From the Canadian in charge of the joint military command in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, this is the real on-the-ground story of one of NATO’s bloodiest, most decisive and misunderstood operations: The battle of Panjwayi, the defining moment of “Operation Medusa.” In 2006, David Fraser was the Canadian general in charge of the joint military command in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. Like the troops under his command, he was in no way ready for what happened on Friday, September 1st of that year.He had been woken the night before by his intelligence officers who informed him that the Taliban were amassing on all fronts for an all-out battle. The NATO Alliance was about to engage the enemy in the greatest and bloodiest battle of their 70-year history. And they were grossly outnumbered. At first the facts of Operation Medusa were deliberately withheld as classified, then muddied by imprecise and isolated personal accounts, exaggerated by rumour, misstated by ambition, or just rejected outright as irrelevant, the details of these events are still unknown by citizens of Canada and her allies.And yet the truth about those 15 agonizing days between September 2 and 17 is astounding. The secret agreements made in those two weeks, the expected death toll of Canadian soldiers, the wholesale changes to tactics made after the first engagement, the strafing of Charles Company by an American A-10, the contribution of the Afghan police, the discovery of drugs, the extent of unreported civilian casualties, and even Canadian and Allied reliance on the insights of village elders were classified and kept from public knowledge.And yet in international military circles, the Battle of Panjwayi was quickly hailed as the defining moment of Operation Medusa. Canadians were credited with nothing less than saving Afghanistan from falling under Taliban rule. Their military’s strategy and tactics were soon studied in warfare colleges in the U.S., and practiced by Nato troops in exercises around the world. There is no one architect of Operation Medusa, but if anyone really had to point to the one person who could tell this incredible story, it is the Canadian General in charge of the joint military command.
Armoured dudes, we like to be comfortable, fat and happy. Infantry dudes are different. They just want to go out and get messy.
September 2 was the day we began. Long before dawn, I took my position in the tactical operations room at our brigade head- quarters at Kandahar Airfield. We had a variety of forces in place, some on the ground, some in the air. Matthew Sprague’s Charles Company and Mike Wright’s A Company were ready to swing around Bazar-e-Panjwayi to secure the high features of M’sūm Ghar and Mar Ghar. A few days earlier, Geoff Abthorpe’s Bravo Company had taken its position near Highway 1, ready to feint south at H-Hour while providing a northern screen throughout the battle.
At 0530, Charles and A companies moved out to M’su ̄m Ghar. From that vantage they would have an unobstructed view of objectives Rugby and Cricket, and dozens of Pashmul villages beyond. By 0600 they had arrived and found the high features unoccupied.
As the sun rose, the Canadians’ view across the river was clear enough to see leaflets still cluttering the banks of the Arghandab. Intent on avoiding civilian casualties, we had airdropped warnings of our upcoming attack across the region. They could also see Taliban fighters at work setting up their defences. Easy, early targets. The LAVs of Charles Company rolled into line and began firing. Within minutes, at least ten of the enemy had been hit. Then all was quiet.
Omer Lavoie was now prepared to execute our plan, one he had rehearsed and refined in the rehearsal of concept (roc) drill. No one liked the earlier start date, but today was going to be the day.
This was to be nato’s first major combat operation, and at the time I was trying to make any roc drills inclusive of the Afghan military police, local government if necessary, and the team at large. I would say that the roc drill went okay. I did not see anything that caused me to believe they weren’t ready to go, although I thought the objectives they picked should really be broken down into smaller objectives, so that they could be pur- sued end-to-end more discretely.
With the assets and enablers that Ben Freakley had freed up, our prospects were positive but we had to move quickly. Those resources wouldn’t be ours forever. Greg Ivey’s artillery battery set up camp 10 kilo- metres north of the battlespace, in an area that gave him enough room to position his M777s. From this artillery manoeuvre area (AMA), his guns began raining down fire on enemy positions in Rugby and Cricket, both of which were well within range of his howitzers. Apache attack helicopters wheeled around on station, moving as directed onto targets to fire their 30mm cannons, while Harriers and F-16s dropped 500-pound bombs and B-1 Lancers sent in precision- guided munitions from altitudes of 15,000 feet and above. Concussive waves rippled back across the river, and the sounds of the day could be heard hundreds of kilometres away. The battle was on.
