Wheeler gets first-hand look at Afghanistan
By Brian Cross
Most people probably wouldn’t rank Afghanistan high on their list of must-see travel destinations but, for Ron Wheeler, the chance to travel to the Afghan capital of Kabul was an opportunity that couldn’t be overlooked.
Wheeler, a political studies professor with expertise in Asian politics and international terrorism, recently visited the impoverished Asian country as part of a civilian observer group organized by the Department of National Defence.
He and nine others were invited late last year to spend two weeks at Camp Julien, the Canadian military base near the Afghan capital.
Camp Julien is home to 700 Canadian troops who are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), responsible for bringing stability to the war-torn country in the post-Taliban era.
The camp is also home to more than 1,000 military support personnel and approximately 150 troops from other NATO countries.
Wheeler’s invitation to participate in the exercise came out of the blue and had few conditions attached. As a participant, his only mandate was to observe Canadian military operations, adhere to a predetermined code of conduct and avoid activities that would jeopardize military operations.
By the end of November, Wheeler was in Afghanistan, a country known for opium production and its links to the Al Quaeda terrorist network. His circuitous route to Afghanistan wound from CFB Trenton to Croatia and then to an undisclosed destination in Asia. On the final leg of the journey, participants travelled in a Hercules aircraft, following an evasive route through Afghan airspace.
“The process under which the Department of National Defence chose people to go to Afghanistan is unclear,” said Wheeler. “They wanted the public to have a better understanding of what the Canadian Forces were facing there and what they were doing there.”
He said the situation at Camp Julien is not as volatile as it is in other areas of Afghanistan, but the threat of attacks from Al Quaeda operatives and Taliban loyalists was evident.
The presence of NATO troops has helped to stabilize the area but rocket attacks are a constant threat and ISAF military operations are under constant surveillance by Al Quaeda operatives, he said.
Wheeler’s assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is bleak.
In Kabul, the infrastructure is crude or non-existent. Sewage flows in open ditches and smoke from human excrement, a common source of fuel, permeates the air.
“If Afghanistan is a dangerous place, it’s not only because of the violence. It’s also because public health there is almost non-existent.”
Despite the presence of UN-sanctioned forces, the political situation is fraught with uncertainty, Wheeler said. Control is being contested by traditional warlords, Al Quaeda operatives, remnants of the ousted Taliban regime and local factions that control of the country’s opium trade.
The legitimacy of the Hamid Karzai government is also problematic. The recently elected president’s authority is almost non-existent outside of Kabul.
Parliamentary elections are schedule to take place in May 2005, but Wheeler is doubtful they will lend legitimacy to the Karzai regime.
“Stabilizing Afghanistan is not something that will occur quickly. It’s probably going to take a long time and is going to require a change in the economy and an extension of the central government in some meaningful way into the Afghan countryside.”
Wheeler’s assessment of Canadian operations is more positive.
“The camp itself was absolutely amazing,” he said.
Barricades that protect military personnel from attacks, disease and insects are erected quickly using local resources, Military barracks are well-equipped and comfortable and water is pumped, treated and bottled for use by Canadian military personnel.
“It’s just an incredibly well-planned, self-sufficient camp.”
Morale in the camp is good, although long hours and a lack of munitions for non-essential military exercises is an ongoing concern among troops, he said.
“They’re working awfully long hours and I think that takes a toll on morale, and in terms of equipment it’s obvious that there are some problems,” Wheeler said.
“But overall, I think the morale of the Canadian troops is very good in the sense that they really believe that they’re doing their job well and making a difference.”
“Even though Afghanistan isn’t a peacekeeping mission, Canadian troops still think of themselves as peacekeepers rather than war-makers. They like to go in and fix things and create a sustainable, peaceful environment.
“That was very obvious.”
Brian Cross is a Saskatoon freelance writer.