The following is the third of three articles on the death of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry in Kandahar, Afghanistan on January 15, 2006.
Glyn Berry arrived in September 2005 to take up his assignment as the political director of Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar, one of the southern provinces of Afghanistan and the historical power base of the Taliban. The Taliban had mostly been driven into Pakistan and had not yet mounted a return. But Afghanistan was still in the midst of civil war, and NATO and coalition casualties had been mounting. Incidents of attacks by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and car bombs had jumped from three in 2003 to five in 2004 to 15 in 2005. Kandahar, however, was not the cauldron it was to become a year later and had remained largely free of incidents in 2005.
Glyn encountered problems the moment he arrived. For one thing, departments in Ottawa had still not agreed on the terms of reference for the PRT. At issue was who should be in charge. In the US and UK models, there was no question that the force commander was in charge, while relying on the advice and assistance of his top diplomatic, police and aid agency representatives who would have great latitude in their own areas of responsibility. In Canada, Foreign Affairs believed otherwise and, at an interdepartmental meeting of senior officials on Afghanistan policy, the deputy minister of Foreign Affairs had sprung a proposal that the political director (with a miniscule staff) be the superior of the force commander (responsible for 250 troops). The meeting broke up in dissension.
In the event, departments never did sign off on a framework agreement. For years after, it was left to those on the ground to work out their own cooperative arrangements. The force commander had to conduct his mission without official orders, relying on a draft of the never-concluded framework agreement and on verbal direction from the Chief of the Defence Staff. There cannot have been a previous case in Canadian history when a military force was sent into a war without government-approved direction.
Glyn Berry was a professional who could work around such a problem. More difficult were the confused relationships between the PRT and the Canadian embassy in Kabul, and between the PRT and departments in Ottawa. Within days of his arrival, Glyn received an unannounced visit from an embassy officer in Kabul and later learned that the embassy proposed to visit approximately every six weeks. Glyn suggested that embassy officers could make better use of their time travelling to other major centres such as Mazar, Herat, Kunduz or Ghazni, where there were no Canadian missions. There was no question that the Ambassador ought to visit periodically, but Glyn did not see the point of embassy officers making the day-long and often perilous trek from Kabul to Kandahar when Foreign Affairs and other Canadian staff were already there. From Kabul, the deputy head of mission shot back that she was under very clear instructions from the ambassador to expect to be down in Kandahar regularly.
Most frustrating were Glyn’s dealings with Ottawa. Before his departure, departmental officials had promised to equip him with at least the basics to function with some efficiency and effectiveness – if not comfort – in the austere circumstances of Kandahar. It was not to be. Months into his assignment, Glyn would point out that when the Canadian Army or the RCMP deployed into places where they could count only on themselves, they prepared the ground in advance and brought with them whatever resources they needed to be self-sufficient. Troops, for instance, never went anywhere without their weapons, means of transport, secure communications, and logistics support. In contrast, the Department of Foreign Affairs was used to sending people only to places where fully adequate systems already existed: Canadian embassies and consulates in working cities. This was decidedly not the case in Kandahar.
Communications were a major impediment. According to a signed agreement between high-level officials at Foreign Affairs and National Defence, Foreign Affairs had undertaken to install and manage the secure links between the PRT and Ottawa. But it would take until months after Glyn was killed for the system to be put in place – because those responsible for doing so feared sending civilian employees on temporary duty into a military theatre of operations. Foreign Affairs had decided that it wanted National Defence to carry out the installation instead. Glyn was barely able to contain himself. His military colleagues, he observed, were not amused by the department’s sudden onrush of fear. Plaintively, an official in Ottawa appealed to higher authority not to leave him hanging out on his own. The department had made the decision to post him there, and it had an obligation to support him as best it could.
At the top of Glyn’s list of concerns was security. Foreign Affairs had made no plans to train him on personal safety and security before he left Ottawa – so he himself arranged to take a short course from a private security training firm in the UK while setting up his family in London. But it was only after he arrived in Kandahar that the full magnitude of the department’s ignorance of security conditions there became evident. People in Ottawa were comparing his situation in Kandahar to that of UN officials who they claimed were able to move about the province relatively freely and safely. Glyn pointed out that the situations were not remotely comparable. Canada was a member of the NATO military alliance and a participant in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom which was fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Glyn didn’t think the Government of Canada ought to be ignoring the political context and making life and death judgements on unproven assumptions. Besides, he noted, the UN’s vehicles were better armoured.
Nor were conditions in Kandahar comparable to those in Kabul, as some in Ottawa apparently thought. A visitor from the US Embassy in Kabul had told Glyn she was perfectly safe in Kabul travelling to and from appointments in a regular SUV with a local driver. In Kandahar, she (and he) could only venture out in a four-jeep convoy, riding in a jump seat with a machine gunner right next to them. Kandahar was truly a combat zone, with the US casualty rate comparable to that of Iraq. Kabul was a city of bright lights in comparison. Which made Glyn wonder why Foreign Affairs and the Treasury Board in Ottawa were so reluctant to raise the hazard pay and leave allowance for the government’s civilian employees in Kandahar in order to reflect the level of danger they had to deal with.
Glyn feared what a successful strike against the PRT would do for Canada’s reconstruction program in Afghanistan. A member of the UK’s Department for International Development had remarked that if the Taliban successfully struck the PRT despite the protection its members were supposed to have, the aid agencies and NGOs would leave for sure and not be back for years. He was right.
On December 12, 2005 the first strike was made against the Canadian PRT in which there were significant injuries – and Glyn was in the middle of it. He was travelling in a Canadian convoy heading for the district centre of Gorakh some 70 kilometers northwest of Kandahar when one of the vehicles tripped what was believed to have been an anti-tank mine. Berry heard an explosion and saw a huge cloud of dust erupt around a G-Wagon thirty meters (and a few seconds) ahead of his. Freelance journalist Tim Albone on assignment to The Times of London emerged dazed but unharmed. The turret gunner was blown out of the vehicle and landed on his back, but suffered only bumps and bruises. The crew commander and driver, however, both suffered broken legs and had to be airlifted by Chinook helicopter to KAF for surgery. Parts of the engine block, Glyn reported, landed 40 to 50 meters away.
Glyn described some of his experiences in Kandahar on a brief visit to Foreign Affairs that Christmas. He had a rapt audience at the “town hall” meeting he held for fellow employees in the cafeteria of the Pearson Building. The attack had been an unfortunate one, and he had been very lucky to have escaped unhurt. The response of the Canadian soldiers, he said, had been consummately professional – not mentioning his own deportment. Glyn said he felt privileged to be part of such a noble undertaking as the Canadian PRT in Kandahar, one all Canadians could justly be proud of. He looked forward to returning to his post.
While he was in the Pearson Building, he was summoned to the eighth floor where an assistant deputy minister told him to mute his comments on the department’s ineptitude in dealing with the administrative difficulties he was encountering in Kandahar. Glyn returned to the lobby ashen-faced and uncomprehending. He’d expected help; what he’d received was a rebuke.
Three weeks later, the second strike against the Canadian PRT took place. Tragically, Glyn was not the one to report it. Ministers and senior officials issued communiqués expressing their “extreme sadness” over his death, and called him an exceptional member of the Foreign Service who had served with distinction and died in the line of duty. All true. They just should have looked after him better.