South of M’sūm Ghar, Andy Lussier’s Royal Canadian Dragoons sent back data on the movements of the enemy. But at 0930, they saw a horrific sight in the sky above them. A Royal Air Force Nimrod jet- engine surveillance aircraft drifted over their heads, spewing smoke and fire as it attempted to make Kandahar Airfield for an emergency landing. Originally a maritime patrol vessel, this particular Nimrod xv230 had been fitted with an electro-optical turret with the capability to transmit real-time video imagery to tactical commanders on the ground. We had been receiving a feed from the xv230 that morning. During a mid-air refuelling, a leak had occurred, allowing jet fuel to seep into the bomb bay where it was set on fire by either an electrical fault or the hot air from a heating pipe. The pilot reported the fire immediately, then dropped his aircraft from 23,000 to 3,000 feet in ninety seconds. An RAF Harrier scrambled to assist and was following the flaming aircraft as it passed over Task Force 31 and our istar squad- ron. When just 40 kilometres shy of Kandahar Airfield, a first explosion tore one wing off and a second took the Nimrod apart. It crashed into the ground near the village of Chil Khor.
Andy’s team immediately took off toward the site of the crash. Following the soldiers’ code, they moved in to support with two priorities top-of-mind. They hoped to be able to tend to the injured if any survived. They also knew they had to reach the aircraft and its crew before the Taliban. A billowing pillar of smoke guided them as they neared, but as they entered the territory between Chil Khor and the neighbouring village of Fatehullah Qala, the twisting roads made the going uncertain. We had dispatched an Apache helicopter to the scene, and with their bird’s-eye view its crew were able to guide the Dragoons to the exact spot. Tragically, there was nothing to recover. The fire, the blast and the crash had obliterated all twelve RAF personnel, one Royal Marine and one British soldier. Operation Medusa was under four hours old and we had fourteen dead.
Back at M’su ̄m Ghar the artillery barrage continued, while at brigade headquarters Omer and I were making decisions about the upcoming assault on Objective Rugby. I pressed for a night crossing. Omer had a number of reservations and stated his strong preference for a daylight advance. We compromised on an 0400 start for the next morning. In the interim, Omer had to decide where and how to cross the river. Looking over from M’sūm Ghar at the infamous white schoolhouse that had claimed four lives on August 3 when Ian Hope and his team rolled onto this exact spot, one thing was clear. Wherever we chose to cross the river, it would be wide. Even in September, when the Arghandab isn’t at its peak flow, the distance from shore to shore can be a full kilometre, fully exposed. The crossing would likely be difficult. Even more so because, knowing we were coming, the Taliban would have mined all the expected crossings as they had the routes into Rugby from the north and east.
Engineers looked up and down the river for a tactically sound crossing. They knew that at least two platoons would head over at first, with engineers, clearance teams and troops from the Afghan National Army with their embedded American trainers. Key to all future efforts, a forward air controller would cross over with them to direct air support. Medics would be embedded too, to treat any wounded on the spot.
Ultimately, we made a tough but obvious decision. Charles Company would head from M’sūm Ghar directly across the river toward the objective. For a time, the conspicuous movement of Bravo Company in the north and a series of feints by Don Bolduc’s Task Force 31 and Andy Lussier’s ISTAR squadron in the south would keep the enemy guessing, so there would be at least surprise. But that would end soon. The minute we began to ford the river in broad daylight, any doubt of our initial intent would be gone. Artillery continued throughout the night, lighting up the sky in a fierce demonstration of firepower designed to confuse and overwhelm. Then, in the pre-dawn of Sunday, September 3, engineers headed down to the river to prepare for the crossing. They would have to breach both the river itself and a canal running parallel on the other side before our forces could move on the objective. It was near 0600 when the advance began, under cover of continued artillery and air support.
To our relief, the crossing was accomplished without incident. No IEDs. No rifle fire. NoRPGs. No mortars. Mark Gasparotto’s engineers breached each waterway at the best spot, and then two platoons from Charles Company made their way across river and canal and onto dry ground. There they established a beachhead with their LAVs, G-wagens, bulldozers and front-end loaders fanned out in a semicircle facing the known Taliban positions. So far no trouble, but by then the morning had become uncomfortably quiet.
The next phase of the advance would also depend on the engineers. A corrugated pattern of high berms had to be flattened and deep ditches filled to allow the vehicles to pass overland through the first wide field. By 0800 that was done. Dismounted infantry were sent out onto the flanks to ensure the outlying buildings were clear, while 7 Platoon rolled up towards the objective, its LAVIIIs leading and heavy equipment following behind. Within minutes the LAVs had reached the white schoolhouse, where they stopped short in line abreast. This was, they discovered, exactly what the Taliban commanders had anticipated.
