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Great article and super exposure for the guys at Free Range International.
Riding With Ghosts
ANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—We are motoring down a bare-dirt back road in Kandahar Province, a road where NATO patrols never go. This way is better, explains the ghost behind the wheel, because roads without soldiers tend not to explode.
The car is “soft-skinned” — no armour. There are no body vests. No helmets. No blast goggles. No convoy. There is a gun on board, but it is concealed to avoid undue attention. Just plain vanilla wheels with two men from Canada dressed as Afghans — one, the driver, surveying the way ahead with purposeful, probing eyes, the other, a reporter, wondering what fresh hell awaits on this sweltering Friday afternoon.
“Don’t worry. I know these roads better than most Afghans,” says the ghost, as we cross the Tarnac River Afghan-style — by driving right through it.
He is Panjwaii Tim, a 41-year-old from small-town Manitoba who cites Don Cherry and carries with him a Winnipeg Blue Bombers cap. A few years back he worked in Afghanistan the conventional way — as a reservist with the Canadian Forces, a tour replete with frustrations. Too few troops. Too much territory. Too much confusion about which way forward. And just as he began to really understand this place — gone. With another fresh batch of wide-eyed six-monthers in his wake. Rinse and repeat.
Now a much-savvier Panjwaii Tim is back on his own terms, not with the military but leading one of the last major Western aid groups still operating freely in Kandahar City, an outfit fast gaining a reputation for uncommon courage. A group dubbed “Team Canada.”
Nearly every other civilian foreigner has fled Kandahar. Some have taken refuge inside nearby NATO bases, others have retreated to comparably calmer Kabul. But not Team Canada, despite the rash of bombs and targeted killings that torment this crucial southern city. They are working under the radar to rapidly turn tens of millions of international aid dollars into jobs for thousands of Afghan men.
Fighting-age Afghan men, you understand, some of whom, in their desperation for income, would join the only other gainful employers in town — the cash-paying Taliban, or, more likely, one of the corrupt private armies that Panjwaii Tim assesses bluntly as “akin to the Sicilian mafia.”
Never mind hearts and minds, Team Canada is about hands and bellies — a largely invisible aid network on the front line, offering stay-alive sustenance to Afghans who might otherwise plant roadside bombs aimed at sending more Canadian bodies home down the Highway of Heroes.
Given the unique and risky manner in which they work — low-key, low-security — Team Canada is not looking for attention.
But word is trickling out anyway in the wake of a startling, praise-filled post on the military blog Free Range International, which in April anointed Panjwaii Tim and his colleagues with the Team Canada nickname. And it dared NATO commanders to take lessons from Team Canada’s nimble ways and let at least some troops shed the suffocating armour and lumbering metal that encases them.
“They are the best crew in the country,” the blogger, Tim Lynch, an American contractor who does work similar to Team Canada in safer Nangahar Province, wrote in an email to the Star. “They have balls the size of grapefruit.”
It was through Lynch that the Star made first contact with Team Canada and, after careful negotiation, scored an invitation to meet them.
The Canadian military today requires reporters to fill out 47 pages of forms before embedding. Panjwaii Tim required only a handshake — and a solemn promise on the ground rules.
“We’re proud of the work we do. But you understand the stakes: this is life or death for us. No last names, no naming our NGO. No precise description of where we live. The danger is real. Do not make me regret this.”
We knit our way through quiet residential streets and then suddenly nose up to the large steel gates of Ghost Central, the Team Canada compound. Two honks of the horn and a small window in the gate opens, eyes peering out. We’re here.
Not that you would know it, for nowhere are the telltale signs of a war-zone Western compound: barbed wire, Hesco blast barrier, sandbagged machine gun turrets. This is just another walled and gated compound in a city of walled, gated compounds.
Inside, however, the operation is vast, half a city block jammed with three main buildings, each with walls of its own and linked by multiple passageways, and a sprawling logistics yard.
People abound. Five to 10 Team Canada expats are in charge at any given time and there are always dozens of carefully vetted Afghan staff.
It needs to be big because this is no branch office. The compound is a full-blown national headquarters overseeing Team Canada’s operations in 14 of Afghanistan’s most precarious provinces, all backed by tens of millions in international donor aid. The money dries up at the end of September, but already Team Canada has been told by coalition diplomats in Kabul to be ready for an even larger chunk of aid cash to come, and to be ready to expand to other provinces.
One quickly discovers Team Canada is actually Team World. A third of this group calls Canada home, but others are from Britain, New Zealand, Texas, New York; some are development specialists, others ex-soldiers. All wear beards of varying lengths; most speak at least some Pashto; the fairer ones have dyed their hair dark to better blend in.
William, a New Zealander who oversees team security, leads me on a tour of the two-storey complex to identify the triage bay, the armoury and the muster area should we come under sudden attack. Along the way we see a well-equipped weight room and a few home comforts: wireless Internet hub, flat-screen TV, a Wii console.
William instructs me to prepare a “bug-out bag:” passport, money, phone, a change of clothes and work computer. If the call comes to run for the hills, be ready.
Twenty or so vehicles are in the compound. One of the keys to Team Canada’s impressive freedom of movement is never taking the same car (or the same road) in any discernable pattern. Almost all are older Corollas and dust-encrusted Land Cruisers, indistinguishable from the Toyotas Afghans drive.
There is also a small fleet of Chinese motorbikes. Panjwaii Tim quips that they came from the local “Haji Davidson” dealership. “They are another means of escape if the ‘zombie hordes’ come over the wall.”
It’s gallows humour, but longer-serving members of this team vividly remember the night they actually saw the zombie hordes: June 13, 2008, when Taliban fighters blasted through the walls of Sarposa Prison on the city’s western edge, releasing all 1,200 inmates in the single largest jailbreak in modern history.
“We heard the explosions and the firefight. And then a wave of escapees came running down the street toward us. It looked like Kandahar was about to fall,” says Ryan, a South African. The compound was armed and ready. As the night unfolded, the escapees vanished. No contact.
In April, a massive truck-borne suicide bomb managed to penetrate the gates of another foreign compound elsewhere in the city. That blast cleared Kandahar of almost all its Westerners and left Team Canada with an agonizing decision: to stay or go.
After painstaking consideration, they stayed. At first, their stand was tentative, with an around-the-clock watch. “We just became more vigilant, taking it up several notches. To say more than that would be giving away our secrets,” says Panjwaii Tim.
Within days of the blast, Team Canada received a huge vote of confidence. A tribal elder with whom they had worked closely arrived unbidden with his own armed security team, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the expats for a full week.
“To know that you have friends on the Afghan side who will put their own lives on the line for you — that was a decisive moment,” says Panjwaii Tim.
“Things are still on a knife-edge, to some extent. We can’t let down our guard. But the way we roll, it is not just about being under the radar. A big part of it is building trust with Afghans. We’re not out there waving guns around. We’re out there putting people to work. There are tribal leaders who respect us for that and so we’re not alone, really. We have a network willing to stand up and help us help them.”