For as long as I've aspired to be a journalist, I've had a morbid desire to be embedded in a war zone. Perhaps I've over-romanticized the picture of the khaki-wearing foreign correspondent with wind-blown hair, a pencil propped behind her ear, and a notepad full of scribbled quotes and ideas. Even still, I want to be in that picture. Frayed edges and all. The adventure and the story calls me.
I was a young journalism student when 9/11 happened and the world began its "war on terror," but the story of Afghanistan had captured my curiosity long before 2001.
I was thirteen and stuck with the awful chore of cleaning out the garage with my dad. We were throwing out trash when I came upon a stack of old issues of National Geographic. The legendary 1985 cover of the Afghan refugee girl with green eyes never made it to the garbage. Struck by her story and her riveting gaze, the intrigue of the plight of the people of Afghanistan has never left me. Neither has the magazine. It currently sits on my library coffee table collecting dust.
A few months ago I learned thatAdrian MacNair, a blogger and freelance opinion writer with The National Post, had been invited to go on a media tour in Afghanistan by the Department of National Defence. Of course I was a bit envious of his opportunity to go, but I was also truly quite happy for him. The mission in Afghanistan has been his informal beat for some time. His style of writing is unapologetic and packs the punch political writers need. And I knew the nerve he writes with would carry him through to his journey in the war zone. I resigned to be satisfied with living vicariously through his experience. For now.
Adrian graciously agreed to let me in on that mild adventure of his for the purposes of my blog and to quell a bit of my curiosity.
Freelance writer, Adrian MacNair, right, decked out in full body armour for trip to Kandahar City
Q: Why did the Department of National Defence invite you on this recent media tour of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan?
A: I was invited by the military because of my profile in the National Post and writing I've done on Afghanistan. But it wouldn't have happened if they hadn't invited Mark Collins from my blog first. He had just had an operation and couldn't go so he suggested me. DND also invited dozens of other journalists.
Q: What was your news angle going in?
A: I couldn't think of a unifying news angle, other than trying to ascertain the difference between what you hear in Canada and what I would see in Afghanistan. I wanted to find out how much they would sugar-coat the mission progress.
Q: How often did you get outside "the wire?"
A: Just once in Kandahar, and even then it was in armoured vehicles and entirely segregated from the Afghan populace. Although we were in danger of IEDs, I would say that I never felt in danger on the trip. We were in regular traffic in Kabul, but the capital isn't as dangerous as Kandahar City.
Q: What was it like leaving the surrounding protection of the base?
A: It would have been more compelling if we were driving in regular cars or walking. As we were in armoured vehicles with a .50 calibre mounted gunner, it didn't feel much like leaving the comfortable security of KAF at all. And truth be told, the food at the forward operating base in Kandahar City was better than KAF.
Q: Were you able to interact with any local Afghanis?
A: No, unfortunately. It was a huge disappointment and almost made going not worthwhile.
Q: What are the general attitudes of the military regarding our government's decision to cease the combat mission in July, 2011?
A: They're disappointed and uncertain because they like the mission. Most soldiers are having a great time in Afghanistan and they know the excitement is a limited-time opportunity. Every soldier I spoke with was proud of his or her accomplishments and believed in the mission. Having said that, no soldiers would speak ill of the mission. Part of being a soldier means believing in the mission unflinchingly.
Q: Why do you believe it's important for journalists to be embedded in Afghanistan?
A: It's impossible to get a sense of the mission from Toronto or Ottawa. You have to be there to really understand the pace and the timing and the reason for decisions. You can see how important it is for reporters to be in Afghanistan based on the detainee fiasco from 2007-2009. No self-respecting journalist who had spent any time in the country would waste any time on a non-story like that, and certainly not one as peripheral to the big picture of Afghanistan as that one was.
Q: Did you feel the military displayed a certain level of transparency or did they feed you the standard, fixed, media-friendly soundbites?
A: There was certainly transparency on certain issues, such as detainees, police training, military accomplishments and objectives, etc. Where they fell short was in giving an honest assessment of the progress of the mission. They were altogether too optimistic, and not honest enough in admitting the hard work that's left. They couldn't admit that Canada is leaving before the mission can be accomplished in Afghanistan. It was the elephant in the room for sure.
Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you believe Canada has of its military?
A: Many people think of the military as a kind of nebulous entity that is one big fighting force. But it's composed of all sorts of different elements: communications, air wing, national support element, infantry, mentoring, etc. Some soldiers were envious I went, "outside the wire," when many of them will never get outside the wire in their entire tour. Another misconception is the level of danger. It's not very dangerous in KAF, and the rocket attacks on the base are so haphazard that the insurgents almost never hit it.
Q: What are the stories of Afghanistan you believe the press has either ignored or missed?
A: The press has missed out on reporting the mentoring aspect of Canada's involvement. Many stories could be written about OMLT (operational mentoring and liaison team) and their work in the field. The shift in tactics is also really underreported. The kinetic operations (killing insurgents) has taken a back seat to counter-insurgency tactics involving gaining the confidence of the people by identifying the "human terrain." SOF (special forces) is handling the niggling details now.
Q: What surprised you the most about the experience?
A: I was surprised that the security situation is still so bad. If you need an armoured car to drive into Kandahar City without being murdered, you know the country is still in a very bad situation. It seems a decade away from stability.
Q: Tell us about one of the highlights of the trip for you.
A: The highlight was probably driving through Kabul. It's a completely different experience to see people in the third world, driving their livestock through the downtown capital, manuvering through traffic composed of vehicles that 99% would not pass a street worthy test. It was my only exposure to the Afghan human terrain, and it was far too brief. Even then we weren't allowed to open our windows, we had to wear ridiculous flak jackets, and our car was armour plated.
Q: What was one of the more sobering moments for you?
A: Driving in the armoured car to the FOB [Forward Operating Base] in Kandahar was sobering, because it came with the understanding that an IED would likely mean instant death and you would never know what hit you. You'd just be gone.
You can read more of Adrian's blog and see the photos from his trip to Afghanistan at www.unambig.com.