Canadian military in Afghanistan

By Kevin Rothbauer

To hear Commodore Jean-Pierre Thiffault tell it, Canada contributed a lot more to the War on Terror than the Americans let on.

Thiffault is the Assistant Chief of the Maritime Staff for Canada’s military, and served as the Canadian Commander of Joint Task Force South West Asia during the first part of Operation Apollo in Afghanistan. He offered his own perspective into the events leading up to and during the war in Afghanistan, at the University of Calgary earlier this week.

Thiffault was based at United States MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, where 36 of 69 countries involved in the coalition located their command centres. Thiffault pointed out that Canada had one of the larger roles in the coalition, although he was often asked why his country was participating in the War on Terror in the first place.

“Not only were 24 or 25 Canadians killed in the initial attacks, but we saw this as an attack on our values,” explained Thiffault.

The events that led to Thiffault’s stationing in Florida were so sudden that he found himself in Tampa with no more than one change of clothes.

“I called my wife and told her ‘I need more than two pairs of Fruit of the Loom right now,’” he laughed.

As with any such involvement, there were a number of highs and lows for Thiffault and Canada during Operation Apollo. Among the highs was the fact that it represented the largest deployment of Canadian Forces since the Korean War nearly half a century earlier. The Canadian Forces’ ability to fully integrate their personnel within the American joint command structure was another positive experience.

The lows were also numerous. Deployment of Canadian Forces was complicated by operations planning and the rapid turn of events. The initial group from Canada had no idea where they were heading, said Thiffault. The Request for Forces, the official process for committing troops to an operation, also went through slowly.

The high-threat environment was another low point. Naval troops were bound to their vessels as any port could be dangerous, necessitating long periods at sea that led to Canada’s ships returning home earlier than planned. Of course, the Tarnak Farm bombing incident that left four Canadian soldiers dead made Thiffault’s list of low points as well.

A great deal of confidence was put into Thiffault’s decision-making ability, although he was in constant contact with Canadian officials all the way up to the prime minister himself.

“The centre of gravity [of the decision-making process] was in Ottawa,” said Thiffault. “But the terms of reference gave me the ability to make decisions up to a certain point.”

Thiffault felt throughout his tenure that Canada was fully behind his and the Canadian Forces’ efforts.

“I still believe that the government of Canada and the public were clearly supportive of us,” he stated.

Oct. 7, 2001, when the U.S. began its bombing campaign in Afghanistan, Thiffault was part of an elite group of military leaders on a video conference call with U.S. President George W. Bush.

“That made a lasting impression on me because we were in the confidence of the U.S. at that point,” he remembered.

The men and women under Thiffault were very efficient, to the point where he was being congratulated by representatives from other nations. One American official was hesitant to let one of the Canadians with whom he was working end his term.

Among the challenges met by Thiffault’s staff was gaining permission from other Middle East nations for Canadian troops to be based, and for access to their


“[Getting overflight permission] taxed my organization like there was no tomorrow,” he said.

Logistics is always a problem during any military engagement, and Thiffault did not deny that it was an issue in Operation Apollo, although he applauded his team for the way they dealt with problems.

“Yes, there were challenges, but we worked through every one of them,” he claimed.

Public relations was another issue. The media and the public had a hunger for information, but not much was getting out. Thiffault said that was for obvious reasons.

“There’s a reason why we didn’t say much early on, and it all goes back to security,” he explained, and illustrated the high security concerns with the story of a Canadian military mechanic who was working on an air conditioning unit atop one of the trailers at MacDill AFB and found himself in the red light of a sniper scope.

The War on Terror is far from over, according to Thiffault.

“There’s a long road ahead,” he said. “A lot of bad guys are loose out there.”

Thiffault closed his talk by praising the Canadian Forces, those in the theatre of war and those with whom he worked. He added that their ability to integrate with other forces, particularly the Americans, made them more successful.

“The men and women of the Canadian Forces represent truly the best there is,” he claimed. “Interoperability is the key to success. I know we have a modest capability, but we can punch above our weight.”

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