Operation Attention — that’s us! Over here! Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan did not end with the conclusion of combat operations in the fall of 2011 — although much of the Canadian population thinks otherwise. It is not surprising really. Canadians are tired of their troops being in combat and calling them “mentors” is an easy way for the government to make the job sound safer. There are approximately 920 of us in Kabul as part of the aforementioned Op Attention and indeed our primary role is to act as advisers, in varying trades and capacities, to the Afghan National Army (ANA), air force and police.
Operation Attention came into existence in May 2011, approximately six months before the withdrawal of our combat troops from Kandahar in the south. Our rotation was known as “Roto 0,” the first deployment of Canadian Forces personnel to this operation. Any Roto 0 is considered a template-maker, a first kick at the can. And our deployment was precisely that.
Think about it: How do you train to be an adviser in a war zone — Kabul — in a Muslim country? The combat troops spent six months (or more) before leaving Canada, training in mock Afghan villages, set up at CFB Wainwright in Alberta. Actors played Afghan villagers and Taliban insurgents. After months of practising tactics over and over and over again, these soldiers were sharp and ready to go.
Training for Op Attention, on the other hand, brought a disparate group of Canadian Forces personnel together in various parts of the country (though primarily in CFB Edmonton, Alberta). We were a mix of regular and reserve forces. We were army, navy and air force. We were signalers, engineers, logisticians, officers, enlisted, NCOs, infantry, artillery and armour. You can credit Paul Hellyer’s rather messy unification of the Canadian Forces in the late 1960s for this odd mix. The one good thing Hellyer achieved was to bring all the support trades together for training purposes. In other words, a navy cook, an army cook and an air force cook all go to the same cooking school. Likewise, the medical, dental, public affairs, logistics, supply and most other support trades. The only difference would be the uniform they wore.
Thus I became part of Op Attention — a naval reserve logistics officer on a primarily regular force army mission. This “hodge-podgeness” is a strength that the Canadian Forces bring to whatever mission they take on because of its inherent adaptability that so many militaries lack.
So what is a naval reserve logistician doing on a mission such as Op Attention? I asked myself that several times during pre-deployment training and while on the deployment itself. I was driven to apply for this deployment for the standard reasons: mid-life crisis, glory, a desire to help, to serve my country — and the medals, the money, the adventure. At 57, I had failed the navy’s fitness test twice in a row and was on the verge of being turfed from the organization I loved. If I wanted to go to Afghanistan, I had to pass the fitness test, so talk about incentive.
For several months in Victoria, I worked hard at regaining my fitness. Then the day arrived and I found myself nervously standing on CFB Esquimalt’s gymnasium floor. First up was the damned “beep test” that got me every time. [The beep test is synchronized to an audio track, in which, at each beep, the runner has to speed up to keep up.] My short legs had to work twice as hard to cover the same distance that my long-legged companions seemed to stride over with ease. Nevertheless, I passed. I survived this and sit-ups, push-ups, the grip test and pre-test medical.
It must have been quite difficult for the “highers”, as our leaders are called, to create a training regimen that would prepare us for this version of an Afghan deployment. We weren’t preparing for combat, but the situation was still dangerous. We were going to be working directly with the ANA officers and soldiers on their turf — an interesting dynamic where you would know who your enemy was and yet you would not be sure of the dependability of your own ally.
We were placed in extremely good hands at CFB Edmonton — those of the “3VP,” the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (whose Colonel-in-Chief is the former Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson). This light infantry regiment is famous for the action of its second battalion at Kapyong during the Korean War and all its battalions during both world wars. Despite being incredibly busy already, with its soldiers spread around the world, 3VP was to be the “force generating” organization for Roto 0 of Operation Attention.
Warrant Officer Chuck Côté and his team took us through small arms training, cultural awareness studies, kitting up, patrolling, mine- and IED-awareness, convoys, more paperwork, more medicals and dentals. My own nemesis was the dreaded BFT: the Battle Fitness Test. In order to deploy, everyone has to pass this ordeal: 13.5 kilometres, wearing full fighting order, including tactical vest and body armour (total weight: 24 kilograms), all to be marched in two hours and 20 minutes or less. Not only that. Upon completion, one had to drag a comrade of equivalent weight one hundred feet and move a pile of pea gravel with a shovel to simulate digging a trench.