Having shown remarkable discipline, the enemy had remained hidden and silent as we pulled right up below them. They then burst into action on three sides simultaneously, subjecting 7 Platoon to a furious, extended hailstorm of rifle and RPG fire, trapping the armoured vehicles where they had stopped and making any effective reaction virtually impossible.
One LAV took a round squarely, firing shrapnel from the turret ring deep down into the vehicle and killing Sergeant Shane Stachnik instantly. Then RPG and small-arms fire slammed into a G-wagen where Warrant Officer Richard Nolan sat in the front passenger seat. He was fatally struck on the first round. The driver of the now-smoking wagon signalled for help, which came swiftly as three soldiers from a nearby lav dismounted and ran through continuous enemy fire to get to their stranded colleagues, giving whatever first aid they could and then carrying the wounded back through the gauntlet and into their armoured vehicle. Led by Sergeant Scott Fawcett, Corporal Jason Funnel and Private Michael O’Rourke then crossed that perilous dis- tance four times in a row as they took their fellow soldiers to safety without a thought for their own.
As 7 Platoon coped with the ambush, 8 Platoon was still pressing up on the left flank in continuous firefights, clearing one building after another as they moved steadily forward. The enemy’s knowledge of the layout of each building and connecting routes between them was superior, however. Even as 8 Platoon advanced, kicking doors, clearing houses and then moving on, the Taliban would reappear behind them having re-entered those buildings unseen. At the same time, units of the Afghan National Army were fighting up the right flank with impressive resolve, sometimes passing the men of Charles Company in their hurry to move on to the objective, and proving in the heat of battle that they too were fully committed to the fight.
By now everyone knew that the priority was to engage the enemy with enough force to free up the soldiers of 7 Platoon, who could then get their casualties back out of the firing line to be treated. Yet that withdrawal would have to be executed under constant enemy fire. When it began, one of the LAVs reversed out of the area and immediately hit a ditch where it ground to a halt, wheels spinning. Well within range, the Taliban poured fresh fire onto the vehicle, damaging but not piercing its armour on all sides. Another LAV pulled up to conduct a rescue. Its occupants jumped out to return fire, covering their comrades as they exited through the stranded vehicle’s escape hatch and dove into the waiting, operational vehicle.
In constant communication, everyone back at brigade and battalion headquarters knew how desperate the situation had become. Our air- craft circled overhead, waiting to take out Taliban positions with high- powered explosives, but Charles Company was too close to the enemy for safe targeting. Even so, one fighter let loose a single bomb that landed among the LAVs and bounced right through the line. It never exploded.
Pressing their advantage, the Taliban escalated their rate of fire as the company attempted to recover its vehicles. While towing the damaged G-wagen back toward the river, the driver of the towing vehicle steered too close to a breach embankment, allowing the wagon to tumble into the ditch below. When another of the LAVs hit early in the fight was hitched and towed, its unconscious driver was jostled awake and was then able to regain positive control of the armoured vehicle and get it back into action.
Major Sprague decided to pull off the position and withdraw Charles Company to safety. He gave the order to set up a casualty collection point (CCP) where the wounded could be tended. At the same time, the remaining vehicles could be either recovered or destroyed where they lay to deny their use to the enemy.
The CCP is a doctrinal norm taught to all troops. During a fight, whenever critical casualties are incurred, the priority is to get the injured treated with first aid and evacuated. Each soldier is trained extensively in first aid and, when in battle, equipped with field dressings and tourniquets to treat their own injuries if able. They are also taught to treat others quickly and effectively. A certain number of soldiers in each section are also instructed in advanced tactical care of the wounded. In addition, each platoon has at least one or two medics, specifically trained in battlefield medical care. Once immediate care is given, the next step is to move the casualty away from the battle to behind the fighting, where further attention can be given and medical evacuation carried out.
Every day I focused on where the soldiers were going to fight and how we’d be able to medevac them off the battlefield. Speed is critical. There’s a proven concept called the golden hour. If you can get injured soldiers off the battlefield within an hour with competent medical care, they’ve got a 95 per cent chance of surviving their wounds. I was focused on that daily, but I had limited MEDEVAC helicopters: only fifteen for the whole country; that was it. But I will say one thing: at no time ever was a soldier under my command, regardless of uniform or the flag they wore on that uniform, uncovered by a medical- evacuation helicopter, a network so they could talk and some form of fires. Not one day.
