|Canada’s elite commandos and the invasion of Afghanistan
Canada’s elite JTF2 commandos, Canada's contribution to Task Force K-Bar, the unit of special forces soldiers credited with killing more than 100 top level Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.
The maiden mission of the Afghan war for Canada’s elite JTF2 commandos almost killed them.
Over Pakistan, returning from a daring raid on an enemy compound, six of the members of the secretive team narrowly avoided a crash when their helicopter nearly ran out of fuel as it spirited them to safety.
They escaped with their lives – and with their hands on their prize.
Also on that flight in late 2001 were six United States Green Berets and a computer hard drive that would help greatly in the hunt for Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.
That hard drive was the ultimate quarry of the Canadian mission, part of Task Force K-Bar, the name given the unit of special forces soldiers which arrived in Afghanistan from seven countries. It included Canada’s JTF2.
The inside story of that mission can now be told for the first time following a Toronto Star investigation into the top-secret operations that would cement Canada's reputation as one of the top special forces teams in the world.
The international task force has been credited with killing more than 100 top level Taliban and al Qaeda leaders and the JTF2 stalks the enemy in Afghanistan to this day. But the distance of time has now shed light on that initial six-month deployment of Canada’s most secretive soldiers.
Books, academic studies and official military histories have been written about the U.S. operations. Their exploits have been celebrated; they have grown into legends. But like all of JTF2’s work at home and abroad, Canada’s six-month contribution to the invasion of Afghanistan has remained a state secret.
Until now, none of the behind-the-scenes details were known of Canadian operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan in the first months of what has stretched into a nine-year war.
“It gave us credibility around the world,” recalled one of the 40 Canadian commandos involved in the mission.
The unit arrived in Kandahar as a relatively unknown, untested force that was all-but-invisible to Canadians except for the highest ranks of the government and military leadership.
That first deployment of Canadian commandos left as proven warriors who had traversed some of the world’s most difficult terrain, helped to capture and kill more than one hundred Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders, and garnered the Presidential Unit Citation, a top U.S. military honour for extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy.
But Canada’s participation in Task Force K-Bar had a humble, almost humiliating, beginning.
The first American special forces arrived in Afghanistan about one month after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, working to call in air strikes, train and equip and support the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance fighters.
It was December 5, 2001 before JTF2 touched ground at a Kandahar airstrip. They arrived in a city that was in the midst of falling to an invading force of anti-Taliban Afghan fighters, including future president Hamid Karzai, and U.S. special forces.
A Canadian Hercules military aircraft dropped them into theatre, loaded with two weeks of food, water, ammunition and other supplies and wished them luck. But the resupply flight would not return for six weeks.
As Canadian officials struggled to secure permission to fly over a number of countries in the Central and South Asian neighbourhood, the U.S. special forces, which was leading the Canadian operation, came to JTF2’s rescue with food and bullets, plus eight American armoured Humvees with which to move around southern and eastern Afghanistan, their corners of the battlefield.
There were also many helicopter rides throughout the country, an aspect of the grueling mission that some considered the most worrisome part of the job.
“Every time I was in the chopper I was saying my prayers, because you cannot fight in the air,” said one Canadian soldier who took part in the mission.
Their concern was only compounded when one member of the unit on a subsequent deployment was seriously injured after a bullet pierced the helicopter cabin. It entered his stomach through the side of his bulletproof vest and proceeded to bounce back and forth between either side of his flak jacket, ravaging his digestive tract.
Comfort came only when the commandos had their feet firmly on the ground, matching their elite skills against those of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
“They know that one-on-one they don’t have a chance to win,” the veteran commando said. “On the ground we’re better than them.”
The first JTF2 mission of Task Force K-Bar started almost as badly as it ended.
The six Canadians were teamed up with six U.S. Army Special Forces, known as the Green Berets, for a joint attack on a suspected enemy compound.
The chopper was landing in a brown-out, a cloud of dust and dirt that cut all visibility for the pilots. It came down hard and fast with the controls indicating they were still 15 metres above the ground. But they were actually inches off the ground and landed so hard that it almost disabled the helicopter.
