The War in Afghanistan

The War in Afghanistan has been compared to the Boer War by a number of historians and writers. 1 From the perspective of the Canadian Army there are a number of parallels. Canadian participation in the Boer War (1899-1902) took the form of a small national contingent as part of a larger foreign expeditionary force. Only a small number of Canadian “regular” units participated, which were heavily augmented with soldiers from reserve (“Militia”) units across the country. Following the war, battle honours were bestowed to those reserve units based on the number of volunteers they had sent forward for overseas service. Participation by Canadians reserve units such as The Calgary Highlanders in the War in Afghanistan followed a very similar pattern, and individual augmentees to the Regular Force were an important and ongoing source of manpower during what became the longest armed conflict in Canada’s history.

Not Beirut, 1982 but New York, 2001. Emergency services first responders in the wake of the attacks on what became known as “9/11”. Library of Congress photo LCCN2002717279 LC-A05-C15

The chain of events that took Canadian soldiers 10,000 kilometres from Canada to Afghanistan began on 11 September 2001. Nineteen members of the Islamic militant group Al Qaeda hijacked four commercial airliners in an elaborate terrorist attack. Two of the planes were crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, another into the Pentagon in Washington D.C and the fourth went down near Shankville, Pennsylvania. All four planes were filled with innocent passengers, and in total almost 3,000 people were killed, most of them when the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed.2 Twenty-six Canadians were among the dead.3

The horrifying attacks on North American soil had been unprecedented.4 Galvanized, the United States sought to identify the perpetrators and respond, drawing on the immediate outpouring of support from Canada and around the world. International attention soon focused on Afghanistan. In the words of one historical summary, “Canada would soon play a role in the ensuing international efforts to battle terrorism and help bring democracy to Afghanistan.”5

Afghanistan had not been completely obscure as far as Canadian collective consciousness. In 1979 the armed forces of the Soviet Union deployed to Afghanistan to bolster their declining influence in the country, beginning a ten-year conflict. World opinion was inflamed, and the acts were seen as an invasion of a sovereign state.6 Canadian athletes boycotted the games of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in protest.7
After Soviet troops carried out a nine-month phased troop withdrawal in 1988-89, civil war erupted and a new regime – the Taliban – emerged to take control of the country. With extreme fundamentalist views, the Taliban curtailed civil rights and supported international terrorist groups including al-Qaeda, responsible for the September 11th attacks on the United States. Acting through both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States and its allies took action against Afghanistan.8 United Nations sanctions had already been in place against parties in Afghanistan since at least 1996, and the Security Council had previously expressed its concern that conflict in the region “Provide(d) a fertile ground for terrorism…which destabilize the region and beyond…”9 In the wake of the September 11th attacks the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1368 condemning the attacks and supporting international efforts to root out terrorism in Afghanistan.10

The country itself consists of arid, mountainous terrain roughly as large as Saskatchewan, home to 30 million people, wedged between Pakistan and Iran. “The various ethnic groups and factions that have made the country home over the centuries have given Afghanistan a rich heritage and diversity, but have also helped make peace and stability difficult to achieve.”11

On 7 October 2001, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM was announced by U.S. President George Bush. American and British armed forces began five days of air strikes on targets in Afghanistan aimed at the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and Taliban regime. Ground actions followed on 19 October 2001. On 26 October, Britain announced it would send over 4,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, followed in November by pledges from Turkey, Australia, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, France and Poland.12 Canada’s pledge had come the same day Operation ENDURING FREEDOM was announced. On 7 October 2011 Prime Minister Jean Chrétien announced that Canada would contribute air, land and sea forces to the international campaign against terrorism. Canada’s initial contingent was dubbed Operation APOLLO.13

Canadian naval personnel led the way in Operation APOLLO, and eventually 15 different vessels served in the Arabian Sea, and in February 2002 Canada was leading a multinational task group of coalition ships in the Gulf of Oman. The naval commitment to Operation APOLLO ended in December 2003, but Canadian ships continued to deploy to the region until October 2008 as part of Operation ALTAIR. Canadian Forces aircraft also deployed to the region, paving the way for the arrival of ground forces. Members of Joint Task Force 2 deployed late in 2001 in support of multi-national counter-terror operations, while a Battalion Group based on the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry began arriving in February 2002.14

When they landed, the Canadians fell under the operational control of Task Force Rakkasan, a 2,000-strong American army unit from the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division…Their first job was to secure a section of the airfield’s perimeter…In March (2002), the bulk of the Canadian Battle Group shipped off to Bagram for their first taste of combat – Operation Harpoon, a joint Canadian-American assault on the Tergul Ghar mountain. Their job on “The Whale” was to isolate and destroy any leftover enemy fighters who happened to flee the Shahikot Valley earlier that month…Some A Company soldiers were so excited that they high-fived one another as they climbed aboard the Chinook choppers. But after five days of destroying caves and blowing up bunkers, the mission ended without any brushes with the enemy. There was one close call, however. Not with Al Queda, but with an American F-16.15

The incident foreshadowed Canada’s first fatalities. Four soldiers of PPCLI were killed on 18 April 2002 in a case of mistaken identity when an American pilot fired munitions at a Canadian training exercise on the ground.

