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Operation Medusa: Fog of war, NATO’s failure and Afghanistan’s future


Early in the new year, NATO officials in Afghanistan declared success in Operation Baaz Tsuka in the troubled districts of Panjwai and Zhari outside of Kandahar City. The campaign itself may have caused for many a sense of deja vu, as the announced objectives of Baaz Tsuka (pronounced ‘bazooka’) were nearly identical to those of September’s Canadian-led Operation Medusa, which was also declared a success. The goal of both operations was to clear Taliban fighters from several villages in the Arghandab Valley about 30km west of Kandahar. The area is the birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and boasts the distinction of having kept out the Russians for all the years of their occupation and hence holds great symbolic value for insurgents. Thus, NATO officials were understandably self-proud in January when they were able to declare victory, allowing the return of some of the 90,000 civilians who had fled in advance of Medusa’s airstrikes. 

But beneath NATO’s boastful triumph is a perennial truth of the Afghan winter: Wars in this region have always paused for the winter months as military supply lines are cut off by snow and freezing temperatures. And with no crops in the ground, insurgents cannot take cover in lush fields nor pose as hard-working farmers should they be spotted by police or soldiers. So as NATO troops produced a show of force in the early stages of the operation, many Taliban commanders opted to return to bases over the border in Pakistan in order to cut their losses (see Maclean’s, Jan 15/07). 

Thus it is hardly surprising that despite pronouncements of easy victory, senior American military officials are preparing for escalated Taliban attacks in the spring, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hopes to add troops in Afghanistan to combat the expected upsurge. Yet still the war is expected to drag on. Leading defense analyst John Pike predicts that the war in Afghanistan is “going to last for decades” (Toronto Star, Sept 19/06, A1). 

With this in mind, it is useful to review Operation Medusa, as it is that campaign, rather than Baaz Tsuka, that is most likely to set the tone for the war’s future. That battle was the culmination of NATO efforts versus the Taliban’s new tactics. Throughout 2006, the insurgents chose to dig in and defend their positions rather than melting away as before – a strategy they will likely return to when the fighting recommences in earnest in the spring. 

Medusa 

In the early morning of September 2, combat troops from the First Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment fired Medusa’s opening salvos. Their fire was intended to hold the Taliban fighters in their defensive positions while American air strikes hammered them from above. In the event, the insurgents offered a vicious counter-attack which resulted in the deaths of four Canadian soldiers.  

The next morning, while troops from Charlie Company prepared for the second day of battle, the soldiers became victims of a friendly fire incident. The gunner on board an American A-10 Thunderbolt attack plane, apparently targeting the light from a garbage fire, mistakenly attacked the Canadian combat unit, killing one soldier and wounding 30 others. 

For several days following these setbacks, the ground portion of the operation waned as Canadian forces regrouped. Meanwhile, NATO commanders asserted that over 200 Taliban fighters had already been killed in Operation Medusa. Further, officials claimed, the allied forces had trapped some 700 insurgents in their defensive positions within a cluster of villages called Pashmul. Local villagers, on the other hand, were pointing out that the NATO encirclement was not complete and that insurgents in fact were able to pass in and out of their stronghold – a fact which NATO’s commander confirmed. Press reports also stated that Taliban reinforcements were streaming in from nearby areas – to which they would later successfully escape when fighting ended (Globe & Mail, Sept 7/06, A1). 

On September 8, amid complaints from Afghan officials that Medusa seemed to be accomplishing little, ground operations were relaunched as Canadian soldiers won and held new ground. Over the next few days, NATO claimed to have killed over 200 more Taliban. 

By September 13, NATO announced that Operation Medusa was in the mop-up stages, with 65% of the target area cleared of Taliban. Revealingly, the area said to be free of insurgents was reported to measure just 5km by 4km – that’s 20 square kilometers in a province over 50,000 square kilometers in size (G&M, Sept 13/06, A12). 

On September 17, NATO officials announced victory in Operation Medusa. Initial reports put the number of dead Taliban fighters at 512, along with 136 captured, while officials claimed that NATO had “broken the back” of the Taliban in the Panjwai area (Toronto Star, Sept 18/06, A6). Taliban spokespersons, on the other hand, claimed that their fighters had opted for a strategic withdrawal, and thus denied that NATO had achieved outright victory (G&M, Sept 20/06, A1). 

With the end of the fighting, NATO officers began making battle assessments. Consequently, the Taliban body count increased substantially, reaching the remarkably round figure of 1,000 Taliban dead. Even that number wasn’t high enough for NATO’s top commander, US General James Jones. Sounding like an auctioneer, Jones added that “you can go up 200 or 300. If you said 1,500 it wouldn’t surprise me” (G&M, Sept 21/06, A1). The Canadian Forces got on board the killing train too. The Toronto Star reported that the Royal Canadian Regiment’s Charlie Company “believes itself responsible for as many as 200 of the more than 1,000 Taliban insurgents” killed in NATO operations (Sept 30/06, A1). 

