To the old philosophical question about a tree falling in the forest, you might want to add the modern Canadian military equivalent.  

When a Taliban rocket is fired into the large Canadian military base in Kandahar and no one mentions it, has an attack actually happened? Or is it merely a phantom of war?  

I stretch a point to make one. But it is a fact that the Canadian military regularly airbrushes certain acts of war right out of its media releases.

What's more, it also demands that Canadian reporters embedded with its troops accept an unyielding cone of silence over these events.  

On a recent visit to the sprawling Kandahar Airfield base in southern Afghanistan, I quickly joined everyone in a crowded briefing room in dropping to the floor when the sirens wailed to announce the approach of Taliban rockets, these "phantoms" of war.  

The rockets are real enough. Sometime they land with a jarring whump. What makes them phantoms is the military's insistence that journalists never mention these attacks in their reports.

A new belligerence

These rockets rarely seem to cause any damage, but the attempts themselves say something important about Taliban tactics — and their tenacity and freedom to move about so close to the Canadian base.


A rare look at Canadian military personnel taking cover in a bunker outside their offices after a rocket attack alarm sounded at Kandahar Airfield in June 2009. The vast majority of these attacks are not allowed to be reported by the media. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

On some days, five rockets have been fired at our base, but the public at home never hears about it.

On an earlier visit three years ago, the military boasted that the rocket attacks had essentially ended because of aggressive counter-rocket patrols.

Well, they're more numerous of late, but I would never have known that had I not been there to hit floor as they came in.  

In this case, the noticeable increase in rocket attacks recently may be seen as a Taliban attempt to pre-empt NATO's much heralded offensive that it is planned for the summer.

But for those of us on the outside, it is as if these rockets — and the Taliban's new belligerence — never occurred.

Phantom attacks

This refusal to allow reporting of certain combat actions is one of the odd experiences of being at war with the Canadian military and I have complained about it for years, as have others. But the gag order on embedded reporters in Kandahar continues.  

The excuse the Canadian Forces gives is that Taliban guerrillas might learn from immediate media accounts whether their warheads had hit a target or not, which would allow them to recalibrate.

That's a legitimate concern even though most Taliban firing isn't that sophisticated. Rockets are simply hurriedly stuck in the ground at a rough angle and fired off, usually to no effect.

However, I accept the need for caution and so I am not offering up the exact time or location of these incidents. But there should clearly be limits to all this secrecy.

What really concerns me here is that a tally of rocket attacks on Canadians never does get out. Not even days or weeks later, after a safe passage of time.

It's simply as if they never happened, and such censorship distorts our own sense of the war and its changing tempo.

In the dark

What's more, it is not just the unreported rocket attacks that are the issue here. For years we've all been left in the dark about the true level of combat faced by Canada in Kandahar province.  

This is one reason why it can seem like nothing much happens in Kandahar for days or weeks on end, between the occasional fatal roadside explosions with their sad ramp ceremonies for dead soldiers. 

In this period, though, there can be sharp firefights involving Canadian troops, or mortar attacks on our outposts, that won't get mentioned to the media unless there are serious casualties on our side. The media office in Kandahar won't be told.  

When there are no casualties, classified reports are filed only to NATO headquarters in Kabul and Defence HQ in Ottawa. There will not even be a few paragraphs given to the media about minor skirmishes, even though enough of these minor skirmishes can add up to whole campaigns.

Because of this, inquiring reporters and military analysts can't get a true sense of this war and that is one reason they — and the Canadian public — always seem surprised by Taliban surges.

Operations security

I raised this problem with a senior commander in Kandahar, pointing out that it is almost impossible for observers to really gauge Canada's effort without more substantial information.

I said I hope the rules had now been relaxed enough that he would brief the media whenever there was a clash between our troops and guerrillas, whether these were brief firefights or mortar attacks on our forward operating bases  

"Not at all," he replied, clearly startled by the question. "We would not make public such action where there are no casualties of ours."  

"But why not", I pressed on, in a clearly losing cause, only to come up against the blanket term — "OPSEC, Operations Security" — employed for the blast-proof wall of military no comment.  

This is interesting because Canadian officers have become extremely skilled in recent years in appearing open towards the media, which they are compared to most Harper government departments.

Still, neither of our principal allies, the U.S. and British, imposes the same OPSEC restrictions that Canada does. They are more open.

Allied reporting

If you look for other examples, you find that the number of injured Canadian soldiers, now numbering in the many hundreds, is only released at one time, at the very end of the year, according to a recent study in the Hill Times of Ottawa.

This means that Canadians are less frequently reminded of the cost and tempo of this war, something that works for politicians anxious to avoid debate on the subject.  

In stark contrast, the Pentagon promptly post summaries of its casualties, killed and wounded, through each month, by date and time. This information can easily be downloaded from a U.S. government website.  

Another contrast, this one between Canada and the U.K., involves the controversial issue of detainees.

Britain now gives an updated, detailed account of the number of Afghan detainees captured by its troops and turned over to Afghan security forces, a report that also lists any detainees who died from their wounds while in British medical care.  

Canada, however, has steadfastly refused to release a complete account of the number and state of the detainees it has turned over to the Afghans throughout the conflict, a refusal that has only fuelled speculation about the fate of these prisoners.

Fog of suspicion

In the case of detainees, once again OPSEC rules. The Harper government has repeatedly defended such secrecy as essential to our national security in the conduct of the war.  

But, really, would Britain or other NATO allies really care less about their own national security than Canada does? They are, frankly, larger potential targets with more to fear. 

I've found many senior Canadian officers are also baffled about the extent of secrecy involving this campaign. But they tend to shrug in a way that suggests their hands are tied.  

They also know, however, that secrecy that seems out of proportion to the actual needs of operational security is only likely to feed into the current climate of doubt and suspicion about the war.  

For when people start feeling they are not getting the full picture, that is when they begin to question the pieces they do have.