Politics·Analysis

'Failure strategy': How NATO won the battle but lost Afghanistan

Retired major-general Dave Fraser has written what might stand as the definitive history of Operation Medusa, the seminal battle of Canada's Afghan war.

A new book by the former Canadian commander explores a pivotal battle and the politics that surrounded it

A M-777 artillery unit fires at a target in Panjwaii district during the Afghan war on Nov. 24, 2010. These guns played a prominent role in Operation Medusa, a 2006 NATO offensive in Kandahar that is the subject of a new book by Maj-Gen (ret) Dave Fraser. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

It rarely does any good to re-fight old battles — either the military or the political kind.

A notable exception might be a new memoir by retired major-general Dave Fraser which sets down in detail, for the first time, his take on the seminal battle of Canada's Afghan war.

Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban is extraordinary for what it says (and maybe more for what it doesn't say) about the combat mission that arguably changed the course of a war that claimed the lives of 159 Canadian soldiers and cost billions of Canadian dollars.

Maj.-Gen Dave Fraser (now retired) in 2006, when he was commander of the Canadian Task Force and NATO's southern Afghanistan command. (Murray Brewster/The Canadian Press)

Fraser commanded NATO forces in southern Afghanistan during that battle, which took place between Sept. 1 and 17, 2006.

It's safe to say that, for years afterward, Operation Medusa wasn't exactly a burning issue for most Canadians — not until a year ago, when a furious political battle erupted in Ottawa over Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's claim before an audience in India that he was the "architect" of the operation.

But aside from a two-page, factual recounting of Sajjan's role as Medusa's intelligence liaison with local Kandahar powerbrokers, warlords and authorities, Fraser's book pays no attention to him.

"Haj helped us connect with the locals," he writes.

Sajjan and the 'architect' uproar

Fraser pointedly walks the reader through the events, factors and circumstances that led to the decision to commit nearly 2,200 NATO troops to a conventional-style battle in the arid grape fields and wasted landscape west of Kandahar city.

His silence over Sajjan is dignified, but deafening. When the "architect" controversy was blowing a full gale, the minister's supporters circulated and quoted from a 2006 letter Fraser penned which praised his subordinate's overall performance.

There is, however, a larger cautionary tale being told in this book about political hubris — one the Trudeau government should heed as it prepares to plunge the country into a new peacekeeping mission in Mali, even as it maintains its involvement in the NATO mission in the Baltics.

University of Ottawa international affairs professor Roland Paris, who was a foreign policy adviser to the current government early in its mandate, said Afghanistan provided a number of lessons that would be useful to apply to the context of peacekeeping.

He noted, however, that there's a big difference between the deployment of a few thousand ground troops in Kandahar and the year-long air mission in Mali.

Uneasy allies

How much the Afghanistan experience shaped the current government is uncertain, even from his vantage point, said Paris.

Fraser's book paints an extraordinary picture of how much he and his staff at the time distrusted Canada's supposed political allies in the Afghan government — people they sometimes defended publicly.

Notable among them is the notorious former governor of Kandahar province, Asadullah Khalid.

Fraser describes in the book what he saw as a "clumsy attempt" by Khalid to spy on the senior leadership of the Canadian contingent.

Many nations simply would not show up to fight at all.- Retired major-general Dave Fraser

"Khalid was trying to get us to hire his own police for our security, thereby putting his henchmen where they could watch us and report," Fraser writes. "He could then pass on our plans to the Taliban."

Not only does Fraser accuse the former governor — who went on to become Afghanistan's top intelligence chief — of supporting the Taliban, he fingers at least one other prominent provincial figure there as an insurgent commander during the battle.

There is, however, no mention of allegations that Khalid engaged in torture, nor is there any reference to the overall controversy about the handling of prisoners — a topic which consumed a lot of oxygen in political Ottawa.

The 'Trenton Effect'

Throughout Canada's five-year combat mission in Kandahar province, the military and (after 2006) the Conservative government publicly lamented the media's focus on the casualties. There was even a study that looked at the "Trenton Effect," a reference to the ramp ceremonies involved in bringing a fallen soldier's remains back to Canada.

Fraser said he warned the chief of the defence staff at the time that Canada could expect to suffer up to 42 dead soldiers between February and November 2006.

"I showed it to [retired general] Rick Hillier and the guys on the Joint Strategic Assessment Committee using a PowerPoint deck to explain the process I had used," Fraser writes. "Hillier nodded and said, 'Great. Now take that slide out and never show it again.' End of discussion."

It's not clear what sort of casualty assessments Hiller and his colleagues saw — apart from Fraser's personal estimate — and how widely they might have circulated within the government of the day.

Fraser's estimate was not that wide of the mark. There were 36 Canadian fatalities by the end of November, 2006.

Paris said he has yet to read the book, but added that for many western governments exceptionally sensitive to the political effect of casualties, "Afghanistan was a scarring experience."

What is most striking in Fraser's book — and perhaps most instructive for the current government as it prepares for new missions — was the sense of frustration Canada felt with its NATO allies during Medusa. "Many nations simply would not show up to fight at all," Fraser writes.

It's a horrible indictment of NATO operations — and a reminder of how Canada pleaded at the political level for reinforcements in Kandahar only to be met with expressions of sympathy, until the U.S. stepped up in 2008.

'More than embarrassing'

The book also paints a vivid picture of how ill-prepared both the Canadian government and the military were to win the peace after the battle.

Fraser, according to his account, had to plead for policy and development officers at the beginning of his deployment, at a time when the government of the day was selling Canadians on the merits of its whole-of-government, so-called 3D Strategy: development, diplomacy, defence.

Canadian and NATO forces were compelled to tap into millions of dollars in American development assistance, he writes.

"When NATO took over and Canada was in charge of [Regional Command] South, we had almost nothing to offer. It was more than embarrassing, it was a failure strategy that played right into the hands of the Taliban. We proved over and over that we were lying about being in for long haul."

The battle to dislodge the Taliban from their trenches west of Kandahar ended with a victory for Canadian and NATO forces, but the war continued to grind away. It continues to this day.

In the aftermath, insurgents reverted to guerilla tactics that claimed dozens more Canadian lives until Canada's eventual withdrawal from combat in 2011.

Fraser quite rightly points out that a defeat for NATO forces in the late summer of 2006 would have destroyed its credibility in Afghanistan, perhaps leading to the collapse of the Afghan government.

On Monday, the Taliban struck in multiple attacks that killed 25 people in both Kabul and Kandahar.

"A decade later, many of the villages we backed once again face conditions as bad or worse than they suffered then," Fraser writes. "The eventual failure (of) coalition nations to keep funding flowing provided fuel for the Taliban propaganda machine."

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About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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