October 06, 2003

OKAY, THEN, LET'S TALK BOTOX

A couple things to add to TM's post below, related to BTx, a vial of which was found by David Kay's team in Iraq, having apparently sat in a fridge for 10 years.

The bio-side of the Iraqi deterrent that Hussein held in check during the 1991 Desert Storm war is actually pretty precisely known: 157 400-lb freefall bombs, and, more ominously, 25 Scud warheads, which formed the country's only real "strategic" deterrent. (Contrary to popular belief, Iraq's ample chemical capacity wasn't Scud-mounted, having been deployed instead in the form of still more aircraft bombs, aircraft spray tanks, and artillery rockets). 100 of those bombs and 13 of the warheads carried BTx, amounting to 10-11kL of toxin in suspension. BTx was thus the active agent in over half of Iraq's strategic weaponry at the time. Barring some kind of suicidal air strike, those 25 missiles formed the only real aspect of Iraq's military might that could potentially have severely punished Tel Aviv, or Riyadh, in 1991.

All those weapons were destroyed by the UN. The open question on the BTx front was what had happened to an additional 8-9kL that the Iraqis were suspected of making in the 1980s, that UN teams were unable to fully account for. It was generally suspected there were additional aerial bombs that hadn't been found, but it was almost certain that no additional Scud missile capability existed, as there was a high level of confidence that all the longer-range missile frames were accounted for. (There was still some confusion about whether a few of the smaller (less than 300 km-range) original Scuds might have survived, though). Apparently Kay has found only the one neglected vial so far, indicating that the remainder either never existed, or were long ago destroyed or degraded.

It's an open question whether any of the BTx munitions could have been actually used in 1991, with most of the Iraqi airforce in wreckage or in Iran, and the number of usable Scuds rapidly dropping. There are also real questions about the effectiveness of that missile deterrent force if it had been used... several of the other munitions carried an almost certainly useless payload of aflatoxin (a carcinogen, but not immediately lethal), and the whole program had really only kicked into high gear in August, 1990, and had never really been tested in any real sense.

Botulinum toxin as a weapon would have similar effects to a very strong nerve gas. The effects it produces are fatal, but not communicable... basically you could only deny an area for 1-3 days, before the toxin degraded, and also immediately contaminate anyone within the aerosol cloud of the exploded weapon, certainly many of them fatally... but it's thus not going to cause some runaway catastrophe, like smallpox could, or deny an area for a sustained period, a la anthrax. The only known attempts to use it to deliberately kill outside a laboratory, by the Japanese Aum cult, all failed, however. Botulinum dispersed by aerosol sprayer is in theory more deadly per volume than an equivalent amount of VX. Dispersal by explosion, on the other hand, as one would have to do with a bomb or missile, is somewhat more sketchy, and there's some question whether nerve gas wouldn't be at least as effective a payload in those conditions (one significant difference is that a nerve agent like VX can be absorbed through the skin, while botulinum, despite being far more lethal, would have to be ingested or inhaled). There really is no way of knowing how effective Iraq's botulinum-based deterrent force would have been if it had been used, but one would think the smaller number of anthrax-loaded warheads could have caused more fatalities. (Although those had their own problems.)

Final analysis: There seems little doubt that the "unaccounted for" BTx stockpiles UNSCOM was worried about, those dating from the late 1980s, have largely vanished (the chaos of two wars, against Iran and the 1991 war, will do that to you). The fact that the botulinum reference strain was put on ice in 1993, and never pulled back out after the first UN inspectors left, for instance, is more evidence of Iraqi compliance, or at least, their focus on some other, more profitable area than BTx, rather than any "smoking gun." The question of whether BTx could have been rapidly produced, and then shipped to terrorists, seems largely hypothetical... reference strains are already widely available in the West, too, and given the likelihood of degradation in transit, any significant amount of BTx used by terrorists would more probably have to be produced in the country of its use.

A vial of botulinum could certainly be used effectively to kill small numbers of people by a terrorist using the bacteria to contaminate a food supply somehow. But "weaponized" use of the toxin would require the indigenous ability to produce tens if not hundreds of litres, and a dispersal method that ideally doesn't involve an explosion (a crop sprayer, perhaps). Doable? Yes. But the presence of one vial in one 10 year-old fridge doesn't make it any more likely than it already was. Just IMHO, though.

NB: IANAB. (I am not a biochemist). I'm happy to be corrected on any facts above that are out of my ken.

UPDATE: Just to be clear, I'm as surprised as anyone at how little the Kay group is finding. Now, BTx or nerve agent... these have to be produced pretty close to the time of use and they don't store well at all... I never expected anyone would find them, or that there'd be any in existence when the Americans invaded, as the old stuff would have long ago decayed, and the kinds of industrial processes required to start restocking them would prove hard to hide from any weapons control regime that could scrutize imports.