Six hundred metres from the landing site was a building protected by thick, high mud walls that intelligence had indicated was a Taliban compound.
The commando team blasted through the wall with explosives and took control of the compound. The Americans went right and discovered a stockpile of weapons which they gathered together and destroyed. The Canadians, who were there in support of the Green Berets, searched the building and came up with a computer hard drive, which they later turned over to U.S. intelligence agents.
The Americans checked back with the Canadian soldiers not to tell them what was discovered – that remains unknown to this day – but to specifically thank them for an intelligence trove deemed more valuable than the weapons.
After the raid, the commandos bundled back into the American helicopter and got halfway to their destination, a U.S. airbase in Pakistan, before they realized they were running dangerously short on fuel. It was only thanks to a rare air-to-air plane-to-helicopter refueling just 30 seconds before the chopper was set to tumble from the sky that the team made it to their destination.
“We almost lost our team out there,” the Canadian soldier said.
But upon their return the soldiers of JTF2 soon realized that they were earning the respect of their more experienced and more active U.S. colleagues.
“They were curious because they didn’t really know us,” the soldier said. “At the beginning, people said, ‘Who the f--- is JTF2?’”
That question was answered when they saw the Canadians in action.
After that first joint mission, Task Force K-Bar commander Rear Adm. Bob Harward, a U.S. Navy Seal, was full of praise for his coalition team.
“This is the first coalition direct action mission since the Second World War,” he told them
Direct action refers to the special forces practice of sweeping down on an unsuspecting enemy, usually under the cover of night, for lightning-quick strikes to capture or destroy a target.
“You guys all pass into history right now,” Harward said.
Harward would later profess that his JTF2 team was his first choice for any “direct action” mission.
The teams that made up K-Bar never laid claim to the swaggering stories of their U.S. counterparts, who rode through Afghanistan on horseback or swept into Kandahar with the country’s future president, Hamid Karzai.
But they are credited with destroying Taliban and Al Qaeda weapons and training grounds, searching their caves, compounds and hideouts, performing search-and-rescue operations and calling in bomb strikes on the enemy from their mountain vantage points.
The K-Bar coalition forces are said to have killed more than 100 Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in total.
Still, a number of the Canadian missions proved underwhelming. There were many occasions where JTF2 teams would be sent out to capture or kill Taliban commanders they were told would be at a certain location at a certain time, but they never appeared.
“At the beginning I think the intelligence was speculative and they needed us to go out and verify it,” said one commando.
Art Eggleton, the Liberal defence minister at the time, confirmed that the government was dispatching 40 members of the elite unit to Kandahar, but even Canadian military commanders with the 750 regular force soldiers that arrived on the battlefield in January 2002 were not privy to JTF2’s operations.
“They were there in the early days, right from the get-go, but I can say in all honesty that they would have nothing to do with me,” said Col. Pat Strogan, who led the 3rd Batallion of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry in Kandahar. “I had very good relations with Delta Force, the Rangers, the (special operations forces) headquarters there, but JTF2, to the point of being silly, maintained complete secrecy of their activities from me.”
Strogan said he would be allowed in to JTF2’s spartan headquarters only to file nightly reports back to Ottawa, and every so often one of the unit’s commanders would make a “token effort” to check in with him. But there was no intelligence sharing, no coordination and certainly no camaraderie among the two detachments of the same military who were engaged in the first Canadian combat operations since the Korean War.
“The first time I went in there in January I went to introduce myself and I actually had somebody push me in the face as I was coming through the tent because I wasn’t supposed to be in there … as if their reception tent was a secret place,” said Strogan, who is now the federal Veteran’s Ombudsman.
“I was interviewed afterwards and I made that pitch to the (Chief of Defence Staff) and the (Deputy Chief of Defence Staff), that it’s absolutely inconceivable to me that we’re such a small military and they would be those kinds of prima donnas.”
