Kandahar: we didn't know what we were getting into - Macleans.ca

Kandahar: we didn’t know what we were getting into

Reconstruction and training Afghans were supposed to be the big jobs


Gen. Rick Hillier, the retired chief of defence staff, just moments ago reminded the House committee on Afghanistan about how Canadian troops in Kandahar, in the spring and summer of 2006, found themselves fighting pitched battles against hundreds of Taliban insurgents.

It’s worth remembering how not long before those startlingly violent days, the Canadian officer dispatched to head operations in southern Afghanistan was anticipating nothing of the sort. (UPDATE: More background on the Kandahar surprise of ’06 here.)

Perhaps the fact that Canada’s military leaders didn’t really expect the all-out fighting Hillier just described partly explains why they didn’t properly plan for transferring to the Afghan authorities any prisoners taken during such intense combat operations.

It was Brig.-Gen. David Fraser, who is with Hillier to testify shortly, who set off to command the Canadian-led multinational brigade at so-called Regional Command South in Kandahar in February that year.

Just before he left, Fraser reassuringly told reporters that combat was not the main challenge facing Canadian troops. Even at the time, this struck some reporters in Ottawa—who were reading daily of increased Taliban violence—as difficult to understand.

So when Fraser briefed journalists at Department of National Defence headquarters on Feb. 2, 2006, he was pressed repeatedly to discuss the combat Canadian troops would likely engage in. But he simply didn’t see it that way.

A few highlights from the transcript of Fraser’s answers during that news conference, to highlight how poorly the dangers awaiting in Kandahar were understood in advance:

Asked if he was focused on combat and how he felt about that, Fraser said: “My focus is not on combat. I’m ready to do combat if I need to do that. My focus is… the Provincial Reconstruction Team. It is the team that’s up here and it’s not just the military. It’s Foreign Affairs, it’s CIDA, it’s the RCMP and it’s the national government agencies and international community working together. We’re going to go over there and reinforce the success that Canada has been looking at and what the American-led coalition has been doing in southern Afghanistan.”

Asked how much of his force would be dedicated to combat: “Well, this is not about what size will be dedicated to combat operations. This whole force is designed as a training force to go out there and help train the Afghans.”

Asked about the nature of the fighting Canadians would do: “I mean from a soldier’s point of view if somebody is shooting at a soldier or somebody is trying to attack them with an IED, whatnot, it’s a pretty intense situation. And Canadians and people in the organization that I will command will defend ourselves.”

Combat wasn’t to be the focus, reconstruction and training Afghans were the big jobs, soldiers might have to defend themselves but wouldn’t be going on the offensive against insurgents——none of that describes what actually happened over the next few months.

UPDATE: In his opening statement, Fraser just spoke rather candidly about how unprepared he was for what unfolded in Kandahar in the spring of ’06:

“We went there with the idea that we would conduct operations designed to establish security and assist in the development of Afghan capacity to govern,” he said. “However, we ended up in an armed conflict in 2006 of a prolonged intensity unseen by Canadian Forces since Korea.”


Kandahar: we didn’t know what we were getting into

  1. It seems so easy of late for the arm chair quarterbacks to click away on web forums complaining about possible human rights violations by canadains and so much other crapola that is front page and center of late – real easy folks kina like exactly what ol Nicholson was talking about when he described the wall and who had the good fortune of having to guard it. Some of the stuff I have sen posted makes me ashamed to be canadian right now and to think our men and women in the forces may see it posted. Quite Frankly there are a whole bunch of people high and low that ought to be ashamed of themselves and I am not talking about detainees.

    • What rubbish. As though the Government of Canada can't do two things at one time (fight the Battle of Panjwaii and figure out what to do with detainees). Just because something involves the CF doesn't mean that the elected Government has a blank cheque to mismanage however it sees fit. It's disgusting that you should try and cover up something as mucky as Paul Martin's and Stephen Harper's incompetence with something as fine as our soldiers' bravery.

    • "t seems so easy of late for the arm chair quarterbacks to click away on web forums"

      Oh, the irony.

      Too bad MacLean's doesn't delete psiclone's inappropriate comments, like The Globe does.

    • “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”

      Mark Twain

    • jack nails it. your post is rubbish. anyone who downplays the seriousness of "possible human rights violations by canadains and so much other crapola" makes me ashamed to be canadian.

    • Psiclone is just joking. He is really quite a funny guy. His movie references are especially hilarious. He has to joke, we can't handle the truth.

  2. BS ! If there has been any denigration of the soldiers on the ground I've missed it.

    But I do have one question which I had hoped to see asked today. I may have missed
    it ( Real Madrid was playing CL ).
    That is …. Canadians turned over multiples of "detainees" compared to the Brits and Dutch,
    who were also engaged in areas of active combat in southern Afghanistan.
    I don't know enough to compare the levels of combat but Canadians turned over 5-6 times
    as many detainees as the Brits/Dutch.
    Soldiers on the ground don't just decide to do this by themselves. I'm assuming they were
    following some policy or protocol. It would be good to know if or how that differed from what
    the Brits/Dutch were following … in terms of who got to be dropped off to the tender mercies
    of our Afghani friends.

    • That is a good question. I'm no expert but my instincts tell me such a policy would be drafted pretty high on the command chain.

      It also occurred to me that that no one asked Roméo Dallaire's input on this.

    • Accoding to Lewis McKenzie in the G&M op-ed today:

      Unchallenged statements have made the headlines in the popular press. “Nearly 600 detainees may have been turned over to Afghan security forces.” This fact, which should be a source of pride, is described as “six times as many detainees” as the British handed over in the same period.

      There is a pretty good reason for the big difference. The British weren't in Taliban-dominated southern Afghanistan during a good deal of that same period. Parliamentary debate in Britain and the Netherlands delayed the troops' arrival by several months.

      The tardy arrival of British and Dutch contingents also delayed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters, dictating that the Canadian battle group operate for the first half of 2006 as a component of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom.

      Also contributing to the difference in the numbers of prisoners handed over, and contrary to many recent erroneous opinions on the subject, Helmand province was relatively quiet when the British contingent arrived. Meanwhile, the Canadian battle group had been fighting battles with the Taliban in Kandahar for more than four months, taking a lot of prisoners.


      • Thanks. That's an explanation that works.

        Although the l'il guy that lives in the back of my skull wonders if the "component of the
        US-led Operation Enduring Freedom" might have had an influence. But that's just him.

        • How is Duggery?

          • Lonely at times.

            But confused by the Urban Dictionary.

          • Ha! oops. Never thought to check there.

  3. What bullchit. Cripes, the soviets spent 20 years in that dump. And Hillier thought he would clean up with a few fwench 'peace keepers' and a tea party with Adrienne Clarkson?

    If Rick Hillier were a general and not a liberal fart catcher, he might have seen what was coming.

  4. If we didn't know what we were getting into we should have. Our problem is that our governments (liberal and conservative) have listened to so called experts (Manley, Alexander etc) who have no idea what the hell they are talking about. Meanwhile those who do know a thing or two about the Indu Kush (Margolis etc) and who can at least speak Pashtun are ignored.