Mustard agents and anthrax spores, on the other hand, both last practically forever... those you COULD have buried in the sand for decades, and still conceivably still dig up and use now. I therefore thought it probable last spring there'd be at least a couple attempts to use mustard on American troops, probably using artillery, and, in what was probably my worst-case scenario, that there might also be a terrorist-delivered anthrax attack after the war began, probably in Israel, with spores smuggled from Iraq to Palestinian groups, perhaps (probably not Al Qaeda). As I said at the time, though, an anthrax attack elsewhere wouldn't slow down the 3rd Infantry Division one bit, so it would not be of immediate military concern even if the Iraqis did pull it off. So that really just left leftover Iran-Iraq War mustard shells as by far the most realistic threat the American soldiers faced, and I thought the same weapons would also be around to serve as easy evidence to to help justify American actions post facto, even if they weren't fired off in time. So, if Kay continues to find what amounts to no current stocks of anything at all, I'm as wrong about this one as everyone else. (I should add, however, that I'm also on record saying that chem weapons like the now apparently-hypothetical Iraqi mustard agent really don't qualify as "weapons of mass destruction" in any reasonable sense of the phrase.)

FINAL NOTE: You'll no doubt read somewhere that in 1991 Iraq had enough BTx to kill the world three times over. That's WMD propaganda... what's known is that Iraq had produced 10-20 kL of liquid BTx suspension... the percentage of active toxin in that mixture has not been made public. It would take that much BTx at 100% purity to kill the world three times. So the actual theoretical number of deaths, even if everyone in the world lined up to take their minimum fatal dosage, is probably considerably less than that.

Posted by BruceR at 08:33 PM

NEWS FROM KABUL: LATEST FROM "D"

I've been backlogging entries from our friend D. in Afghanistan. Haven't seen anything from him since the recent fatalities, but here's the stuff he was writing in September.

(PS: You can read the previous entries of D's Kabul diary here, here, and here. D's typically Canadian response to the last rocket attack is here.)

Sept. 13:

Well, things here are in fine shape, and we are all enjoying the still warm weather of Kabul. Yes, it continues to be over 90 degrees during the day! At night it is sleeping bag weather, so the combination is absolutely perfect for hot weather lovers like me. The winds have settled down as well, and so the dust is not stirred up as much. What a relief.

Big news - we have electricity in our tents as of this afternoon!!!!!!! All of the lap tops came flying out, and the guys sleeping in the day (we go 24 / 7 in some places here) will be able to plug in fans and actually sleep in a now not-so-hot tent.

The food continues to be excellent, and tonight we had fabulous shepherds pie, made with real shepherds. Remember that attack we had the other night that blew me off my feet . . . ?

At 10:00 tonight I am going up to the Spanish Mess (was invited by my Spanish friends) for a party - not a late one though, since we all have to report at 0700 tomorrow for the Terry Fox run around the entire compound. The circumference is a few KM, so we will do it twice, and we will enjoy it. So says the fuhrer. Speaking of enjoyment I was in the German section of the camp the other night for a fabulous good bye party for a really great lieutenant colonel who is being posted back to Germany. We will all miss him a lot. I was out a few times with him on "a job", and he is a real card. His replacement is also a first class guy, who swears I will be fluent in German in a few months. OK, we'll see!!!!

So I must run now, as I have a ton of things to do. We work 7 days a week here, at all hours of the day. This isn't exactly a 9 to 5 thing. The naughties here do not call it quits a supper, and neither do we.


Sept. 20:

Operational Security: This is very important!!!! In the interests the security of all of us over here, and yours as well, I am taking the same security measures as everyone else on this mission. Remember that there are still many, many Al-Queda and Taliban operating here in Afghanistan, and that they are always there, sometimes as close as the camp gate, where some locals are taking pictures of our patrols and installations, trying to find out our routines, weak points and get whatever targeting information they can, even from our garbage. This is not paranoia, it is the reality, and we have had several instances of local workers who are helping with the construction of the camp who have actually been caught drawing diagrams of the layout, et cetera, so this is for real! (They are immediately fired and sent to the embassy so they can immigrate to Canada and fund raise for creeps like Justin Trudeau - OK I could not resist). But seriously, they are a problem. You may notice certain "missing pieces" in a story, or a few days will go by when I will simply say - "didn't do much this week". Other times, I will sound like a bad 14 year old when you ask me what I have been up to. You all know the drill. "Where have you been? Nowhere. Who were you with? Nobody. Where are you going and when are you coming back? Don't know. Your housemaster called today, and the headmaster says you need to be caned. So what????" OK, you get the point. Remember, I can't tell you everything! This is for the protection of everyone here, and for your protection too.

