It was early spring in Kandahar City and while Canada’s combat mission in Afghanistan was coming to an end, the fighting was far from over.
What follows is the story of Canada’s secretive special operations forces in battle, as elements of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) and elements of Joint Task Force 2 (JTF-2) joined forces to combat determined insurgents in Kandahar City.
It would be a long, hard battle, fought largely at night, in the midst of one of the most heavily populated areas in Afghanistan. While no Canadians were killed, many were awarded for their valour. Incredibly, no Afghan civilians were killed in the battle, either.
It is a remarkable Canadian war story.
BRAVERY IN THE SHADOWS
The Canadian special operations community is a small, fairly secretive group. And this story is one of the first ever published accounts of a battle fought by both the Canadian Special Operations Regiment and Joint Task Force 2. It is based on personal interviews with Captain Dave and Sergeant Sebastian, the latter of which agreed to talk at CSOR’s home base at CFB Petawawa.
The interview took place inside the Devil’s Den, which is the unit tuck shop and hangout, so named because CSOR as a unit is the descendent of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), the famed Second World War unit known as The Devil’s Brigade. The walls of the Devil’s Den were covered in FSSF memorabilia and unit insignia.
It began like any other day of the war, just the normal grind—get up, eat some bad food, start chipping away at the endless tasks that needed doing.
If the actual nuts-and-bolts reality of fighting a war didn’t always match the war movie hype, it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, really.
Outside the wire, the Afghans were up and moving and across the dusty city things were happening. The soldiers of Canada’s special operations task force were spooling up for another day at war.
Across Graceland, operators came and went. Burly Americans with beards, wiry Brits, intelligence agents and who knows who else—allies of every nationality and secretive stripe. Graceland is a base with an almost mythical presence in any story about the war in southern Afghanistan.
Captain Dave* was working away in his little office just after noon when the first shots were fired. He didn’t think much of it; there was firing on the base’s ranges all the time.
Down where the troops lived, Sergeant Sebastian* didn’t think too much of the first shots either. The bullets may have been flying overhead, but that was really nothing new.
But once the bullets started zinging into his quarters he knew it was time to pay attention.
Captain Dave got up from his desk and wandered outside. There seemed to be some kind of gunfight right outside the base. The firing was growing more intense.
A small crowd of special operators had gathered to watch and discuss the battle.
Captain Dave strode across the gravel to check in at the tactical operations centre.
The Taliban were striking hard. In at least three locations across Kandahar City, insurgents had taken up positions inside buildings, surrounded themselves with bombs, and were firing away.
While technically the Afghan Provincial Response Company (PRC) was part of the police force, its capabi-lities made it more like a counterterrorism unit—think of a war zone SWAT team and you’ll have a pretty good idea.
The Canadian Special Operations Regiment was here to help the PRC refine their skills, particularly at close-quarters battle.
And with one quick cellphone call, the PRC was told to head out the gate into the mayhem—and CSOR was going with them.
It wasn’t a Taliban attempt to take over Kandahar City, nothing like that—the city is too big, too many of its inhabitants would rebel, the security forces are too strong. The intent of the attack was closer to an act of terrorism than anything else—it was a show of brutal suicidal force, meant to provoke a huge response from the security forces and scare Kandahar’s citizens into fearing and respecting the Taliban’s capabilities.
Captain Dave and Sergeant Sebastian were at the front of the Canadian column as they raced toward their target building. There were about 30 CSOR operators crammed into their Humvee jeeps and up-armoured civilian-style SUVs.
As gunfire and explosions echoed out from multiple locations, the Afghan security forces went on extreme alert. More than once the CSOR operators were held up by twitchy Afghan guards who didn’t want to let them pass their roadblock. In one bad moment, some Afghan allies at a roadblock pointed their weapons at the Canadians, and the Canadians then pointed their weapons at the Afghans. No one fired; Sebastian just took it in stride, no big deal.
They rounded the last corner before the target building and were met with a strange sight. An American MRAP—a huge blast-resistant patrol vehicle—was reversing hard up the street, right toward them, smoking. Just seconds earlier the MRAP had been blasted by an IED, its front end was crumpled, shattered.
As the Canadians manoeuvred around the stricken vehicle, Sebastian saw American soldiers scatter and literally start running for their lives—the Americans knew there were more bombs ahead and they thought the Canadians were about to trigger them.
The street ahead was a war zone; multiple IED explosions and a huge, ongoing firefight had turned what was a busy city street into debris-strewn chaos. Elements of the American battalion responsible for security in the area had pinned a group of insurgents down inside a large building on the corner of the block ahead.
Captain Dave knew they had to find another route around the IEDs to make their link-up with the American battalion commander who was on the ground directing the fight.
The Americans were stretched thin. They had enough forces to pin the insurgents inside the building, but not enough to go in and rout them out. That job would instead fall to the Afghan PRC and their Canadian mentors.
