by Brett Boudreau
April 22, 2018
It is now 2018, and the Canadian military ended its training mission in Afghanistan 4 years ago, wrapped up its combat operations there almost 7 years ago, and fought Operation Medusa nearly 12 years ago. During that long campaign, the Canadian Armed Forces transformed into an accomplished, middle-power combat force and the mission came to meaningfully impact the national political scene. The Canadian public also re-connected with the military – with a fervour unlike that for any military undertaking since World War II.
For about a decade, Canadians were subject to regular, daily media reporting about the Afghanistan campaign in its many guises and associated twists, turns and tragedies. A considerable number of books, periodicals, theses, articles and movies have dissected pretty much everything there is to know or of interest about the modern-day Afghanistan campaign.
As it turns out, however, in the book Operation Medusa, retired Major-General David Fraser and Brian Hanington have explored otherwise well-trod ground to produce a compelling and immensely readable first-hand account that sets out a panoply of new insights through Fraser’s unique perspective as operational commander. The pair recount in lush detail, and with crisp, precise prose the many challenges of command in modern-day conflict. They have given important reasons for those interested in current events, security and leadership to read and learn more about how a six-month period of the Afghanistan campaign molded and shaped the Canadian military of today (and indeed, NATO).
This book thankfully does not feature the hagiography that has served to diminish some other written accounts by general officers. This book is not about personality criticisms – excepting brief comments about one British brigadier, who also comes under fire in General Sir David Richards’ autobiography Taking Command (Richards wrote the foreword to Operation Medusa, and as the overall ISAF commander was Fraser’s boss during most of the time in question). Nor is this book it prideful boasting about penetrating insights and strategic acumen that somehow escaped other lesser commanders, or a personal history of life changing experiences in youth and military assignments that presaged later success: instead, it is about team work. The scene-setting is mercifully brief – the West was attacked by terrorists who were allowed to plot and plan from Afghanistan, and Kandahar was a challenging location where Canada could add strategic value to the Alliance mission – “and, so it began.”
Operation Medusa, the first large-scale ground combat operation in the Alliance’s history, is widely agreed to be the key engagement to date of the entire NATO campaign. Kandahar is the second largest city in Afghanistan and was the spiritual heart of the Taliban during their rule of the country from 1996-2001. By early 2006, the Taliban had massed several hundred or even thousands of fighters nearby in defensive positions amongst the population and terrain with which they were intimately familiar, and could move with impunity. The city, and province of the same name – and indeed the whole of the south of the country – was at risk of again falling under their direct control. The Taliban were determined to test the newly- arrived and under-strength international NATO forces, which up to that point had operated in Kabul and in the north and west of the country, all relatively safe.
Had the effort to rout Taliban forces failed then, it is probable that Kandahar would have fallen, and risked the loss of the entire South of the country, providing an immense psychological boost to the Taliban as well as being a devastating blow to Alliance credibility. A defeat here would also have emboldened other states, terrorist groups and state-sponsored malign actors to more openly challenge NATO, being viewed as unwilling to sustain combat casualties needed to win wars.
This account sets out the road to the battle and the fight itself, from the person most responsible to orchestrate the effort at the operational level. This perspective is a welcome addition to the existing literature, being distinct from soldier-against-enemy soldier tactics or the other end of the spectrum where higher headquarters are consumed with considerations of personalities, politics and grand strategy.
A number of factors argued against military success in southern Afghanistan in 2006. Non-U.S. NATO members were just starting to learn what they had gotten themselves into. Limited NATO forces operated in an area more than 200,000 square kms large, or nearly the size of the United Kingdom. Staff regularly dealt with more than 30 major operations and incidents a day including attacks by a resurgent Taliban. A skeptical population was disillusioned from years of continual war and withheld support to back whoever would emerge the winner. Afghanistan’s capacity to deliver effective governance did not exist, or was limited, or was affected by endemic corruption of local and national authorities. A schizophrenia also bedeviled NATO as it tried to square the circle between a U.S.-heavy counter-terrorism “close with the enemy and destroy” interest and an Alliance effort decidedly more geared to supporting reconstruction and development. Conditions on the ground were not yet conducive to that, and any efforts to make a difference were limited by a lack of officials with the requisite expertise from contributing nations.
The telling of this story does not pull punches about the challenges, including starting out with a Canadian military inexperienced in modern-day combat and commanding forces at brigade level (c. 5,000 soldiers) in significant, joint operations. Nor does it hold back from explaining how national caveats or restrictions on the use of a country’s forces affected the operation. Many nations did not want to dispatch forces to the south where there was direct combat, fearing that casualties would result in domestic pressures to pull out altogether. The combination of constraints meant the campaign was hobbled from the start by a mission of “arbitrary limitation”. As Fraser recounts, “during Operation Medusa many nations simply would not show up to fight at all. Planning was agony. Even when the operation was only days away, we weren’t certain who would support us at H-Hour [the start of a military activity].“
In the face of great stress, we also learn the importance of “lively discussions” among peers, subordinates and superiors as a means to explore the best way to achieve the mission and limit casualties in the face of a determined enemy – and how, after “disagreeing daily on how that should be done,” they just got on with it.
