Canadian troops criticize deadly 2006 attack on Taliban
Soldiers moved in before aerial bombardment had chance to 'soften' enemy's outpost
David Pugliese, The Ottawa Citizen Published: Thursday, September 06, 2007
Soldiers who fought in a key battle last year in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of four Canadians are questioning why a general deviated from the established plan and troops were rushed to attack Taliban fortifications without the several days of promised bombardment needed to soften up enemy positions.
Military officials concede there have been ongoing questions and criticism among the soldiers who saw four of their comrades killed and another 10 wounded during the opening days of Operation Medusa last September.
But an article in the new edition of Legion Magazine brings to the public that controversy about how the battle unfolded and whether Canadian Brig.-Gen. David Fraser was right to make some of the decisions he did.
The battle has been portrayed by Canadian and NATO generals as a major blow to the Taliban.
But the article in the publication, sent to members of the Royal Canadian Legion, details how questions remain among some troops about Brig.-Gen. Fraser's decision to change the attack plan at the last minute. A series of deceptions and feints planned over a three-day period to allow troops to determine where the insurgents were, so they could plan the final attack, were cancelled, according to the magazine. And a multi-day aerial and artillery bombardment, designed to soften up the enemy, never materialized.
In the end, Canadian soldiers had 15 minutes' preparation, in some cases less, to cross a river into Taliban-held territory. There, the insurgents were waiting for them, hidden in trenches and fortified buildings. Fifty Canadian soldiers advanced as ordered. Four were killed, 10 wounded and at least six became stress casualties. Six received medals for their bravery that day.
"This was a struggle that saw a general's strategic instinct -- his feel for the shape of the battle -- lead him to abandon a carefully laid plan and overrule his tactical commanders in the field in order to send Charles Company on a hastily conceived and ultimately harrowing attack against a numerically superior enemy in a well-established defensive position," notes the 4,000 word article by Legion Magazine journalist Adam Day.
The magazine described the attack as an "old-fashioned WWI-style assault into the guns, albeit on a smaller scale. It was the charge of Charlie Company."
There was little, if any, battle procedure, no reconnaissance, and the intelligence was either insufficient or wildly wrong, the article reports. "This was Canada's first company-sized mechanized combined arms attack on a fixed position since Korea. It was rushed and it was risky -- doctrine was out the window."
The magazine interviewed about 20 people involved in the battle, including Brig.-Gen. Fraser.
In an interview with the Citizen, the general said the article details the battle from the soldiers' perspective and while that is valid, the overall greater picture has to be considered.
That, he noted, is that Operation Medusa eliminated the threat of the Taliban in the Panjwaii district and later paved the way for numerous reconstruction projects to proceed. It also set the stage for bringing stability to the area, where up to 30,000 Afghans have returned to live, Brig.-Gen. Fraser said.
"The article gives you a soldier's perspective and in any operation that is fast-paced, that is dynamic, there are always going to be situations where subordinates will question their commanders, and Medusa was no exception," Brig.-Gen. Fraser said. "But look at the overall operation and measure the success. In this case, Canadians won and the Taliban lost."
Medusa, involving more than 1,400 coalition and Afghan soldiers, began on Sept. 2 with Canadian units seizing the high points around the Panjwaii area. A Canadian major could see no sign of civilians, and confirmed that only groups of insurgents were in the target area. With that confirmation, the established plan called for the battle group to take the next several days to heavily hit the Taliban, now trapped in a relatively small area. Airstrikes would simultaneously destroy insurgent command and control locations.
Those strikes, however, were cancelled, so Canadian troops used the weapons on their armoured vehicles to open fire on insurgents.
Canadian commander Lt.-Col. Omer Lavoie explained to the magazine that once the enemy was hemmed in, the plan was to continue to attack the insurgents over three days, mainly with aircraft. Such a bombardment would degrade the enemy's ability to fight before the main force would be committed into the attack, he said.
Troops would cross the Arghandab River to attack a key objective on the other side, an area where, a month earlier, four Canadian soldiers had died. A series of manoeuvres had been planned, allowing troops to determine where the insurgents were so they could plan the final attack, according to the article.
That, however, was changed after Brig.-Gen. Fraser, who had planned Medusa, visited the area the afternoon of Sept. 2. At that point, insurgent activity had tapered off and seeing this, the general gave the order for the troops to begin crossing the river.
Heated discussions followed, according to the magazine, and at one point troops went down to the riverbed, but were later withdrawn.
At about midnight, Brig.-Gen. Fraser again issued his order to attack across the river, but Lt.-Col. Lavoie managed to get that postponed by pointing out that the force had little intelligence about enemy positions on the other side, didn't know the depth of the river and had yet to mark sites where they could ford the waterway.
The troops were then told to attack at first light on Sept. 3, still 48 hours earlier than planned and without the promised bombardment, according to the article. Soldiers involved in the battle still question why the original plan was abandoned and why there was a rush to move across the river. They note the Taliban was trapped and it was just a matter of destroying them.
The magazine reports the decision to move the attack forward was based, in large part, on Brig.-Gen. Fraser's appraisal that the enemy was weakened.
In his interview with the Citizen, the general said he hadn't heard about troops only having 15 minutes to prepare for their attack. But he said the intelligence he was receiving from various sources that were part of the battle, including the Afghans and other coalition units, led him to determine the time was right to make a move and have troops cross the river earlier than planned.
"The Taliban were weak and disrupted at that time," Brig.-Gen. Fraser said. "All the information I was receiving at the time painted a picture that was the time to act."
He also told Legion Magazine that while he listened to what his commanders said, he believes there was nothing to be gained by 48 hours of additional bombardment. No matter when the river was crossed, it was going to be a difficult mission since the Taliban were waiting and ready to fight, he argues.
Some soldiers involved in the battle, however, say the original plan would have provided Canadian troops with the advantage of destroying the buildings that ultimately provided the Taliban with excellent cover and concealment. One officer said it would have allowed time to conduct manoeuvres to draw insurgents out where Canadian firepower would have decimated them.
But Brig.-Gen. Fraser said "on balance" he has no regrets about his decisions. There is a need on the battlefield to be flexible and the operation was adjusted based on what the enemy was doing and what was being achieved, he added.
"At the end of the day, the measure of success was who won, who lost," he said. "We won, they lost."
For Legion Magazine's report on the battle, go to www.legionmagazine.com
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007
Interesting, because I don't think I've actually heard or read at anytime in history when the changed plans of a General were questioned by his troops like this. Or maybe its not something that most historians choose to write?
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09-06-2007, 12:49 PM #1
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