But the government seemed to enjoy the political boost it got out of telling Canadians that its crack counter-terrorist team was on the frontline of the war on terror without having to disclose some of the more uncomfortable details to the House of Commons or the country.
The Afghan chaos caught up with Eggleton, though, on January 22, 2002, when the Globe and Mail newspaper published a photograph on its front page showing three special forces troops in green camouflage uniforms – incorrectly identified as American soldiers – leading detainees out of an aircraft at Kandahar Airfield.
It later emerged that the soldiers were in fact members of JTF2 and that the detainees were handed over to their American counterparts. The admission by Eggleton prompted political and legal concerns both in Canada and within Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s Liberal caucus that Canadian soldiers were helping capture detainees that were bound for the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba, a legal no-man’s land that became a focus of anti-war critics and human rights groups.
Eggleton weathered that political storm, but got stuck in another when he travelled to Kandahar for a visit with Canadian soldiers on April 4, 2002.
It was planned as a four-hour tour until a fierce wind swept in, kicking up the sand and dust, cutting visibility and stranding flights in or out of the war zone.
Eggleton was there to show support for the troops and see for himself the battlefield conditions. He even ventured out in an armoured vehicle to tour Kandahar and meet local Afghans.
But the members of JTF2 who guarded the dignitary during his time at their primitive base made no effort to hide the difficult conditions in which they were operating. They also impressed upon him that Canadian soldiers should be exempted from paying income tax while they were putting their lives on the line for their country.
Eggleton was noncommittal when the commandos raised the issue. Then the 100-kilometre-per-hour winds began, delaying his flight back to Camp Mirage, the Canadian supply base in Dubai.
The minister’s hosts had set him up with a military cot and a Coleman camp stove, the exact same sleeping quarters as that of the 40 commandos. They also pointed him to the corner of the small compound where an elevated bucket and a few stray pieces of wood on the floor served as the communal shower. But as they bedded down for the night, word came of a Taliban approach and soldiers were warned to prepare for an attack.
One unit member recalled that Eggleton appeared terrified when he learned of the threat. And it was lost on none of the soldiers that the next rotation of Canadian commandos and every other deployed group since then have been exempted from paying federal income taxes.
Task Force K-Bar had wrapped up on March 30, 2002, with Operation Anaconda, a major – though less than perfect – attack on retreating Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. The K-Bar forces set up high in the mountains overlooking the Shaw-e-Kowt Valley, calling in supporting air strikes for a fight that claimed hundreds of enemy casualties and seven U.S. killed.
But the JTF2 deployment continued through until June. They stayed in the shadows, operating at a distance from Strogan’s battlegroup, primarily conducting missions with the New Zealand Special Air Service commandos and the U.S. Green Berets.
Most of the work involved observing Afghan villages to determine where the remaining Taliban or Al Qaeda forces were hiding out. But the enemy had been mostly routed by that point and fled into the mountains of eastern Afghanistan or into the tribal areas of Pakistan.
Many had in fact criticized Canada for being too late to join the U.S. fight in Afghanistan, for arriving just as the terrorist mess had been cleaned up. Even the American special forces were shifting their minds to Iraq, an invasion that was still one year away.
“They were talking about it,” the Canadian commando said. “And if they were talking about it, then they were planning it.”
But there was still work to do, and the soldiers of JTF2 were busy right up until the end. Their final mission was an assault on an enemy compound located three-and-a-half hours by helicopter from their home at Kandahar Airfield.
Twenty four Canadian commandos approached under the shadow of darkness. A U.S. gunship watching the activity in the compound below radioed that there were 36 people inside. They figured that it would be a challenge, but that the element of surprise would tip the odds in their favour.
The JTF2 team blasted into the building, but instead of a fight, everyone inside immediately surrendered. And the headcount would run to 53 people, more than double that of the attacking force. They arrived back in Kandahar at 7 a.m., just as the sun had risen for another hot summer day.
Sixty minutes after arriving back at Kandahar Airfield, the soldiers of JTF2, Canada’s top secret counterterrorist weapon, boarded another plane. This time they were bound for home.