On Target: Charlie Don't Surf

Photo Credit: Combat Camera

Photo Credit: Combat Camera

By Scott Taylor

On December 27, 2016 a dozen or so Canadian embassy staff, including Ambassador Kenneth Neufeld, were brought from Kabul to Kandahar for the purpose of playing a ball hockey game.

This was the final game played at the Kandahar Airfield ball hockey rink before the U.S. Army engineers began dismantling the boards and benches. Once disassembled, these iconic boards were transported back home to Canada where they will be put on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

In addition to flying in the ambassador, the Canadian military also flew in reporters to ensure that the final minutes of the Kandahar rink would be recorded for posterity.

It has been two years since Canada concluded military participation in the Afghan intervention, and the media reports focused on the nostalgic aspects of this unique sports facility.

For the tens of thousands of Canadian soldiers who served tours of duty in Kandahar, there can be no question that the regulation-sized hockey surface served as a rare respite from an otherwise dangerous and frustrating mission.

The ball hockey rink was conveniently located right next to another equally iconic Canadian fixture: a Tim Hortons outlet, which the Department of National Defence operated in Kandahar.

To illustrate just how hockey-mad Canadians are to their bewildered NATO allies, then Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier brought the actual Stanley Cup to Kandahar in 2007. A selection of former NHL all-stars were brought in for the occasion, and they played a game against a brave handful of Canadian soldiers as the revered trophy was closely guarded on the sidelines.

With the positive media stories about the rink’s removal, one could be left with the false impression that Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was a glorious chapter in our military history. We came, we saw, we conquered and then we played hockey in the desert. Now we are bringing home that rink so that future generations can be reminded of how, for more than a decade, Canada brought our sport to Afghanistan.

None of the media stories about the final ball hockey game mentioned the current situation in Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that he flew all the way down from Kabul, no one asked Ambassador Neufeld about the state of affairs in this war-torn country that so many Canadians fought and died trying to bring about some stability.

The sad truth is that things are worse than ever. Last Wednesday, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko released an update on the challenges facing Afghanistan today. Some of the key points made by Sopko illustrated the absolute incompetence of the Afghan security forces. According to the inspector general, there are tens of thousands of “ghost soldiers” in the Afghan ranks whose commanders retain their paycheques because the individuals do not exist.

“The best spin the Afghan security forces can put on their activities is that they are able to re-take strategic areas after they temporarily fall,” wrote Sopko. “We may be defining success as the absence of failure,” he added.

The Taliban has begun simply purchasing their weapons and ammunition from the Afghan security forces because that is cheaper and easier than trying to capture them. Money is no object for the Taliban as they are harvesting bumper crops of poppies.

And the Taliban are not operating alone, as there are now an estimated 20 separate terrorist groups operating in east Afghanistan alone, including Daesh (aka ISIS).

A whopping 90 per cent of Afghans report corruption is a part of daily life, and it is estimated that more money was paid in bribes than was generated by the entire Afghan tax base in 2016.

Sopko’s conclusion was that despite the U.S. pumping in over $750-billion in military costs alone over the past 15 years, the Afghan government is still in no position to support itself, and “will require donor assistance for the foreseeable future if it is to survive.”

Against that backdrop, the repatriation of our hockey rink boards seems almost nonsensical.

I’m reminded of that famous line from the Vietnam war movie Apocalypse Now, wherein the American commander explains why it was necessary to capture an island: “Because Charlie don’t surf.” In this case our rationale for deploying troops to Kandahar would be the equally absurd “because Afghans don’t play hockey.”