The tone, style and format – with 20 chapters and an epilogue named with one-word action verbs – set a brisk pace. The terminology is made entirely manageable through careful attention to clarity of language, supplemented by helpful descriptive notes for the layperson. This is an accessible read for all and while scrupulously balanced, is not without wry commentary. In describing the challenges of coordination and command for instance, Fraser writes, “Here’s a surprise: the complexity of joint action between governmental agencies from multiple countries working on foreign soil to serve populations whose languages they don’t understand on behalf of a nascent democracy at war with a terrorist insurgency using the proceeds of illegal drug production to acquire weapons from neighbouring states did not turn out to be as easy as our deputy ministers assumed.”
Readers may be struck by the paucity of support at the time in theatre by both CIDA (the Canadian development agency) and Foreign Affairs. Fraser recounts that in 2006, he had to make do with a single representative advisor from each of CIDA and Foreign Affairs, and only after making a case for the help. At this stage of the mission, departments struggled mightily to evolve expeditionary capability to give weight and purpose to the 3-D (defence, diplomacy, development) effort. The death of diplomat Glyn Berry in January 2006, set back efforts by Foreign Affairs for several months to deploy more civilians to theatre, as the department frantically examined duty-of-care issues and how to deploy staff safely in a raging counter-insurgency. It was not until 2008-09, following the recommendations of the Manley Panel that the Canadian civilian contribution improved from a handful of persons to a world-class effort of more than 100 from multiple departments and agencies. Sadly, these important lessons have not been captured in any detail from a whole-of-government perspective.
And, yes, current Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan features briefly, in a factual recounting of his important contribution drawing on his heritage and background as a police officer.
My one quibble is a desire for the book to have set out at least a short treatment of the effort, energy and attention expended in theatre to detainee handling during the period in question. Operation Medusa is neither the book nor the place for a detailed account of the Canadian-transferred detainee saga. Still, the challenge of dealing with detainees captured on the battlefield had been brought into stark relief by the American experience during the Iraq campaign, and was already a keen topic of discussion in the Canadian Parliament in early 2006.
The agreement signed in December 2005 by Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier and Afghan Defence Minister Rahim Wardak informed how Fraser operated with respect to Canadian-transferred detainees – recalling that NATO did not have their own agreed policy on the matter and so each nation followed different rules about what to do. By early 2007, those overseeing the effort in Ottawa understood the need to build Afghan capacity faster, and in May 2007 a new transfer arrangement was in place – reinforced by policy, standard operating procedures, a robust monitoring regime, training and better infrastructure. In November 2009, Fraser, along with his Canadian boss Lieutenant-General Mike Gauthier and Hillier testified to a special Afghanistan-related Parliamentary committee about the subject. There, Fraser recalled his remit before leaving for Afghanistan – the Canadian strategic intent, he was told by Hillier, would be affected by three things: careful attention to avoid Afghan casualties (‘civcas’), Canadian casualties, and detainees. It was a stricture that informed Fraser throughout his command.
Early in the book, Fraser surprises with the admission that prior to deployment he had studied and reflected on the prospect for casualties, telling Hillier in a PowerPoint briefing that the expected death toll would be “between forty and forty-two Canadians between February and November of 2006,” [it turned out to be 36] and was told “now take that slide out and never show it again.” Given the human and financial cost, the book inevitably and rightly concludes with the necessary “Was it worth it?” question. Entitled “Tally”, this chapter provides some of the book’s most important insights. Fraser sets out context to explain why he answers ‘yes’, assessing that, “Operation Medusa was a costly and necessary fight that achieved a temporary effect that allowed the coalition and the Afghans to move on. We did not lose this battle. Had we, the consequences would have been grave…. Operation Medusa gave hope and opportunity to people, two precious gifts we all take for granted in Canada. The Canadian men and women who gave their lives did not die in vain, and those who were wounded may bear their scars with well-deserved pride.”
In addition to the Canadian toll of 159 military and three civilians killed and thousands injured during the mission, should be added the dozens now known to have committed suicide following their tour and the hundreds more who have developed mental health injuries. And, the jury may still be out on whether Afghanistan is yet “saved” from the Taliban. But today, Afghans are now fully responsible for the country’s security, and the army, air force and police in 2018 are decidedly and without question much more professional and better equipped. They are not asking anyone to do their fighting for them. They are doing the fighting – and the dying. And, for the first time, there are tentative yet substantive feelers regarding reconciliation.
Operation Medusa is an overdue account and a memorable addition to modern-day military literature that will feature on staff college reading lists throughout NATO. It is also a wonderful primer on leadership. This is a notable work of non-fiction that will be surely be marked as a strong favourite to win a major national book award.
Brett Boudreau (Colonel, Ret’d) is a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the author of We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us, an examination of the NATO strategic communications effort during the 2003-2014 ISAF campaign, and is available online at https://www.stratcomcoe.org/we-have-met-enemy-and-he-us-analysis-nato-strategic-communications-international-security-assistance