It was Warrant Officer Frank Mellish who established the cpp that day, directing treatment of the casualties and arranging for evacuation. As part of the rescue mission, one of his soldiers was ordered to set off a white-smoke canister, and Greg Ivey’s firebase on M’sūm Ghar was assured that all combatants west of that rising smoke were hostile. That information was greatly needed, because no one observing these events from back at the firebase could tell who was who. They then began to rain artillery onto the enemy, hoping to force them under cover while Charles Company got out.
After a firefight lasting more than seven long hours, Charles Company proceeded across and back to their initial battle position on M’sūm Ghar. In those first few hours of battle, they had suffered four fatalities and seen twelve wounded. Adam Day summed it up well in his account of Operation Medusa, published in Legion Magazine a year later:
They’ve been to a place beyond the normal world. They’ve seen their friends lying wounded on the ground, seen them die. And they’ve seen their own death: it was right there, in the rockets flying by—the end of everything. It’s a place without illusions; a place where fear and courage are the same thing: live or die, you do your duty or you don’t. It’s a place from which any return is difficult. Don’t feel sorry for them, they don’t want that. They are professional warriors and the first thing the men of Charles Company want you to know about the battle for Objective Rugby is that they didn’t lose. Not on the day. Not on the mis- sion. The attack failed and it was bloody chaos. Yes. But the task force kicked a mighty amount of Taliban ass that day. The enemy were lined up and hidden, hundreds of them, firing from three sides. And the Canadians went forward, despite it all; they faced up and went into the guns, into the rockets, they attacked.
It was a tragic day, but we all knew what to do next. We would ready ourselves to go right back in.
An exclusive interview with Major General (Ret’d) David Fraser, co-author with Brian Hanington of Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan From The Taliban.
In the Chapter we excerpted, you sat you chose to attack across the open Arghandab River from the South rather than through the woods from the North. Why?
I looked at disposition charts that showed where they were and realized if I went in and attacked first from either the east or the north, I’d be attacking them in their positions of greatest strength. By attacking across the Arghandab River from the south instead, the river would be both a tough obstacle and a considerable advantage. The flow rate was not high at the time, but a river crossing was always risky during an advance, and yet the river would be as much of an obstacle to the Taliban as it would be to us.
You say that in Operation Medusa you moved away from conventional tactics when you realized the Taliban were adopting them. Why?
The Taliban was adopting a conventional defensive position, and I would refuse to take the expected conventional offensive position. I decided we would become the insurgents. I thought, He’s turned out to be like me so I’m going to become him. I’ll attack him, but I’ll do it in an unconventional way. I’m going to play whack-a-mole. And that’s what I told the guys: “I got it. We’re reversing our roles. Let’s go plan it out. I’m not going to win by rolling in and fighting this guy,” I reasoned. “I have to find another way. I’m going to go slow. He’s wearing the watch but we’ve got the time. I’m going to stand off. I’m going to observe. I’m going to listen in. I’m going to fly over and get a full surveillance picture. I’m going to use psychological ops. I’m going to move my own guys around, confuse him, make him wonder where we are and what we’re up to. I’m just going to take my time, and then every time he sticks his head up, I’m going to whack it off.”
You waited for them to get tired. Explain.
The Taliban were hard to find but easy to kill. As we pounded the enemy in Phase 1, we would watch until we saw them and detected a so-called pattern of life. Every time they poked their heads up, we’d chop those heads off and watch what happened. We’d do it over and over and over until they started making stupid mistakes. That’s how we shaped the battlespace. Once their command and control was fully lit up, once they were confused, fatigued and as close as I thought they would get to combat ineffectiveness. Then we’d go in and kill as many of them as we could. At that point and only at that point, we would revert to conventional protocols. We would advance objective-by-objective, deploying our troops just as we had in the Second World War and in the Korean War, but this time with much better surveillance and air power. The condition I would be waiting to confirm was not complicated: I simply wanted to be sure they were tired. After that, we’d finish them off.
You quote General Ben Freakley throughout your book. At the time he was #2 man in ISAF. From your vivid descriptions of him, he seems to have played an active role in Operation Medusa. How did his experience help you?