If you send mail, the first thing we do is to tear off the return address part of the envelope and shred it. We also will destroy any letters that will indicate your location or full name in the letter, or where you work, after we have read them. Some of the Germans here had incidents where their families were threatened at home because the discarded envelopes or letters fell into the wrong hands and terrorists now have the names and addresses of the soldiers' families. I am not going to let any of you have the same problem. So that you know, the mail you send to me passes ONLY through Canada Post and then Canadian military hands, from the transport plane by armoured personnel carrier to our camp. All letters that you send to me will without exception be destroyed after I read them. In the case of email, try to leave your street address off the bottom if it is there. Do not become frightened by this - just use common sense and when you email me, or write to me, refer to people by their first name only. You need only to be careful. I carry a loaded 9mm pistol and an automatic rifle with LOTS of ammunition every day and if there is a threat to me I have the ability address a situation and effect immediate pest control measures - you do not!

OUR HOME
Picture bombed out ruins with a battle damaged factory complex (along the lines of old Laird Drive in Leaside, Toronto) in the middle of it all. Our camp is part of a just such a former industrial complex, which has an interesting combination of graffiti in the little hidden places that have not yet been painted, blasted by the omnipresent sand storms or simply baked off by the sun. Slogans from the Taliban and Mujahadin overlap with the Soviet / Marxist crap - you know the stuff. "The workers will be free when the proletariat and the military are one - comrades, produce more!" (loose translation by one of my Bulgarian comrades). Place this reverie in a very wide valley surrounded by incredibly rugged beautiful mountains which stand guard over the most vile rat and viper infested dust bowl on the planet and you have my home in mind!

As an annex to the main camp, much of it already built up by the Germans, the Canadian theatre activation team began building the Canadian extension in the Spring. The result is that we now have the grand and glorious Camp Warehouse, which was named for the factory complex it calls home. Surrounded by Hesco Bastion (big wire mesh drums filled with Hessian cloth and sand) which provide some protection against mortars, bombs, and small arms fire, and covered liberally with rolls of razor wire, this is our home. In the middle is a beautifully organized sea of canvas - some modular tents and some winter havens. These are large arched roof tents that stand 8 feet tall and have enough room for several cots and a few barracks boxes per troop. We have wiring in them, recently connected, so our individual lights and fans now work. The mess tent and recreation tent are wired and have light, but no protection against incoming rockets and mortars! The Mess tent (not the eating mess but the recreation mess) has three areas, including a bar area, a place where we watch satellite television, and a huge flat screen TV which has a great feature film every night. We are allowed two beers per day and are able to have a choice of Heineken, Blue, or Kokanee. Cost is 1.00 US Dollar per can. We also have pop for 50 cents. Haircuts are free, and Pringles are 2.00 US, except the last shipment that was crushed by an ammo crate on the Hercules flight and were on sale for 1.00.

When I phone or email, I do so from a sea container next to the mess tent. It holds 6 telephones on one wall and four internet stalls on the other. There is an air conditioner at the end so that the equipment does not break down, making this a very popular place to be in the middle of the day. As with everything else, all power is provided by several generators which grind on 24 hours per day. God bless 'em!

WEATHER
You need to see the sand storms to believe them, as they roll in like an ominous wall of brown and absolutely envelope everything in their path. Picture a winter whiteout in brown that hurts the skin and blasts the paint off buildings and vehicles. Some of it is very fine, and in fact has the consistency of talcum powder, or moon dust. A few weeks ago, we were driving through one section of the camp to another, and the sand (talcum) was wafting down the side windows in exactly the same way that water sheets down in a car wash. It was sort of a series of wavey lines of brown. Could it be a dehydrated form of Guinness Stout???? NO IT IS NOT!!!!! In fact, the analysis done by the medical folks indicates that it is 30% human waste, not surprising since there are no underground sewers in this city of 4,000,000 people. Waste is simply dumped onto the street where it dries and turns into the omnipresent dust. The farmers also use it on their fields for fertilizer, so there you have it! People here are in fact full of ...

During the day, it is about 95 degrees and at night it goes down to about 45 or 50. For me this is the perfect combination as we have nice cool nights and lots of opportunity to enjoy the sun. Especially enjoyable is the incipient heat prostration that you get from moving around in armoured vehicles while wearing a 28 pound armoured vest, magazines full of bullets, a nice heavy helmet, weapons et cetera.

