Real tragedy of Operation Medusa is that Taliban may soon win back ground hard won by Canadian troops

The 2006 operation code named Medusa, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's role in it, has transfixed Canada's politicians for the past three weeks, yet no one is talking about how the hard-won gains of the operation stand in danger of being wiped out.

Regardless of who planned it, Operation Medusa’s gains risk being lost

A Canadian soldier calls in an airstrike Saturday, Sept. 2, 2006, during the first day of Operation Medusa in the Panjwaii area west of Kandahar, Afghanistan. (Canadian Press)

The 2006 operation code named Medusa, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's role in it, has transfixed Canada's politicians for the past three weeks, yet no one is talking about how the hard-won gains of the operation stand in danger of being wiped out.

Twelve Canadian soldiers lost their lives to drive the Taliban from the Zhari and Panjwaii districts adjacent to Kandahar city. At the time it was the most significant land battle ever undertaken by NATO. 

For the past two weeks Sajjan has been trying to regain his credibility after claiming to be the sole 'architect' of the operation. And while he served as a liaison officer with local Afghan officials and provided Canadian commanders with valuable intelligence and insight which helped them plan the battle, the opposition Conservatives appear unwilling to let his boast pass, even going so far as to introduce a non-binding motion of non-confidence in an attempt to get Sajjan to step down. 

Taliban wants to reclaim that ground

But regardless of who planned Medusa, the real tragedy of the battle is that the Taliban remains determined to reclaim the land it lost.

Close observers of the war believe Taliban fighters are poised to target both Zhari and Panjwaii as part of a plan to stitch together the whole Pashtun heartland of Afghanistan under their oppressive control.

U.S. Army veteran Bill Roggio is editor of the Long War Journal, a publication of Washington's Foundation for the Defence of Democracies that maintains an up-to-date map of who controls Afghanistan.

The Canadian Army was very professional, and very proficient on the battlefield and was able to deal the Taliban tactical defeats- Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal

In 2006, he was in Kandahar embedded with the Canadian Army's Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

"The Canadian Army was very professional, and very proficient on the battlefield and was able to deal the Taliban tactical defeats," he recalls.

Operation Medusa targeted a network of villages used by the Taliban as a staging area for attacks on the nearby provincial capital. The campaigns yielded results, Roggio says.

"The Taliban don't even claim to control any territory in those areas," says Roggio.

It is a measure of the coalition's success in the Taliban heartland that Kandahar City remains relatively safe from Taliban attacks, even as the insurgents successfully assault cities and regions far from their traditional base.

Between hammer and anvil

But Roggio says the Taliban is now closing a noose around central Kandahar.

"They have a belt of control that runs from Farah province, through northern and central Helmand, northern Kandahar and Uruzgan, and Zabul and Ghazni. It's a whole slew of districts that the Taliban control or heavily contest, and use as bases to launch operations."

Immediately to the north of the Operation Medusa area lies the district of Ghorak, once part of the Canadian Army's area of responsibility. By 2014, Afghan troops in Ghorak were reduced to eating boiled grass. Shortly after, the district fell to the Taliban, bringing them within about 40 kilometres of Kandahar city centre.

A soldier walks towards a CH-53 helicopter in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on March 27, 2017. (Sabine Siebold/Reuters)

To the south of Panjwaii, two large arid districts form Kandahar's border with Pakistan. The Reg district slipped out of government control in 2014, and the Taliban took the Shorabak district on Feb. 21 this year.

The defeats leave the Panjwaii and Zhari districts between a hammer and an anvil of Taliban control.

"Looking at how they're carrying out those operations, it's not really difficult to see what's happening," says Roggio. "It's a matter of time before they really start to focus those efforts and squeeze central Kandahar."

Security forces weak and corrupt

Kandahar's acting police commander Brig-Gen. Abdul Raziq is seen by the coalition as one of the most promising figures to emerge in the Afghan security forces. But he's an exception.

Matthew Hoh, who served as a Marine Corps company commander in Iraq before going to Afghanistan as a State Department official, says it's a mistake to assume that Kandahar officials respond only to their formal superiors in Kabul. 

"An uneasy, corrupt collaboration exists between the drug lords, warlords, tribal leaders and strongmen that occupy positions and loyalties within the government and within the insurgency" in Kandahar province, says Hoh, today a senior fellow at the Centre for International Policy in Washington.

"They do what they need to do to placate the demands from the international forces and meet the requirements of the remaining international aid agencies and donors, while answering back to influences from Taliban leadership based in Pakistan, and from the Pakistanis themselves."

On the ground, a steady erosion

The most recent (April 30) report of the U.S. government's Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) says the Afghan government "controls or influences" only 59.7 per cent of the country's districts, "a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same period in 2016."

Since that report came out a week ago, another district, Qala-e-Zal, has fallen.

More than eight million Afghans live in "contested" regions controlled by neither side. Afghanistan's security forces lost 807 men killed in the first six weeks of this year, a rate SIGAR calls "unsustainable".

The green areas denote areas of Afghan Government control or influence, the beige areas are currently contested while the pink regions denote areas of insurgent control or influence. (SIGAR)

On March 23, coalition forces abandoned their positions in Sangin, Helmand, Afghanistan's deadliest district for both British and U.S. forces in terms of lives lost. Coalition forces destroyed their vehicles and then bombed their own base, leaving only rubble to the Taliban.

Roggio says it is telling that the coalition and Afghan government have been justifying recent withdrawals from areas they once fought hard to defend on the grounds that they are rural, remote, and therefore unimportant.

"These rural areas are extremely important to the Taliban. They're following a classic Maoist insurgency model of using the rural areas to attack the populated centres."

Roggio doesn't expect Kandahar city itself to be captured and held by the Taliban imminently. The Taliban have twice captured the provincial capital of Kunduz, but have been unable to hold it in the face of sustained coalition counter-attacks and airstrikes.

Instead Kandahar may become like Lashkar Gar, capital of the neighbouring province of Helmand, which Roggio describes as "a small island in a sea of Taliban, kept afloat by just pouring in a lot of Afghan forces and coalition air power and special operations forces, keeping the Taliban from finishing them off."

In effect, though, that would mean the loss of Kandahar province.


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.