Soldiers of Alpha Company conduct operations in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar Province as part of Operation MEDUSA.
As opposition politicians continue to hammer Canada’s defence minister for trying to claim credit as “the architect” of a major Afghan war operation, some in and out of uniform are questioning why anyone would want to have what, is arguably, a dubious honour.
In some military circles, the 2006 Canadian-led Operation Medusa is seen as a failure.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, himself an Afghan veteran, has faced calls for his resignation after claiming credit for Medusa, which he said “removed about 1,500 Taliban fighters off the battlefield.”
Sajjan, who contributed to the operation as an intelligence officer, has since apologized for embellishing his role.
But a U.S. military investigation, which included more than 33 interviews with military planners and those Canadians who fought in the battle, concluded that Medusa was a defeat for coalition forces and a tactical victory for the Taliban.
Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. Charles Sullivan, involved in the investigation, said in an interview with Postmedia Tuesday he was surprised the minister sought credit as the architect of the operation. “(Medusa) showed how ill-prepared the Canadian Army was, as well as all the deficiencies that existed as it went into an operation it could not execute,” Sullivan said.
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 2, 2017.
In 2006, Sullivan was a co-president of the investigation to look into the U.S. friendly fire incident involving Canadian soldiers during Medusa. The probe, parts of which are still secret, was expanded to include the planning of Medusa and how it unfolded.
The result was a brutally honest assessment and a wakeup call for a Canadian military that went into the operation believing it was headed to victory, said Sullivan, an air force general who later served as NATO’s deputy chief of joint operations in Afghanistan.
The study, which included 500 pages of interview transcripts, chronicled incredible bravery of the Canadian troops who went up against a Taliban force estimated to be between 3,000 and 5,000.
But the soldiers weren’t hesitant to point out to investigators the flaws in the planning and execution of Medusa, which has been touted as the largest offensive in NATO history.
Three days of planned airstrikes on the fortified Taliban positions were cancelled. No reason was given.
With only hours to prepare, the Canadian troops were given new orders to cross a river and conduct a direct assault on the Taliban. Battlegroup commanders protested the last-minute changes to the plan, but to no avail.
Fifty Canadian soldiers advanced as ordered. The insurgents were waiting, hidden in trenches and fortified buildings. Four Canadians were killed, 10 wounded and at least six became stress casualties. Six soldiers received medals for their bravery that day.
Shortly after, a U.S. aircraft strafed Canadian troops ina friendly fire incident, killing one and wounding 36.
“Sadly, less than 24 hours after being initiated, the strike phase of Operation Medusa was over with a total of five soldiers killed, almost 50 wounded, vehicles destroyed, and a clear tactical victory for the regional Taliban commander and insurgent forces,” Sullivan wrote in a history of the air war in Afghanistan published in 2014 by the U.S. Air Force Research Institute.
That, however, did not stop some journalists and Canadian and NATO senior officers from declaring Medusa a tremendous success.
Their claims of large-scale Taliban casualties caused by the operation have also been called into question, Sullivan wrote.
“The guys I met and interviewed, the front-line fighters that actually executed the operation, were the most courageous and dedicated group of military members I have seen,” he added.
But, according to Sullivan, they were the ones who raised questions about the accuracy of the extensive Taliban casualty estimates being touted at the time by the media and the leadership.
Instead, the bulk of the Taliban force melted away, only to return later with new and improved tactics that put emphasis on roadside bombs and more synchronized smaller attacks. That resulted in both increased coalition and civilian casualties, Sullivan said.
Sajjan has apologized for his “architect” claims and has stated that “Operation Medusa was successful because of leadership of MGen (Ret’d) Fraser and the extraordinary team with whom I had the honour of serving.”
Retired Canadian Maj.-Gen. David Fraser has in the past disputed criticisms of the operation. He has called Medusa a success. The Canadians won and the Taliban lost, Fraser told the Ottawa Citizen in a 2007 interview, after criticisms of Op Medusa first emerged. In addition, Fraser said, Medusa eliminated the threat of the Taliban in the Panjwai district and paved the way for numerous reconstruction projects to proceed.
But findings from the U.S. Central Command report co-written by Sullivan have been echoed in other forums.
U.S. officer Gary Bowman, who wrote a still classified history of the war in southern Afghanistan, told New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall that NATO commanders severely underestimated the strength of the Taliban. “The real story of Medusa is the utter intelligence failure — it is the best example that the coalition did not understand the residual Taliban influence in the south,” Bowman told Gall for her 2014 book The Wrong Enemy.
Sullivan, in the air-war history book, has questioned whether the real story of Medusa will ever emerge. “What really took place in the lead-up to the operation and on the Medusa battlefield itself remains shrouded in the bravado, hyperbole, and (a) ‘communications campaign’ championed by those who prefer to have the operation remembered as some kind of momentous tipping point in the battle against the Taliban in and around the city of Kandahar,” he wrote.