While NATO officials played fast and loose with the body count, the supposed victory of their forces unraveled before their eyes. On September 18, the day after NATO announced victory for the assembled press in Kandahar City, a suicide bomber claimed the lives of another four Canadian soldiers in the Pashmul area. Eleven days later, a recently-planted IED killed yet another Canadian soldier who was providing security for a road building crew, again in Pashmul. Press reports soon commented that construction of the road, some 4km long, had claimed the lives of six Canadian soldiers. In their efforts to secure the road, troops had even cleared both sides of it for a hundred meter wide right-of-way. Farmers whose lands were thus denuded were not consulted prior to the clearing, though efforts were made to compensate the affected farmers after the fact. 

Serious questions remain 

While NATO’s Taliban body count topped out at 1,500, reports from journalists on the ground indicate that this figure may be a gross exaggeration. Declan Walsh of the Guardian, reporting on mop-up operations in Panjwai,  writes that “Afghan soldiers taking part in the drive only found 11 unburied bodies”, according to one American officer who still maintained that some 200 Taliban were killed in that section of the battlefield (Guardian, Sept 25/06). Similar doubts are raised by Tim Albone of the Times of London, who accompanied Canadian soldiers on the front lines of Medusa. “As we walked in the searing heat from compound to dusty compound”, writes Albone, “there were no bodies and no bloodstains -certainly no evidence of the 600 rebels Nato claimed to have killed.” (The Times, Sept 14/06). 

Meanwhile, there was little effort made to report on the plight of Afghan civilians. For the most part, civilian casualties and displacement as a result of NATO actions were ignored in the major Canadian media. The reason for this may be military censorship. The UN’s humanitarian news agency, IRIN, reports: “Journalists have [on several occasions] not been allowed by international peacekeeping forces in southern provinces to report freely on civilian casualties and displacements during their military operations,” according to the president of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association (“Afghanistan: No safety for journalists”, IRIN, Sept 19/06). 

What little coverage there was on this issue was handled sheepishly by the press. The Toronto Star seemed compelled to downplay or minimize reports of civilian casualties. The paper mentioned civilian casualties in just three news articles during the month of September. In each, the only people accusing NATO were individual Afghan citizens, whose comments were followed by NATO denials. While one report (Sept 18/06, A20) vaguely mentions an “uncertain” number of dead civilians, a week later when locals “complained of civilian casualties”, these complaints were “impossible to verify” (Sept 25/06, A3). 

There were, however, several respected sources who did, in fact, affirm civilian casualties. In the first days of Medusa, provincial council member Haji Agha Lalai, who heads the National Reconciliation Commission in Kandahar, stated that 21 civilians, including women and children, had died in one NATO bombing raid (Pajhwok Afghan News online, Sept. 5/06). Lalai later reported that 13 civilians had died in a separate NATO air strike (IRIN, Sept 6/06). The following week, the Guardian’s Declan Walsh quoted NATO spokesperson Maj. Scott Lindy, who confirmed “some civilian casualties” resulting from NATO operations (Sept. 11/06). Walsh later cited Kandahar‘s governor as saying that 17 civilians had perished under NATO attacks (Sept. 25/06). 

For the Globe & Mail, Medusa’s civilian casualties merited mention in only one article during the entire month of September. Graeme Smith cites Kandahar‘s governor who “says 13 non-combatants were killed” in NATO attacks (Sept 18/06, A1). (Evidently, the governor’s estimate rose over the following week, when he told Walsh the higher figure of 17, cited above.) 

Official Story Turned Upside Down 

After the fighting in Panjwai eased, allowing journalists access to the area, the Globe & Mail’s Graeme Smith – perhaps the finest Canadian correspondent in Afghanistan – uncovered a story which should have sparked a major reexamination of Canada‘s mission there. Smith talked with local villagers who described a situation which is sharply at odds with the version of events told by NATO. 

The Afghans told Smith that the Taliban had taken up residence in the area at the invitation of many locals who sought their help in expelling corrupt and brutal police officials appointed by the Karzai government. The villagers described police shake-downs at checkpoints and said that although they feared the Taliban’s swift and brutal justice, the insurgents never stole property, making their rule preferable to the “random thievery and beatings meted out by the Afghan police”.  