Captain A. Watson and Warrant Officer A. Bilodeau of the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) Battle Group talk with local residents in the village of Ksvosh Ab, Afghanistan in March 2002. Early deployments to Afghanistan highlighted shortcomings in equipment and as the mission evolved, clothing, weapons, vehicles and personal equipment tailored to the environment became available in quantity. (DND Photo by Cpl Lou Penney, 3 PPCLI BG)

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was created in accordance with the Bonn Conference in December 2001.16

With the eventual fall from power of the Taliban, attention turned to stabilizing the country and helping establish a new Afghan government. The UN authorized a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to take on this challenge. The initial Canadian contribution to the ISAF in the summer of 2003 consisted of more than 700 Canadian Armed Forces members stationed in Kabul, the country’s capital, with 200 more providing support from elsewhere in Southwest Asia. In Kabul, the Canadians patrolled the western sector of the city, helped operate the airport and assisted in rebuilding the Afghan National Army.17

Canada’s contribution of peace-support and combat forces to ISAF began in August 2003 when Phase 1 of Operation ATHENA commenced. Canada provided an infantry battle group to establish and enhance security in the capital city of Afghanistan, Kabul, and additionally, from February to July 2004, provided the command element of a multi-national brigade. To carry out this mission, Canadian troops conducted foot patrols, surveillance missions, provided security for elections, and conducted armed raids on illegal weapons caches. After two years, Phase 1 came to a close, and the Canadian task force began its transition to Kandahar in August 2005, a process that was not complete until January 2006.18

Phase 2 of Operation ATHENA consisted of combat operations in Kandahar province, specifically the Dand, Arghandab, Panjwayi and Zhari districts. This phase lasted until July 2011.

The CAF remained committed to enabling and contributing to whole-of-government outcomes; building and enabling ANSF capacity; and establishing and maintaining security.

Canada assumed responsibility for the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team from the United States in August 2005. Approximately 350 military, police, foreign affairs, correctional services and development personnel came together to form a whole-of-government team committed to improving the quality of life of residents of Kandahar province by assisting with the provision of governance, security and development.

For more than five years, CAF members fought the insurgency in what was considered one of the most volatile provinces in Afghanistan – Kandahar. At its peak, the Canadian battle group included nearly 3,000 personnel and was augmented by an air wing from December 2008 to August 2011.19

Observers have noted a distinct change in the nature of the Canadian experience, after operations moved from Kabul to Kandahar. Even though the Taliban government had been deposed, a strong presence could still be found in some areas of the country, and the return to Kandahar coincided with a resurgence in Taliban activity.20 In the words of Professor J.L. Granatstein:

Well-trained and superbly led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope, the battle-group commander, Task Force Orion found itself on the hot seat in the summer of 2006. The Taliban believed that the Canadians, new to Kandahar but a known quantity from their quasi-peacekeeping deployment in Kabul three years earlier, would be easy meat, just another weak NATO…nation whose politicians lacked the will to fight. The way to hit them, Taliban leaders decided, was to concentrate on the Canadians in the field and, they hoped and believed, seize Kandahar city and completely demoralize ISAF…

…(T)his was a serious mistake for the fundamentalists. First, Task Force Orion was well armed, (with) its LAV IIIs, the Canadian Forces’ light armoured vehicle with a 25-mm chain gun, able to go almost anywhere and to bring devastating fire on any target. There was Canadian M777 howitzer artillery, capable of near-pinpoint accuracy that would astonish old sweats who fought in Canada’s previous wars. There was air support that could be whistled up in a hurry, dropping bombs on Taliban positions.

And there were the soldiers of 1 PPCLI. The men and women of the (Patricias) and their associated units were, except for the reservists who had trained and bonded with them, professional soldiers. Professionals. They had worked their way up in the army, many over two or more decades and they had served in countries around the world on peacekeeping and peace enforcement missions. They had trained rigorously in Canada and even more when they arrived in theatre. Service in the Former Yugoslavia had hardened some of them…They were tough, physically fit, disciplined but informal, and they understood their role, their tactics and weaponry, and the importance of what they were doing in Kandahar.21

The Calgary Highlanders who spent long summers or leaves of absence from civilian vocation on leadership and trades courses, spread over years or decades, and those who served alongside Patricias in the former Yugoslavia, might question Dr. Granatstein’s exclusion of them from the description of “professional soldiers.” During this period over 100 Calgary Highlanders served in Afghanistan as augmentees to the Regular Force, in a variety of roles including “outside the wire” on combat operations as soldiers of infantry battle groups.

