Colin Perkel’s heartbreaking story in this newspaper about the explosion that killed four soldiers and Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, a year ago, raised two troubling questions about the embedding of civilians within the Armed Forces.
Could it be that the presence of journalists in missions outside military bases increases the risks for the troops? Could it be that the most dangerous place civilians can find themselves in, in a place like Afghanistan where most casualties have been caused by IEDs, is an armoured military vehicle?
Before the massive explosion rocked the 20-tonne LAV nicknamed Charlie, the two-LAV convoy made two stops in villages south of Kandahar (the mission’s goal was to try to reach out to the local population). At each stop, all the attention of the villagers was focused on the two young women who were travelling with the troops, Ms. Lang and Bushra Saeed, a 25-year-old policy analyst from the Defence Department, who lost a leg in the attack.
They are clearly civilians, since they carry no weapons and spend their time at the villages writing notes (Ms. Lang was also taking photos). They are instantly marked, as Mr. Perkel writes, as “high value targets in the eyes of enemy informants who may be lurking in the crowd. It would be easy to note which vehicle they are in and relay the information to their waiting attackers.”
When the convoy started back to the base, the road the commanders planned to use was blocked by a traffic jam. A hypothesis is that the jam was orchestrated by the insurgents to force the convoy to return by the same road.
“A lot of people think [insurgents] just do random things,” Cpl. Shier told Mr. Perkel. “No. They think things through.”
One could add that the Taliban are not stupid. They know that the death of a journalist, especially a female journalist, will have a much greater media impact in the West than the death of a professional soldier. The same goes for civilians – especially women of course.
The two LAVs made their way back to the base, Charlie following Alpha at a distance of 20 metres. A huge quantity of explosives buried under the road – an invisible cache that may have been lying there for several weeks, presumably waiting for the best opportunity to wreak as much damage as possible – was triggered by a radio receiver linked to the explosives by a wire the length of a football field. The person who triggered the explosion presumably knew exactly when to strike. The first LAV, nicknamed Alpha and occupied solely by soldiers, went through. The explosion hit Charlie, the second vehicle where the two women were seated. As expected, the tragedy had a huge impact in Canada.
Ms. Saeed still wonders if the bomb would have gone off if it hadn’t been for her and Ms. Lang. It’s a thought she doesn’t like but it comes back relentlessly. “I always think about the fact that if I wasn’t there, maybe they wouldn’t have triggered it,” she told Mr. Perkel.
The Canadian government uses embedded journalists to highlight the “human” side of the Afghan war, as well as the undisputed courage of our soldiers. It also deploys civilians to assist the soldiers in humanitarian missions (for instance, Ms. Saeed was to assist Sgt. Taylor as he reached out to the locals). But what happened on Dec. 30, 2009, on a road south of Kandahar, should open up questions about these policies.