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It’s time for a hard look at Operation Medusa

I was there in the lead up to Medusa, and witnessed the fallout. It was a flawed operation and Harjit Sajjan’s role was a problem.


 
Soldiers from Alpha Company conduct operations as part of Operation MEDUSA in Kandahar, Afghanistan on September 14, 2006. (Sgt Lou Penney/Department of National Defence)

Soldiers from Alpha Company conduct operations as part of Operation MEDUSA in Kandahar, Afghanistan on September 14, 2006. (Sgt Lou Penney/Department of National Defence)

In the age of scandals, there’s no reason why Canada should not have a few of its own. The one swirling around Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over comments he made about his role in Operation Medusa is a telltale sign that Canadian politicians are as prone to self-aggrandizement as their American counterparts, and when they are found out, will seek to sweep the controversy aside as quickly as possible.

But Medusa, and Canada’s role in Kandahar where the operation played out, should not be so easily cast aside. Indeed, some of the details of what happened then, at a time when the Conservative government was attempting to re-mould Canada’s military in the image of faded glories, remain unaddressed.

READ MORE: The anatomy of Harjit Sajjan’s Afghanistan operation apology

I was there in the lead up to Medusa, both embedded with the Canadian military as well as roaming the villages and orchards where the Taliban held sway. I witnessed how Canada’s early idealism crumbled in the face of Kandahar’s grim realities, despite the bravery and professionalism of Canada’s soldiers, who put their lives on the line trying to make lemonade out of the rotting lemons they were handed by their superiors and the Conservative government back in Canada.

Medusa, they were told, was to be their Vimy Ridge. In the lexicon of war, it was taking the fight to the enemy, in this case a cluster of villages in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, 30 km west of Kandahar city that Lieut.-Col. Ian Hope, a battalion commander in Kandahar at the time, described as the Taliban’s “command centre.”

In August 2006, less than two weeks before Medusa was launched, Hope put it to me this way: “[The Taliban] want to directly challenge us and that is a fatal mistake. If they wish to go to conventional fighting, they’ve chosen the wrong army. I don’t think they appreciate the lethality and determination of the combat power that’s going to be arrayed against them.”

It was wishful thinking, to say the least. The Taliban, as I had witnessed firsthand, had been preparing for Medusa, or an offensive like it, for a long time. They had much of the local population on their side. Indeed, many of their fighters were local farmers who shifted effortlessly between war fighting and tilling the land. Sajjan, a police constable from Vancouver who had extensive experience taking on gangs and organized crime, was recruited by the military to help war planners in Afghanistan gain a better understanding of how the tribal dynamics in rural Kandahar worked.

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According to a recommendation letter written in September 2006 by Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, then commander of Canada’s Coalition Task Force in Kandahar, Sajjan was recruited because of his “ability to understand and exploit criminal networks.” The letter went on to praise his intelligence work, which Fraser claimed was the basis of “most of the formations’ major operations.”

Unfortunately, Afghan tribes are nothing like gangsters and based on accounts from soldiers on the ground at the time, intelligence did little to help Canadians navigate the complexities of Kandahar’s rural maze. As one officer described it to Legion Magazine in 2008, during Medusa, small groups of Canadian soldiers advanced on the enemy with little knowledge of what lay ahead. Battles played out ad hoc: a maneuver would fail forcing a retreat, then an alternative would be devised. In some instances, lacking the ability to differentiate between combatants and civilians, Canadian soldiers acted as bait, advancing into enemy territory with the hope that they would draw enemy fire.

Intelligence failures were not the only weakness of Medusa. Sajjan also played a key role in planting seeds that would later come back to haunt Canada. In September 2006, tasked with gathering intelligence on the Taliban, he was appointed liaison officer to Kandahar’s Governor, Asadullah Khalid.  Later investigations by rights groups would show that under Khalid’s watch, detainees transferred by Canadian forces to Afghan police and intelligence authorities were routinely tortured.