FOOD and DRINK
As many of you know, this is an important element of life for anyone, but especially for a completely addicted St. Lawrence Market fan such as me! Great news - the cooks here are fantastic. They slave 24 hours a day in the oppressive heat of a tent, which is constantly flapping in high winds, and even during sandstorms produce a meal for the several hundred of us which is an amazing feat. We have the best food anywhere! full of international compounds. It is not unusual to see German, Romanian, Dutch and Swedish soldiers and officers migrating over to our kitchen tents for the odd meal. They perform roles as part of the camp security with the rest of the Canadian troops, so they are always trying to come to our little piece of heaven to pull security duty and eat with us.

We are short on staff in the kitchen as we sent some of them to our other camp (Camp Julien) on the other side of town, because the Canadian civilians there quit. We were so short that the cooks were in a frenzy, so I volunteered to help serve meals once a week. You should have seen some of the faces on the troops when they pulled up to the meal line and I was serving them spaghetti! I had a blast!! The guys in the kitchen are mostly Newfies, and I had a very entertaining hour and a half with them today - even learned a few new "songs". Sorry, for cooks and cook wannabes only! I had so much fun, some of the other officers are now going to volunteer to have the same experience. Let's see if they will let me try my hand at making eggs for breakfast. One of my great friends in Toronto has an apron that says "Don't Make Me Poison Your Food". Well, one of my green combat t-shirts says that now too! As you may have heard, Canadian and American troops were not allowed to drink alcohol. The other 29 countries here take the view that if they trust their troops who are old enough to vote, carry weapons and lots of ammunition on duty in the "Wild West" (here) and make life and death decisions, they are most likely able to handle a drink or two at the end of the day. Not so with the Yanks and us! If we are caught having liquor or go over the two beer per 24 hour limit, it is an immediate trip home, and probably a summary trial. So, I was hoping that General Leslie would come through my line when I was serving spaghetti. I was going to say, "May I suggest a nice bottle of Chianti with that?" After all, what is he going to do, make me [join the army]? He did not show. Until we are allowed to, which may be never, we will have to be satisfied with beer and not be allowed to drink wine or spirits.

THE NEWSPAPER STORIES
They certainly were stories. A lot of us read them with some level of amusement, and from time to time we have either rolled our eyes or just shaken our heads, wondering what the reporters were talking about. Boy, do they ever dress things up. They also miss the big picture, and apart from interviewing some great guys in the lower ranks also latched onto some to the weird senior people who for their own reasons (not the least of which was obvious self aggrandisement) who gave them a "load" every once in a while. I have learned a lot about reporters over the past few years, including their propensity for a "good story" (hey, even Pulitzer prize winners are being found out now!) but I had no idea they could be so naÔve. A couple of the sources used once or twice should have appeared to even the goofiest reporter as class one Ontario grade A, Olympic level story-stretchers.

Once or twice when we were gathered around the internet pages reading the various articles, we roared out loud. Never again will I read reports on absolutely anything from at least one of the regular reporters without snickering to myself. Yes, it is dangerous, and we are doing a lot to help people here in terms of security and keeping an eye on events, then reacting as best we can. It is also true that people shoot at us - as recently as last night in fact, but the drama that was put into a lot of the articles was, well, crap.

Equally entertaining was the CBC who actually stated in a story that ISAF had not been attacked in 6 months! Wow, so the Norwegians who were shot, the Germans who were blown up, and the Dutch who were wounded, along with the dozens of rocket attacks, bomb detonations at ambushes against troops were all actually imagined. But then, what do you expect from the CBC? If it has nothing to do with Trudeau's vile offspring or some other equally mundane topic, it isn't worth the research. No doubt they will soon produce a series on why we should all feel sorry for the Taliban - just victims of those mean old American oil companies and McDonalds!


Sept. 30:

I thought that I might just give you a further description on life here before I delve into specific events - some of which you will no doubt find amusing! First, a few notes on Kabul itself. We are at an altitude of 6,000 feet here in Kabul, and should therefore be the beneficiaries of "clean mountain air". Dream on. You have read about the dust here, including the analysis on the delicious contents thereof done by the medical folks, but the other thing about the air here is that it has a high level of pollution, and were it not for the winds, I have no doubt this would rival Mexico City or Los Angeles for filth. This city of 3.5 million people does however have many interesting qualities and I find the whole place nothing less than fascinating, to the point where I really enjoy being among the sights, sounds, and even smells. Some parts of the city on the outskirts remind me of rural Peru in the "bad old days." The mud and mud-brick composite walls and the colour of the sand and surrounding hills are very reminiscent of the areas around Lima, especially to the South. So, I feel like a teenager again! In addition, there are literally hundreds of thousands of street vendors, trucks form the 1950s, and lots and lots of adorable donkeys with beautiful woollen and leather bridles and ornaments, all of whom I would love to take home and put on a retirement farm so they could enjoy a well-earned rest instead of slaving away in the heat and pollution. The other night, I was at the private home of an NGO director and I could have sworn I was in Lima, again... There were lots of nice upper middle class houses, many with guards, and all with walls lining the quiet sidewalks, branches hanging over the parapets to provide shade for the passers by. Enclosed courtyards, and the subtle smells of semi-tropical vegetation mingled with the underlying "big, old world, been there for centuries" smell. Our camp is about a 25 minute drive from there on the Jalalabad road, a sort of Asian version of old Highway 2 that wanders out of Toronto and leads to quieter towns.

