Danger in the desert for Canadians in Afghanistan

By Mike Patterson (AFP)

PANJWAYI DISTRICT, Afghanistan — A light armoured vehicle roars away into the night, kicking up choking clouds of desert dust on the trail of two men suspected of planting a bomb in the dirt road.

Manning a surveillance position in Afghanistan’s troubled Kandahar province, Canadian Corporal Mitchell Mcfarlane, 21, had spotted the men acting suspiciously 1.6 kilometres (a mile) away and raised the alarm.

The vehicle gave chase but darkness combined with a thick dust storm prevented a positive identification of the suspects.

“By the time we got in position, they had got away,” said Mcfarlane, a reservist attached to the Royal Canadian Dragoons.

“You can’t get all of them obviously, but as long as we found out where they were at so the (bomb disposal) guys can come to take a look at it,” he said.

“Last night most likely they saved someone’s life.”

Mcfarlane is part of a Canadian reconnaissance patrol manning a Spartan observation post watching the roads in Panjwayi district, which has been hit by improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice against foreign and Afghan troops preparing to move further west into the militants’ heartland.

Canada’s footprint in the war-torn nation consists of a brigade-sized unit south and west of Kandahar city in Dand, Daman and Panjwaii districts.

Its entire force of 2,800 troops will leave Afghanistan next year, after eight years as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

“Last night we almost had to shoot a couple of guys,” said patrol commander Warrant Officer Chester Tingley, 40.

“It looked very suspicious so we got the permission to go but we couldn’t ID them exactly so it was called off, ‘cos the last thing I want to do is shoot someone who’s innocent,” he said.

While their response was restrained, Tingley said the dangers from bombs had been made brutally real for his mostly young patrol in the arid region.

“In the first couple of weeks of the tour we lost (Trooper) Larry Rudd, just over there, just the other side of the hill,” he said.

“He was a great guy, everyone misses him. Right away that kind of set the tone for the guys, we’re here for real, it’s not like training in California.”

From a position overlooking irrigated fields bordered by jagged mountains and commanding a view south to the vast desert stretching away to Pakistan, Trooper Thomas Newlands said they kept a close watch for militants among the nearby mudbrick farms.

“We’ve got to keep an eye on these compounds. You never know when a Taliban might pop out with an RPG,” he said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades.

Despite the ever present threat from a ruthless and unseen enemy, Tingley said soldiers could not spend all their time worrying.

“I think about every way we could get hit anyway, that’s my job as patrol commander, but if you go through every scenario, and think of every possible way they could hit you, you could ‘what if’ yourself to death,” he said.

Rather than worrying about themselves, Tingley said the “recce” patrol’s job was to ensure the safety of Afghans.

“Most of them say they appreciate us, what we’re trying to do for the country, trying to bring a bit of freedom and stability to the country.

“But again there has been the odd few where they’re not very receptive, so right away we know they don’t care for us, but you can’t make someone care for you, right?”

The warrant officer said it took a certain type of person to endure the constant danger of life “outside the wire” and the austere conditions, in addition to temperatures which climb above 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit).

“I guess it’s not natural to want to drive out into an area and know that you might get blown up

“My wife doesn’t understand it either, it’s just it’s a job that a lot of guys just have that desire to serve the country, to come here, to know that they maybe made a difference,” Tingley said.

“Maybe coming here, maybe we helped some family out,” he said.

“It’s just a good feeling to know that you’re trying to help, trying to do a good thing, trying to keep the area safe,” he said.

“We’re here to do a job and hopefully bring my guys home safe, all limbs intact, and have a good, happy life back home in Canada.”

Copyright © 2010 AFP



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