Saturday, December 30, 2006

You can’t handle the truth!

We have visions of Jack Nicholson on the stand telling the smart ass snots that nobody will tell him how to run a war. Canada has been smacked around a bit by its allies in Afghanistan, over the apparent open door policy of embedded reporters.

Now, since our “allies” number less than five when it comes to actual outside the wire activities, one assumes this means that the Americans, the British, the Dutch and the Australians are the ones concerned about our "show it all" proclivities when it comes to the battle joined with the Taliban.

Unlike the press gangs of CNN and FOX etc, it would appear that Canadian embeds tend to ask questions and report on things as they happen, something that is making the generals and majors a little uneasy these days.

The Canadian policy was considered too liberal, overly-progressive and risky and one that the Allies would much prefer that we would rein in.

So in the spirit of Allied solidarity, the Globe and Mail’s Christie Blatchford, the Toronto Star correspondent Rosie DiMano, photographer Louie Palu and Ontario-based freelance filmmaker Richard Fitoussi, were removed from their spots with the PPCLI earlier this year.

It however, doesn’t seem to have slowed down the volume of work by journalists in the Afghan theatre. Blatchford in particular has managed to put out a number of thought provoking pieces since her extraction, including the one below from yesterday, which provides a heart pounding account of a Canadian unit pinned down in an Afghan village, suffering the possible desertion by its own NCO (a charge that has been rebutted by the soldier in question).

Blatchford has been filing many stories about our troops in harms way and gives Canadians a solid understanding of the mission there, to their credit the Canadian Army hasn’t stopped her from reporting her observations, even if they’ve moved her around a fair bit at the behest of the rest of the coalition (such as it is).

Canadians are understandably nervous about their participation in the Afghanistan expedition, though they support the sons and daughters doing the work with all their hearts for the most part. Receiving truthful information that doesn’t sugar coat the situation nor deceive the public is the only way the government will find Canadians onboard for the mission.

While it’s a fine line between keeping the coalition members happy and keeping the home front informed, one thing is certain the moment that the truth is shaded, shaped or out right denied, is the moment that the government will lose the battle on the home front.

Articles such as Blatchford’s one below, may not fit nicely into the propaganda pile that many would like to see on a regular basis, but it probably does more for the morale of the troops and the folks at home then all the rah rah productions out there combined.

Blatchford, DiMano and for the most part the rest of the Canadian media in Afghanistan have provided a serious and informative look at what our young men and women face on a daily basis, they have not put any operational plans in jeopardy and have given Canadians access to their troops rarely seen before. If nothing else at the end of the day, Canadians can never say that they didn’t know what was going on.

Did he abandon his troops?
From Friday's Globe and Mail

FORWARD OPERATING BASE ZETTELMEYER, AFGHANISTAN — When Major Matthew Sprague says he is tempted to put in his whole company for awards or commendations, he isn't kidding.

So many of the officers, noncommissioned officers and ordinary grunts of the 1st Battalion The Royal Canadian Regiment's Charles Company, which Major Sprague commands, have distinguished themselves under fire here in southern Afghanistan — particularly on two terrible days in September, when the company was first attacked with shocking ferocity by the Taliban, and then, still reeling from the four men lost that morning, accidentally strafed in a friendly-fire incident that killed another and injured 38 the very next day — that separating the ordinarily brave from the ridiculously courageous is difficult if not impossible.

But there is one man not included in that honourable group.

In several recent interviews, during which he properly sang the praises of his troops, Major Sprague didn't even mention his name. Asked directly about him yesterday, he would not discuss the soldier except to say tersely that he is now out of the army and that the alleged incident that led to his leaving is “in the past, as far as I'm concerned.”

The Globe and Mail has learned the man is a veteran noncommissioned officer who is alleged to have deserted his troops while they were under fire Sept. 3 and was later sent home to Canada.
The Globe has decided not to use the soldier's name, in large measure because even those who feel most betrayed are loath to see him criticized publicly.

“He left me there to die,” Master Corporal Ward Engley of Charles's 8 platoon said yesterday in a brief, blunt interview conducted in the back of a Light Armoured Vehicle that was taking him to the base at nearby Masum Ghar and then to Kandahar Air Field for emergency dental treatment.

He said the NCO was “hiding behind a wall” and wouldn't come out long enough to give him the radio when he asked for it.

“Our grenades were duds,” MCpl. Engley said, contempt colouring his voice, “and we were running low on ammo, but he couldn't even hand me the radio.”

MCpl. Engley is not the only soldier to characterize what happened that morning as desertion.
It was described the same way by three other soldiers interviewed by The Globe, including two of those who were pinned down by heavy fire when the NCO is alleged to have left his post, and the 25-year-old officer who commands 8 platoon.

In army language, MCpl. Engley said, what the NCO did was “shit the bed hard.”

The offensive against the notorious White School — a known Taliban stronghold in the volatile Panjwai area since last summer, when the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry suffered casualties there — was part of the kickoff to Operation Medusa, the massive, Canadian-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign.

While ultimately deemed a major success, with as many as 1,000 Taliban claimed killed and senior NATO commanders singing its praises in speeches, Medusa was arguably a bit of a cock-up from the get-go.