Other interesting sights include little boys flying kites, which used to be against the law under the Taliban and was worth a beating followed by three to five months in jail. The kites are usually the classic shape of a kite but are considerably smaller and are often made from clear plastic. One day last week I was outside a police station with two police, and saw three kites in the air at once, a scene that would have resulted in an overcrowded prison just two years ago. Both the little criminals flying the kites and the depraved individuals enjoying the sight of them dancing in the breeze would have been beaten and put into the local crowbar hotel. People are also no longer risking their lives for such morally bankrupt acts as listening to the radio, having coloured lights in front of the store, or the super evil act of listening to music. To really push the limit, some of the little children are now playing with toys and actually laughing. The Taliban remnants know how to deal with these diabolical little criminals, but we are there to prevent that, and that message has clearly hit home with child and adult alike. One of the interpreters I was working with last week is a former doctor, who was jailed for 6 months three years ago because his beard was not as long as a fist-full, and was later turned in for playing with brightly coloured toys in the back yard with his two year old.

Why the vicious reaction by the Taliban to these seemingly innocent but in reality deeply subversive activities you may ask? All of the previously mentioned acts were seen to be signs that the person was leaving themselves open to influence by the devil. In other words, amusing one's self is the equivalent of having a super sťance on Halloween followed by high occult ceremonies, complete with human sacrifice. If you want to torture a Taliban follower, force them to watch you standing clean shaven in a traffic circle while you are wearing a skimpy bathing suit and flying a kite with one hand and operating an 8 track cassette player with the other. Eight track???? Oh, now that is evil!!!! Make the music a two-hour joint concert by Wayne Newton and Mel Torme. What else is evil? So much, so let's just stick to plain rude. For example it is rude here to show up at a wedding with an AK-47 and not fire it off on full auto at the reception. If you're a real pig, you use soap when you wash your hands, especially if you do this before handling food. Perhaps the epitome of rude gestures is signalling before you change lanes. And if you obey a traffic policeman, you are beneath contempt.

Before I go any further, here is an amusing story. The little children have as their mantra the greeting "How are you?" whenever they see an ISAF soldier. They pronounce it as "Haryoo", and of course have no idea what it means since they repeat it over and over. They just think it is a common greeting. This is of course followed immediately by "Mistah . . . . penz! " They all want pens. The joke is that Haryoo is a word in Finnish that means a long sloping hill. Right Ray? It is also a last name in Finland, and by coincidence is the last name of one of the Finnish Lieutenants here, who speaks very little English. Nobody told him about this, so the first time he went into the countryside, he wondered why hundreds of children in several villages had already heard about him, and swarmed his jeep yelling his name as only loyal subjects would do! What a bizarre mystery for him!

On an equally amusing note, our Italian colleagues have allegedly taken it on to teach some of the local kiddies nice little gestures and phrases to say to some of the British troops, but we'll stop today's language lesson there. I love the Italian sense of humour, and have made a few friends over in their camp. They are really good engineers and are doing excellent work in the heart of Kabul with bridges and bombed out roads. We have business to discuss every day. Besides, they serve fabulous pasta at every lunch. So, if I need to discuss with them, say between 1100 and 1400 hrs and the conversation can't take place on the phone and must go to their compound, it's on with the flak jacket and combat vest, load up the pistol and load up on the pasta! I really must do more work with them...