The head of the United Nations mission in southern Afghanistan, Talatbek Masadykov, backed up the villagers’ claims, affirming that today’s police behave “like jihadi commanders in the past”. Masadykov estimated that perhaps half of the insurgents acting in the area were in fact local farmers who had taken up arms to free themselves from tyrannical authorities. Meanwhile, with the expulsion of the Taliban, “police in the area have resumed the abusive tactics that originally ignited local anger”, according to Smith (G&M, Sept. 23/06, A15). 

Writing in the Toronto Star that same day, correspondent Mitch Potter lays out a very similar story. He quotes an anonymous member of the Canadian Forces who confides: “At this point, we refer to Afghanistan‘s enemies as Tier One and Tier Two insurgents”. Tier one are “hardcore”, while tier two are hired locally, “driven by despair and joblessness into the ranks of the insurgency”. 

Echoing the concerns of Masadykov of the UN, Potter notes that military commanders “have no way of knowing what sort of fighters died at Panjwai”. It is no wonder then that Afghan citizens might see Taliban fighters as protectors. As the International Crisis Group’s Joanna Nathan observes: “When you see people hearkening back to the Taliban era, they are actually just longing for safety again.” (Toronto Star, Sept 23/06, A1)  

Aftermath: success?  

General Rick Hillier, Canada‘s top soldier, claimed that the Taliban had been “set on their back foot” by Medusa, while infantry commander Lt-Col Ian Hope reported that Operation Medusa had “broken the back” of the insurgents in Panjwai (Toronto Star, Sept 18/06, A6; Sept 30/06, A1). This indeed had been the campaign’s goal; yet it appears that that this goal was, at best, only partially achieved. 

While NATO officials claimed to be striking a blow to the Taliban’s ability to fight and regroup, reports in the Afghan press indicate that the Taliban’s ability to strike in other provinces was scarcely affected. As Medusa raged in one corner of the country, the Taliban mounted separate attacks in Farah and Khost provinces, each involving a hundred fighters (Pajhwok Afghan News, Sept 8/06; Sept 10/06). Further, the insurgents were able to capture districts in Nimruz, Zabul and Helmand provinces (Pajhwok, Sept 12/06). 

Immediately after NATO commanders declared victory, as we have already seen, the Taliban were capable of mounting suicide and IED attacks in Panjwai. These incidents were followed by more suicide and bomb attacks in the district over the ensuing weeks, followed by the return of armed attacks by bands of insurgents. On October 9, for example, Taliban attackers killed at least five police in two separate clashes in Kandahar province. 

Further indication of the elusive nature of NATO’s goals is the speed with which Taliban insurgents returned to the territory NATO had conquered. The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter, writing just a week after Medusa’s close, observes that “the Taliban still roam, albeit in numbers fewer than they did prior to” September (Sept 25/06, A3). Writing some days later, a correspondent for the Globe & Mail likewise notes that “Taliban fighters have not abandoned the area” (Oct 6/06, A10). 

Another ill-fated prediction offered by NATO commanders was that the Taliban would abandon their recent change of strategy. Rather than the classic guerrilla tactic of retreating in the face of direct confrontation with the conventional forces of NATO, the Taliban had lately been digging in and defending positions. This was all going to change when NATO forces, in their words, “knocked loudly”. “The remnants will have no choice but to go back to operating in a typical insurgent, two- to 10-man sort of insurgent sections”, said Lt-Col Omer Lavoie, Canada’s battle group commander (G&M, Sept 13/06, A12). 

Lavoie’s prediction may have had some temporary validity for the Panjwai district, though by early December insurgents there had reportedly attacked in larger numbers once again. Meanwhile in Uruzgan, next door to Kandahar, numerous large-scale Taliban attacks culminated in an October 28 clash with NATO forces involving between 100 and 150 Taliban fighters, according to Al Jazeera (“NATO forces inflict heavy Afghan losses”, Oct 30/06). What is more, in Ghazni province, where the Taliban were able to launch numerous large-scale operations throughout October, the insurgents have carved out a long-term niche. Pajhwok Afghan News reports that “security has been mostly in hands of the Taliban in some parts of Ghazni … since [the] beginning of this year” (Oct 9/06).  

And while western officials point fingers at Pakistan as the source of their woes with the Taliban, the insurgency undoubtedly has a large home grown element. In a remark that carries serious implications for evaluating Canada‘s mission, Maclean’s magazine correspondent Adnan Khan relates: “According to the elders, though, most men in Panjwai fight with the Taliban” (Jan 15/07). 

If the springtime does in fact bring new and heightened Taliban attacks, as predicted, then NATO countries risk disaster if they do not seek a change in direction. A return to Medusa style tactics could have tragic results. 

 

Dave Markland organizes with Stopwar.ca and the Vancouver Participatory Economics Collective. He is a contributor to the Vanparecon blog (www.vanparecon.blogspot.com).

 

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