Thursday, August 19, 2010

Vets lose tiger in their corner


Last Updated: August 17, 2010 7:22pm

They appointed him as the first veterans’ ombudsman on Remembrance Day 2007, and they’re firing him on Remembrance Day 2010.

“They” is the Harper government, and the ombudsman whose appointment is not being renewed is retired Colonel Pat Stogran, who commanded the first Battle Group (Princess Pats) to serve in Kandahar in 2002.

So why is this exemplary soldier being bounced, whose dedication to the troops is unquestioned? Good question. The answer: Because he took his terms of reference seriously and fought hard and loudly on behalf of veterans.

When the government announced the role in 2007, it said the ombudsman was to be “an impartial, arms-length and independent officer with the responsibility to assist veterans to pursue their concerns and advance their interests.” Pat Stogran seemed a perfect fit. A field commander, somewhat outspoken, he is on record as observing that government tends to regard wounded veterans as accident victims, which is a cop-out and justification for doing little.

As the watchdog on behalf of veterans he’s been relentless, ruffling the feathers of some by his concern for vets who fall through the cracks, are homeless, whose nature is not to complain, but who may be casualties from their service.

Those wounded in war, be it from physical or mental injuries, are special because they were damaged in the name of the country, and their country (or those who run the country) have an obligation to honour their future well-being.

Authorizing a lump sum payment to wounded vets in Afghanistan of some $250,000 instead of long-term pensions, seems more cop-out by government than a gesture of gratitude.

It’s seen as an abdication of future responsibilities, while supposedly compensating veterans for whatever disabilities they have sustained. In other words, they are on their own. That’s a continuing issue of contention in Canada.

If not, it should be. It worries Stogran.

As a battalion field commander, Stogran had a “warrior” mentality that dictated he look after his men, and do what he could on their behalf. With the Princess Patricias in Afghanistan, he won the regiment the respect of American allies, and Canada an esteem that was often missing during the dog-years of passive peacekeeping.

Our efforts in Afghanistan have vaulted Canada back into the ranks of consequence. Canada and its soldiers are taken seriously. But the government seems to be backing off — and the reluctance of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) to renew Stogran’s mandate as ombudsman, seems symptomatic of the Canada’s shift away from the military, and Afghanistan.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn is hardly a tiger on behalf of vets and is unlikely to defy DND or the PM if they want a noisy advocate like Stogran sidelined and silenced.

If Blackburn were to protest the replacing of Stogran in a manner similar to his protestations when airport security confiscates a bottle of his tequila, perhaps the vets could be assured or a spokesman on their behalf.

To his credit, Stogran is more soldier than politician. A battalion commander is, arguably, the highest rank that thoroughly understands the rank and file.

General officers tend to be more political, with one eye ever-open for promotion. Battalion commanders deal directly with soldiers and the enemy.

Canadian Press says news of Stogran’s dismissal “went off like a bombshell” among veterans. It’s true. Veterans can read the signs and feel how the political wind is blowing. In Ottawa these days, it’s about saving money.

Rudyard Kipling said it best: “It’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ ‘Chuck him out, the Brute!’/ But it’s ‘Saviour of ’is country’ when the guns begin to shoot.” The shooting hasn’t stopped: They got Pat Stogran – and all veterans.

Monday, August 16, 2010

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Villagers in a key rural district near Kandahar City are "fed up with conflict" and with what they perceive is a standoff between Canadian forces and the Taliban, says Canada's top military commander in Kandahar.

In an exclusive one-on-one interview with Postmedia News, Brig.-Gen. Jonathan Vance said people in Panjwaii district feel "despondent" over what seems "like a tie every day" between a despotic insurgency and Canadian troops promising to help deliver freedom, resources and good governance.

Keeping to those commitments has been a challenge, acknowledged Vance, commander of Task Force Kandahar.

"We need more forces to hold effectively what we've got," he said, adding that "more are coming" in the weeks ahead. It has been reported that operations in Panjwaii could intensify in September, after the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.

The Canadian military's focus has already shifted from central and western Panjwaii — where its troops were pulled from hard-won territory last year — to the eastern part of the district that's closer to Kandahar City and to Kandahar Airfield (KAF), the largest ISAF base in southern Afghanistan.

Giving a candid assessment of present conditions in eastern Panjwaii, Vance described an atypical battlescape. He discussed at length a village of 3,000 called Nakhonay, just 15 kilometres west of KAF.

"There are Taliban sympathizers and Taliban in town. We're in town. The Afghan army is in town, the police are in town. So we're all there together, and it's at that point where it feels the worst."

Nakhonay's population is "fed up with conflict," he added. "It doesn't necessarily have any intrinsic trust in government because it hasn't felt government in a very, very long time. Neither good nor malign, (government has) just been absent."

