In 2006 the most recent military clash of arms in Canadian history occurred in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, in the Panjwaii district. Under the name “Operation Medusa”, Canada’s Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Royal Canadian Regiment, along with a company of Royal Marines from the UK and a platoon of US Navy Seals, attacked a resurgent Taliban front that covered more than 60 miles.
The Battle of Panjwaii, or officially known as the Second Battle of Panjwaii (although the first only classifies as a “battle” in a very loose sense) was the result of two years of Taliban buildup outside of Kandahar City and an increasingly important combat role for Canadian Forces as they assumed command of Kandahar Province.
Canada’s mission in Afghanistan began in October of 2001. Canada marched alongside the United States and the United Kingdom in an attempt to destroy Al Quaida, stabilize Afghanistan and bring justice for the tragedy of 9/11. Canada’s first contributions to Afghanistan consisted of elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR’s) along with Royal Canadian Engineers and some Royal Canadian Mounted Police units. By 2002 Canada’s role was limited to patrolling and reconstruction. Tragedy occurred in May 2002, however, when an American F-16 pilot witnessed what he thought were Taliban units massing in a valley below. He dropped a 2500 kg laser-guided bomb.
Unfortunately, the units he dropped the bomb on were Canadian soldiers on a night convoy mission. The bomb killed 4 Canadian soldiers and wounded 7 more, Canada’s first Afghanistan casualties. Later investigations uncovered that Canadian ground controllers had warned the pilot not to attack, and that his own HQ had told him to hold fire. Later it was learned that the pilot had been on speed at the time. This has become known as the “Tarnak Farm Incident” and put a serious strain on coalition relations when the George Bush administration refused to apologize for the accident.
The public outcry at home over the Tarnak Farms Incident caused Canada to rethink her involvement in Afghanistan. Demands to bring the troops home, and increasing anti-Americanism during the George Bush era, almost ended Canada’s Afghanistan mission. Events in 2003, culminating in the invasion of Iraq, caused the then-Liberal government to change its mind.
First, America was re-directing military resources away from Afghanistan and to Iraq, a move many saw as a big mistake. Canada’s top general, Rick Hillier, decried the move and accurately predicted that the Taliban, who had fled to Pakistan, would now return. Second, Prime-Minister Jean Chretien’s Minister of Finance, Paul Martin, staged a coup against the Liberal leadership and unseated Canada’s long-serving PM. At a leadership convention in Toronto Paul Martin was crowned the new leader of the Liberal Party and Canada’s new Prime-Minister. Where his predecessor was wavering on Canada’s Afghanistan commitment, Paul Martin was firmly in favour of staying. An election in 2004 decided the issue, when Paul Martin won a minority government, while the new Conservative Party of Canada, under it’s clever leader Stephen Harper, pushed for a stronger Afghanistan commitment and a deeper loyalty to America.
With the pressures of increasing Taliban activity in Afghanistan, a war in Iraq that was spiralling out of control, and political weakness at home, Paul Martin committed Canada’s forces to take over a combat role in Kandahar Province, the home of the Taliban movement.
By the end of 2005, General Hilliers fears had come true. A full-scale Taliban insurgency was taking place, with suicide bombings in Kabul, IED’s on all of the countries main roads, and Taliban fighters boldly ambushing NATO patrols, convoys and forward operating bases throughout the country. During the 2004 resurgence, thousands of Taliban fighters began moving into the Panjwaii district of Kandahar Province. Only 60 km from Kandahar itself, the Taliban began digging in.
Areal recconaissance clearly showed that the Taliban were preparing for a stand-up, face-to-face fight. A large front of inter-connecting trench lines, supported by strongpoints and pillboxes, covered a front of over 60 miles. Mortar pits and even a few anti-aircraft and artillery pieces were spotted! Communications trenches, regimental headquarters and even several supply dumps were boldly established. An estimated 12,000 Taliban had moved into the area and were prepared to defend it.
This was happening as the Canadian Forces, namely the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry of the west and Ontario’s Royal Canadian Regiment, moved into the area to take over combat duties from the Americans.
