A Reservist's Tale Of A Tour

Eight Weeks (And Then Some)

with 3 comments

Friday mornings are my “weekend”. We knock off work early Thursday and don’t have to be in the office until 1pm on Friday, giving me a morning to sleep in, and generally, we all meet for pancakes at the Afghan restaurant for brunch. It’s a nice little routine.

It’s now been eight weeks I’ve been here (actually a little more – I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Kabul International Airport on February 23) and I’m pretty well settled in. We’ve got a pattern of life mostly established, I work with a pretty awesome team of people, and we not only get our work done, we have a fair bit of fun doing it. There’s really no one in the cell I work in that I don’t get along with. Of course, we have extra incentive to get along, it’s not that easy to just move along.

Just like at home, we have training to get done, and we’ve now worked out a schedule to keep up on it. Things like ethics training are normal components of military life, and as one of the Canadian Unit Ethics Coordinators on the ground, I have a chore to run an hour refresher on a regular basis. We have first aid refreshers, ROE training refreshers, and of course range training.

Yesterday was a pretty rainy day in Kabul, and just as you might expect, it was also the day appointed for us to go to the range. There’s only a small contingent of Canadians where I work, but we’re close to another bunch, so we pool some of our training activities, so off we drove to the 100m range. It’s a rather unusual setting, more austere than a range at home, but that’s not shocking. The plan was to do some rifle zero confirmation (that is, making sure what you see through our optical sight matches where the bullets are hitting) for those who needed it, and then do some transition shooting. That means switching between rifle/carbine and pistol, which you might need to do if for some reason your rifle fails to fire and you need to get rounds down range.

Arriving at the range, which was a good test of the four wheel drive in the beat up Toyota Land Cruiser we had for the day, we discovered the rain had created a vast sea of sucking, heavy mud. Trudging around in it wasn’t much fun, and I found myself rather glad that I had jumped at a chance to do my zeroing already, because to do it right, you have to shoot from the prone, and laying in a mud pit wasn’t my idea of a good time. Transitions, on the other hand, weren’t so bad – but it went quickly, and I honestly can’t complain, because the wind, the rain, and the wet was just unpleasant, and I was happy to get back to camp and go to the gym to warm up. The range we went to faces into a mountain, but has lots of pasture land around, and several herds of goats and sheep could be seen, their tenders paying little attention to us.

On ranges in Canada, at the end of the day’s shooting, you have to pick up brass – all the spent casings. On courses, it’s common for staff to threaten some punishment for missing any – usually 10 pushups per casing. Here, before we could even imagine picking up any brass, the ANA tend to race down to take care of it. Brass is valuable, after all. The speed with which they work makes me think that they’re the closest thing to the mythical “brass magnet” that we suggest recruits should have brought with them.

One of the training/professional development events coming up will be a rather amusing fusion of my two careers – recently, a change to the retirement benefits Canadian soldiers get was announced. It’s similar to what was done for civilian defence employees last year, which kept me busy at my day job, so I’m going to run a little seminar for my colleagues who are impacted so I can help them understand what’s changing and the financial implications. Kind of funny to see my two professions collide, but I got enough requests that it only made sense.

Things are going well. Kabul is back to normal after last week’s attack, and I traveled through the city including past the site of one of the incidents shortly after and there was no real sign of anything having happened. Life has returned to normal, I think.

A bit about Kabul. I’ll try to get some pictures at some point, but it’s a bit of a crazy city. I’ve never seen traffic anything like it. Most intersections are traffic circles with police trying to direct traffic, but the reality is that they are trying to shoehorn chaos and it barely works. Add to this pandemonium seemingly aimless pedestrians everywhere, and you have a recipe for disaster, though it doesn’t seem like there’s that many real accidents. Most vehicles are Toyota Corollas imported from everywhere. Canadian ones are particularly prized apparently, and often have Canadian flag stickers on them. Where I used to live, in Oshawa, Ontario, an Afghan-Canadian who owned a pizza shop had a side business of buying used Corollas and sending them over – there were always several parked in front of his shop. There’s also a wide assortment of buses (often old German ones) and trucks (again, commonly German, with their original marking intact), and Toyota HiAce minivans, into which you can pack about 45 Afghans.. Often an Afghan license plate is simply put on top of the original German/European one. The other popular means of conveyance are motorcycles – generally Japanese or Chinese bikes, normally 150cc or so. They’re often adorned with all sorts of personalization – flags, stickers, tassels, and carpets on the seats. They make me miss bikes, but I’ve picked out my new one for when I get home.