Additional air resources were sent to Southwest Asia and the Middle East to create the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing, providing a variety of aircraft for multiple roles, in particular permitting tactical air movements that reduced hazardous exposure to enemy ambush on the ground. Special Forces continued to operate in theatre as well, and Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams worked alongside newly created Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) units to whom the burden of security within their borders would eventually rest. Captain Simon Cox of the Calgary Highlanders was Mentioned in Despatches for his work as a mentor to the ANA.

During fighting in Zhari District on 28 July 2008, Captain Cox (at centre) was serving with a joint Canadian-Afghan patrol. According to official citation, after the lead elements of the patrol were pinned down and in danger of encirclement, he “moved through intense enemy fire to reinforce the isolated Afghans. Despite fierce enemy resistance, he persistently continued forward, returning a heavy volume of fire to suppress the insurgent position…(His) courage and selflessness prevented the patrol from being surrounded by a numerically superior enemy.” Calgary Highlanders photo

Canadian numbers on the ground swelled, not only to fight the enemy but also to support the Provincial Reconstruction Team in operation in Kandahar Province. Helicopters, tanks, light armoured vehicles, artillery, air support and infantry all worked together in complex operations.

This chapter of Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan was the most perilous. Anytime Canadian soldiers left the relative safety of their main camps to go “outside the wire,” the danger was very real.22
Combat operations ended officially in July 2011, and the 12th rotation, dubbed Mission Transition Task Force, was tasked to conclude the military mission in Kandahar by 31 December, with all equipment and materiel to be returned to either Kabul or Canada.23

A number of other operations were conducted by the CF in Afghanistan aside from direct combat missions. Operation ARGUS from 2005 to 2008 was a deployment of strategic planners, Operation ARCHER in 2006 was the deployment of senior personnel to Kabul to assist with the U.S.-led multinational organization that provided mentors and trainers to help Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior organize, train, equip, employ and support the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. Operation ATTENTION was Canada’s contribution to the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A). Canada’s troop contribution was the second largest within NTM-A, and Canadian troops helped establish basic training institutions for the ANA, ANP and Afghan Air Force as well as training for battalion sized units and specialized training in specialized support fields.24

From May 2011 until March 2014, Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan was centred on Kabul and focuse(d) on four key areas:

  • investing in the future of Afghan children and youth through development programming in education and health;
  • advancing security, the rule of law and human rights, including through the provision of up to 950 training advisors for Afghan national security forces;
  • promoting regional diplomacy;
  • and helping deliver humanitarian assistance.25

    Organization of ISAF in Afghanistan as of 6 August 2010 (map adapted from information at


In March 2014, Canadian military operations in Afghanistan officially closed and the last service personnel left the country. In May 2014, the first battle honours for service in Afghanistan were bestowed by the Canadian government.26 The Calgary Highlanders deployed a total of 126 soldiers to Afghanistan as individual augmentees or on other assignments to Regular Force units during the war in Afghanistan. The Theatre Honour “Afghanistan” is added to the 42 Battle Honours previously bestowed upon the regiment for service in the First and Second World Wars. No other reserve unit in Canada deployed more of its members to the War in Afghanistan than The Calgary Highlanders.
As in past wars, the standard for individual recognition remained high. The Victoria Cross was awarded to British and Australian personnel but no Canadian was deemed to have performed acts of a significantly high standard to have merited the highest possible award for bravery. A new decoration, the Star of Military Valour, ranking second among Canada’s medals for courage in battle, was bestowed for the first time in history in August 2006. Sergeant Pat Tower of PPCLI braved enemy fire to rescue a platoon that had come under attack. Sergeant Tower later served as Regimental Support Staff (RSS) with The Calgary Highlanders. In addition to a Mention in Despatches to Major (then Captain) S. Cox, a number of Calgary Highlanders also received commendations for actions in Afghanistan.

MCpl C. Martin receives a commendation during his service in Afghanistan. Making the presentation is Lieutenant-General Gauthier (Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command), with General W.J. Natynczyk (Chief of Defence Staff) and Brigadier-General Thompson (Task Force Kandahar). Calgary Highlanders photo

Over 40,000 Canadian soldiers, sailors and air force personnel served in the Afghanistan theatre of operations during the official period of Canada’s direct involvement in hostilities (October 2001 to March 2014), creating a new generation of Canadian war veterans.27 A total of 138 Canadian Forces personnel were killed in action, 20 more died in theatre, and 635 suffered physical wounds in action.28 Over 1,400 CF personnel suffered non-battle injuries and an untold number have suffered, or will suffer, psychological injuries related to their service in the combat theatre.29

Canadian military action peaked with Operation MEDUSA in September 2006, involving over 1,000 CF personnel and making it the largest national combat operation since the Korean War ended in 1953. The battle resulted in the loss of 12 Canadian lives, with the result of pushing Taliban forces out of the Panjwayi district.30 In the words of one popular account of the battle:

(Captain Ryan) Jurkowski remains convinced that Task Force Orion won the Battle of Panjwayi…and that the seven months Charlie (Company) spent fighting halfway around the world was worth the cost, however painful the losses were to bear.