This past ten days has been extremely busy for me and I have been in the field with both the Finnish and Norwegian contingents. The days have been long and hard with missions only taking place for me during the day and little or no evening activity. We were operating mostly in the Northern area, outside of the KMNB AOR (Kabul Multi-National Brigade Area Of Responsibility) where the Taliban still have a lot of influence only a few kilometres away, and remind you of that in their own inimitable fashion. One of the sure signs that you may be about to have a problem is when all of a sudden the streets are empty and the friendly waves and smiles from the adults and gleeful thumbs up gestures from the children are conspicuously absent. For the most part, that part of the country is fine, but there are places where if you do not watch yourself, you may have outnumbered the hiding Taliban, but you may be in touching distance of a minefield laid either by the Soviets, the Mujahadin, or the Taliban. There are no maps or records of where the mines were laid of course. The Halo Trust, which is an NGO - one of the 500 or so non-governmental organizations in Kabul - does a lot of the mine and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) clearances along with Military Engineers from ISAF (International Security Assistance Force - that's all of us from 31 countries). Signs painted on buildings seen while driving through the countryside reveals the results of their dangerous work. It is all too common to see "HT BAC 315" - Halo Trust Battle Area Clearance number 315 as an example). This means that the area you are about to enter will not be your last due to mines or booby traps. Maybe and hopefully that is. No method of mine detection is perfect, and when the Soviets laid mines by air-drop, they made many of them out of plastic to prevent detection by metal detectors, and used attractive colours,which enticed children to pick them up and play with them until they went off. Many times all you will see in a dry river bed or on the edge of a field is red paint on the rocks, indicating a live minefield that can not be cleared,or that is constantly changing with Spring run-offs and irregular water flows. One of these was about three or four feet from the edge of the road we drove down every day for a distance of several hundred meters, so a tire blow out on these very rough cart paths could easily mean a one way trip into an anti-tank mine. If you blow out your tire on Highway eleven on the way to the cottage, you are 5 minutes late, but if we blow a tire out, we are 50 years early going to our wake! Thank you ladies and gentlemen in the quality control department at Michelin, I am your loyal fan!

I had the pleasure of being with Norwegians most of the time and on one occasion we visited a fairly large school that was built thanks to money given by Norwegian and Finnish donors. The trip took us up to a valley where we inspected the work, which should be completed in about two weeks. The school was a beautiful little building, shaped like a U with a nice little courtyard in the middle, the entire area surrounded by very majestic mountains and long, meandering trails sneaking through the passes of the surrounding peaks. It was a small version of Banff, but without snow. That of course will change in about 6 weeks. Most of the area is surrounded by Soviet mines, and we needed to be careful on the drive in. The children came out to greet us, delivering their usual ecstatic greeting. "Hello!!! How are you?!?!?. They are such beautiful children, and especially the little girls who are absolutely and completely adorable. It is to me inconceivable that they can be so joyful given the miserable lives their families have all experienced over the last thirty years and the ruins they now live in. They are currently learning in tents donated by UNICEF (the most bureaucrat-ridden, self serving and inefficient charity in the history of the world - see the report form the UN Auditor General three years ago), and of course the ruins of their former school. The Soviets blew it up when the principal refused to teach Marxist doctrine. As for the principal, he was shot in front of the villagers to teach them a lesson about complying with the loving hand of Soviet socialism. I hope some of the naÔve little "all problems in the world stem from mean capitalist white men" pin-heads in second year political science read those last two sentences and stop to think the next time they get sucked in by that crap in the "Workers' Daily" that the Marxists hand out on campus.

On one of the days when I was out, we went to visit with a Malik and his council. There were 24 of us in all for lunch including our interpreter, and we all were the guests of the Malik, sitting cross-legged on the floor as is the custom. "Eat with your fingers, not with a fork" is the rule here, just as is sharing food from a common dish. We had a long discussion with the Malik, the Governor of the province, a senior judge, the local police chief and several very high ranking officials. The discussion was very fruitful, and we accomplished much. We were of course dressed in our combat uniforms although we left our rifles in the jeep with one of our troops and took off our pistols and combat vests once in the house. Everyone else was in customary tribal dress, the Pashtuns especially standing out with their long tailed turbans. After the meeting was over, the luncheon began. It was in fact delicious. But . . . The bare footed servants (actually everybody was barefooted except for us - sit and sleep with your boots on so that you can die in your bed) arrived with the floor cloth. This was actually two vinyl and cloth runners that extended the length and width of the room. The food was efficiently delivered, and included huge platters of steamed rice with chicken buried inside, roasted egg plant and garlic, and a wonderful variety of vegetables. There were other treats that were delicious, but I will not describe them here since I am not sure how you will react. All of our hands were washed by a little boy passing a basin around, pouring water over our hands into the bowl, and then letting us dry off with a yellow towel. Did I say yellow? I'm sorry, I meant to say gray. I was about number twelve, and yes, the colour transformation was well underway at that point! So . . . . everything was delivered by the bare-footed fellas, scurrying back and forth between the kitchen in the back yard and the guest room where we all sat. You guessed it, the bread was last. Bread here is the traditional Middle Eastern variety, and looks exactly like a large pizza devoid of any sauce or toppings. The bread was delivered to us by simply being slammed down on the floor, and then dragged back and for the as people tear off portions. Yes, this is the same mat where only moments ago the servers had been walking in filthy bare feet, cooties and all. I used to eat dirt in defensive positions as a sort of parlour trick for the men, so I simply did a quick reversion to the good old days and gobbled it all down, telling myself all the while that I was being a good dog by building immunity templates for all the local bacteria. So far, no problem! I will recount more of this bizarre adventure later, and will stop for now.

