto my radar screen. Not even one forethought to send home so much as a romantic note. I wonder how that special someone in my life will react to such a faux pas on my part. However, in my own defence, I do have a valid excuse. In Afghanistan we do not have the luxury of those constant reminders that are present in greeting card shops and shopping malls in Canada beginning at the start of January. We don’t get the constant television commercials, radio spots or billboard advertisements reminding us to mark February 14th on our calendars. And even if we did, there is little that we could do about it. It isn’t as if Afghanistan is known for its heartfelt gifts that tend to make the ladies weak at the knees.

But I have another excuse for forgetting about the proverbial day of romance. I am in the midst of preparing to return home. In a very few short days, my replacement will arrive in theatre allowing me to gracefully make my departure shortly thereafter. I must admit, that this is constantly occupying my mind and all outside distractions such as holidays – whether real or imagined – simply do not make it to the conscience part of my mind. Other than preparing to return home, few other things really seem to matter. I am only focused on a date when my replacement’s plane lands in theatre and I am there to greet him at the door with welcoming arms.

Now, the actual date when he was set to arrive has changed on several occasions although the original date was set for February 14th. Although not meant to slight any of the past Valentine’s gifts that I have received, but truthfully, this would have been one of the best gifts that I have ever received. But, I am not sure how my replacement would feel knowing that his presence in Afghanistan ranks as one of my best Valentine’s Day gifts ever – but as his tour comes to an end in six or seven months from now, I am sure by then that he will understand. Now this is not to say that I would have been standing there with arms open and a bouquet of roses, but it is to say that at that point in time, there is probably nobody else I would be happier to see. Again, I am probably digging myself into a big hole!

In any event, his arrival has been delayed by a few days and so the post Valentine’s Day hype will likely have diminished enough that it will no longer be an issue. But as they say - better late than never. Despite the short delay and the notable absence of any romantic gestures at all, his arrival into theatre will still remain a very thoughtful Valentine’s Day gift on behalf of the Government of Canada and the Canadian Forces. And so for seven months I have managed to successfully dodge all bullets and other projectiles that may have been headed into my direction – including Cupid’s arrows.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Just Say No

For those of you who remember, the phrase “just say no” was the catch phrase coined by former American First Lady, Nancy Reagan as a part of the war on drugs. Aimed at preventing children from experimenting and becoming addicted it was a simple and straightforward message.

Although Afghanistan is the frontline for the War on Terror, it is also the frontline for the war against drugs. In 2007 it was estimated that 93% of the world’s opium was produced in Afghanistan. Although the Taliban regime maintained a strict stance against the cultivation of drugs while they were in power, the drug trade now provides them with a great source of revenue in order to pursue their fundamentalist ideas. It is a criminal enterprise that assists them to maintain operations while simultaneously causing a great deal of concern for coalition forces.

For the most part, it is not the Taliban themselves that produce the opium. Instead, they offer local farmers a certain amount of money to do the work for them. I tend to believe that the offer is most likely to be accepted as it is likely to be much more beneficial for the farmer to accept. Perhaps there are some that do it willingly, but I really cannot offer any informed opinions on that particular matter. From there, the raw plants are cultivated and are then sent out into the world drug markets.

This of course poses many problems for coalition forces as well as world governments. Various attempts have been made to curb the problem. For the most part, the solution of choice thus far has been simple - aerial spraying of pesticides in an attempt to kill the plants. However, this has proven to be less than effective. First, it is difficult to police and spray in a country as large as Afghanistan and more importantly, it leaves the farmers with no source of income and is counterproductive to winning their hearts and minds.

Various international organizations have examined this issue and have made differing recommendations. One of their recommendations is to provide farmers with an alternative crop in order to allow them to sustain their livelihood. However, this option presupposes that farmers are growing drugs of their own free will and can be convinced to change their minds. Yet, for those who do not participate of their own free will, an alternative to growing drugs will likely result in death as the Taliban will likely view their actions as collusion with international forces.

The second recommendation is for the international community to buy the drugs directly from local farmers and to use it for medicinal purposes. This recommendation may have some merit but again, one must wonder what will befall a farmer that chooses to sell his crop to legitimate international buyers as opposed to the Taliban. Second, it legitimizes the practice and there may be governments who have reservations about appearing soft on curbing the world’s drug problems. Finally, this could result in a bidding war between various governments and the Taliban potentially placing large sums of money into the hands of individuals who may be aligned with those who we are trying to fight.

In the end, there is no easy solution. It is a problem that needs to be solved if substantial gains are to be made in the country. It gives new meaning to the old adage we were taught throughout our childhood, “winners don’t use drugs”.

The photo included above is a case of drug running gone sour. The white bags in the photo contain roughly $1.5 million of raw opium. The suspects were caught by the Afghan National Army at a local checkpoint and were quickly detained. Although, not proven, the individuals were suspected of having ties to the Taliban.

