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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why do Canadian Soldiers return to Afghanistan? The mission for many of us is easy... it's just the right thing to do.

Ever since the start of the War in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 Canadian Forces soldiers, sailors and airmen have all wanted to return to the desolate country.  

Much has been written about the conflict but very little has been written about a soldiers desire to return to the same place where empires have been defeated, friends have died and limbs have been lost. 

For years Canadian Forces have been training first for a war in Germany defending the West from the Russian hoards, then as the wall came crumbling down there was a loss of focus.  We trained but the enemy were bizarrely named combatants meant to showcase a Korea type involvement without actually naming (and thus offending the North Korean army).  The innocence is almost funny if it wasn't tied in with a combat force that was ill equipped, ill trained and just trying to survive the budget cuts that were being inflicted on it.
Training with the USMC in August 1996 during Cooperative Osprey '96
 A multi-nation training exercise at Camp Lejeune, NC

The idea that Canada could fight a war in Central Asia was suddenly gaining steam.  The problem though was that the Canadian Government (PM Chretian) did not believe in the mission enough to allow the Canadian troops to fully participate in the afghan campaign.   There was a reasons to keep the troops in Afghanistan as it scored points with the American administration that was disgusted with our (perceived) non involvement in the Iraq war.

They were told not to leave the Kabul province and the restrictions on their rules of engagement meant that even Lieutenant General Hillier (then ISAF commander) trusted the military response from the Norwegians Armed Forces was more reliable than the Canadian government. 
Norwegian ISAF Forces
When PM Martin and DND Minister Graham decided to move the Canadian mission from the secure capital to the restive south the members of the Canadian forces suddenly found them back in a position where they could prove themselves.  The 3rd Battalion of the Princes Patrica's Canadian Light Infantry  (PPCLI) with support from, engineers, signals, medics and cooks moved into the Provincial reconstruction site in Kandahar city.  All 150 soldiers knew this mission would be different and our new Chief of Defence Staff knew it as well.  
Soldiers had to shout bang bang as the cost of bullets even blank ones were too much for the government to bare.  Then September 11 hit and the Canadian Forces found themselves committed to a foreign invasion of a central Asian country... something even Alexander the Great warned about.  It took Alexander only 6 months to subdue Persia but three years to defeat Afghanistan.  Kandahar in and old Afghan dialect means Alexandria (Iskandriya) and the Greek influences stayed for many generations.  After his sudden death in 323 BCE the empire he created collapsed into a fractioned version of itself.  Even with all that historical perspective Afghanistan and the people have endured the Canadian soldiers see this war as different than those of the past.  We aren't the Soviets, we aren't the Macedonians, we aren't the British.

The Taliban, an evil and malevolent force, was quickly destroyed by a very small force of special forces soldiers and Afghan allies.  As stories of the violence in the region began to leak out the moral authority began to take hold.  We have always looked at our bigger brother, America and our mother, England with detached love.  Outsiders see it as anti American rhetoric or a disgust with British foreign policy, especially the empire years.  Canadians like to think of themselves as different.
Pre Strike drone photo of Tarnak farms, Kandahar
We found ourselves as a large force first in the Indian ocean with our naval forces and the Air force in support, then our troops landed in the dusty Kandahar airfield only a few kilometers from bin Laden's ranch at Tarnak farms.  

Members of 3 PPCLI unearth the graves of Osama bin Laden’s bodyguards at Ali Khayl, Afghanistan; Left: A Canadian soldier marks a landing zone for incoming American helicopters; Right: Sapper Kerry Way (left) and Master Corporal Rod Hryniuk spend a long day at Ali Khayl; Armed with a 9-mm pistol and a penlight, Corporal Nick LePage of 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, emerges from a cave in the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan.
The Caves and Graves of Tora Bora, Stephen J. Thorne,  Legion Magazine
The Canadians arrived as an untested force and although we have trained with the American forces for many years there was mistrust at almost all levels.  But after mission in the caves of Tora Bora, Operation Anaconda where Cpl Rob Furlong and other snipers participated in the longest sniper 'kill' in history opinions of what the Canadians could changed dramatically.  The green uniforms which marked the "new bees" in the desert suddenly became the right uniform of choice in the hills of the AFK PAK border region.

The Canadians then moved to Camp Julien in the capital Kabul and the idea of living in small cramped tents, eating unheated rations, cold showers suddenly gave way to Internet cafes, weight rooms and concessions with all the luxuries of home.
Camp Julien

Des soldats montant la garde
Glendenwagen in Kandahar
General Hillier, now CDS took this time to rewrite the rules of engagement and allowed us to better protect ourselves, armoured Glendenwagens.

We travelled and tried to bring the 3 D approach to this new kind of low intensity conflict. Diplomacy, Defence and Development marked the Canadian approach.  On January 15, 2006 diplomat Glyn Berry was killed in a suicide attack and the foreign affairs mission in Afghans faltered.  Suddenly as 200 troops from 1 PPCLI landed their main mission seemed to be missing, the reconstruction of the country of Afghanistan.  

The question was now what?

This time the enemy picked the battlefield. The troops found themselves in this position with close combat fighting occurring during the summer of 2006 and has not stopped ever since.  The names Panjawai, Arghandab and Maywand all have the same meaning as Vimy, Somme, Normandy to the new soldiers of the Canadian Forces.  Thousands of Canadian troops have served in the area as thousands and thousands of Taliban and anti government forces have died in the fighting.  Although the Canadian area of operation have been the province of Kandahar they have never had enough boots on the ground to hold the well fought terrain. 

The Canadian Forces have lost troops from not only the Army, but from the Air force and even the Navy there is still a desire to return to Afghanistan. 
There seems to be a collective desire to continue the help we promised to our Afghan friends, comrades, the women, the NGO, the interpreters, the people of the country.
We return home and see the joy on the faces of our loved ones, we see the horror in the parents of a fallen son or daughter, we also see that we are better people because we have bled in Afghanistan.  We also see a life in Canada that is untouched by war, untouched by true hatred and we see that it is all humans want no matter where they live.  The infantry have proven themselves in combat, the medics have saved lives, the engineers have defused IED's that were targeting not just us but kids on their way to school.  I had a friend who asks this question when someone says that the war in Afghanistan is illegal or immoral..... 
"What have you done for the third world today?"
The mission for many of us is easy... it's just the right thing to do.

 "I have no intention of being one of those generals where the situation didn't work out so well. We're here at the invitation of the Afghan people. Every single d ay, everywhere you go, we hear nothing from those people other than: "We love you, we want you here, you're our only hope in life and we'd actually like more of you." So we're here as their guests, and the relationship is superb. I believe the soldiers have won the hearts and minds of the people and given them some hope for the future. And that, I think, gives us great reason for optimism for what we do here." Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier
 Interview with Peter Mansbridge, CBC, Feb 2004

An Afghan military interpreter prays just before Canadian and Afghan forces storm Salavat, Afghanistan, near Kandahar, on Thursday, June 18, 2009. 
Western and Afghan soldiers have been fighting the Taliban in the area for years. 
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Colin Perkel

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