Posted by BruceR at 04:35 PM

... AND IN VIDEO FORM (SORT OF)

The recruit course I officered in Toronto last spring was the topic of a Canadian Forces recruiting video. You can find it here. I'm pleased to say you can watch the whole thing without seeing me once. And before anyone says it, yes, the young reservists therein need a lot of work, but bear in mind it was their first course. A lot of great Canadian soldiers started out testing the waters in the local army reserve unit first, from Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer, killed in Afghanistan last year, to Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie, currently commanding the Canadians currently in Kabul. I'm certain we'll get a few of these soldiers on overseas deployments in the years to come... a couple of the instructors have already seen deployments in fact.

PS: The brigade website that hosts that video is actually based on a design of mine (superbly implemented by Sgt. Snea of 32 CBG G6).

Posted by BruceR at 03:08 PM

BRUCER, NOW AVAILABLE IN PAPER FORM

My musings on the state of the Canadian military, in the guise of a book review, is now available at Canadian newsstands in the Literary Review of Canada. Editor Bronwyn Drainie, whom I must say was an absolute pleasure to work with, was referred to me by our genial webhost and occasional Flitters denizen Patrick C., on the basis of this site. So thanks to her, and to him. I think the piece reads rather better than my unedited ramblings here ever do, so I urge you to pick up a copy if the topic is of interest.

Posted by BruceR at 02:46 PM

THE PLURAL OF ILTIS IS ILTII

A lot of talk about the deaths near Kabul of two Canadian soldiers this week. There's a very good discussion going on in Flitters, so these are at best "late-to-the-fray" thoughts on my part.

*There is yet no firm evidence that the mine explosion that killed the Canadians was intentional, or targeted at Westerners. The area in question was considered pro-government by Afghan authorities. A deliberate remining is still a possibility, but not a certainty.

*The one thing you haven't heard this time from Canadian soldier-commentators (paid and unpaid) is surprise. The Canadians anticipated about one fatality a month from the Kabul mission; they're right on track for that at the moment. If this is the only price to pay from this 12-month mission, it'll still be a bloody miracle.

*The Iltis runabout (jeep? dune buggy?) is much maligned, and rightly so. It is not a sturdy vehicle in any sense of the word. It is, however, a half-decent vehicle if you've got a two-man detachment that has to work independently, as it's light enough that two men can push it out of just about anything it could conceivably get stuck in. It is not the worst vehicle Canadians have in their inventory... that honor still goes, by universal agreement, to the LSVW utility transport, in its Canadian incarnation quite possibly the worst military vehicle ever built. I'd love to blame some of this current mess on the tangled mess of Liberal-era military procurement, and Quebec procurement-favoritism in this country (the awarding of the Iltis contract to a Quebec company led to the shutting down of an auto plant in Ontario), but I can't... if only because the LSVW was, of course, built in British Columbia, meaning any Canadian province can produce crappy vehicles. The Iltis is long overdue for a replacement, but in some ways the replacement plan (splitting the fleet between G-Wagens for overseas service and Silverados for domestic work) might be seen as even worse (not that there's a choice... with the production lines silent for over a decade, the Canadian supply of spare parts for the Iltis is rapidly depleting, to the point where the fleet is on the verge of cannibalizing itself.)

*People are also talking about the American Hummers, and whether they're better... they were preferred by the Canadians in Kandahar, certainly. The original Hummer isn't much better armoured against mine strikes... its reputation for survivability had a lot to do with the front axle being so far forward of the crew compartment (as opposed to being right under the gas pedal in the Iltis) which, if the front wheel hits a mine, tend to produce a less destructive effect on the front seat passengers. It should also be noted that weight and wide wheelbases do not necessarily result in a more mine-survivable vehicle in every circumstance... while keeping the vehicle from flipping can certainly help, the tradeoff is you have a vehicle which exerts more pounds on the ground, increasing the likelihood of detonation in some cases, and has wheels that could be more likely to be a foot or two to the left or right of the "proven track," where anti-personnel mines can often rest undetected. Still, given a choice, I'd prefer a Hummer, sure.