The Americans reported there had been no insurgent fire for the last 20 minutes or so. Captain Dave considered his options. He was in charge of fixing this problem but he didn’t know precisely what the problem was—while it was clear Kandahar City was under attack, there was no way to know what was waiting for them inside that building. While a conventional commander may have been inclined to call in an airstrike—and Apache helicopter gunships did attack other buildings during the battle—Captain Dave wanted to take a different approach.
He picked Sergeant Sebastian—one of his most experienced detachment commanders—to lead the raid on the building. The small team of Canadians and Afghans would go in and take down the insurgents face to face, minimizing collateral damage.
They chose their entry carefully, trying to avoid the possibility of being fired on before they even got inside.
The building was three storeys tall, with lots of balconies and openings to the outside. It was a shopping centre, a bazaar, full of stalls selling kitchen items and carpets. Just like in Canada, these stalls had metal gates the proprietors would use to lock up their shops at the end of the day. While all of the shops inside were closed, they weren’t all empty.
It was getting near dusk. Before the Canadian-Afghan force could get inside, a small group of Afghans appeared on the balcony above them. Likely shopkeepers, they seemed unconcerned that they were in the middle of a battle. They were taken quickly into custody.
Captain Dave and Sergeant Sebastian swept into the ground floor, unsure what was waiting for them. Methodically, they searched through two floors, finding nothing. At every stairwell and tactical point they left Canadian and Afghan sentries behind to secure the area as best they could.
By the time they reached the third floor, the assault team’s numbers were dwindling. It was a huge building and they didn’t have enough men to secure it entirely. Additionally, they kept finding Afghans hiding in the building and controlling these men—who were either shopkeepers or insurgents who’d put down their weapons—was yet another complication.
The Canadians knew that any insurgents in the building would have been pushed up to the third floor by their advancing force. If there was a fight, it was going to happen in the next few moments.
Sergeant Sebastian rounded the corner from the stairwell into the mall’s main area. There were two Afghan PRC soldiers in front him. Every step they took was marked by crunching noises from the broken glass and concrete shards underfoot.
From the darkness ahead came a torrent of automatic weapons fire. The noise was deafening inside the enclosed concrete structure. The insurgents were shooting from no more than 20 feet away. The bullets tore into the walls around them, and into flesh.
Captain Dave got on the radio. He wanted to know what was happening but no one is answering. They couldn’t—too busy fighting for their lives.
Sergeant Sebastian and his Afghans scampered back behind cover. Sebastian didn’t see where the bullets came from. He looked over and saw one of the Afghans clutching his hand. Not moaning or crying or saying anything, just clutching his hand. One of his fingers had been shot clean off, another torn in half. Blood was everywhere.
The tactical situation was bad for the attackers, good for the defenders. The Taliban were in a shop in the mall’s dark interior, Sergeant Sebastian knew that much, and the Canadians were stuck on a walkway near the exterior wall, the only entrances being narrow corridors like the one Sebastian had just tried to walk down.
They had to find another way.
After evacuating the wounded Afghan, Sebastian left a small group of Canadians and Afghans, including Captain Dave, to keep pouring fire on the insurgents as he led an effort to flank them by traversing across the mall to a new entry.
Again with two Afghans leading and his interpreter trailing, Sergeant Sebastian pushed forward in the attack. He had already assessed that approaching from this new angle should limit the insurgents’ ability to see them.
Out into the open they went; the enemy fusillade was even stronger this time. The lead Afghan got shot in the chest, the bullet tearing through his chest-mounted ammunition, embedding in his body armour and sending shrapnel into his eyes. As bullets crashed around him, Sebastian turned to run for cover and tripped over his prone interpreter, a bit of luck that probably saved his life. He crawled back behind cover as the Afghans scattered.
Behind cover, nobody could believe Sebastian hadn’t been shot. The medic checked him over, but found no wounds. They listened to see if they could hear the two Afghans, not knowing whether they were lying wounded or dead or if they’d somehow escaped.
It was very dark now, night had fallen. The Canadians were using their night vision goggles but, with no natural light at all inside the darkened structure, they weren’t very effective. Most of the Afghans either used flashlights or just went without.
It turned out the two Afghans, including the wounded soldier, had fled down an adjacent corridor. The wounded man then went downstairs to seek treatment, while the unwounded Afghan managed to navigate back to Sergeant Sebastian and report in.
Captain Dave and Sergeant Sebastian now had a much clearer sense of where the insurgents were positioned. They were in the centre block of stalls, but on the far corner, and they had a line of fire on pretty much every approach.
It was time to get serious. With CSOR snipers deployed across the street, and a second base of fire support in the position of the last attempted assault, Sergeant Sebastian was now going to lead an attack from yet another position, trying to sneak up beside the insurgents.