Ben certainly was experienced. He had helped draft the war plans for Operation Desert Shield in the 1990s, later planned Operation Desert Storm with David Petraeus, then served as Chief of Infantry at Fort Benning, the base on which 120,000 U.S. troops each year are trained and made ready to deploy around the world. As both the head of Combined Joint Task Force 76 and the Deputy Commander Operations for ISAF in 2006, he was in Afghanistan to get hard things done. Freakley was a kinetic guy. He loved a fight and always wanted to be where the action was. For his insistence on rapid and aggressive offensive action, people routinely compared him to General George Patton. Doctrinally driven and meticulous, he was the only commander over there ready and qualified to discuss the most minute details of plans at length. Given his endless appetite for the specific, it was no surprise to me that Freakley came right to Kandahar when it came time to put the plans for Operation Medusa through a rehearsal of concept drill. He wanted to be part of it.
You also mention working with and learning from the DEA. How?
Armed forces have centuries of experience standing up to other armed forces, but in the world of thugs, drug dealers, warlords, insurgents, arms merchants, bent politicians, corrupt businesses, bogus advocacy groups and fanatical anarchists. Most of today’s battles are gang wars, so you better put people on your team who know how to fight them. I had eye-opening conversations with senior officers in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency that tried to stop the flow of drugs from places like Colombia in the early 1970s. You don’t have to watch Narcoson Netflix to know how that went. The DEA learned a lot about the mistakes it made and is eager to share them with anyone going into a situation where drug money fuels a local or regional economy. Think Afghanistan and heroin. Think thugs like the Taliban. The DEA was able to tell me a lot about what NOT to do.
You also had to learn to deal with tribal thinking, right?
Absolutely. The tribal dynamics alone were more complex than anything I’d seen in my twenty-five years in the military. Seeing those affiliations at work, we began to appreciate that there was much more going on than either our reports or our maps could convey. I asked to see an additional tribal map, and immediately we began to sense how the locations of particular tribes could help us predict patterns of social behaviour. This growing understanding of the human geography of the region significantly enhanced our assessment of what was and was not happening. We could have just gone out and killed people, but that wasn’t anywhere near our mission. For one thing, for every guy you kill you create ten new insurgents, so military force alone would have been useless. We needed to understand people, side with them, train them, and help them build the capacity to sustain a better life.
Why did they (and do they) put up with the Taliban?
The secret may lie in the Taliban’s distinct approach to the provision of security services, and to appreciate that you have to understand zakat. In Islamic tradition, zakat is a form of tithing by which the faithful share their wealth with others. The amount given to the community depends on each person’s income and total wealth, and is typically calculated as a percentage, often 2.5 per cent or one-fortieth of someone’s total situation. The Taliban were well aware of the exact percentage members of each community were comfortable paying. When they demanded payment for security, they set their protection fee no higher than that familiar percentage, knowing it would at least appear as reasonable. They then protected their new clients by intimidating any would-be aggressor. In great part, that’s why the Taliban are tolerated.
In your Afghan rotation, you said that rocket launchers were a unique threat.
That’s right. The Taliban used the Russian-made RPG-7, a shoulder-launched, rocket-propelled grenade launcher that remains the darling of insurgents and guerrillas world-wide. They fired rockets in salvoes at our passing helicopters, so when travelling by air we all kept a sharp eye on the ground for telltale smoke blasts. But even when fired from the shoulder by an expert marksman, the RPG is really only effective under 1,000 metres. So the Taliban had to bring these weapons in close to make a kill. We were often surprised, sometimes fatally, by the stealth of their rocket teams. That stealth demanded a high level of training, and killing one insurgent who had that training always created more of an impact than killing several green recruits. So we planned to do exactly that. S.O.F.
You say that failure was not an option, but you knew you easily could fail. Why?
The Taliban had many distinct advantages over our own forces. First, they were seasoned soldiers with high morale on a campaign with deep spiritual significance to them. They all spoke the local language, knew the local customs and recognized all the local people on sight, many of whom they had already intimidated by violence into doing their bidding. They also knew every millimetre of the local terrain, had made smart choices about where to cache weapons and ammunitions, and had stored enough food to last through a sustained action. They had an ability to concentrate forces strategically against any attacking force to maximum effect, as they had proved handsomely to the Soviets. And they knew our tactics, having seen them unfold in as many as twenty-five incidents per day since we arrived in February. Finally, they were hard to find. They did not wear uniforms and they moved among the people. In most cases, they were the people. It was an almost indescribably complicated situation. It’s why we wrote the book.
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