Afghanistan: Canada’s longest war

an M72 rocket launcher

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By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

This is one in an ongoing series of articles recounting some of Canada’s most significant military engagements to mark the country’s 150th birthday.

Ottawa, Ontario — The Canadian government was quick to express its solidarity with the United States following the 9/11 attacks and was soon preparing for combat in Afghanistan.

The ground element of what would become Canada’s largest military deployment since the Second World War started small with the arrival in late 2001 of a few dozen troops from elite commando unit Joint Task Force Two (JTF 2).

Canadians quickly made a name for themselves: JTF 2 members would be credited with killing more than 100 Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders early in the conflict. Their first mission, a raid on an enemy compound in Pakistan, would see them recover a computer hard drive containing valuable intelligence.

Canada’s first full battle group, drawn from the 3rd Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, arrived in early 2002 under the auspices of Operation APOLLO. They would spend the next six months in combat. Four members were killed that April by friendly fire from an American F-16 fighter, which would begin to turn public opinion in Canada against the war.

The late summer of 2003 marked the start of Operation ATHENA (Op ATHENA), in which a Canadian infantry battle group assisted in enhancing security around the Afghan capital, Kabul. There, under the leadership of Canada’s Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier, Canadian and allied troops carried out a variety of missions, including foot patrols and raids on enemy weapons caches.

For the second phase of Op ATHENA, beginning in early 2006, Canadian troops focused on Kandahar Province in the south; long considered one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas. They would lead the Multinational Brigade for Command South until November 2006; a period that included Operation MEDUSA, a major offensive against the insurgency in the region.

The successful, three-week campaign was led by The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group’s first battalion. They, along with U.S. and Afghan troops, faced an enemy force estimated to be 1400 strong and killed more than 500. Twelve Canadians were among the casualties and five members of The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group were given the Medal of Military Valour for their actions.

While the offensive itself was a success, Canada’s five years in Southern Afghanistan would prove to be its deadliest overall. In 2008 the number of fatalities passed 100, triggering an intense debate at home.

Canadians were deeply divided on the mission’s value while Parliament debated a possible extension beyond the original end date of February 2009. An independent report from former MP John Manley issued in 2008 recommended Canada stay in Afghanistan while shifting focus from combat to training Afghan troops.

The government of the day heeded that advice and a motion to extend and change the mission passed the House of Commons weeks later.

In May of 2011, the mission focus moved to training. Canadian troops embarked on Operation ATTENTION, contributing the second largest contingent of the NATO-led mission to train Afghan National Police and National Army members. From July to December of that year, the Mission Transition Task Force began to move most Canadian assets out of the country as the combat portion of the mission was closed out.

When our training commitments in Afghanistan were complete in 2014, Canada had suffered 158 military casualties in addition to the loss of diplomat Glyn Berry and journalist Michelle Lang. Two Canadian aid workers, Jacqueline Kirk of Montreal and Shirley Case from Williams Lake British Columbia, were among three civilians killed in August 2008.

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Image gallery

  • an M72 rocket launcher
  • Warrant Officer Tim MacCormac demonstrates how to dispose of unexploded ordnance
  • Master Corporal Kelly Harding smiles at an Afghan boy

Article / November 16, 2017 / Project number: 16-1055

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