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Policy

Retired officer pens tell-all on Operation Medusa, ‘the biggest battle that any one of us would fight’

By Shruti Shekar      

Major-General David Fraser said the book is a story about fighting through adversity and will 'put on the record now what happened and why it happened' when Canada went to battle in Afghanistan.

Major-General David Fraser talks about his new book Operation Medusa: The furious battle that saved Afghanistan from the Taliban, and why we should read it now. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Retired Major-General. David Fraser says it was time to set the record straight on Operation Medusa, the NATO offensive he led in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in 2006 which coalition troops couldn’t afford to lose. So he did.

Maj.-Gen. Fraser co-wrote Operation Medusa: The Furious Battle That Saved Afghanistan from the Taliban, published by McClelland & Stewart and Penguin Random House earlier this month on the strategy and drama behind the battle, and the men and women who fought it. He co-wrote the book along with Brian Hanington.

Sitting in The Hill Times’ boardroom on May 7, Maj.-Gen. Fraser said he always wanted to write the book, but needed time and enough context to make Canadians understand what happened during the battle from Sept. 2 to 17, 2006. That battle started when Maj.-Gen. Fraser’s troops had come to him on the night of Sept. 1 and said the Taliban was “amassing on all fronts for an all-out battle.”

“[When] the intelligence team presented the picture to me, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. This was like, ‘Be careful for what you wish for.’ This was a movie scene without the music, the slide went up and you just heard a gasp in the room, [after] hearing this would be the biggest battle that any one of us would fight,” Maj.-Gen. Fraser said.

“We couldn’t lose. This was about not losing, and about providing time so that the peace process could develop even further,” said Maj.-Gen. Fraser, who commanded more than 2,000 NATO coalition troops who fought against the Taliban in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar in 2006.

Maj.-Gen. Fraser said the book is a story of fighting through adversity, and an attempt to “put on the record now what happened and why it happened.” He said the book should answer a lot of questions for Canadians asking why the battle happened.

The operation, at first, “[was] deliberately withheld as classified, then muddled by imprecise and isolated personal accounts, exaggerated by rumour, misstated by ambition, or just rejected outright as irrelevant,” the book’s jacket said. Maj.-Gen. Fraser said this book is an account of what happened and will help Canadians fill in the missing blanks.

The book also presents itself as a guideline for Canadians in the Armed Forces. Maj.- Gen. Fraser appeared before the House National Defence Committee on May 1 and spoke about how the book would be useful to the Canadian military as it prepares itself to go on a new peacekeeping mission in Mali.

“The book talks about the government’s 3D approach that Canada adopted for that mission…to actually create a ‘Team Canada,’” Maj.-Gen. Fraser said.

The book was written in eight months, but it took years for Maj.-Gen. Fraser to figure out exactly how he wanted to structure the book.

“You can’t write a book right after it [happened]. The emotions are too raw, you need some time to reflect. And then I wanted to write this, but I wanted to have the right conditions to write it,” he said.

The following Q&A has been edited for style and length.

Why did you want to write the book?

“I always wanted to write this book and you needed time and some context to understand what it was, what we went through, and have to have the right conditions. And when I met Doug Peppers at Penguin Random House and Brian Hanington, my co-author, it all fell into place. It was the right team and the right place, and we were able to put together a story of great men and women fighting through adversity talking about heroism and talking about challenges and sacrifices.

“This book is about all the men and women, what happened at the level above them, and why did certain things happen the way it did, i.e. why was the operation accelerated. And there is a great part in the book, and it’s the ‘aha’ moment in the book, where there is a reason why it was all accelerated by weeks.

“There are two things: it’s a great story of fighting through adversity, but it’s also to put on the record now what happened, and why it happened.”

Canada is going to Mali in its new peacekeeping mission, why should the military read this book?

“I went to the [House] Standing Committee on National Defence last week and I said…the book talks about the government’s 3D approach that Canada adopted for that mission…we actually harnessed a structure above departments to actually create a ‘Team Canada.’

“Eventually Ottawa harnessed all of that, and started to really generate some good effects on the ground, and we learned all those lessons coming out of Afghanistan. Fast forward to today where Canada is going into Mali.

“That ‘Team Canada’ approach we learned back then is applicable, if not more applicable for the environment we are doing in Mali or anywhere in the world…we need to remember what we learned there, and let’s not relearn the lesson again, because we already have the playbook.”

Why should Canadians who aren’t in the military read the book?

“Because Brian and I had been able to take away all the military jargon, and such that it doesn’t dumb down the book so the military person will find it dismissive.

“What they will find in there is all the things that they’re looking for, but it makes it understandable for Canadians.”

Tell us about the memories that came back to you as you wrote this book.

“You can’t write a book right after it, the emotions are too raw. You need some time to reflect, and then I wanted to write this story, but I wanted to have the right conditions to write it.

“It was the right story to write, and it was a hard process because we had to open up old wounds and kind of go through [it again].

“Like any veteran, veterans do not like talking about it…a lot of the tears came back having to go back. We answered questions, which we had been labouring on for many, many, many years and as we wrote this book, and it was a collaborative effort of all of us, we actually found more answers and more understanding.

“All the chapters are short and sharp, and it actually kind of aligns itself with the speed and the tempo of what was going on in the operations.

“This is a book of shock and awe, and even the emotions will run with the reader.”

Take us back to the night of Sept. 1, how you were awoken by your intelligence officers who then told you the Taliban were ready for an all-out battle.

“They had 500 fighters, their top 10 commanders…we didn’t have the resources, which means we had to change the tactics, but when the intelligence officers presented the picture to me, you could have heard a pin drop in the room.

“This was just like, ‘be careful for what you wish for.’ This was a movie scene without the music, the slide went up and you just heard a gasp in the room, [after] hearing this would be the biggest battle that any one of us would fight. Not the battle that NATO was expecting to get in, not the battle we prepared to get sent to.

“This was, ‘Okay boss, what are we going to do?’ This was where we all came together and we all put our collective heads together, and we thought our way through this, when it changed every day.”

Take us through the 15 days from the second to the 17th, and explain how Canadians were credited with saving Afghanistan from falling under the Taliban?

“The Afghans were faced with a Taliban threat against the city of Kandahar…the Afghans were absolutely scared at that point in time of what are we going to do and how are we going to do it. And had we failed, the consequences of failure would have been the Afghan people would have to look at this leadership and [would have] lost all confidence and trust in them.

“Who was supporting Afghanistan government? It was NATO. It could have weakened or brought down the credibility of that. And what would the rest of the Muslim world have looked at that moment if the international community, who was asked by Afghans to go in and in their moment of need, we failed? The consequences would have rippled through the system.

“Failure was not an option…there was only one other outcome, no one was going home until we accomplished this. This was the last chance.”

sshekar@hilltimes.com

@shruti_shekar

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