Iceland has no army. But Icelanders are carrying arms in Afghanistan.
“Are you going to call the documentary ‘The Secret Army’?” One of the guys said jokingly as he and the other Icelanders switched from pistols to machine guns at the shooting range in the Afghan desert just outside Kabul. “That’s a thought,” I replied as my partner in the project, Friðrik Guðmundsson, continued to film the men in fatigues with the Icelandic flag on the shoulder load their weapons and gush bullets at the targets. The explosive sounds echoed in the hills above. Below us a young herdsmen passed by with his goats. Neither he nor the goats seemed disturbed by the shots being fired. They´ve heard it before. He probably vaguely remembers the Soviet invasion a quarter of a century ago, the civil war that followed, the terrible Taliban era and then the American invasion. All that time Kabul and the neighbourhood was a battlefield and to add to the horrible situation, a drought has plagued this country for the last four to five years….
“We are not soldiers”
The Icelandic “soldiers” are representatives of one of the richest countries in the world who suddenly find themselves in a country that’s in the running for the seat at the bottom. The guys are part of a fifteen men team sent by the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit to Afghanistan to serve in Garrison KAIA (Kabul Airport) where NATO has pledged to safeguard and rebuild this important link to the outside world. The Icelandic men perform civilian duties at the airport; they are air-traffic controllers, firemen, engineers and handymen but they are all part of the nearly 2.000 multinational forces stationed at KAIA Garrison.
“We are not soldiers,” says Master Sergeant Gíslason, and Major Ævarsson agrees. “The only military training we had is the three weeks in Norway before we came. But as we have to bear light arms constantly and be prepared to use the machine guns, we better know how to handle these weapons,” Master Sergeant Finnbogason tells me in order to explain that the day at the shooting range was not mere fun.
Soldiers or not, the Icelanders are working side by side and often outranking professional soldiers from the multinational force at Garrison KAIA, which is complied from 24 NATO countries.
The Icelandic team drives back into Kabul, passing hundreds of Russian tanks left behind in the retreat that some claim was the beginning of the end for the Soviet empire. We turn onto road Violet which is the military term for Jallabad road.
“Its on this road that most westerners have lost their lives recently,” I’m informed, “But more than 90% of the population here are all for our presence,” he adds to make me feel better. We pass the Norwegian Garrison as a reminder that small nations can lose men in this battle-zone. In late May a Norwegian soldier lost his life in Kabul, and the first thing the Icelanders had to do when arriving there in early June, was to stand at the airport to honour the Norwegian who was being flown back to his homeland in a coffin. “It was dreadful,” they tell me, “We had just arrived and this was a reminder that the situation is far from safe in the city.”
We drive to Camp KAIA and by the side of the road children jump back and forth over the open sewage. “No wonder this country has the highest infant mortality in the world,” I think as I try too suppress information I had just received. Airborne germs from the sewage make it certain that every time you inhale you are breathing in the remains of another man’s excrement. “If you get a small scratch here it won´t heal”, the men tell me, “You have to get medicine instantly or things can become pretty bad.”
Unfortunately this is not an option for most of the 24-25 million Afghans living in the country. Death looms around the corner due to causes that would hardly call for a visit to a clinic if you where living in Reykjavík.
We enter KAIA through the heavily guarded gate; the men have to test the firing mechanisms to prove that they are empty before storing the bullets in a separate place. Driving to the main building the first thing one notices is the Icelandic flag flying first in a row of the flags of all the nations that have sent troops to this NATO project. Garrison KAIA is under Icelandic command and at the helm is Hallgrímur Sigurðsson, who everybody knows by the name Commander Halli.
“Attention!” the Belgian second in command shouts to the line up in front of camp Kaia´s main building as Commander Halli steps onto the ramp in easy steps. The soldiers from Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Slovakia, Iceland, Turkey and other nations stand to attention to greet the commander. Commander Halli walks the line and hands out medals ever to those who are heading home after three month missions, both medals from NATO and the first medals handed out by The Icelandic Crisis Response Unit. The Icelandic men proudly receive their medals, the Kabul sun shining on the polished gold Icelandic crest pinned to the blue Icelandic berets. Behind them sits a Hercules propeller plane, an Apache helicopter from the Dutch air force and a Black Hawk from the Turks on each side.
“We are really scoring points by controlling this project,” the commander tells me afterwards. “For decades Iceland has stood on the sideline in NATO as a poor receiver but now we are drawing respect in the family of nations within NATO. I strongly believe NATO is badly in need of a transformation and I believe Iceland can play a critical role in this transformation.”
