Monday, March 23, 2009

No Sunday drive
Being tracked by the Taliban, pelted by rocks -just another trip through Afghanistan

If you're going to take a driving tour of Kandahar, there's no better way to do it than inside an RG-31.

Not that you have any choice.

Sure, it lacks the creature comforts found in the better tour buses -plush seats have been replaced by a canvas bench with a five-point harness, your flak vest, ballistic eyewear and helmet are no substitute for loungewear - but your tour guides are C7- packing soldiers and they know the terrain.

It's not a secret that from the second we leave the base, the Taliban know exactly where we are and will be everywhere we have been five minutes after we leave to interrogate local officials about who we are and what we talked about.

When it comes to things with which to take faint comfort in a war zone, knowing your guys shoot a hell of a lot more accurately than the other guys turns out to be a surprisingly comfortable security blanket.

No one just goes for a drive in Afghanistan without armour and an extensive briefing about where Taliban cells have set up shop today, grim reports about possible suicide bombers scouting locations known to be frequented by coalition soldiers and other matters that security constraints prohibit discussion.

Canadian soldiers don't huddle in compounds, despite the addition of helicopters and unmanned drones to the mission. Getting out to show the colours and inspect things on the ground is part of the daily routine.

On this trip, the soldiers are out to ferry a Corrections Canada official on an inspection of Kandahar's Sarposa Prison and act as force protection for members of the provincial reconstruction team -widely referred to as Canada's ticket out of Afghanistan - as they check on work at Kandahar University, plus a couple of reporters tagging along for the voyage.

It's a daily routine in which the dangers are not overemphasized, just acknowledged.

As the warrant officer in charge of this convoy tells the visitors in peppery military verbal shorthand, "Don't wander off, don't lose sight of us. Anything happens, hit the ground, stay there, listen to what you're told and get back to the vehicle when you're told. If you're not on the vehicle when we leave, we're not [expletive] going looking for you."

OK, maybe it lacks the polish of a $5,000-an-hour corporate speaker, but I'm motivated to follow orders in a way I never am listening to the guys in the power suits.

Of course, the daily routine starts with a trip down Rock Alley, near Camp Nathan Smith, a fortified compound in Kandahar City where the reconstruction team is based, and soon the projectiles are clanging off the side of the RG's hull.

"Woah, did you see that one?" yells one of the soldiers in back, relaxed after taking this trip many times.

"That kid couldn't have been any more than five years old, and he threw a freakin' boulder! It was almost as big as he was."

The kids either give the thumbs up sign or chuck a rock. They bounce harmlessly off the side of the armoured vehicle, and one supposes for the kids tossing them in these dusty streets, it's the Afghan equivalent of free cable.

Gunners who sit in a hatch atop the Light Armoured Vehicle, unlike the closed-in RG-31, laugh in camp as they tell stories about how kids come to the edge of the road and call out to the soldiers, getting them to turn their heads toward them so they can more efficiently peg them in the face with a stone. The story of a medic who suffered a broken nose from a rock tossed by a four-year-old has reached legendary proportions.

The RG-31s and the LAVs are the kings of the road in Kandahar. Bright red-and-white signs plastered to the bumpers of the vehicles warn other traffic to keep back and on this trip, nothing gets closer than 100 metres as the trucks tear through the streets, inches off each others' bumpers.

Every Afghan owns a radio and the International Security Assistance Force buys radio spots on the half-hour cautioning local drivers to give way to the military vehicles and not to creep into the envelope of empty space they carry around them.

That's a very big deal. Jamie Cade, deputy commander of the Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, says the Forces have just finished negotiating compensation with an Afghan family, two of whose children were killed when a Canadian convoy opened up on them with .25-calibre machine guns last year.

"They had pulled over to the side of the road, and as the convoy passed, they pulled back into the road, right in the middle of the convoy, which, unfortunately, is what suicide bombers do," explains Cade.

After meetings with the family, the Canadian Forces paid compensation in cash, livestock, wheat and other goods, as well as expressing their regret, but Cade said the episode illustrates how difficult it is to operate in this country.

"This is a war of counter-insurgency, it's not war like the Second World War when it was about taking and holding territory," he said.

"What we're dealing with here is a Taliban-led insurgency fuelled by money from drugs, but a lot of attacks are instigated by criminals who are not Taliban. That said, it can be difficult to tell who is attacking you because out here, everyone looks the same. There are no uniforms."

Shops and huts fly past, the tall radio antennas scrape off low-hanging telephone lines strung from bundles of dead trees dug into the ground as four vehicles, packed with soldiers, interpreters, government officials and reporters wind their way through Kandahar's dusty streets.

The soldiers' good mood masks a professional caution. Roadside improvised explosive devices, even in busy market areas, are not unknown and drivers give any vehicle parked too near the shoulder a wide berth and a squirt of gas as they pass.

Despite their good mood, they are constantly scanning traffic ahead, at intersections and particularly behind in case a vehicle starts speeding toward us.

At one point, we find ourselves driving through a huge Afghan cemetery, graves stretching out on either side for blocks and bright flags planted into the rocky soil like headstones, a reminder of how cheap life is in this country.

Overlooking it all, and the only person in the vehicle neither smiling nor joking, is the gunner, who sits mid-vehicle silently watching the screen in front of him.

It is connected to the Protector remote weapons pod on the roof -every vehicle in the convoy has one -and they swivel around busily on the vehicles in front of us to scan side streets and traffic front and back.

Each pod is loaded with cameras, both optical and night-vision, a machine gun, rocket launchers, rocket-propelled grenades and other armament. With a joystick manipulated by a brown-gloved fist, the gunner is in command of the defence of the vehicle.

Residents squat by the side of the road and stare indifferently at the Canadian convoy, particularly after the four vehicles head down a side street and discover an unsigned Afghan road construction project has blocked the way with a metre-high berm of gravel on which children play and no one apparently works at clearing.

Armoured vehicles performing three-point turns in series while the others take up fire positions in case this is an ambush of opportunity gets the attention of even the bored Afghans.

As we head back to pick an alternate route the soldiers wave and cheerfully call, "Sorry - we're not from around here."

Another calls out to the driver during the painful three-point turn through loose gravel, "If you get stuck, I'm not getting out to push."


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