Sean M. Maloney is a professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada and has travelled to Afghanistan regularly since 2003. The author of the forthcoming Confronting the Chaos: A Rogue Historian Returns to Afghanistan, he is currently writing a history of Canada’s war in Afghanistan.
The grey-uniformed Afghan police, accompanied by Canadian soldiers from the Police Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (POMLT), were working their way on a patrol through the crowded market in Bazaar-e Panjwai. The market, lined with stores selling everything from oranges and pomegranates to colourfully embroidered bicycle seats, runs along both sides of the town’s main road, anchored in the west by the main Canadian and Afghan base, and stretching in the east to the dangerous IED-plagued highway that runs to Kandahar city. As the patrol greeted the shopkeepers and watched the children head down the road to the school, a robed man approached. He suddenly raised his arms, shouted “Allahu akbar!” and pressed a trigger that was attached to his bomb vest. The device refused to detonate as he madly mashed the trigger down again and again. The four Canadians opened fire with their assault rifles while the Afghan police moved the terrified crowd back. Even as the terrorist lay bleeding to death on the ground he was still trying to detonate the bomb. His batteries, it turned out later, were dead. According to one soldier, it was as if the pink Energizer drumming bunny had frozen in place at the end of the commercial.
In 2003, Bazaar-e Panjwai was a dusty ghost town at the dead end of a rotting grey tarmac road. Six years later, it is a booming economic and educational centre at the confluence of the volatile Panjwai and Zharey districts, with brand-new paved highways that connect it to Kandahar city and the vital regional trade route, Highway 1. A dead-end burg no longer, children from distant villages attend the school there. Is it any wonder that the insurgents want to interfere with it through infiltration, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and intimidation? The battle for Bazaar-e Panjwai is on, but it is a battle unlike the larger-scale Operation Medusa back in 2006. Bazaar-e Panjwai is a microcosm of the counter-insurgency fight—and it is a case study of Canadian-Afghan co-operation that is critical to success in Afghanistan. Police are or should be at the forefront of any winning counter-insurgency effort.
There are many non-traditional Canadian military units involved. One of them is Construction Management Team-1. CMT-1, by coincidence, is commanded by a former student of mine, Capt. Megan Harding. She is an airfield construction engineer who leads a motley crew of navy plumbers, air force carpenters, and even submariners in armoured vehicles. Their task: manage and protect a paving project in Panjwai district. Criticized as inefficient and poorly conceived, this much-maligned project has, it turns out, had unintended positive effects on the population in the district. It employs between 400 and 450 people, almost all of whom are from Panjwai.
“We noticed that there was a micro economy emerging to cater to the workers’ needs,” Harding explained. “It was small things at first—like snacks, lunch food and small goods—but then we noticed that the workers were progressively better dressed and wearing closed-toed shoes. They started using bicycles to get to work instead of walking. Now some even have motorcycles.” There were rumours that the district leader demanded kickbacks, but even that was no deterrent—these men are paid at a rate one-third higher than elsewhere, and realized that disposable income was a good thing. So did their wives, apparently. The quality and availability of textiles in the bazaar has markedly improved, something I noticed while I was on several foot patrols through there.
The insurgents noticed, too—and attacked the project. Starting in November 2008, small arms, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and mortar fire were directed against the CMT-1 crew. Then an IED was found near the project’s gravel pit. Another IED detonated when a mechanical loader manoeuvred onto it, injuring the driver. In January, an insurgent blew himself up as he stepped on a pressure plate IED that he had just finished laying at the door of the project office. The insurgents upped the ante and started to kidnap and threaten workers. “But they still showed up,” Harding told me. “There were 23 absences out of 400 workers—even after the attacks.” And the road is getting paved—slowly, but it is getting paved.
Cpl. Joe Wright is a real character: in a Gen X mockery of baby boom imagery, he draws Watchmen-like smiley faces on the yellow-headed 40-mm grenade rounds he carries. Joe is part of the CMT-1 security force and explained how he met the local mullah by accident and discovered that the mosque was in disrepair. “The windows were broken, leaving the building cold and drafty in the winter, which discouraged prayer,” he explained. “And the speaker system was rusted out.” CMT-1, with the help of a Civil-Military Co-operation patrol—the eyes and ears in the field of the Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team—was able to secure money from the Commander’s Contingency Fund to help repair the mosque so the mullah can more effectively counter the message of hate spread by the Taliban. “I could be killed for just talking to you,” he told me. “Inshallah I won’t be, but please thank the Canadian army for helping fix our mosque.” The effects? Goodwill in the community is one . . . but there were more.
I accompanied Capt. Chuck Pitkin and his men working with the Afghan National Army on a patrol in Bazaar-e Panjwai. I wanted to see how the ANA was progressing. In 2006, it was nearly incapable of conducting company-level operations, even with mentoring. Pitkin explained that he now regularly went out on patrols planned by an Afghan company commander and led by Afghan platoon leaders. Like any army, quality will vary, but this group, a platoon from Weapons Company, 2nd (Strike) Kandak, all had body armour, helmets—and Canadian-made C-7 assault rifles. This was not the ragtag force I saw in 2006. It was definitely not the Mad Max-like militia I dealt with back in 2003.