Articles, Book Reviews

Fighting the Last War: “Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban”

The below is a review of the book Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle that Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban by David Fraser and Brian Hanington. The review, written by J. Paul de B. Taillon, originally appeared in The Dorchester Review Vol. 8, No. 1 Spring/Summer 2018, ISSN 1925-7600, pp. 106-107 and was edited by C.P. Champion, Ph.D. 

The second battle of Panjwaii of September 2 to 17, 2006 saw 1 Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group lead an ISAF force in retaking a Taliban stronghold in Kandahar province. It was NATO’s first large-scale combat operation since the alliance’s inception in 1949.

David Fraser was both the senior Canadian commander in the region and overall commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan and is now a retired major- general. Fraser and Brian Hanington have produced a most interesting and readable account of this highlight of recent Canadian military history.

Operation Medusa’s origins lay in the realization in early 2006 that the Taliban had concentrated a large number of determined fighters in Kandahar province just west of the capital. This formation of Talibs posed a direct threat to the capital, Kandahar city, and the stability of this strategic province. The Taliban leadership was seeking to measure the quality and determination of the NATO force, as well as the extent of the Canadian commitment to the Afghan government and people.

The authors take the reader into the Afghan theatre and convey the difficulties that pervade the modern battle space. The complexities are particularly apparent in the combined and joint operation that was to be Op Medusa. There was a marked and widely-shared sense of frustration with many of the international contingents. Many of these could not or were not permitted to participate fully in either the fight for Afghanistan or in Op Medusa owing to operational caveats. These complexities were still being discovered and absorbed as late as 2006. NATO’s limited forces were further challenged by the American downsizing and reallocation of their attention, personnel, and resources to the multifaceted and savage hemorrhaging insurrection in Iraq — then colloquially termed as “going south.” Fraser introduces the readership to some of the more “suspect allies” in theatre such as Asadullah Khalid, who hoped to enrich himself by getting the Canadians to hire his personal police force to provide their security. One or two verbal exchanges will raise the hairs on the back of the reader’s neck.

Afghans were for the most part disenfranchised or psychologically dislocated from their government as well as from the NATO occupation. The challenge of governing effectively such a vast country from Kabul — while grappling with pervasive corruption at all levels of the society and the bureaucracy — proved to be largely insurmountable. As the authors point out, the situation was further confused as the proverbial 3D approach (defence, diplomacy, development) as an operating doctrine in fact conflicted with the overtly kinetically-driven American counter-terrorism/counterinsurgency approach. The issue in any case proved to be strategically problematic.

The authors are frank with regard to the challenges faced by NATO. The reaction of certain allies was most curious when Canada asked them to send reinforcements to Kandahar. Expressions of sympathy and understanding were forthcoming but no ground assistance.

Fraser and Hanington are effective in introducing the reader to a spectrum of political, military and development assistance issues that preoccupied everyone on the scene. The paucity of Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) representation dedicated to the diplomacy and development aspects of the strategy in theatre was noteworthy, particularly after the well-publicized death of the Canadian diplomat Glyn Barry, killed when his vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in January 2006. The lack of interest and coordination from Foreign Affairs and CIDA manifested their intellectual detachment from the realities of Canada’s most significant overseas engagement of the period — undermining the “whole of government” concept.

Moreover, the authors illustrate that Canadian bureaucrats and political leaders did not fully appreciate in political and military terms the myriad of complexities that existed, especially in the NATO chain of command. Equally striking was the dearth of understanding of Afghanistan’s history, its perception of America and NATO as an invading force, its tribal ways, cultural and religious complexity, and the labyrinthine social, economic and political structure of the country, including pervasive corruption. None of these factors made any easier the command-and-control, logistical and overt difficulties for Canadians operating in a distant and alien land. This was compounded when some allies assigned to the theatre were operationally curtailed in their respective employment due to what may be called national caveats. Those allied partners willing to undertake hazardous tasks feared the effects of highcasualtyratesonpublicopinionathome. AsFrasernotesthissensitivitysurroundingcasualties was much in evidence when he was briefing then chief of defence staff (CDS) General Rick Hillier. Fraser predicted a toll of 40 to 42 Canadian casualties on this operation. Hiller asked that the briefing slide containing this assessed casualty rate be removed from the deck. He fully appreciated the political issues surrounding such a sensitive topic. Fraser’s assessment was accurate, as Canada lost 36 of itsfinest soldiers.

The book is well constructed and the chapters are self-contained. Fraser and Hanington clearly underline the issues of coordination and the myriad of challenges at hand, as well as imparting to readers the importance and difficulty of coordinating multinational ground forces and air assets from various arms, while attempting to garner the detailed intelligence necessary to drive the operation. The authors dedicate some amusing ink to a number of personalities that made up Fraser’s personal and brigade staff, while professionally acknowledging the role and contribution that key foreign players provided that facilitated the planning and execution of Medusa.

These attributes give the book a human face and will resonate particularly for those who served. Students focusing on conflict studies, international relations, or just interested in the region will get an appreciation of the complexities of modern conflict against a wily enemy. There are substantial insights into the responsibilities of modern commanders, their staff, and the wiles and whims of political and bureaucratic leaders. It will be an eye-opener for those who may not fully comprehend the heavy responsibility of command or what it means to commit our young men and women to hazardous military assignments in a distant theatre.

The authors provide a seamless introduction into the evolution of a battle in both political and military terms amidst the complexity of a joint and combined NATO environment. Both armchair warriors and professionals will find insights into contemporary warfare, the high-pressure demands of leadership at all levels, and Clausewitzian frictions endemic in all military operations no matter how well-organized, planned, or carried out. This book should be compulsory reading for junior and senior officers, politicians, bureaucrats, and academics. It is a corrective to those who believe fighting or reading about “the last war” is of little value. Indeed the book is rather like a slice of Field Marshal Slim’s Defeat into Victory transposed onto contemporary conflict, and hence the reading is time well invested.

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Dr. J. Paul de B. Taillon
Dr. Taillon is a professor at the Royal Military College in Canada, where he specializes in courses on special operations, intelligence and irregular warfare. He is a Senior Fellow at the Joint Special Operations University (USSOCOM) and adjunct faculty at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. From 2006-2013, he was the Counter-Insurgency/Strategic Advisor to the Commander Canadian Army, a position from which he retired in May 2013.