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Memo downplayed high canadian losses: Post obtains secret document six years after filing request

The National Post - June 19, 2013

By Stewart Bell

A newly declassified memo that was sent to Prime Minister Stephen Harper during the height of the Afghanistan mission downplayed statistics showing Canadian troops were suffering significantly higher casualty rates than their allies.

After a roadside bomb killed six Canadians in 2007, the prime minister was advised in a briefing note that 2% of Canadians serving in Afghanistan had been killed in action since 2003, about double the rate of the united States and Britain.

"Canada has sustained a greater percentage of casualties in comparison with most of our allies," read the "secret" memorandum for the prime minister, which was accompanied by a chart showing Canada's casualty rate was up to 10 times higher than that of allies.

But the prime minister was told Canadians were "protected as well as possible against the dangers of their mission" and that it "would be simplistic and misleading" to compare the casualty rates of different nations in Afghanistan.

The April 13, 2007 memo was only recently released in response to an access to information request filed by the National Post in 2007. The Privy Council Office, which wrote the memo, had previously declined to make it public, but did so after the Office of the Information Commissioner intervened.

The briefing was sent to the prime minister five days after a Canadian LAV III vehicle, part of a combat team supporting Operation Achilles, struck an improvised explosive device near the border of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

A Taliban bomb cell operating out of Maywand district had observed increased military activity in Western Kandahar and placed bombs along routes they thought international forces might take, the memo said. In addition, four Canadians were wounded in the blast.

The attack "has raised questions" and "has led to commentary on Canada's casualty rates relative to that of other allies," the memo said. A chart attached to the memo showed only Spain had a higher casualty rate than Canada, at 2.5%, while the figure was 1.2% for the U.S., 1% for the

U.K., 0.9% for France, 0.6% for Germany and 0.2% for the Netherlands. The figures refer to the percentage of each nation's troops killed in action since the beginning of the NATO -led operation in 2003.

But it cautioned against drawing conclusions from the comparisons, saying "percentages do not reveal how many troops are actually deployed 'outside the wire,' the nature of the threat, and the circumstances of the loss.

"The CF operates in the most difficult region and conducts missions well beyond its bases, thereby leading to increased danger and losses. The u.K., facing similar challenges in Helmand province, are also experiencing increased losses."

George Petrolekas, a Conference of defence Associations Institute analyst, agreed that Canadians suffered higher casualty rates at that time because they were at the centre of the insurgency in Kandahar, while their allies were operating elsewhere. "So that skews the casualty percentage," he said.

But Senator Colin Kenny said the prime minister had received bad advice. Shown the memo, he said it "My view is that the political leadership in the country was negligent at the time," he said, arguing the government should have done more to get helicopters for the troops.

He noted that even the u.S. and u.K. had lower casualty rates. "Certainly the u.K. appeared to have a pretty similar role to Canada, and the u.S. had the same thing. The difference never mentioned helicopters, which Canada then lacked in Afghanistan. He said choppers would have saved Canadian lives by allowing personnel to spend less time on roads targeted by the Taliban.

The Liberal senator, then the chair of the national security and defence committee, published opinion columns in several newspapers in 2007 urging the government to get Canadian helicopters to Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Canada finally assembled a fleet of Chinook helicopters, as well as smaller Griffins, which arrived in Afghanistan in late 2008. "And of course once they came in we no longer had an extraordinarily high percentage of casualties," Mr. Kenny said. Canadian deaths increased slightly in 2009, before dropping by more than half in 2010.

was they had equipment." Mr. Petrolekas, who was with the NATO operational command between 2003 and 2007, said the drop in casualties might have had more to do with the changing insurgency than the arrival of helicopters.

And he said helicopters could not replace combat vehicles like the one damaged in the April 2007 bombing. "you cannot patrol roads, you cannot patrol into villages, often for days at a time, you cannot go from A to B without a fighting vehicle," he said.

"They had a bad day and bad luck, and whether there was insufficient surveillance overall of roads and other things, perhaps you could make that argument in some cases. But I don't think you could say that having had helicopters earlier would have prevented those particular deaths."

Casualty rates involved "many considerations," such as the size of the contingent, the professionalism of the force and the enemy's intention, the memo said. While one country might have a quarter of its troops "outside the wire," more than half of Canada's 2,500 troops operated off base, it said.

"CF casualties are a reflection of the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, and the fact that the CF is directly involved in operations. There is an element of unpredictability in any war zone, and the possibility of casualties is always present," said the memo.

Canada ended its Afghanistan mission in 2011. Only two soldiers died that year, down from a peak of 32 in 2006. On Tuesday, NATO formally handed over responsibility for Afghanistan's security to the forces of President Hamid Karzai.

A Canadian Forces spokeswoman, Amanda Ratz, said in a written statement last week the military stood by the 2007 memo's conclusions. The arrival of aircraft in Afghanistan had a "significant operational impact" but casualty rates were driven more by "the intensity of the insurgency," she said.

"The use of aircraft made for safer logistical and administrative movements; however, combat operations were still being conducted on the ground," she said. "Nevertheless, it is highly likely that the use of aviation helped reduce the number of casualties."

sbell@nationalpost.com Twitter.com/StewartBellNP