Commander Halli is a man uniforms love. One wonders how he was transformed into a high ranking military commander in a NATO army. I vaguely remember him from a few years ago when he was one of the leaders in the Grafarvogur suburban reform committee. He was then an air traffic controller in Reykjavík, living in the suburbs, fighting the city to improve the traffic into Grafarvogur and other important suburban projects. Soon after he lead the Icelandic effort to rebuild and hand over to civilian control the airport in Pristina, Kosovo, and from there he was sent to Afghanistan to become the Commander of Kabul Airport.
Shovelling the shit
Commander Halli frequently meets President Karzai and other senior officials in the Afghan government, that has yet to prove its legitimacy in the forthcoming election in October. The elections have electrified the tension in the country and many NGOs have condemned the election being pushed forth when Afghanistan has no central authority. Everyone knows Karzai (sometimes snubbed as the Major of Kabul) only has power in the country because the Americans want him to be the ruler. Most Kabulians seem to want him to stay on for the simple reason that they are desperate for peace after decades of conflict. But Kabulians are only a fraction of the whole population. By estimates, between two and three million people live in Kabul. Nine out of ten live in the rural areas, many of them controlled by warlords such as Ismail Khan and the Uzbek Dostum whom everybody knows cannot read and write (although it isn’t mentioned publicly), but most of the nation is illiterate anyway and Afghans have learned that the measure of power is firepower and the number of men you have under arms. Luckily for the warlords opium growth has surged in the last two years since the end of Taliban rule, and it is estimated that now 80% of the world’s heroin has its origin in Afghanistan. The warlords, get their cut, profiting from Western misery. But Commander Halli and others at KAIA Camp believe they are doing a positive reconstructive job in this country.
“Every Afghan tells me that if we [NATO] leave this country an all out civil war would brake out instantly again”, the Commander tells me in his HQ at KAIA. “People in Iceland don’t realize that we have a role here in helping to rebuild this country – a contribution that is appreciated by most Afghans.”
When I mention the criticism by some people in Iceland that an Icelandic army has been almost secretly formed in Afghanistan, Commander Halli becomes outspoken. “It is almost intolerable that some Icelanders, even MPs standing in the Althingi podium, should speak such nonsense. They are speaking out of total ignorance. One should expect that people who criticise this project do it based on knowledge and not ignorance.” Halli pats the pistol strapped to his thigh. “We are bearing arms here in Kabul but it is for the reasons of security. One has to dress for the occasion, you see,” he adds. “If you have to go to the barn to shovel the shit you don’t put on dance shoes and take a fancy walking stick in hand – you grab the shovel after you have put on your Wellingtons. It’s as simply as that.”
Sir or Óli?
Outside the HQ soldiers in different types of uniforms walk past and I have become accustomed to trying to make out the flags on the shoulders to see where they are from. I have no sense of rank markings and the Icelanders tell me they are fairly relaxed when it comes to respecting rank. “We sometimes forget that everything has to go through the right chain of command,” major Ævarsson tells me, “We do not have the same background of military culture as other countries.” “I tried in vain to get my men to call me Óli, but they insisted on sticking to ‘Sir,’ Major Ólafsson, a 27 year old Political Science student at the University of Iceland, tells me. He is in charge of 130 people at Garrison KAIA. “They are soldiers and explained to me that it is not right for our relationship to become too relaxed. In their eyes I might be the person to demand that they confront enemy fire to take that hill. So I let them call me ‘Sir,’ Ólafsson adds.
Commander Halli walks towards us but has to stop and greet the Major of the Turkish Blackhawk helicopter unit stationed at KAIA. “A great guy, ” Halli tells me, “the most experienced helicopter pilot Turkey has. Over 6,000 hours flown – he has had men on his helicopter killed in battle and has stepped unharmed out of his helicopter with five bullets in the protection in his back seat.” A few days later we fly with the Turkish Major on a patrolling flight over Kabul. The doors are open and on each side the heavy guns are manned by the Turks. We fly over the city that has been shelled so often and for so long, one wonders why anything is left.