The Canadians didn’t know they were establishing themselves so closely to a determined enemy who had dug in to a static front. Immediately upon arriving, Canadian forward operating bases were attacked again and again. Mortar and artillery strikes ranged in on Canada’s bases. Almost immediately Canada’s troops were involved in a series of vicious defensive battles against swarms of Taliban infantry determined to push them off a particular hill or out of a village. Canadian casualties began to mount from the first day of arriving in Kandahar.
The mounting pressure on Canada’s forces forced General Rick Hillier and NATO command to go on the offensive. It became obvious that in order to establish control of the Panjwaii district and to reduce the unsupportable stream of casualties, the Taliban front would need to be attacked and destroyed.
Back at home, Stephen Harper’s opposition Conservatives voted down Paul Martin’s minority budget, declaring a vote of non-confidence in the Commons, and an election was declared. All through Christmas and January the two parties clashed in a vicious campaign. Finally, in January 2006, the Liberals were supplanted for the first time in 14 years and the Conservatives formed a minority government, and Stephen Harper became Prime-Minister.
Harper’s Conservatives brought a new vision for Canada’s military. Instead of a military of peacekeepers and underfunded hobbyists, Harper brought hard-edged pride in a military tradition and big military budgets to Canada. This included beefing up Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan as a projection of Canadian national interest. One of the first things Harper did as Prime-Minister was send serious reinforcements, logistics support, air power and the Fort Garry Horse Armored Regiment to Afghanistan. These would all be used in the coming Battle for Panjwaii.
Planning for the operation began in May of 2006. Two Canadian regiments and a battalion of tanks, supported by artillery and air power, would strike the Taliban defences straight up the middle. If the Taliban wanted a head-to-head fight, Canada was going to bring it to them. To supply flank defence, a company of British Royal Marines from the neighboring Helmand Province and a platoon of US Navy Seals were assigned. The operation was named “Medusa”.
On September 2, 2006, Operation Medusa kicked off. US and Canadian air forces launched a massive air campaign, with more than 100 warplanes and attack helicopters involved. It is estimated that this offensive killed more than 200 Taliban in the first day alone!
Then, supported by heavy artillery fire, Canadian forces attacked straight at the center of the Taliban defence network.
The two Canadian regiments broke through the front and spread out, hoping to trap a large portion of the Taliban, including their central HQ, in a pincer. Recognizing the danger, the Taliban struck back. Vicious fighting broke out all along the Canadian axis of advance. Every field, every hill had to be cleared out by overwhelming firepower. Every village and hamlet was fought over, often in hand-to-hand combat. Taliban forces launched several unsuccessful counter-attacks to dislodge Canadian gains.
On September 8, a week after the offensive began, the pincer snapped shut around the Panjwaii District, trapping several thousand Taliban inside. The Taliban launched several counter-attacks as they tried to break out and head for the Pakistani hills, but Canadian infantry stubbornly defended the encirclement. Air and artillery strikes reduced the pocket to a vast kill zone, resembling, what one Canadian Major said, the Falaise Pocket of 1944.
By September 11, 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, resistance in the pocket died off. Most of the Taliban had either been killed or had somehow managed to flee. Canadian soldiers moved into the Panjwaii Pocket and cleared out what little resistance was left.
The Battle of Panjwaii cost Canada 14 dead soldiers and more than 40 wounded. The US lost 1 Navy Seal and the UK lost 14 men when a Chinook helicopter carrying troops was shot down by the Taliban. Estimates place Taliban losses at almost 2000. A further 400 Taliban prisoners were taken. Civilian casualties were surprisingly light for an operation of such size. Estimates place total civilian casualties around the 20 mark, both dead and wounded.
The Battle of Panjwaii achieved its desired effect. The Taliban were pushed out of the region and attacks on Canadian and other NATO partners ceased. The battle also had an unintended effect that would change the course of the war. It taught the Taliban that they could not hope to stand up to coalition forces in a head-to-head battle. NATO troops were simply better trained, better equipped and better led than the Taliban. 2006 saw the Taliban shift from head-on clashes to classical guerrilla warfare, depending on stealth, ambushes, suprise and booby traps instead.
Operation Medusa and the Battle of Panjwaii go down as another successful Canadian battle in this country’s proud military history.