Signs are everywhere advertising the latest technology – 3G phones are now available here, with Roshan and Etisalat rolling out their networks. Cell phone adds are most common, but you’ll see advertising for banks, insurance companies, and so on. Business is brisk, often in little shops, but new office/commercial buildings are everywhere as well, and there’s lots under construction (though it’s from buildings under construction that the most serious attacks have been launched). In addition to internet cafes and schools, you’ll see bakeries with footbread hanging on display (they generally sport fluorescent orange and yellow awnings, I’ve noticed), and butcher shops with meat just hanging out in the open – a little bit bizarre. Apparently, some of our guys saw a cow being slaughtered in the street in the city, locals didn’t seem to think anything of it. Not exactly what you’d expect at home.

What is most astounding is the sprawl, though. Kabul’s surrounded by steep mountains, and settlements are built all up them – little goat track-like roads lead up almost impossibly steep slopes to shanty towns which make me think of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. They’re a sign of the real problem – Kabul was a city of about 500,000 until just a few years ago, now estimates place its population anywhere from 2-5 million – and the city doesn’t have adequate housing or services for them. That’s an issue they’ll have to tackle over time – but how, I’m not sure.

Written by Nick

April 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nick,

    Your descriptions of Kabul take me back. You make me wish I was there again. While tourism has started to return, I sure hope that the stability required for that great culture to showcase itself to the world again is not too far away.

    Your descriptions of the training effort of the Afghan Security Forces occasionally make it sound like the international effort has only just started this train the Afghans strategy. While I know that you know that this is not the case, I thought I’d mention to your other readers that this has been a significant part of the ISAF effort since 2002. In fact Canadians have been involved in the redevelopment of Afghan security, economics and governance all along. Most people are not aware of this simply as the media covered effort was of the part where we had battle groups helping provide stabilization in Kandahar in order that the rest of these tasks could be conducted. On top of that, the media (as they do) mainly covered the deaths of soldiers and had little time for passing on the thousands of positive accomplishments that have occurred.

    Such efforts as the ones we tackle in today in Afghanistan take time and understanding, and more time and more understanding. Keep it up, people helping people is always worthwhile.


    April 22, 2012 at 3:54 pm

  2. Lots of questions for you today!!

    Have you had much of a chance to interract with non-ANSF, non-military-related civilians, if any and what are your impressions with regards to embracing such western things like 3G and commercial buildings, etc.? Have the locals expressed any thoughts on the Canadian/International presence in the area? Anything particularly negative in Kabul aside from the garbage situation you mentioned? Do you find that Kabul is liberal compared to other surrounding areas?

    Will you be generally staying in Kabul area or is there any chance you’ll be moved before the end of your tour?

    Not trying to bug ya, just very fascinating to hear about life over there. 🙂

    Scott Robinson

    April 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm

    • The only real contact I have with non-ANSF are the interpreters and some of the locals who work around us. I can’t just go talk to the “man in the street”, because of the language barrier first of all, and just because we don’t patrol outside the wire which is the best chance. That said, we get a good idea of how people feel from them.

      It seems, in Kabul at least, that people are generally happy with progress made. They know we aren’t staying forever and you get the sense that the ANSF’s performance last week has helped their confidence. There is a lot of effort going into studying perceptions and atmospherics here, and it sounds like corruption, nepotism, and lack of economic opportunity are the big challenges. However, the ANSF, especially the army, is generally respected by the public, we hear. The police less so, but still positive.

      Kabulis love technology. Everyone has cell phones – and in the trips outside the city it’s appeared the same way. Likewise, there are Internet cafes everywhere and Facebook is pretty popular here. There’s an Afghan version of kijiji type sites too – I see ads for it on Facebook all the time.

      Kabul’s relatively more liberal than the rest of the country apparently, you see the odd woman not even wearing a hijab (head scarf) but that’s rare. You do still see a lot of burqas around, but no one is forcing women to wear them – it’s at least to some extent a choice.

      As for my tour: I live and work in Kabul and that won’t change, but my job affords me some travel opportunities, unlike a lot of people here who never leave their camps. We joked that the attack last week was probably intended to remind people in the Green Zone that they are in fact in a war zone, because other than everyone carrying guns, that might not be totally evident.


      April 24, 2012 at 8:19 am

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