With one arm hanging completely numb, my back and feet afire and my spirit ready to pack it in, my saviour was one of the Roto’s two padres, Major Al Murphy. A man of constant and infectious good humour, he paced me the last half of the 13.5 kilometres. Padre Murphy kept me hydrated, told bad jokes, adjusted my heavy kit and simply would not let me quit, which I really wanted to do. I finished last, perhaps over the time limit. Thanks Padre.
By this time, it’s close to the middle of July 2011. We have had a period of leave and my group — the headquarters component — has spent five weeks on the firing ranges, day and night, practicing patrols and weapons handling. One lecture series was not particularly helpful, although the intent was valid. This was our two days of “cultural awareness.” It was presented by three Afghans (now Canadian federal government employees) who had not been in Kabul for several years. In a show of misplaced patriotism, they showed us old slides of markets, fine homes and assured us that Kabul was a perfectly safe place for a westerner to walk around. Two of our soldiers who had served in Kabul the previous year were absolutely gob-smacked. They told stories of a Kabul that was now the spawning ground and home of the Taliban, where, if one were infidel, as a westerner, he/she was in grave danger.
Now it was time to go: Edmonton-Gander-Germany-Kuwait-Kabul-Afghanistan. Two days of flying and we arrived. Shortly thereafter, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
For many years, along with being a naval reservist, I was a physical education teacher at a prep school in Victoria, B.C. Despite wearing a uniform for almost 25 years, including on a previous deployment to Sudan, I still have a civilian mindset. Upon arriving at the military airport in Kabul, and after sorting out our mountainous piles of kit, we lined up to be issued weapons, ammunition and ballistic plates for our body armour. This was when it hit me, that I was in a wholly different place with different rules.
I watched my colleagues, some veterans of several deployments, and tried to copy their nonchalance and cheery chatter. But inside, I wasn’t cool. The airport reminded me of what I thought Vietnam must have been like. Starkly lit, armoured vehicles everywhere, helicopters and other craft taking off and landing every minute and everybody armed with at least a sidearm and some armed with side arm and rifle.
We now had to get from the airport to our camp. Conveyed by armoured vehicles of varying sizes, we crammed ourselves in, wearing “FFO” — full fighting order: helmets, flak and tactical vests, weapons, ammo and more. I would learn quickly that everyone modified his/her tactical vests but always, always, one carried as much 5.56 ammo as he/she could carry in the pouches on the vest. The regular force guys, the “vets,” had their own equipment brought from Edmonton, sometimes purchased on their own. (One of the lessons learned by the army in Afghanistan south was the unsuitability of the current tac vests, the kind I wore, with too few ammo pouches and not easy-enough access to side arms and ammunition.)
I’m crammed into this armoured vehicle driven by two American sergeants, with a dozen other people, weapons poking out everywhere. I find out that all travel here must be done in convoy. In our case, this meant several vehicles interspersed with giant, heavily armoured and armed tactical vehicles. The passengers are told to “watch their arcs” for potential suicide vehicles and bombers. Until we reach our camp, I am rigid and on the edge of my seat, staring out into the night, while the vehicle’s radio played American rock ‘n’ roll.
A new type of war fighting exists here. The standard Taliban tactics of IEDs — planted IEDs, VBIEDS (vehicle-borne IEDs), suicide bombers — all exist “outside the wire.” Now, however, we also have to be concerned about inside the wire, right where we live, in the various camps around Kabul. Whether it is insurgents sneaking in, an ANA soldier turned traitor or frontal attacks, lethal contact has happened more frequently of late. Known as a ”green on blue,” for example, is a disgruntled ANA soldier, turning his weapon on coalition forces — and four French soldiers are killed and 17 wounded. In this instance, the French soldiers are unarmed. The soldier, as it turns out, is angry at the American soldiers who desecrated the bodies of Taliban men by urinating on them.
This “inside the wire warfare” drives the type of weapons training we do. The “QRDs,” or quick reaction drills, are practised over and over, much of it practised at our desks, in our offices. I’m not sure what this would be called. “Interior Urban Warfare,” perhaps?
We practised drawing our side arms from sitting in a chair, behind a desk. This adaptation has been driven by the sad case of nine Americans killed last year at the Kabul airport by an angry Afghan Air Force officer during an argument. None of the nine had pulled their weapons. Some, however, had their cellular phones in their hands. So we continue to practise on our own and on the ranges and in dry runs in the camps. You might imagine how we feel, whenever we walk by armed ANA soldiers. For my part, I am hyper-alert and keeping a leery eye, and mentally add the stress of this to the other stressors.
