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Assignment Afghanistan

Focus on change from combat role
Assignment Afghanistan

by Tod Strickland It sounds cliché, but change is in the air. Everything from the weather, to the Taliban and our operations against them, to the arrival of our replacements, is indicating that the situation we are in, here in Afghanistan, is definitely evolving.

As I write, the weather here is hot. Over the past month, the mercury has climbed significantly and constantly. As we leave what proved to be a very wet spring, we find ourselves moving into what promises to be a very, very hot summer. Currently the temperature is in the low 40s. Even in the confines of Kandahar Air Field, we are all drinking water at an ever-increasing rate; going through two or three litres of water in a day is becoming the norm. Soldiers outside the wire, on patrol and standing sentry, are drinking even more. I can only wonder at how soldiers of a century or two ago did the same sort of tasks without the benefit of a CamelBak or easily portable bottled water. Of course, they didn’t have to wear flak jackets, helmets or carry a radio.

Heat has also made shade increasingly popular. It is not uncommon to see troops cut across the road to get into the shade afforded by a wall or concrete barriers. In the battle space, this reliance on shade to give some respite from the sun has not been lost on the Taliban. In yet another indication that they are watching what we do and the way we do it, they have shown a tendency to plant improvised explosive devices (IED) in areas where the troops are likely to take a pause. Afghanistan has to be one of the few spots in the world where trying to get out of the sun could lead to serious injury or death.

A second area where we are seeing and feeling the changes is in our fight against the Taliban. Their operations in the province have a definite ebb and flow. The winter and spring are usually “relatively” quiet, and seem to have a definite pause while they harvest the poppy crop. I say relatively as it is anything but quiet when you are in a firefight yourself or struck by an IED. Subsequently, we see a period of increased operations that is popularly referred to as the “fighting season.”

Poppies and increased fighting are linked by the fact that the Taliban fighters are frequently found to be the same young men who can be seen in the fields piercing seed bulbs of poppy plants and then collecting the gum that eventually is turned into heroin.

No one is absolutely certain as to how the Taliban campaign will shape up. It is no secret that we have been working to keep the fighting season from erupting with the same intensity as we have seen in years past, but the only way we will know if we have been successful is to watch and react as it unfolds. This takes on all the more importance, with the pending conclusion of our combat mission here in Kandahar, and the requirements for the movement of people and material that mission transition naturally brings with it.

The shift from a combat mission to a training mission, in the northern part of Afghanistan, is probably the most substantial transition we are seeing. The scope of work required in order to be successful is significant. In general terms it means pulling out of the battle space where we have been for the past five years, disposing of our forward operating bases and fieldworks, handing over the terrain to our allies and then coming back to the airfield to pack everything up.  This is then followed by sending the material back to Canada, or on to the new mission. Of course, our portion of this process is only that, and there is an entire separate group of soldiers working just as hard to set up the new training mission around Kabul.

With the end of our mission in Kandahar, a new team of soldiers has started to arrive, to orchestrate the pack-up and shipment of our equipment. This is obviously a positive change that most of us are glad to see. As our people begin the process of leaving, packing their personal kit and performing the myriad administrative tasks that seem to accompany life as a soldier, you can see smiles coming a little easier and a little less stress on faces. It is like they are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and realizing it is not a train coming at them.

From a doctrinal perspective, handing over responsibilities and leaving theatre is a fairly straightforward drill that should be easily executed. The reality however is anything but. When you look at all the individual elements that have to be coordinated and synchronized, it is too easy for one small change to effect a multitude of plans and actions. A volcano in the North Atlantic, for example, tends to disrupt the flow of aircraft coming in and results in more than one change to planned activities.

This week the fact that things are changing was clearly voiced on two separate visits to our troops in the field. The first was by American General David Petraeus, who came into our area specifically to thank the troops for what they have done over the five continuous years we have been here, noting how we are handing over to the American Army in the very near future.

The second happened on Monday, May 30, when the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Walter J. Natynczyk all arrived for a whirlwind one-day visit. In a speech to the troops Harper articulated how the situation had changed dramatically since his first visit here in 2006, reminding the audience of the sacrifices that had been made in the interim and that they were not in vain.

We do not know how the situation will continue to evolve, or when it will stop, but we do know that those of us who are now deployed have very little time left to effect the situation here on the ground.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tod Strickland is Assistant Chief of Staff for Task Force 5-10, and member of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry, serving in Kandahar, Afghanistan.