Scott Taylor – Canada’s number one war reporter. (above)

Chronicle Herald newspaper (Canada)

Time for our soldiers to talk the talk in Afghanistan

Mon. Apr 27 – 6:00 AM

DURING MY LAST unembedded tour in Afghanistan, I teamed up with Australian war correspondent Sasha Uzunov. Like me, Uzunov is a former soldier, and when necessary we would carry weapons for self-defence.

When operating in the volatile Kandahar region, the two of us “horajees” (foreigners), even armed with Kalashnikovs, would have been easy prey for the Taliban or criminal hostage-takers. As such, we employed a small group of Afghan security guards.

The leader of this contingent was a huge, fiercely bearded Pashtun whom we jokingly dubbed Chew Bacca due to his uncanny resemblance to the Star Wars wookie. In his workmanlike English, “Chewy” also acted as our tour guide for the Kandahar district. He would proudly point to a muddy canal and proclaim with a toothy grin, “This is the Arghandab River.”

To Uzunov and me, it appeared to be a virtually dried-up irrigation ditch, but to Chewy, it was on par with the mighty Nile.

Dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, Chewy advised us that he knew why the world has come to Kandahar.

“It is because this region is so fertile,” he said. Sweeping his arm to indicate a smattering of freshly planted fields, he asked, “Have you ever seen such a fertile place?”

We didn’t have the heart to tell him that his homeland is one of the most desolate and arid regions on the planet that is still considered habitable. Anyone in Canada who has seen the images in the newspaper or watched the videos on the nightly newscasts would be hard pressed to call the Afghan landscape “lush.”

We realized that Chewy was illiterate and had no access to the Internet, and the only world he knew was the infertile area around Kandahar and the even more desolate desert that surrounds it.

Chewy had no idea that inside the NATO airfield, the assembled foreign soldiers have access to three massive mess halls serving four meals a day, and fast-food outlets that include Burger King, Pizza Hut and Tim Hortons — complete with Timbits and iced cappuccinos.

In Chewy’s opinion, all these troops and all their technology had descended on his home province to secure the dried apricot harvest of Kandahar.

Obviously, this example serves to illustrate the enormous cultural gap between the local Afghans and NATO forces, due to mutual ignorance. As guests — unwanted or invited, it makes no difference — it is incumbent upon us, the international community, to bridge that gap.

Our troops make extensive use of young Afghan translators. Despite the fact that we have been deploying troops to Afghanistan for seven years, we still do not have a single soldier in our battle group who is fluent in either Pashtu or Dari.

Every effort needs to be focused on training our soldiers to acquire at least a conversational level of Pashtu. In the army’s newly published doctrine on counter-insurgency operations, this communication shortcoming is noted. That’s a promising start.

Learning to speak Pashtu and being able to converse directly with the locals and comprehend all discussions at meetings with local tribal elders would enhance the operational efficiency of our battle group. Admittedly, Pashtu is not an easy language to learn, and I know that the Canadian Forces have had difficulty finding qualified instructors from among the Afghan diaspora in Canada.

But we have managed to build three gymnasiums on the airfield in Kandahar, where organized basketball leagues play, and Canadians’ pride and joy — an outdoor ball hockey rink, complete with boards and bleachers.

And plenty of time and effort has been devoted to building the recreation centre known as Canada House to provide a relaxing area for our off-duty troops to battle boredom by watching the NHL playoffs on large flat-screen televisions. There are even instructors available at Kandahar airfield to teach the twice-weekly ballroom dance classes.

While no one would suggest that our soldiers don’t deserve time to unwind while in theatre, I’m simply stating that many of these off-hours could be better spent learning the local language so that we may better understand the Afghan culture.

Given that we are scheduled to remain in Afghanistan until at least December 2011, it’s not too late to start.

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