They crept down the walkway, the shuttered stores on their left and an open area on their right. Despite all the fire being thrown their way, the insurgents somehow spotted the attackers from within their darkened shop holdout and opened fire. Once again, the Afghans scattered, firing back in the direction of the insurgents—and the Canadians—as they retreated.
After another attempted attack with the same result, a radio call came from outside. One of the Canadian operators on the perimeter thought he could hit the insurgent position from outside, shooting through a window with his mounted .50-calibre machine gun. Everyone pulled back while this was attempted. However, the heavy machine gun’s tracers soon started a fire in a nearby stall, so the attempt was called off.
Now, several hours into the assault, with black smoke from the fire adding to darkness, Sergeant Sebastian gathered up some of the remaining Afghans for another assault down the same corridor.
This time, they made it all the way down to the end of the row of stalls. They were right beside the stall containing the insurgents, literally just a few feet away. One of the Afghans coming up from behind unfortunately lost his situational awareness and walked right past Sergeant Sebastian at the front of the attack and into the line of fire. An insurgent immediately shot him in the neck at point-blank range.
Sebastian was watching. He didn’t know if the PRC soldier was alive or dead. The Afghan suddenly started to move, tearing at his body armour, gurgling.
He was wounded, but alive—out in the open. The insurgents couldn’t see him; he was down on the ground below their line of sight. Sebastian and another Afghan crawled out into the open to attempt a rescue. The insurgents heard them and started firing. Bullets tore through Sebastian’s uniform but didn’t hit him. They made it to the wounded Afghan, grabbed him and pulled him back to cover.
By this point, late at night, the Afghan PRC had become essentially exhausted. In Captain Dave’s words, the unit had culminated. That left only Sebastian and a couple of other CSOR operators to try one last time to take out the insurgents. Back down the corridor they went, knowing that this time one of them would have to reach out into the enemy’s line of fire in order to slide a grenade through the metal bars and into the shop.
Textbook now, the fire suppression got the Canadians right beside the insurgents, right back to where the Afghan was just wounded. The grenade went in, fire and smoke blasted out of the store. There were a few calm moments and then the insurgents started firing again—however they had that defensive position configured, those guys were extremely hard to kill.
By this point, Captain Dave was running out of options. The Afghan PRC was largely combat ineffective and his own soldiers were running low on ammunition. Battles were still going on across the city, they had to get this wrapped up—so he called in the Black Force, the name given to the special operations unit largely composed of Joint Task Force 2 operatives who focused on covert, direct-action missions.
JTF-2 had been on standby, waiting for the call. The first order of business was to get some more firepower onto the insurgent holdout and attempt to destroy them. They made a new plan: using the sniper position across the street, they’d use heavy machine-gun fire to knock down part of a wall, allowing Canadian and Afghan special forces to fire M72 rockets and rocket-propelled grenades directly at the insurgents.
This proved effective. After the rockets were fired, there was no more shooting from inside the mall.
At first light the next morning JTF-2 and CSOR did a combined attack on the insurgent position and did not encounter any resistance. When they finally got inside the enemy defensive position, they found two burnt bodies.
With that objective secure, the combined Canadian special operations force mounted up and went back to Graceland. Fighting was ongoing in other parts of the city. When the operators got back on the base, the first thing they did was prepare to go out again. They started loading magazines.
For their part in the battle that day, captain Dave and Sergeant Sebastian were awarded the Star of Military Valour, which is second only to the Victoria Cross in the order of Canadian bravery awards. Other CSOR members also received awards and commendations, including a Medal of Military Valour, though they couldn’t be interviewed for the story. Dave and Sebastian’s citations read as follows:
Captain Dave: “The Officer Commanding of the Embedded Partner Team responsible for mentoring the Kandahar Provincial Response Company was awarded the Star of Military Valour. On May 7/8, 2011, this member bravely led and mentored his team through a close quarter clearance operation of a multi-storied building. Under intense fire and at great personal risk, he valiantly co-ordinated multiple assaults and successfully neutralized the insurgent threat. This member was also awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for dramatically improving the operational effectiveness of the Kandahar Provincial Response Company, thereby enhancing both the Afghan Rule of Law and the overall legitimacy of the Afghan government.”
Sergeant Sebastian: “A Detachment Commander within the Embedded Partner Team responsible for mentoring the Kandahar Provincial Response Company was awarded the Star of Military Valour. Throughout the night of May 7/8, 2011, this member repeatedly stepped into the line of fire in order to lead and motivate Afghan partners through a series of intense and extremely dangerous assaults against heavily armed insurgents. During a particularly intense portion of the firefight, with bullets passing through the fabric of his uniform, this member assisted in pulling a critically wounded Afghan partner from the line of fire, ultimately saving his life.”
*Last names are omitted for reasons of personal security.