Originally, battle orders called for three days of heavy bombing and artillery, plus 18 air strikes on Taliban commanders identified as “high-value targets,” before the soldiers of Charles Company were to move into the area, then lush with three-metre-tall marijuana fields and nearly impenetrable.

But at the last minute, after intelligence supposedly reported no signs of the enemy, the bombings and air strikes were called off. The soldiers were ordered to cross the Arghandab River early on the morning of Sept. 3.

“Our orders came in saying there would be three days of bombarding the shit out of it, and then they cancelled all that and then we rolled in at 7 in the morning,” said Private Will Needham, a 22-year-old from Toronto. “. . . We rolled in, drove right into an ambush site, and it was told to us the night before that this grid was basically an ambush site.”

Originally, in fact, the troops were supposed to cross the river on foot — “dismounted,” as they call it — because it was thought their LAVs would be unable to cross. But those orders, too, disappeared, with combat engineers making “breaches” across the river for the vehicles.
As described by Lieutenant Jeremy Hiltz, the 8 platoon boss, MCpl. Engley, Pte. Needham and Pte. Travis Rawls, a 31-year-old from 8 platoon, the scene as they first crossed the river was eerie — as still “as when I'm skydiving,” MCpl. Engley said.

“We knew, deep down inside,” Lt. Hiltz told The Globe. “We knew they [the Taliban] were there. . . . But it's still quiet, and there's no indication that anything's wrong, except for guys are looking at each other, there's that feeling.

“But I think at that point, we're still pretty young and I think a lot of guys didn't recognize it.”
The troops of 8 platoon dismounted, and what greeted them were the leaflets that had been dropped from the air before the start of Op Medusa — pamphlets warning the Taliban, and civilians in the area, that NATO forces were coming.

MCpl. Engley's section was ordered to secure a big ditch, he said, and it was from there that “all of a sudden, the whole world exploded around us” — rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, rounds from lethal 81 mm recoilless rifles, machine-gun fire coming at the soldiers from what seemed like all directions.

It wasn't until more than a week later, when the Canadians actually secured the area around the White School, that they realized the enormity of what they had been up against, Lt. Hiltz said.
The Taliban had “trench lines, ditches, bunkers, firing holes. I mean, they were firing from trees, firing from pot fields, explosions were coming from pot fields looked like mortars but they were actually RPGs impacting at ground level. They were watching our antennas go by and firing from pot fields,” from as close as 100 metres.

MCpl. Engley's section, meantime, was ordered to leave the ditch and do a room-by-room search of four small mud-walled buildings near the White School.

It was there, Pte. Needham said, that “we pretty much got pinned down by RPGs and small-arms fire, which was coming mostly from the south.”

Pte. Rawls said it was at that point the NCO is alleged to have claimed to be hit, then left them behind, saying he was off to get them support.

“I didn't have a fucking clue he was even gone, he wasn't really the command-and-control leader,” Pte. Needham snapped.

Lt. Hiltz was equally blunt: He “basically deserted, left the section while a couple of guys were pinned down.”

Privates Needham and Rawls were on the right side of one building, two reservists were on the left, and other members of the section were spread out throughout the little compound, all of them “putting down fire.”

They couldn't tell where the enemy fire was originating from, couldn't even tell if they were receiving friendly fire from other platoons. It was very confusing, Pte. Rawls said, and they couldn't raise anyone on the radio to tell them where they were trapped, or find out where the other platoons were located.

On top of that, a 225-kilogram bomb was dropped almost on top of the section. “Basically, it was being called right on top of us,” Pte. Rawls said. But the bomb either malfunctioned or its GPS system rendered it inert, as it is supposed to if it goes off target.

When the order to withdraw eventually came from Major Sprague, the soldiers were too far from their LAV to retreat safely. In the end, the section was pinned down for two to three hours.
It was Sergeant Graeme Ferrier, driving up and down the line looking for stragglers, who found them. They were the last out to safety, and only afterward did they learn that their beloved warrant officer, Frank Mellish, his fellow warrant Rick Nolan, combat engineer Sergeant Shane Stachnik and Pte. Needham's former roommate and best friend, Pte. Will Cushley, had been killed.

Their section has since been rebuilt with replacements from CFB Petawawa, but as Pte. Rawls said, “They arrived after all of that. When we arrived, same as everybody who gets here, you train as infanteer and you want to come and get in on the action and you get into it like that, and it's a mess like that, and you don't want to ever see it again.

“They don't know what that's like yet. If they find that out, probably when they lose a friend.”
And Pte. Needham said, “That's the only way you really realize. I knew it was going to be bad, but I never thought someone I knew would get killed. I never knew it would be like this. Like September was the worst month ever, we lost a lot of good people. I didn't think it would be this bad.

“And it was.”

He continued, “We had been on ground in this country for three weeks. Most people hadn't been in a firefight. We'd been ambushed once and fired twice, but it was a lot of inexperienced men going into a huge combat situation. . . it was overwhelming for a bunch of people who didn't have the experience. That's what it comes down to, I guess.”

Both Privates Needham and Rawls said that if they stay in the army, they will switch units because of the “incompetence” they've seen here.

Coming to Afghanistan, Pte. Rawls said, the big concern was “about everyone around you. Are they gonna do their job? And are you?”

They have their answers now.

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