Sunday, November 11, 2007

From Marcus in Afghanistan

This is a letter from my friend Marcus in Afghanistan. I think it's a good one, so I'm posting it here.

This year, I celebrated Remembrance Day in Afghanistan. We gathered outside our headquarters, near a cenotaph erected to all of our comrades who fell in Afghanistan, and received the families of some of the guys who got killed recently.

There were also representatives of the RCMP, Government of Canada, and the government of Afghanistan. But most importantly, a platoon of Afghan National Army (ANA) guys, along with some senior commanders showed up.

The service was predominantly in English and French; only for certain points, did they offer a translation into Dari or Pashtu (I'm not sure which one it was, I assume Pashtu but I'm not certain). They had prayers for the fallen, given by one of our Padres, and translated into Pashtu.

Personally, I thought it was a nice gesture to invite the Afghans, but it was an opportunity missed. We spent the entire ceremony honouring the Canadians who fell in combat, but only mentioned in passing the Afghan soldiers who died. This was a mistake.

I can say without a doubt in my mind that the ANA pays a steeper price in blood than anybody else in theatre (other than the Taliban of course). Some of their senior officers and NCOs fought the Soviets, and those that were too young (which would have been under 14 at the time) still fought in the civil war before the Taliban came to power... Others still fought the Taliban throughout their regime.

The Operations and Mentoring Liaison Team (OMLT) are here teaching the ANA. They aren't here teaching these guys how to kill; honestly, they have more experience at it than we do. Nor are we here to teach them how to cope with losses; they've done more dying than we ever will here in theatre. We're here to teach them discipline, professionalism, restraint, administration, intelligence and logistics. And from what I saw, they're learning especially well.

But, the fact remains that they've been fighting here for longer than we have, have lost more men than we have (or will), and will be protecting the Afghan people long after we're gone. Thus, it was rather embarrassing to listen to our padres drone on about Canadian sacrifice, while in the corner of my eye I could see men who had lost far more friends and family in battle, who have breathed more of the bitter stink of war than us.

We laid 10 wreaths in our ceremony; the families of a number of dead Canadians laid some, as did some senior Canadian officers, the Kandahar Chief of Police, an ANA Brigade Commander, and the provincial Governor of Kandahar. What were these men thinking about when they were planting wreaths for dead Canadians, while behind them in the parade were the battle weary Afghan soldiers, clad in their dark green forest camouflage uniforms and their old, rattling AK-47s? What did they think of us, standing there with our desert camouflage and our high-tech rifles with optical scopes? What did they think, knowing that some of our force was on their "HLTA", a paid vacation to Canada, Thailand, Europe, or any other locale? What did they think, knowing that our risk and hardship bonuses alone could probably outfit an entire ANA battalion with decent uniforms and effective body-armour? What do their soldiers think when they arrived for the ceremony in the back of pickup trucks, driving past our LAV-IIIs and Nayala mine-proof armoured vehicles?

I don't mean to insinuate that they don't appreciate the contribution of Canadians; they certainly do. But we get so wrapped up in ourselves, that we forget their contribution, which I would argue is easily an order of magnitude greater than our own in terms of blood. Canadians at home are slowly becoming more cognizant of our own sacrifices, but remain woefully ignorant of the Afghans'.

Not only that, but I know that my family is safe while I am here in Afghanistan. The same cannot be said of an ANA soldier, or Afghan National Police officer. What do the Taliban do to families of "collaborators" when they can find them? Before Canadians deploy, we have to visit a social worker to ensure that our personal lives are stable, so that issues or problems at home won't distract us when in combat. The Afghan National Army has no such luxury.

I understand that November 11th is Remembrance Day for Canadians and the Commonwealth; it's our day, and perhaps the Afghans have their own day to remember their losses. But I think that having invited them to participate in our ceremonies, we should have given more credit to their sacrifices. In the end, I appreciate that they were truly gracious and professional in the face of our oversight, sharing our ceremony with us in quiet dignity. They visibly honoured our commitment and sacrifice, while silently reflecting on their own. These guys impress me more and more each day.