Halli The Bulldozer
Not much is. Mostly small houses or huts built out of mud bricks. The Palace has been shot to pieces and is barely standing. Commander Halli looks over the city. “We are doing a much appreciated job here, but it will take a long time until we see considerable improvements in Afghanistan. But we Icelanders have a lot to offer, not least the Icelandic mentality to just go and do the job.” I had just recently heard that when Halli was in Kosovo he had been called “The Bulldozer.” Halli is a man who wants things to move quickly and admits that a considerable part of his job is about cutting through red tape within the military establishment and dealing with the local authorities. Halli has gotten quite experienced in pushing his agenda through, as one observes sitting in on meetings he has with men like Foreign minister Abdullah and other ministers in the Afghan government. Everybody praises Halli enthusiastically for his command and the Icelandic contribution. Back at Garrison KAIA I observe Halli’s addition to the garrison’s emblem, his encircled slogan “There are no problems – just solutions.” Halli impatiently wants improvements quickly but things can be painfully slow to improve. “It will take two years to totally de-mine just the airport area,” Halli tells me and adds the latest figures from that project, “a little over a thousand mines found so far with only a portion of the place de-mined.” The land mine infestation of the country is the worst in the world, apparent from the many people with arms and legs missing on the streets of Kabul. Many of them are beggars since they can’t work. “Two weeks ago an Afghan worker took a shortcut through the airport area and was blown up,” I’m told. “It took hours to get to him as we had to de-mine a path towards him. He died in a hospital couple of days later.” At KAIA you don’t wander away from the marked safe path.
The stillness of the night is broken by the alarming sounds ordering everybody to get out of bed, put on their protective gear and head to the bunker arms in hand. A rocket has been fired at KAIA. The men call it a bunker party – it’s the fourth this summer. Nobody has been injured and only one of the rockets has actually exploded within the airport area. “The terrorists are badly equipped so they have a problem aiming these rockets,” I’m told. Commander Halli tells me that the danger should neither be over nor under-estimated. “But I have to say that I feel pretty safe here at KAIA – at least safer then I would feel in downtown Reykjavik late Saturday night.”
The day after we leave Afghanistan, 17 people are killed in an explosion in downtown Kabul. With elections coming up in a month it is certain that things will heat up quite a bit in this country of constant sorrow.
“They have no right to take our name and use it like this.”
Interview by Robert Jackson
There´s something about Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, leader of the opposition. that reminds you of Van Gogh´s self portrait. He has a lean, intense face with pale eyes that reside above a stubbled chin. When we meet at his parliamentary office, he needs little prompting to launch into the government for their taking the country away from a centuries old tradition of pacifism.
“It makes me terribly uncomfortable to see what we have signed up for. It is part of a bigger picture that involves Iceland not only in Afghanistan but also in support of the war in Iraq. At home we are now doubling the size of the Viking Squad, our customs officers are armed and the Minister of Justice is proposing ideas about an Icelandic military. Put all the pieces together and you get the picture that Iceland is no longer a nation of peace without an army; instead we are a country prepared to support war efforts. And it is wrong. None of this effort and the money it costs improves Icelandic society nor makes it a better place to live.”
Steingrímur has been a vociferous opponent of what he sees as a radical change in the principles that have underpinned foreign policy since Independence. “It is politically motivated and very sad to see how the present government has, in steps and without a true mandate from the electorate, taken Iceland away from its traditional position. I sit on the foreign affairs committee; we only found our about our joining ´The Coalition of the Willing’ through foreign media coverage of the Bush-Blair summit in the Azores. We weren´t consulted.”
The major protagonists in the Iraq war have held lengthy enquiries into the circumstances surrounding their going to war but it hasn´t happened here. “I´ve been pushing for one, but so far the reaction has been ‘it´s in the past so what does it matter?´ But I will be putting it in the the agenda in the next session. We really do need to know how we have got to the stage where two people, Davíð and Halldór, can act bilaterally without consulting even their own parties, let alone the people, through their elected parliament. They have no right to take our Icelandic name and reputation and use it like this. We need a full enquiry.”
Steingrímur is at pains to point out that despite his opposition to them being there, he supports the Icelanders who are currently working in Kabul. “I am of course worried for them. It hasn´t been thought out. They carry weapons, but what are the rules for their using them? They are civilians, but they are wearing military uniforms and working in a warzone. What happens if something goes wrong, is their insurance still valid? Will they be treated as civilians? I ask these questions to the Foreign Minister and the replies I get are vague and evasive.”
Steingrímur has been on the political scene here long enough to know that little is going to change with Davíð and Halldór reversing roles next week but he senses, probably correctly, that there is a growing unease about where this is all taking the country.
Sending the Crisis Response Unit to Kabul was the right thing to do, not only with regard to Icelands membership of NATO, but also its further promotion as a world player and its need to be seen at this sensitive time as willing supporters of American foreign policy. There are real issues, though, about the way it has all been handled, issues that won´t go way and that may levy a politial price in the future.