OTTAWA (CP) – Canadian special forces soldiers in southern Afghanistan have killed Taliban and al-Qaida rebels over multiple operations in recent months as they work secretly in small units, military sources say.
The modest contingent of troops from Joint Task Force 2 is an integral part of coalition efforts to stem the tide of insurgency that has risen since campaigning began for Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
JTF2 commandos have joined counterparts from the United States and some British Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, in fighting that has claimed more than 1,200 lives in six months, say the Canadian defence sources.
Authorities wouldn’t – or couldn’t – put numbers on the dead.
Some engagements are long-range; others are close-in. Some involve a degree of infiltration into enemy compounds and “behind enemy lines” – though no lines really exist in the mountainous and desert terrain where they operate.
The commandos, some of whom speak a smattering of area dialects, often work in collaboration with locals who know the lay of the land.
Using specialized weapons and equipment, Canadian snipers have played their deadly cat-mouse games at night and in the 50-degree heat of Afghan summer days.
Many of their victims – whom the chief of defence staff recently called “murderers and scumbags” – never knew what hit them, one source told The Canadian Press.
Beyond acknowledging that JTF2 is in Afghanistan, defence officials and the federal government have maintained their usual strict silence about the unit’s exploits.
They plan a briefing on Tuesday, where Defence Minister Bill Graham promised military authorities will provide a few more details about what JTF2 has been up to since it deployed to Kandahar earlier this summer.
But, without providing many specifics, defence sources who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that the highly trained commandos are bringing their full repetoire to bear in Afghanistan.
“They’re doing counter-insurgency operations,” said one official. “They’re quite vigorous ones.”
Canadian special forces have maintained an almost-constant presence in Afghanistan since Ottawa first sent troops to the former terrorist haven in early 2002.
They’ve done everything, from providing security to the prime minister and
NATO commanders in Kabul, to launching search-destroy missions in hostile territory far to the south.
The unit, with several U.S. counterparts, earned a Presidential Citation for heroism in battle in Afghanistan in 2002, but Canadians have heard few details of its accomplishments, due partly to its size.
Between the SEALs, the Green Berets, army Rangers, Marine recon, Delta Force and air force special operations units, the Americans have tens of thousands of special forces soldiers.
The Defence Department has never released figures, but it is believed that – even with a post-9/11 expansion – the Ottawa-area unit has fewer than 1,000 members.
The unit says its small size makes its members more vulnerable to identification and possibly retaliation, and it claims secrecy is one of the elements that sets it apart from other units of its kind.
“Being open and transparent about certain aspects of the unit could seriously compromise the effectiveness of Canada’s counter-terrorism capability,” says a National Defence statement on JTF2.
“History has shown only too clearly that terrorist organizations will use information about a unit’s personnel, weapons, tactics and procedures to great effect by modifying their methodologies to counter the very forces designed to defeat them.”
With specialized qualifications such as Pathfinder and Ranger badges, many regular reconnaissance soldiers in Canada are considered on par with almost any U.S. special forces unit.
Canadian snipers – both regular force and JTF2 – are regarded as the world’s best. One broke a 30-year-old record in 2002, killing an enemy soldier with his .50-calibre rifle from 2,443 metres – almost 2 1/2 kilometres.
Regular-force snipers earned U.S. Bronze Stars for their stellar work in Afghanistan three years ago.
Canada’s elite and highly trained JTF2, which accepts fewer than one in 10 applicants, is considered among the best of its kind.
The nature of their bloody work – which can involve covert “hits” on enemy commanders and operatives or pitched battles with war-hardened fighters – is another reason Ottawa doesn’t like to talk about what its commandos do.
JTF2 kills people, and that runs contrary to many Canadians’ idea that their military are strictly peacekeepers and conciliators who rebuild schools and hand out aid to refugees and other victims of war.
Based at the Kandahar airport, the special forces troops are working under U.S. command, independently from Canadian soldiers running a provincial reconstruction team nearby or peacemakers patroling under NATO in Kabul.
The defence chief, Gen. Rick Hillier, made headlines in July when he said
Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and their followers are “detestable murderers and scumbags.”
“We are not the Public Service of Canada,” he declared. “We are not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.”