By DAVID J. BERCUSON
The struggle to unseat the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, and keep it from returning to power, is Canada’s longest war by far. On September 11, 2001 terrorists hijacked four U.S. passenger planes; they crashed two of them into the World Trade Center in New York City, destroying the center, and one into the Pentagon in Washington. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania when passengers tried to re-take the aircraft.
The United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) condemned the attacks and shortly after invited allied nations to join to destroy the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The Taliban were blamed because they had hosted and protected Al Qaeda – which had launched these attacks and many earlier ones – and its leader Osama bin Laden.
Canada’s initial response was to send a naval task force of six ships to the Persian Gulf in October 2001 to help enforce an embargo on the Pakistan coast to prevent smuggling of weapons and other war-making material to the Taliban and to stop terrorist leaders from fleeing by sea. Six air force planes were also sent to help ferry troops and supplies.
Canadians in overwhelming numbers (more than 70 per cent in some opinion polls) also demanded a land contingent. The first part of that commitment was a small number (40) of highly secret special forces – commandos trained to operate very close to the enemy or even behind enemy lines – from a Canadian unit called Joint Task Force II. It is assumed they were sent in October or November 2001. On October 8, 2001 the government announced that it would send some 700 troops to southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province to fight under American command.
The Canadian troops were the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3PPCLI) accompanied by troops and vehicles of Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a Canadian armoured regiment. They stayed in southern Afghanistan from mid-January 2002 to July 2002 and then returned to Canada. The only four deaths in the contingent resulted from a mistaken bombing by a U.S. fighter jet. Canadian ships and aircraft remained on Afghan war duties after 3PPCLI left.
In February 2003 the government announced that Canadian soldiers would return to Afghanistan in the late summer to take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which was then confined to the capital city of Kabul. ISAF was a UN-sponsored force that was established in late 2001 to prevent the departing Taliban from returning to Kabul and to prevent warlords from fighting to control the capital. Canada had considered joining ISAF in late 2001 rather than going to Kandahar, but Britain, which first led the mission, would not accept Canada’s conditions.
Now Canada intended to command ISAF and to provide about 2,000 soldiers for security and other functions to aid the Afghanistan government. But as the time for deployment drew closer, the Canadian military acknowledged that Canada did not have the capacity to undertake all those chores. With the urging of the United States, NATO offered to join with Canada, but under a Canadian commander. Thus NATO joined the Afghanistan operation.
Canadian Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier, commander of the Canadian army, took command of ISAF in early February 2004 and stayed in Kabul for nine months. At this point, plans were being made to have NATO expand ISAF to all of Afghanistan in the late spring or early summer of 2006. Different NATO countries were volunteering to establish Provincial Reconstruction Teams in all of Afghanistan’s provinces. These PRTs, as they were called, were supposed to work with local political, military and police leaders to begin re-building the country. At the same time, the training of the Afghan army and police was also to be undertaken by NATO countries.
Canada volunteered to set up its PRT in Kandahar Province, in the northern suburbs of Kandahar City. Canada also undertook to move almost all of its forces in Afghanistan from Kabul to Kandahar province. The government warned Canadians that this new mission would likely involve combat with the Taliban who thought of Kandahar as the centre of their movement. Kandahar is a major opium and marijuana-producing region and the home of thriving drug and weapons smuggling along the border with Pakistan. When the Canadians began to move into Kandahar in the spring of 2006, Canadian casualties increased dramatically. Some of the casualties occurred in actual combat with the Taliban but most resulted from road side bombs, also known as Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs.
The Canadian mission in Kandahar was extended to 2009 by a vote in Parliament in May of 2006 and extended again to 2011 in another vote in February 2008. So far, more than 130 Canadians have been killed in the mission and hundreds more wounded. Canadians remain deeply divided on whether or not Canada should continue with a combat mission – or any kind of mission – in Afghanistan after 2011, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government appears determined to bring the troops home.
The Canadian Experience is a 52-week history series designed to tell the story of our country to all Canadians. Sponsored by Multimedia Nova Corporation and Diversity Media Services partners, the series features articles by our country’s foremost historians on a wide range of topics. Past articles and author bios are available at http://www.cdnexperience.ca. The Canadian Experience is copyright © 2010-2011 Multimedia Nova Corporation.