Friday, February 1, 2008

How Bazaar

Once a week, the busy pace of military operations in Kandahar takes a break to enjoy a bit of shopping. Located just inside the front gate of the Airfield is the bazaar where, every Saturday, about 100 locals set up shop and sell some of their wares to military and civilian personnel who reside at Kandahar Airfield. Shopping at the bazaar is a crash course on Afghan culture, business and ethics. The locals provide a seemingly unlimited supply of local merchandise and not only is price negotiation considered acceptable - it is expected.

Unlike shopping excursions that we are used to in Canada, this one begins with a quick weapons check at the entrance. You must have a weapon but it cannot be loaded. As soon as you are inside the bazaar the first several booths appeal to the movie buff in all of us. Pirated DVDs line the shelves and there is a wide selection of films to satisfy any taste. Those of us who have missed the latest blockbuster release in Canada need not fear for there are DVDs of all the latest movies, regardless of whether they are still playing in theatres or not. At times the quality is poor and at other times it is downright amusing, but the price of $2.00 per DVD cannot be beat. And it even comes with a complete money back guarantee. It lifts my spirits to know that even the criminal element is capable of sound business practices.

Once you move past the DVD section you enter into what makes the bazaar a truly fascinating experience. There are numerous shops that supply anything from antique war relics, handmade carpets, marble stoneware, traditional Afghan clothing and an odd variety of eclectic souvenirs that are bound to capture your attention. And the locals are always keen to make the sale. In a manner that makes the stereotypical used car salesman look like an amateur, the Afghans excel at the practice of entrepreneurialism. An aggressive approach is the norm and a slight tug of the arm or push in the right direction is generally nothing more than good business.

The rule of thumb is that the asking price is usually double what is reasonable. But, even this is not a surefire method for obtaining the best value for your money. Often many of the shops will sell the exact same merchandise and on more than one occasion I have seen local merchants who ask for a price that is close to ten times what their competition is offering only two or three shops next door. Any attempts to reconcile the difference will not result in any reconsiderations. It seems that they would rather lose one sale then lower their price. I guess the thought is that there must be someone who will pay the asking price for clearly this is the epitome of a supply versus demand economy.

But a trip to the bazaar is more than purchasing a few souvenirs or looking at what the locals consider as marketable goods. It is a chance to mix with the locals, to experience a bit of Afghan culture and to take you away from the stresses of operations, even if only for a short while. And perhaps, most importantly, it is a chance to pay ten times the fair market value for any item and be convinced by a shrewd merchant that you are getting the deal of the century.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Hearts and Minds

In the past couple of weeks I have traveled a few times and have had a chance to see a little more of the country. One particular flight was by helicopter through some of the mountainous regions of the country. Here, the mountains can only be described as majestic with their snow-peaked caps and valleys below. At times we flew quite low over the ground and twisted through the valleys below allowing the mountains to appear to us at each new turn. Although the sight was breathtaking, it was sad to think that a country with so much natural beauty is plagued by decades of war limiting the enjoyment of the land.

As we approached the Airfield, I was amazed to see the tiny towns and communities that lay just beyond the outer perimeter. No more than a few dozen homes per community, they are all made of mud-walled huts giving them a very distinctive look from above. An outer mud wall also surrounds each town to protect it from the outside world. I couldn’t help but think of the symbolism – each town is much like Afghanistan – cut off from the outside world and still living in the middle ages.

It is interesting to think that only a few hundred meters from the outer perimeter there are local Afghans who go about their daily lives and yet, inside the wire – only a moment’s journey away – are many coalition soldiers who are most likely unaware of their presence. For the most part, many deployed personnel will never leave the confines of the Airfield. Unless their job requires them to travel outside the wire, they are not generally permitted to venture out for security reasons. Although, this makes sense, it is still interesting to think that the majority of coalition forces who are deployed to Afghanistan will not have the opportunity to interact with the very people that they are trying to help – despite the fact that they are little more than a stone’s throw away.

Winning an insurgency war requires militaries to interact with the local population. Insurgents do not wear uniforms, they do not fight using conventional methods and our traditional methods of gathering intelligence and information are not as useful as in conventional warfare. Instead, we must interact with the local population. We must win their hearts and minds. We must convince them that our presence is not only necessary for their safety and security but that we are there to improve their daily lives. Without their help our goals will be much harder to achieve.

There are several ways to do this. It is not only done by soldiers who provide security but it also requires monetary assistance, development and governance. It is boots on the ground working each day with local officials to provide resources that are so desperately needed. It is what our government refers to as the 3D approach – defence, diplomacy and development. And it all must be provided in a coordinated fashion - development cannot succeed without security.

There is no shortage of commentators or officials who claim to be experts at how to properly coordinate our efforts and where our focus should be. And, in fact, our politicians continue to debate this very issue almost daily. Although we each have our own opinions on this matter, whether they are informed or not, this is not the place where I would like to share mine. I simply choose to end with the thought that if our goal is to bring Afghanistan out of the middle ages and into a time where towns no longer need to be defended by walls we must work with the Afghans to determine what is best for their country, not decide for them.