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Afghanistan mission concludes

159 Canadians lost their lives in nine-year war

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MA'SUM GHAR, Afghanistan -- Canada's desert war effectively came to an end Tuesday when soldiers of the Royal 22e Regiment formally handed over their battlefield to American units.

The country's legal command responsibility for the western Kandahar district of Panjwaii will continue for several days, but Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner's headquarters will be directing U.S. combat units.

Almost all Canadian troops are out of the killing fields of Kandahar, save for a handful of soldiers who will serve for a few more weeks, attached to American platoons.

It has cost the lives of 157 soldiers, one diplomat and one journalist since 2002. For more than five years, Canada has made war in the wasted farmland and dust-choked villages of Kandahar. Yet, rarely did those in authority use the word 'war' to describe what happened here. Politicians, diplomats and bureaucrats routinely shied away from describing it in comfortless terms, especially in the beginning when former defence minister Gordon O'Connor was chided for refusing to say the word 'war.'

"The lawyers will get all over it and say you can't call it war, but that it's an armed conflict," Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, said in a recent interview "For the young soldiers, sailors airmen and airwomen, it feels like war because someone is shooting at them."

Parliament ordered an end to the Canadian combat mission in southern Afghanistan in 2008, setting July 2011 as the deadline. The Tory government later announced that 950 soldiers and support staff will carry out a training mission in Kabul until 2014.

The transfer of battle group command took place at Ma'sum Ghar, the crusted, petrified volcanic mountain soaked in Canadian blood, much of it shed at the onset of Canada's fight in Kandahar province in 2006.

The ceremony was an almost understated ending to a war that mesmerized and horrified the country in equal measure, but has now largely fallen off the public agenda.

If Kandahar was a national trauma, Ma'sum Ghar was at its epicentre -- a base that's become a symbol of the Canadian struggle over the last five-and-a-half years, said Lt.-Col. Michel-Henri St-Louis, the Van Doo battle group commander.

"Everywhere in battle where Canadian soldiers have sacrificed their lives, we have examples of similar places in a number of our conflicts," St-Louis said. "Ma'sum Ghar is symbolic and had been at the centre of our deployment and was witness to much of our sacrifices."

Ma'sum Ghar has seared itself into the consciousness of a generation of soldiers who will, for the rest of lives, remember Afghanistan as their war.

The mountain was first captured by troops in the summer of 2006 as fighting raged throughout the districts of Panjwaii and Zhari. It was used as the launching point for the landmark autumn battle known as Operation Medusa, soon turning into a bustling hub that fed the counter-insurgency war.

The formal signing ceremony took place at the base that now serves as a compound for Afghan National Army troops, whom Canadians have trained and mentored throughout the war.

Brig.-Gen. Ahmad Habibi, head of the ANA's 1st Brigade, 205 Corps, said Canadians "would be remembered forever in the hearts of the Afghan people for helping our country."

It was that sort of altruism that the Harper government tried to convince Canadians was at the heart of the war. Yet, almost from the moment the first battle group deployed in February 2006, opinion polls suggested Canadians pined for the days when their soldiers were peacekeepers, not warriors. There was no peace to keep in Kandahar, which is why some back home wanted no part of it.

With Tuesday's handover, the Canadian army stepped away from the battlefield for the first time in its history while a war still rages.


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 6, 2011 A9

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