I was in Afghanistan
with members of the Senate Committee on Defense and Security in March. We spent
4 days there. Part of the visit involved spending a day and a night at the
Provincial Reconstruction Team base just outside of Kandahar City.
This is the base from which many different “social work” initiatives are undertaken,
including teams of military “social workers” who go door to door in the city asking
residents what they might do to help improve their lives. They identify
projects like drilling water wells and then teams of military engineers follow
up and drill them. This is also the base from which a Canadian corrections
officer, a woman, works in her effort to help improve the prison in Kandahar. Canadian police
officers were also in the middle of setting up a school for training Afghan
National Police officers.
We were very interested in seeing development projects first
hand and it was in the process of returning from visiting two of them that we
had one of the most intense experiences of our visit.
We travelled outside the wire that day in an armored convoy
of two LAVs, one at the front and one at the end of the convoy, with three
Nyalas in between. The LAVs are the large green tank like vehicle that we have
seen so often on the news with a heavy machinegun on top requiring the gunner
to be exposed out the top of the LAV. The Nyala is a brown, large jeep like
vehicle with a remote controlled heavy machine gun on top.
I was seated in the third Nyala along with two other
Senators and a team of soldiers. The Senators sat on the left side of the
vehicle facing out the right side with our backs to the left side. One soldier
sat at the back with a heavy machine gun ready to be thrust out a firing
portal. I sat facing another who was seated facing forward on the right side of
the vehicle. He operated the remote controlled machine gun. He had a monitor
which showed where he was pointing the gun at any given moment. The driver and
the commander sat up front.
We were cramped, strapped into our seats, surrounded by
military equipment and sweating profusely in what must have been 35 degree heat
compounded by our flak jackets and helmets. The Nyala was supposed to be air
conditioned and there was something that looked like the top of a plastic water
bottles behind our heads that emitted a stream of cooler air that was
overwhelmed by the heat in the vehicle.
We moved quickly and efficiently through the streets of
Kandahar, the heavily armored and therefore very heavy Nyala bouncing and swaying
as we travelled along sometimes very rough roads, grateful for the should
straps that pinioned us to the seats. We could see people and dilapidated shops
as we sped by. Some of the young children waved.
The intensity of the soldiers’ vigilance was riveting. Repeatedly,
the driver and commander called out to the gunner, identifying possible suicide
bomber threats: “Do you see the blue truck? Have you got the blue truck? Have
you got the blue truck?” And the response: “I got it. I got it.” And he would
turn the remote controlled heavy machine gun on the top of the vehicle toward
what could be a bomb laden truck. It
would appear on his TV monitor. Then, on to the next approaching vehicle: “Do you
see the white car? Got the white car?” Response: “I got it”. Then, his
attention was being drawn to a boy on a bicycle – no way to know what was and
was not a threat. And so would go the routine, always at a high level of
intensity and at the utmost level of alert.
I asked the young soldier who controlled the roof top
machine gun how could shooting at an approaching suicide bomber vehicle make
any difference given how close they could get so quickly. He said even a half
meter difference in proximity to the Nyala once a bomb exploded could make the
difference between life and death for those in the vehicle. Just that distance
could dampen the amount of force that would ultimately be transmitted by the
blast into the chassis of the vehicle and through to its occupants.
And, then, suddenly we stopped. I looked ahead, past the two
Nyalas ahead of us to see the first LAV pull across the road to block any on
coming traffic. Soldiers were out of the LAVs and setting up a perimeter immediately
in response to what was later described as an “escalation of force order.” One
soldier hefted a spike belt from the first LAV and began moving to the back of
the convoy to lay it across the road behind the LAV to stop any would-be
bombers from driving up from behind as the soldiers assessed the situation. Two
soldiers stood about 50 meters behind the LAV facing out with rifles at the
ready. Our gunner swung the remote controlled machine gun back and forth and up
and down searching for any signs of danger.
There was a large truck parked at the side of the road beside
the convoy and now within the area defined by the LAV that had pulled across
the road. Our attention went to it immediately, but it turned out not to be the
issue. Instead, when we turned to look back, we saw the problem. There was a
taxi, stopped in its tracks by warning fire from the LAV at the back of the
convoy. A tire had apparently been shot out. In the process of going around
what might be called a traffic circle, the taxi had somehow become “wedged”
between our Nyala and the last LAV. It had begun to look like a possible suicide
bomber. There are signs on the military vehicles making it clear that no one
should approach them. When one does, even someone on foot or on a bicycle,
nerves become taut. The LAV gunner had fired a well placed warning shot and had
brought things to a grinding halt.
Several soldiers approached the taxi and its several
occupants slowly. Eventually, after ascertaining that there was no threat, they
struck up a conversation with the driver and arranged for him to visit the PRT
base to discuss compensation for the damage with the base legal officer. Care
is taken to make reparations when something like this happens.
We got back to base, hot, tired and tense. The soldiers
often do this several times a day.