MA’SUM GHAR, Afghanistan — History can unfold in the strangest little nooks and crannies of the world, especially when a war is winding down.
The end of Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar on Tuesday was no exception.
The ceremony marking the 1st Battalion Royal 22e Regiment’s handover of the Kandahar battlefield took place in the Afghan National Army compound of Forward Operating Base Ma’sum Ghar, amid the smell of wood fires and stacked sewer pipes.
In some respects, it had all the charm and historic heft of a lumber yard.
Saying goodbye to Kandahar among Afghan troops was a sentimental, oddly appropriate choice for the Canadian army, which has for years worked with the country’s soldiers in hopes of training itself out of a job in Afghanistan.
The base, along the withered banks of the Arghandab River, is steeped in significance.
A generation of Canadian troops have been propelled into combat from its gates, but it is truly home to a kandak (battalion) of Afghan soldiers, who’ve spent the last seven years fighting in this stiff-necked corner of the province.
Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the outgoing battle group commander, delivered his farewell speech beside a crisp Canadian flag while laundry dangled on lines outside an observation post on the hillside above him.
Unlike the Canadians they call “brothers,” the Afghans don’t get to leave.
“I remember very well when our Canadian brothers arrived, this place where you are standing right now was in the hands of the insurgents,” said Brig.-Gen Ahmad Habibi, commander of the ANA’s 1st Brigade, 205 Corps.
His speech was accompanied by the melodic ring of a cellphone among the seats where the local dignitaries sat. Afghans love their cellphones and etiquette isn’t word that’s easily translated into Pashtu.
“All of our accomplishments today, our Canadian friends have played a major role,” said Habibi, who fought alongside Canadians in the milestone battles of Operation Medusa.
As he spoke, invited guests sat sweating underneath two canvas tents, with the sides rolled up, in front of a line of grey portable toilets.
A handful of Habibi’s troops watched from the sidelines, some with looks of bewilderment on their faces, not quite sure what to make of it all.
The general’s address was delivered from a makeshift, plywood lectern facing down a slope towards a collection of sea containers heaped with scrap metal and other refuse. The microphone worked only intermittently.
It all felt hastily assembled, but Afghan-style authentic.
After the speeches and handshakes, when it really came time to say goodbye, Haji Fazluddin Agha — the rotund, fierce-looking, ex-mujahedeen commander and Panjwaii district governor — broke into a beaming smile.
Agha had something for St-Louis, his regimental sergeant-major and battle group deputy commander. The Afghans are big on certificates — they enjoy giving them almost as much as receiving them.
Each of the Canadians received a framed certificate, one of which was flaming pink, plus scarves and a bag of nuts — a popular Afghan treat.
Said Agha when it was all over: “I’m going to miss those guys.”