I landed at Kandahar Airfield one Sunday morning on a knackered-looking plane out of Dubai. I was the only journalist on board. Aside from me, there were Russian flight attendants and a few bearded private-security types. It was the fall of 2009—what you might call the beginning of the end of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. There had been no all-out fight against the Taliban since Operation Medusa in 2006. Instead of combat, the troops got anodyne ambushes from an enemy who had trouble holding a Kalashnikov straight—but who could make and plant roadside bombs with deadly genius.
Kandahar Airfield, or KAF, refers to the enormous international military complex that has been built around what would otherwise be a forgotten airport. It is one of the main staging areas for NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, but it’s better thought of as a small city, with paved roads, churches, a hospital and a bus service. There are rumours of gang activity and, after dark, prostitution on the boardwalk. When I arrived, the boardwalk hosted a Pizza Hut, a Tim Hortons and a fast-food joint that sold burgers and fries twenty-four-seven. The French even ran a place where you could get a decent espresso.
Among many troops outside the wire—that expansive place where you got shot at and mortared every other fucking day—KAF was a dirty word. It was this asymmetry of comfort that, in 2010, led US general Stanley McChrystal, a notorious hard-ass, to strip the boardwalk of most of its restaurants. He was worried his boys were going soft. But the Americans were also happy to let the Canadians do most of the fighting in Kandahar, and the Tim Hortons was allowed to stay.
The general rule for war correspondents was to spend as little time at KAF as possible. It was a news vortex. Sure, you could get booze, or even score hash from a fixer. But, despite being more than 10,000 kilometres away, KAF was still too close to Ottawa. While preparing a story about Remembrance Day, I once asked a colonel if the date carried any added significance in a war zone. The colonel began, “When you’re fighting the Taliban...” Then she stopped herself, turned to the media relations officer leering over my shoulder, and asked, “Are we allowed to say ‘fighting’?”
There was no spin outside the wire. As long as you humped your own bag and never slowed the troops down, they would tolerate your presence, and might even tell you something interesting. Like what model Mustang they’d buy with their deployment bonus. Or the colour of their baby daughter’s eyes. You could sit with them as they watched Rambo on a laptop, a naked light bulb swinging overhead. A captain might take you aside and explain why he insisted on leading every patrol. He couldn’t live with himself, he’d say, if he let one of his boys step on an IED—an improvised explosive device. The troops are young. The captain would point to one, whom they called Guns: sandy hair, a raffish smile, pimples.
Canadian high command spoke often about “breaking the back of the insurgency,” though really it was just trying to consolidate its hold on the area’s most prized piece of land: Kandahar City. In the initial years of its deployment in Kandahar, the Canadian military was spread too thin; 1,500 soldiers covered an area the size of New Brunswick. With American reinforcements arriving as the war in Iraq wound down, Canada was able to focus its attention on a smaller, more manageable area. Toward the end of the 2009 fighting season, word began to spread that there had been some progress in Dand, the district southwest of Kandahar City.
I took a Chinook to one of the district’s success stories, a village called Belanday. On the chopper with me was a contingent from Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which was relieving Quebec City’s Royal 22e Regiment, better known as the Van Doos. While the military braintrust talked about “winning hearts and minds,” it fell to the frontline troops to actually get this done. That meant leaving the safety—and relative comfort—of forward operating bases for more exposed positions inside villages. It meant more foot patrols, more face time with Afghans. This was classic counter-insurgency theory, a body of military knowledge resurrected from end-of-empire wars. But as hot as the senior brass ran on COIN, the grunts were just as cold. “If one of those motherfuckers even looks at me the wrong way, I’ll light him up,” said one Pat as he waited for the helicopter.
When we landed in the village, the incoming soldiers were met by their commanding officer, who gave them a short briefing. He effectively said: The Van Doos have a good thing going here, so let’s not fuck it up. I found the outgoing CO sitting on a cot in a cramped dormitory. He said that he’d love to talk, but he was leaving on the next chopper. He pointed me instead to a twenty-four-year-old lieutenant, Jérémie Verville, who still had a couple of days left in his rotation. Verville told me the story of what happened in Belanday.
In July 2009, the Van Doos arrived to a ghost town. There was an Afghan National Police unit hunkered down in a school compound, but otherwise the village was empty. The ANP had been stranded by its superiors and cut off from the supply chain. Without food, money or ammo, the police had taken to stealing from the locals, who fled. The school soon became a regular target of mortar attacks.
