Canada’s longest war began in early 2002 in eastern Afghanistan, when Lt.-Col. Pat Stogran led his 3rd Battalion PPCLI into battle alongside American troops in Operation Anaconda. The objective of the mission was to capture Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of the remote eastern province of Paktia. During the operation, Cpl. Rob Furlong broke the record—twice—for the longest sniper shot in war.
The first Canadian blood to be shed in Afghanistan fell on April 18, 2002, at Tarnak Farms, the former home of Osama bin Laden. U.S. Air Force major Harry Schmidt, on a combat air patrol in his F-16 fighter, mistook a live-fire exercise on the designated range at Tarnak for a Taliban attack. Schmidt dropped a 227-kilogram laser-guided bomb on the live fire exercise. The first casualties were Sgt. Marc Leger from Lancaster, Ont.; Cpl. Ainsworth Dyer of Montreal, Pte. Richard Green of Mill Cove, N.S. and Pte. Nathan Smith of Porters Lake, N.S.
In February 2005, Defence Minister Bill Graham announced that Canada would double its troop commitment to twelve hundred soldiers. That spring, Parliament decided to move the focus of operations south to the volatile and deadly Kandahar Province, which is roughly the size of Croatia.
General Rick Hillier, then Chief of the Defence Staff, argued to keep our troops in the relatively safe areas in and around Kabul to work on the rebuilding of the airport. But by the time General Hillier returned in autumn 2004 from a stint as commander of NATO’s International Security Force, planning was already largely under way to move to Kandahar. That made 2006, when my mission began, a bad year to be in Kandahar for a Canadian soldier. The Taliban were massing there and in Helmand Province to the east in preparation for a violent spring offensive. The Taliban surged up to two thousand fighters in the area and, atypically, dug in for a conventional battle. In heavy fighting, Canadian and Afghan forces quickly defeated the enemy and the Taliban withdrew.
But this war would become a long decade of frustrating battle against an enemy that faded seamlessly into the local villages after firefights. Finally, on July 7, 2011, at 11:18 local time, our combat mission ended in a simple handover ceremony near the spot where, nine years earlier, the members of 3 PPCLI became the first Canadian soldiers to set foot on Afghan soil.
I think the decision to redeploy to Kandahar was misguided. It’s true that our success in counter-insurgency war often surpasses that of our NATO allies and is enhanced by our extensive experience in difficult peacekeeping operations in places like Kosovo. But Kandahar’s complex web of tribal loyalties and byzantine power struggles took time to figure out and navigate effectively and, as often happens in war, we paid a terrible price for that knowledge.