READ MORE: What happens when politicians have to grapple with ‘survivability’

Sajjan, based on his close relationship with Khalid, should have known those prisoners were being tortured, critics have pointed out, and any information they provided would be of little use.

There is no indication whatsoever that Sajjan turned a blind eye to torture for the sake of intelligence gathering. But battlefield accounts suggest information that what was passed on to military commanders did little to shape the battle.

“You don’t ever have 100 per cent intelligence,” Fraser admitted in 2008. “Metaphorically speaking, on a good day I would get 20 per cent.”

Still, the delusion of Medusa’s resounding success endured, leading to Sajjan’s boast last April.

But the error was not simply Sajjan’s alone; it infected the military’s senior echelons as a whole. According to their narrative of events, Medusa had not only achieved its objectives but had done so emphatically. The Taliban had been soundly defeated, Canadian soldiers had proven their fighting mettle, and Canada’s Kandahar project was on the right footing.

In the years that followed Medusa, Canadian forces faced the consequences of the torture scandal. Trust between the local people and Canadian forces lay in tatters. Soldiers I met, particularly Civilian-Military Cooperation teams, or CIMIC, who were shouldered with the seemingly impossible task of winning hearts and minds, struggled every day to prove that Canada was there to help and was not part of the Afghan authorities’ torture machine.

Some of the facts suggest they failed, at least in strictly military terms: security in Kandahar worsened under Canada’s watch. The Taliban extended its control over the province. But at the same time it was not, as some have claimed, a total failure either.

RELATED: Harjit Sajjan struggles to recover: Ottawa Power Rankings

In 2011, when I revisited Panjwai for Maclean’s, after Canadian forces had turned over security responsibilities to the U.S., I found a local population desperate for Canada to return. “In the way the Canadians fought, the way they patrolled our villages, the way they interacted with us,” one local farmer said, “we could see that they were trying very hard to be respectful. The Americans don’t care about us. They are a cruel people.”

Under the heavy hand of the Americans, Panjwai turned again into a battle zone. Within weeks, the trust Canada had built crumbled. The U.S. appointed Abdul Raziq, a known war criminal, as Kandahar’s chief of police, repeating the mistakes Sajjan had allegedly made. Raziq successfully beat back the Taliban’s control over the countryside but his gains were as temporary as they were brutal.

Kandahar is again slipping into uncertainty. Panjwai is under threat and the legacy Canada left behind is all but forgotten. In those early days of Canada’s deployment to Kandahar, when the Conservatives were eager to prove to the Americans that Canada could shed its peacekeeping reputation and transform into a war-fighting nation, tragic mistakes were made, and potentially the laws of war were broken.

In the years that followed, Canadian soldiers faced the realities of Kandahar with the bravery and compassion that have become synonymous with Canada’s role on the international stage. Sajjan’s boast may, on the surface, seem a minor transgression, but on closer examination it is an echo of the mistakes Canada made, trying to be what it is not.

Sajjan rode the wave of that fiction—of his “badass” reputation—into the cabinet and tried to bolster that image with his Medusa boast. Canada, however, is not a “badass” nation. And there is nothing wrong with that.


 

It’s time for a hard look at Operation Medusa

  1. The Conservatives inherited the poorly planned and equipped Kandahar mission from the previous Liberal government. Paul Martin dithered Canada into Kandahar.

    • So why didn’t Harper have the balls to pull Canada out when he had the chance? Because, based on him wanting Canadians to fight in Iraq as well as Afghanistan, he was a soldier-wanna-be. At least the Liberals had a reason to BE in Afghanistan; NATO.

      And why didn’t Harper equip our soldiers better if all you Harperites can do is bitch about how under-equipped they were?

    • Martin was maneuvered into Kandahar mainly by Rick Hillier, who wanted a higher profile role that was more closely tied into the US. DND wanted to have a province all of it’s own and a chance to share in rotation command of RC-South. The danger was downplayed. Martin was told it would be “robust peace support”. At the same time the CF was tied for it’s own reasons into sending a single battle group to do a task any professional would have instantly seen needed far more troops.