“Everything we did, regardless of the cost, was worth our efforts for every ounce of blood lost, Taliban or ours. We all knew what we were doing there and, although there were frustrations and fears by all, we knew that through the kinetic defeat of the insurgents, we could do what we had deployed to do – bring stability and humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan,” he says now.

“On leaving, we had achieved much in denting the ability for the Taliban to mount anything resembling success, minor or massive, wherever we roamed.”31

Although other nations have already embarked on chronicling the history of their militaries in Afghanistan and South-west Asia, the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Army have yet to write an official history of their campaigns.32
The Veteran’s Affairs website, however, sums up the Canadian experience succinctly:

Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan have made a difference, but this has come at a great cost. The threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombs was a constant risk. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused the most Canadian casualties. There were also many other perils beyond ambushes and firefights with the enemy. Landmines and friendly fire incidents took the lives of our soldiers while vehicle accidents, illnesses and the psychological strain of serving in such a difficult environment also took a heavy and life-long toll. 33

  1. Lozada, Carlos “In Britain’s exhausting Boer War, a parallel for Afghanistan” (Washington Post, Sunday, 20 June 2010) accessed online at
  2. Egan, Mark, Basil Katz, Steve Holland, “America Mourns 9/11 Dead” (Reuters, Sunday, 11 September 2011) via Calgary Sun accessed online at
  3. “The Canadians Who Died In 9/11: List Of Victims Of The September 11 Terrorist Attacks” (Canadian Press, 6 Sep 2011) accessed online at
  4. The surprise military raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had come at a time of increased political tensions, and 2,403 Americans had been killed, the majority service personnel and almost half the crew of a single ship caught at anchor and sunk when its ammunition magazine exploded. See H.P. Willmott, for example, Pearl Harbor (Bison Books Ltd., London, UK, 1984) ISBN 0-88365-543-8 p.49
  5. Canada Remembers: The Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. (Minister of Veterans Affairs, 2011). ISBN: 978-1-100-53832-7
  6. Dupuy, R. Ernest and Trevor N. Dupuy The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History: From 3500 B.C. to the Present 4th Edition (Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1993) ISBN 0-06-270056-1 pp.1519-1521
  7. Gillespie, Kerry “Canadian athletes remember, sadly, 1980 Olympic boycott” (, Friday, 16 August 2013) accessed online at
  8. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  9. Charron, Andrea “UN Sanctions and the Military Missions: Implications for the Canadian Forces” (The Canadian Army Journal, 14.1 Spring 2012, Army Publishing Office, Kingston, ON, 2012)
  10. The Canadian Armed Forces Legacy in Afghanistan (Department of National Defence) accessed online at
  11. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  12. Operation Enduring Freedom Fast Facts ( 19 November 2014) accessed online at
  13. Canadian Armed Forces Legacy, Ibid
  14. Ibid
  15. Friscolanti, Michael Friendly Fire: The Untold Story of the U.S. Bombing That Killed Four Canadian Soldiers in Afghanistan (John Wiley& Sons Canada Ltd., Mississauga, ON, 2005) ISBN 978-0-470-83686-6 pp.8-9
  16. ISAF webpage, accessed online at
  17. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  18. Canadian Armed Forces Legacy, Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  21. Wattie, Chris Contact Charlie: The Canadian Army, The Taliban and the Battle That Saved Afghanistan (Key Porter Books Ltd, Toronto, ON, 2008) ISBN 978-1-55470-084-4 pp.12-13
  22. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  23. Canadian Armed Forces Legacy, Ibid
  24. Ibid
  25. Operation ATTENTION website, accessed online at
  26. “South West Asia Theatre Honours” Prime Minister of Canada’s website, Ottawa, ON, 9 May 2014 accessed online at
  27. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  28. Canadian Forces Casualty Statistics (Afghanistan) accessed online at
  29. Ibid
  30. Canada Remembers, Ibid
  31. Wattie, Ibid, p.292
  32. Godefroy, A.B. “Editorial: A Time For Reflection” (The Canadian Army Journal, 14.1 Spring 2012, Army Publishing Office, Kingston, ON, 2012)
  33. Canada Remembers, Ibid

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