The captain’s orders were to carry out the kind of COIN operations that his superiors were reading so much about. His troops promptly moved in with the police and brought them in line. They offered the few villagers they could find some cash to fix up the school, dig ditches and join in other make-work projects. The military believed the fight could become winnable if it just knocked out the day-tripper insurgents. According to its intelligence, Taliban commanders—the hardliners—were paying farmers to plant IEDs, hide weapons and take the odd potshot at a foot patrol. Many villagers were ideologically ambivalent but financially persuadable. I asked Verville: So who, exactly, is the Taliban?
“Someone who will risk his life for about four bucks,” he answered.
With the ANP behaving and money starting to flow, villagers returned to Belanday and warmed to the Canadians. But the Taliban continued to mortar the base at night. Toward the end of August, a stray shell struck a nine-year-old girl, and her injuries were critical. The captain called for a nine-liner—a medical evacuation—and the girl was airlifted to KAF, where she died. Upon seeing her grieving father, the troops decided to do something. It wasn’t long before the Van Doos caught the three men who had attacked the base. They recovered the mortar tube to present to the father. This, Verville said, was a turning point.
Tensions slackened after that. The Van Doos adopted a stray dog and befriended local children, even teaching them some proper Québécois slang. The kids would shout, “Tabarnak!”—or some Pashto approximation of it—as they scampered past the sentries at the school.
As Verville was telling me all this, an explosion sounded, and a burst of gunfire was directed our way. Verville rushed into the command post. As I waited for him, I struck up a conversation with a voluble military-intelligence officer, who told me that a Canadian engineer patrolling the outskirts of the village had just stepped on an IED. He bled out and died, and within an hour the news began to filter through the base. When Verville finally emerged from the CP, he looked tired, suddenly much older than his years.
“There’s still work to do,” he said, and then went to a meeting with the village elders, who had been summoned to the base. A special-forces officer blocked my way as I tried to follow them into the room.
For the incoming soldiers, it was a rough start to the rotation. They would lose several more men before getting their chance to return home. But they stuck to the plan in Belanday. By the time I returned to Afghanistan a year later, it was among the calmest parts in the Canadian area of operation. In Dand, or at least in this village, the Afghans bought what the Canadians were selling. Or the Canadians bought what the Afghans were selling: a truce in exchange for money and security. It was as pragmatic a deal as it was fragile.
Before leaving KAF for the long journey back to Montreal, I went to the bathroom, where all great thinking is done, even in war zones. I stared at the latrine door before me and read the graffiti carefully: “Things you’ve learned on this tour: 1. French soldiers are useless; 2. Signals majors are also useless; 3. RMC”—Royal Military College—“grads still think they learned to lead in university and that degrees make good leaders; 4. Never get involved in a land war in Asia.” When I came back in 2010, the bathroom stalls were covered in black paint and the graffiti was gone.
An end-game vibe had taken hold. American and Afghan soldiers were doing more of the fighting in Kandahar, the Canadians progressively less. There was a final push to get Canadian celebrities to KAF for morale-boosting visits. One of the slick fellows from Dragons’ Den showed up and spoke about the entrepreneurial spirit. And then it was all over. On July 5, 2011, Canada was transformed from a nation at war to a nation, more or less, at peace. It was easy to miss the occasion—a prince and princess were visiting Canada at the time.
The military spent the next several months packing. A logistics team sifted through the leftover equipment. The crap was sold at auction; the cheap stuff was shipped by truck through Pakistan; the good stuff was taken back to Canada on a fleet of cargo planes, ready for the next war. Nothing was left behind. Even modest memorials that soldiers built to honour their dead comrades were dismantled and put in storage, or, in one case, buried in the desert sand. One by one, the Hercs and Globemasters left KAF, taking with them a presence that had once seemed so vital but had become, somewhere along the way, an afterthought.
I, too, stopped thinking about the war after my last trip to Kandahar. About a year later, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. When these things happen, they let you take time off work; you’re dispatched to a therapist. You’re supposed to watch funny movies and read paperbacks. But I often found myself thrown awake at night by dreams of the war. I’d sit alone with my dust-caked notebooks, recalling the noises of the helicopters and jets, the whistling rockets, the totalizing stillness that would suddenly envelop the Kandahar night. I wanted to hear these sounds again. I needed to resurrect every detail of the war: The smell of burning garbage. The shouts for a medic when an IED goes off. The sweet Afghan tea. It can all fade so fast. Now is the time to read the writing on the wall, before the order comes down to paint it black.