*But that, of course, is the point. Canadian soldiers have no choice... Iltis is all there is for us. Wherever we go, it goes (lots of Iltii were shot up in the former Yugoslavia, too). I have no ideological problem with those talking heads who have chosen to use the prospect of future deaths like this to help explain to Canadians the consequences of running a $15 billion dollar military on a $13 billion budget. I just wish they'd waited to do it until all the facts were in, and the mourning was over. Last week it seemed... unseemly.

*One thing that I haven't heard said yet, however. The reason Canada is replacing the Iltis with the Mercedes G-Wagen is not because the Mercedes won any kind of competition, but because Mercedes was the ONLY company that bid on the contract (Rolls Royce and GM both declined), due to the current Canadian strategy of "lowest-cost compliant" bidding. (The cheapest vehicle that meets the minimum requirements is selected.) It's the same strategy that continues to delay the Sea King replacement. I'm of two minds whether I want this to become an issue, though... as said above, new vehicles are needed urgently. To go back on the deal with Mercedes and look again at the other alternatives (likely the Land Rover Defender and GM-Bucher's Duro LTV... the Hummer was never going to beat either of those so long as cost, and its effects on fleet size, was any factor at all) would likely accomplish little more at this point than delaying the replacement by many years, as has happened with the maritime helicopters.

*Final analysis: if the Canadians had been riding in G-Wagens, the only likely replacement for the Iltis, it likely wouldn't have made any difference given the size of the explosion. The G-Wagen would still have been a much better vehicle for this mission, though. (the Iltis is too low power to do well at the high altitudes around Kabul, and doesn't have the bolt-on armour capability of the G-Wagen, for starters.) Trouble is, given the usual Canadian military procurement tangle, all these well-meaning current calls for better Canadian vehicles (ie, Hummers) could lead to that necessary upgrade being accelerated, or delayed, depending on what lessons the government chooses to draw from it. Watch this space.

*Final final note: In addition to the 98 (now 97) Iltii with the 2,000-strong Canadian contingent in Kabul, there are also 20 new commercial-pattern Nissan Terranos. There simply weren't enough roadworthy Iltii available. The Canadian government had the choice between spending $2,000 per clapped-out ex-Bundeswehr Iltis to increase their fleet, or $15K per on the Terranos (Actually closer to $150K per when the entire contract value, presumably including delivery, spare parts, etc. is considered). The army's faith in the Iltis prior to this accident is perhaps best indicated by that decision.

Posted by BruceR at 10:31 AM

MAHER ARAR RELEASED

Work-related prolonged absence. Sorry. Back to the news.

Maher Arar has been released. He was the Syrian-Canadian mistakenly handed over to Damascus by American spywatchers when he tried to change flights in New York on a business trip. The guy lost a year of his life, and may have been tortured, but at least the second high-profile Canadian prisoner in the Middle East is coming home. As I noted earlier, Arar's deportation is apparently still being regarded as a victory against terror by the American government, or at least that portion of it that still talks to Sy Hersh, who recently wrote in the New Yorker about how Syrian-U.S. cooperation had broken up an Ottawa "terrorist cell." (Arar, it now seems, was that cell.) But as the CSIS individual says in the linked story, "he's clean."

By all accounts Arar, having been born in Syria, would still have been technically liable for his compulsory term of military service, so the Syrian government certainly could have convicted him for draft dodging if anyone thought there was value in keeping him in jail. So it's pretty safe to say the guy was an accidental drive-by by Homeland Security, not a real terrorist.

It's probably easy to ding quiet Canadian consular intervention, but, as in the earlier case of Bill Sampson, it does seem, eventually, to get results. The difference is, Sampson was almost certainly innocent, and there was a lot more mealy-mouthedness involved because the Saudis seem extraordinarily prone to taking offence at slights against the "hospitality" of their kingdom or the fairness of their legal system. In Arar's case, there were some early doubts about his story, and no one had any illusions about what he'd been consigned to.

Arar's case also has some similarities to the unfortunate death of Zahra Kazemi in Iran: in both cases other countries refused to recognize the Canadian practice of allowing dual citizenship. In Kazemi's case, however, she was travelling under her Iranian passport, a decision that left her overly vulnerable to imprisonment and torture, while Arar was travelling under his Canadian one. In the end, it was the American inexplicable failure to notify Canadian authorities they had a Canadian, travelling as a Canadian, en route to Canada, in custody, before summarily deporting him to Syria for "interrogation" by his country of origin, that is the real crime here. (And a clear violation of the Vienna protocols that the U.S. has signed.) And it's a crime that will in all likelihood never be rectified now, as it's hard to see how a civil court claim filed in Canada could ever compel restitution from the U.S.

Posted by BruceR at 10:07 AM