As I observe the Canadian soldiers in this multi-national environment, I cannot help but believe they stand head and shoulders above the soldiers of the other nations here. I hear much scuttlebutt around the camps to support this. Canadian soldiers have the shortest hair, the best carriage and deportment and are generally the smartest dressed, even though their uniforms are slightly dated compared to their international colleagues. (Fortunately, this will change next year, when they are to be issued the latest in combat wear.)
All the soldiers take terrific pride in the units they belong to and do not hesitate to “jack up” another soldier for “letting down the side.” I am by no means a professional soldier and these young fellers are continually saying, “Sir, you should have your hat on.” Or, “Sir, do you really want to wear your holster that way?” Or, “Sir, perhaps time for a haircut?” and so on. I take it all in good humour, knowing they care about how “we” look compared to the other countries here.
Prepare as we might for worst-case scenarios, sometimes there is nothing we can do. This was sadly the case when MCpl Byron Greff was killed by a VBIED while on an armoured NATO bus, taking him back to his camp after returning from leave. His comrades here and at the other camps were devastated by the death of this popular young man. Also killed on the bus were several others including ‘Lucy’, a popular former bomb sniffer dog and her handler. The 200-plus Canadians were gathered in the camp square and told the sad news about MCpl Greff. The silence and sadness were palpable.
MCpl Greff’s three closest friends here at Camp Alamo came up with the idea of creating a velcroed poppy patch to be worn on our uniforms and sold to all the soldiers, with funds raised going to Greff’s young family. The idea took off like wildfire, with demands for the patch coming from all across Kabul and from Canada. Several thousand dollars were raised and to this day, many of us still wear the poppy patch, under a pocket or in our field hats, because it is no longer authorized for wear on our uniforms. As the patch says, “We will remember you, Byron Greff.”
Afghanistan is an emotional and surreal place for this naval reservist. Our little Camp Alamo is a small bastion of approximately 600 soldiers from several nations, built in the middle of the Kabul Military Training Centre, which houses and trains 10,000 ANA soldiers. As this is a mentoring/advising mission, most of us spend time with our Afghan counterparts on “their side.” I simply cannot put into words the dichotomy between the Afghan soldier and your typical Canadian soldier.
Inadequately dressed for winter weather, poorly fed and vastly underpaid, these Afghan soldiers still have the ability the laugh and to play amongst themselves. I see different expressions on the faces of these soldiers. Laughter, as I try out my bits of the Dari language on them; disdain, resentment and anger for my being here and sometimes an unfathomable look that I cannot decipher.
Is being an adviser/mentor “combat?” If you listen to our government, we are not in combat, but safely “behind the wire” in classrooms. This is true, in that some of us are not going out on patrols as they were in the south, into Taliban country. However, the number of fraggings, the death of MCpl Greff, the manner in which we suit up in full personal protective gear with weapons, and even the fact that we travel in heavily armed and heavily armoured vehicles leads me to think that this is indeed “combat,” and Kabul is “outside the wire”. It is danger in different disguises. As I look at the young men and women going out every day, the throaty sounds of their armoured vehicles bellowing into the crisp morning air, I tell myself that soldiers have been doing this for centuries. Only their transport and weapons change.
It is early days yet but I believe there is some possibility that this mission, going at least until 2014, may have more impact on Afghanistan, over the long term, than our combat operations out of Kandahar did. The coalition forces are helping to create a national army and police force from the ground up.
The only part missing, I feel, is that we should be doing the same with the Afghan government. I’m not sure that one can succeed without the other. Perhaps we should send some of our Canadian parliamentarians to help with this. The Kandahar mission’s goal was to overwhelm and move the Taliban out of a certain area. This Kabul mission is much like giving a farmer the grain and teaching him how to farm, rather than just giving him a tractor.
In other words, if we are successful, we will have helped create a national security system that can stand and operate on its own. They, the Afghans, do not need to be told who the enemy is.
I want to believe that the tremendous efforts expended and lives forfeited by the coalition forces here will help this country and its warm, wonderful and generous people. Truly they deserve it.
Lieutenant and naval reservist James Parker returned home to Victoria in March, after serving eight months on Op Attention. With only two years left in the Canadian Forces, he plans to volunteer in a civilian role for another mission with the UN or NATO.