Valour Blog

Canada and Afghanistan

Canada and Afghanistan

For a brief timeline of Canada’s relationship with Afghanistan, please see the official Canadian Government website.

Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan began with the deaths of over 3,000 civilians, including many Canadians, on September 11, 2001. That day, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners flying in the United States, aiming to destroy significant American landmarks by crashing the planes into buildings. Three of these hijackings succeeded, colliding into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Passengers of the fourth plane heroically prevented their hijackers from reaching their destination, losing their lives in the process when they crash-landed in a field in Pennsylvania. This event would become known as “9/11”.

It was soon learned that the extremist Islamic group Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, was behind the attacks. Since the 1990s, they had been using Afghanistan as their base of operations as “guests” of the Taliban regime that controlled the country since 1995. A few weeks later on September 28, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1373. This resolution in effect demanded the countries of the world to stop providing safe havens for terrorists (Operative clause 2c) and that UN member states may use all necessary measures to ensure this would be the case (Operative clause 8). Essentially, then, it was an ultimatum to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan: hand over bin Laden or face military action. The Taliban refused.

On October 7, the United States initiated Operation Enduring Freedom. This was a military effort to eliminate the Al-Qaeda network (and bring to justice bin Laden) and to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. The day after, Canada offered its land, sea, and air forces to contribute to the effort.

The Canadian Forces’ role in the War in Afghanistan can be separated into two distinct military operations: Operation Athena and Operation Apollo.

Operation Athena

This segment of Canada’s contribution was geographically-focused on Afghanistan itself. Under the overarching umbrella of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Operation Athena officially began on July 17, 2003. This saw Canadian Brigadier General Peter Devlin take command of ISAF’s Kabul Multi-National Brigade. Two days later, the 3rd Battalion of The Royal Canadian Battalion Regiment Group deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, for Canada’s first rotational contribution.

This was part of the first phase of Operation Athena. From 2003 to 2005, it was focused on establishing a secure environment in the capital city of Kabul so that Afghan leaders could create and ratify a new constitution for the country, as well as holding the country’s first election. During this period, Canada was at the forefront of the international effort with its generals being put in high command positions over international forces.

Based out of the southern city of Kandahar, the second phase of Operation Athena was the much longer and more expansive mission from 2005 to 2011. Phase II had three concurrent elements: security, governance/rule of law/human rights, and economic development. As a result, the Canadian Forces would not operate by themselves, but with other segments of the Canadian government in what has been termed a “whole of government” approach. This meant Canadian civilian presence (such as Correctional Service Canada, RCMP, then-Canadian International Development Agency, and the then-Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) grew three-fold with most of its efforts focused on Kandahar Province as part of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Civilian-led projects included the Dahla Dam reconstruction, the construction and re-establishment of fifty schools, and eradicating polio across Afghanistan.

Naturally, it was the Canadian Forces who took the lead in the area of security. They would also assist with increasing the capabilities (e.g. training) of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police via the Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLT), pronounced “omelette”.   The OMLTs are perhaps some of the most distinctive elements of the Canadian presence in Kandahar province. OMLTs are comprised of Canada’s most experienced and veteran soldiers. There are around fifteen to thirty OMLT members in each Afghan National Army (ANA) unit, and they are embedded for a period of at least six months. The OMLTs are responsible for training and mentoring their attached ANA unit, as well as liaising between the Canadian and Afghan forces.

But Canadian troops conducted many combat operations on their own as well. Perhaps the most famous of these was Operation Medusa in September 2006. Taking place in the Panjwaii District, it came several months after the battles in the same area that saw the death of [Captain Nichola Goddard]. In a bid to clear out the district of Taliban fighters once and for all, the Canadians began a massed operation that sought to kill or force into permanent retreat the Taliban forces in the area. This operation over seventeen days saw heavy combat with artillery, aerial bombings, and armoured vehicles taking their toll on the various villages and compounds in the area. By September 17th, most Taliban forces had retreated, with over 500 killed and over 130 captured. Ten Canadian Forces soldiers were killed, one due to a “friendly fire” incident by an United States Air Force A-10 ground-attack aircraft.

Operation Medusa was certainly successful in the immediate sense – few Taliban fighters made their way back after the battles. But some nonetheless did continue the fight, and roadside bombings and small engagements continued for some months after. This was a pattern that repeated numerous times up until the withdrawal of Canadian combat troops in December 2011.

Kimberley Unterganschnigg, “Canada’s Whole of Government Mission in Afghanistan – Lessons Learned,” Canadian Military Journal Vol. 13 no. 2, Spring 2013, 8-16.

Operation Apollo

On October 7, 2001, Canada announced Operation Apollo, which contributed sea, air, and land forces to assist the United States' effort to root out al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The first force to arrive in the region was the Navy's frigate HMCS Halifax on November 2, which had already been on deployment with NATO's Standing Naval Maritime Group in the Atlantic. 

The maritime component of Operation Apollo took place on the high seas in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Its main objective was to prevent the escape of Al Qaeda and Taliban members from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia and other nearby countries via the seas. To accomplish this, the Canadian Navy sent continuous rotations of its ships to the region for the longest period it has ever endured.

Just like infantry, ships cannot be deployed for indefinite periods of time. They must return home every few months for repairs and refits. Given the relatively small size of our navy, this is much more difficult to sustain for an extended period of time. Not all repairs and refits are the same – often times, a ship can get away with relatively brief fixes between deployments, but the problems that don’t get addressed will accumulate to the point where the vessel requires a much longer (months, if not years) pause.

This was the case with our fleet as a result of Operation Apollo. For four years, our frigates, destroyers, and replenishment vessels conducted intensive patrols throughout the Middle Eastern waters, looking for escaping terrorists and smugglers.

On land, the effort was spearheaded by Canada's Special Forces. Though much of what they did remains classified, we do know they entered the fray relatively early in late 2001, working alongside US Navy SEALs in southern Afghanistan, hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda members.

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