Front line in a PR war

by Oakland Ross

Sanjaray, Afghanistan -- Some soldiers wage warfare with rifles and mortars, while others bear silver briefcases brimming with cash.
Warrant Officer Dean Henley of Richmond Hill counts himself among the second group.
"I feel like James Bond," says the primary schoolteacher and army reservist, who volunteered for this assignment, as he swings the aforementioned silver briefcase up onto the armoured hood of a Canadian Forces G-Wagon and snaps open the clasps with a dramatic flourish.
He may feel like 007, the famously suave British secret agent notorious for preferring his martinis shaken, not stirred, but Henley looks a lot more like what he currently is - a Canadian army officer decked out in the full regalia of war, including web harness, body armour, service pistol, desert-tan camouflage fatigues, and, within handy reach, a C-7 automatic rifle with a telescopic sight.
He is standing on a vast expanse of rock and sand located in what must rank as among the twitchiest pieces of real estate on the planet, just outside the Afghan town of Sanjaray, here in southern Kandahar province, principal hotbed of support for Taliban insurgents.
The religiously motivated rebels are locked in a ferocious and bloody conflict with the government of Afghanistan, which is backed by a coalition of NATO forces, including some 2,400 Canadian military personnel.
Henley has come to this barren spot in order to conduct certain transactions of a financial nature with a man named Haji Lala, a noble-looking but possibly somewhat suspect character, who has driven to this afternoon rendezvous in a dusty and rather weathered Toyota Corolla.
Henley has opted for a more muscular form of transportation - a four-vehicle military convoy composed of two burly LAV-3 armoured personnel carriers, both mounted with 25mm cannon, plus a formidable South African-built RG armoured vehicle, not to mention Henley's own comparatively innocuous G-Wagon.
Meanwhile, more than a dozen Canadian army sentries in full battle dress - all members of the Royal 22nd Regiment from Quebec, the legendary Van Doos - have fanned out to form a 25-metre security perimeter around the man with the silver briefcase.
"This is an opportunity to work with the battle group to achieve the same aim but by a different route," says Henley, by way of explanation for his presence here.
That's one way of putting it.
What Henley has really come to do is to put money into local hands, part of a Canadian-funded initiative, part civilian, part military, that is aimed at winning popular support for anti-Taliban forces by helping to build up Afghanistan even as the ongoing war is battering it down.
In this case, the local hands belong to Lala, who presents himself somewhat vaguely as a community elder who once worked for a U.S. organization of some sort and now operates in an ill-defined capacity as a representative of a local parliamentarian who cannot, alas, be present on this particular occasion, very sorry to inform.
That's good enough for Henley, who promptly whisks a hefty wad of Afghan banknotes from his trusty briefcase - 315,000 afghani, or about $6,300 (U.S.) He extends the lucre toward Lala, who must merely sign a couple of papers inscribed with the insignia of the Government of Canada before assuming ownership of the cash.
This, he does.
To the south, a motley succession of vehicles trundle past along Highway 1, the main east-west artery in this part of the country - dirt-caked buses, sputtering motorbikes, donkey carts, and bicycles, bicycles, bicycles - all briefly silhouetted against several smokestack-shaped mountain peaks that cast a dim reflective glow in the late-afternoon sunshine.
It's an odd setting for international commerce, but this is Afghanistan, where unorthodox procedures tend to be the norm. In fact, Lala had originally suggested a local police station as a more suitable venue for the meeting, but the Canadians promptly nixed that idea.
"We like a big, open space," explains one of the Van Doo guards. "We can't trust anybody."
And no wonder.
Death and injury come when you least expect them in this fractured reach of Afghanistan's national territory.
Only last Saturday, a Van Doo soldier lost a foot when he trod upon a landmine while on patrol a few kilometres west of here, and attacks on NATO forces by Taliban suicide bombers are very nearly a daily occurrence, often resulting in severe injury or worse.
This is no place for complacency, and the Canadians know it.
On the other hand, this is also Afghanistan, where you often have to make things up as you go along.
"Sometimes, we go on blind faith," says Henley.
Well, not completely blind.
The 315,000 afghanis he has just paid out to Lala represent a 50-per-cent down payment on a public works project the Canadians mean to underwrite in this impoverished community of narrow, winding streets and dun-coloured mudpack walls.
Under the agreement, Lala must hire 42 local workers, who will each earn 250 afghanis per day while constructing a system of drainage canals in their town, a job that should take about 60 days to complete.
Only when the work is done will Lala receive the other half of the money required to pay off the labourers.
To ensure the work proceeds at a steady pace, Henley also wants Lala to engage a supervisor who is to receive 50,000 afghani, or about $1,000 (U.S.)
He has in mind a local man by the name of Obi Dula, said to be trustworthy.
Lala adopts an injured air. He wants to know why he himself has not been considered for this important job.
Henley improvises.
He suggests that Lala and Dula might share the supervisor's duties, as well as its handsome remuneration.
Lala grins and signs on the dotted line, before receiving the second wad of cash that has come his way this happy afternoon.
Now Henley announces that he wishes to visit the local school, to determine what repairs or improvements the Canadians might undertake to finance. But, first, he wants to know if the town is secure.
Lala thinks not.
"I cannot guarantee that my village is safe," he says through an interpreter.
"There might be one or two shady characters."
Henley is undeterred. Loaded on the roof of his G-wagon, he has a cargo of school supplies he wants to turn over to the townspeople. In person.
Lala stands firm. He says the school is closed for the day and, besides, the doors are probably locked. Maybe the Canadians could return another time, when he can personally arrange for their safety.
In the end, however, Henley gets his way.
With a reluctant Lala leading the charge in his Toyota, the ungainly parade of military vehicles descends upon the town, whose sandy streets prove to be too narrow to be negotiated by the armoured personnel carriers.
After some uneasy discussion over their radios, the Canadians opt to proceed on foot, a treacherous business at the best of times - and these are not the best of times.
They clamber out of their protective vehicles, rifles at the ready, and make their way warily through the rabbit-warren corridors of the mud-walled town, past gaggles of stony faced men and furtive children, who glare out at these heavily armed interlopers from slender alcoves or narrow doorways, neither smiling nor waving.
It's a tense, 10-minute walk to the Pir Muhammed Primary School, where some 800 boys are currently receiving an education of sorts. There is no space here for girls.
After a brief tour of the facility, which seems to be in passable condition apart from several broken windows or missing screens, Henley expresses concern about the dwindling light.
The Canadians make their way back through a growing throng of children and adults, most of whom seem more cordial now. There are smiles, waves, and handshakes on both sides, but the prevailing air is still one of tension.
At the edge of town, the Van Doos unload several cardboard crates of school supplies, which are duly loaded into a makeshift donkey cart and trundled away to an unknown fate.
The Canadian soldiers climb back into their vehicles, raise the ramps, and withdraw in single file, with Henley's G-Wagon bringing up the rear.
As a parting gesture, or more likely in a misguided idea of fun, the children of Sanjaray proceed to stone the trailing vehicle, breaking one of its windows and denting a fender.
C'est la guerre.

The Toronto Star, 20 December, 2006