      At every stage of our involvement the Canadian “battle group” was the most heavily equipped ground combat force in Afghanistan. LAV llls and Coyotes mounting 25mm cannons and Leopards with 105 or 120mm guns were far above anything the Americans deployed. The “poorly equipped CF” is a myth.

      • *Robust peace support.” Not sure where that came from but that isn’t what the Liberals were told and it isn’t what they believed. The Liberals knew it was a combat mission from the get go. We know this, because Defense Minister Bill Graham toured Canada during the election in December 2005 and held public hearings in every major city. To his credit, he was very frank in explaining that the mission was absolutely not peacekeeping. He specified it was a “combat mission”, a “counter-insurgency” mission, and that we should “expect casualties”. He was brutally honest about it. Since Bill Graham knew exactly what it was in December 2005, both the Liberals and the Conservatives knew exactly what kind of mission it would be before it started. They may have been surprised by exactly how ferocious the fighting was, but the nature of the mission was never in doubt.

        • Expect casualties yes but I don’t recall the use of “counter-insurgency” or “combat mission”. See “the Unexpected War” by Stein and Lang, page 185-186 for a description of what Graham was told. No use of “war” and no use of “counter-insurgency”. ” As late as January 2006 DND officials were still referring to the Kandahar deployment as “a more robust peace support role…”.

          Hillier got to be CDS by agreeing with the Liberals on the need to focus more on peace support. For example he recommended the CF get rid of tanks. Whether he knew Kandahar would be a war and lied or whether he simply gave the government bad advice is the question. There’s no question he lead the government to believe Kandahar would be far easier than it was.

  2. OP Medusa’s success was grossly exaggerated. The CF believed that public support would wane if it wasn’t fed feel good stories. The result was stories cooked up “killing 1000 Taliban” and “saving the country”. The 1000 dead became Sajjan’s “removed 1500 from the battlefield” and the death toll eventually dropped to 550. I suspect that’s till far to high.

    We’ve been told that the operation brought security to Panjwi and Shari Districts. It didn’t. (http://icasualties.org/OEF/) has a list of coalition fatal casualties. Those two districts are shown as the location of the deaths of 52 Canadian soldiers after Medusa ended up to the time of CF withdrawal. There are also US deaths shown. Other deaths are listed as Kandahar and the soldiers wounds may well have occurred in Panjwi or Shari but the death happened at hospital in KAF. In Afghanistan for every Coalition death there were 10 wounded. That’s at least 550 CF casualties in the two “secure” districts after Medusa.

    On top of Coalition casualties we have to consider the ANSF. Riding in pickups with poor body armour and limited training what were Afghan casualties like? Ten times worse? That’s thousands of Afghan casualties in a four year period.

    OP Medusa did not “secure” any part of Kandahar. It was a muddled operation. Why wouldn’t it be? Few if any Canadians had taken part in a real life major attack before. None had commanded one. At the time few Canadians were used to DND dishonesty and many jumped to believe that the CF had saved the day. Like “fight them there so we don’t fight them here” , the stories of successful development and “little girls to school” Medusa was just part of the PR campaign aimed at the public.

  3. There is no possible way that anyone serving in Afghanistan wouldn’t have heard stories about how the ANSF and especially the NDS abused prisoners. It was expected by Afghans that prisoners would at least get beaten. It was no secret and many Afghans were quite happy to have the Taliban (and normal criminals) get theirs. If Sajjan was as connected with the Afghans as Fraser said he was (realizing that senior officer assessments are always exaggerated and there would reflected glory back on Fraser and the army) then he must have known about the reputation of the NDS. If he knew why didn’t the rest of the chain of command? If they heard rumours then turning over detainees should have be stopped until the stories were refuted.

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