The situation is at a tipping point, he suggested. About 70 per cent of the village has recently been cleared of insurgents. People are now inviting Canadian soldiers into their homes for tea, he said.

What's more, "the lens of the international community is focused a little more tightly on Kandahar than it ever has been," something he finds "gratifying." He gave as an example a recent biannual United Nations report on civilian casualties. It described in stark terms specific atrocities by the Taliban in Kandahar province: an alarming increase in insurgent-directed assassinations and targeted killings, including murders inside mosques and executions of children.

"The insurgency is gradually, more and more, being seen for what it really is," said Vance. "I think people are seeing more clearly what we've known or perceived here for quite some time. Given an opportunity, the insurgency has demonstrated a willingness to kill what we would term as innocents. They don't perceive them as innocents. They perceive them as being on the other side."

According to the UN report, victims include children as young as seven, who are accused by the Taliban of spying and then hanged.

While public perception of Canada's task at hand is important, more vital are resources, especially boots on the ground.

The American troop surge into provincial districts formerly under Canadian command has allowed Vance to concentrate his troops in Panjwaii. Holding the easternmost part of the district must not fail, he said. If it does, the insurgents will be huge step closer to their biggest objective: taking Kandahar City.

"We're trying, we're getting there, the forces are flowing in and we're gradually moving," Vance said in the interview.

Nakhonay and other villages in eastern Panjwaii are just starting to benefit from a reworked ISAF and Afghan formula that's meant to bring security, governance and development to war-impacted communities. The same formula was used under Vance's direction last year in Dand district, which lies directly east of Panjwaii. It is sometimes called the "model village" approach.

Dand "was about to fall" to the Taliban last year, said Vance. Insurgents had toppled Dand's district centre, its point of local government.

Canadians and Afghan counterparts pushed in and began applying the reworked counter-insurgency formula. Security rings went up around villages and population clusters, and infrastructure was rebuilt to facilitate better economic development and governance. Dand's district centre is being restored, with funding from Canada and guidance from Canadian military engineers, and a courthouse has just been built inside the district centre compound.

"They're actually dealing with the finer points of political assembly in Dand right now," said Vance.

Returning civil discourse and stability to Panjwaii remains a bigger challenge.

The district has been central to Canada's military mission in Kandahar since it began. Canadian soldiers prepared for and led Operation Medusa in September 2006, in the district's middle. Medusa was the Canadian military's largest combat operation since the Korean War. During the two-week offensive, 12 Canadians were killed. There were hundreds of Taliban casualties, and their leadership was either killed or left the immediate area.

Canadian and Afghan national security forces then pushed further west in the months that followed, into the so-called Horn of Panjwaii, an insurgency hotbed. But they weren't able to hold the area. In 2008 and 2009, three Canadian-built patrol bases — they were also called strong points and police substations — were dismantled in the Horn of Panjwaii and troops were drawn back.

The area reverted to Taliban control. It remains in their hands. If there is a plan to return to the area, Vance did not mention of it.

"We didn't have enough resources" in western Panjwaii, he explained. The Canadian presence was "too risky. No use. No value. An island of ANSF and ISAF that had a 300-metre patrolling radius, and every time we did one of these river run convoys we risked losses. For what? Nothing."

"It wasn't a very practical military thing to be doing either," he added. "Where you purport to put security in place, if it's so porous that the population has no confidence in you, or in fact you're experiencing that daily tie in the backyards, then you're not seeing it happen . . . you don't put a little pocket of nothing out there. (So) we pulled back."

Canadian military posts in the central part of the district have held but the Taliban are in close proximity; they continue to have success planting IEDs around these small bases, making troop movement dangerous, especially on the ground. Even air transport can be interrupted; last week, a Canadian Chinook helicopter was brought down by small arms fire less than two kilometres from Bazaar y Panjwaii, a village nestled beside a well-established Canadian forward operating base.

The focus is now several kilometres east, and on communities such as Nakhonay. Canadian soldiers arrived in force there last year. The immediate area is now dotted with small Canadian patrol bases. While these are closer to Kandahar Airfield than other Panjwaii installations, the environment is still thick with insurgents.

Securing the area remains a struggle.

"It's not open warfare," said Vance, "but in the last couple weeks we've reinforced, because we're having a real challenge with our own force protection."

The situation is improving. Vance was in the village earlier this week, and said he noticed some "unclenching."

"It's nothing big, but I've got to tell you, I walked into the town, and election posters are up in the town for the parliamentary elections coming up in September. There's actually a couple of posters up, of candidates."

Campaigning didn't happen in Nakhonay during last year's presidential election, he noted. The village was the seat of the Taliban's "shadow" government that issued directives for the province.

"I'm not trying to make more of it than it is," said Vance, "but (the election posters are) indicative of the population's desire. They want security. And they'd rather there not be a tie in their backyard."