Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's secrecy or death, army says

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Casual observers of the war in Afghanistan can be forgiven if they are under the impression Canadian troops have been having it easy this year, while their allies have been suffering numerous casualties. The number of Canadians wounded in action, as well as non-battle injuries, has not officially increased since the end of 2009, which would be a miracle if it were true.

In fact, based on the experience of previous years, an estimated 40 to 50 Canadians have been wounded in combat so far this year, while twice that number have suffered non-battle injuries caused mainly by accidents. The real numbers, however, are a military secret and they will not be disclosed until the end of the year.

The Canadian military decided about two years ago to withhold these statistics, updating them once a year only, because it "did not want to provide insurgents with a direct, incident-specific correlation to the impact of their actions," according to a statement from defence headquarters in Ottawa.

The information falls under the rubric of operational secrecy, the prime directive for reporters covering the war in Afghanistan. A lot of it makes sense. No responsible commander wants to advertise his capabilities, particularly sensitive subjects such as the ability to detect and disrupt mines and roadside bombs, or counter-measures to protect troops in armoured vehicles.

The long delay in reporting casualty numbers, however, is an example of caution carried to the point of absurdity. Among other things, it prevents Canadians from getting a proper sense of what the troops are doing, the risks they face and the tempo of fighting. The media have reported on campaigns that are billed as a big deal, but then... nothing. No numbers of wounded, enemy killed or injured, nothing. Maybe it was a big deal, maybe it was a waste of time.

It's not unusual for a Canadian journalist to arrive in Kandahar with only a vague impression of what's going on, and return home no wiser for the experience.

The best example of this obsession with secrecy surrounds Canada's special forces, particularly Joint Task Force 2, an elite group of commandos and counter-terrorism specialists. Just about everything involving their work is top secret, including their strength, current and past deployments and casualties. Again, some of it makes sense, but a lot does not.

Former lieutenant-colonel Pat Stogram, who led a battalion in Afghanistan in 2002, told the Toronto Star recently that JTF2 was secretive "to the point of being silly." The Star article was a rare expose of JTF2's work in Afghanistan at the end of 2001 following the American invasion.

The story was full of accounts of heroism and derring-do, but Brig.-Gen. Mike Day, a former member and commander of JTF2 who now leads all of Canada's special operations, told me in an interview from Ottawa he was upset with the article, even though it was about events that occurred nearly 10 years ago and there was no evidence it had put anyone at risk.

I suggested his response illustrated the view that the military is unduly secretive. He replied that he needed to weigh the media's desire to "satisfy your curiosity" against the moral duty to ensure the safety of his soldiers,

Canada's top-secret military units, by the way, include a special operations regiment, a special aviation squadron and a unit that responds to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, but most people have never heard of them.

Day graduated in history and political studies from the University of Manitoba and he was the last commander of the Second Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry before it moved to Shilo from Winnipeg in 2004.

The exploits of special forces in other countries, notably the Green Berets, are frequently celebrated in the media, but Day said JTF2 is a more advanced unit, comparable in skill to Delta Force in the United States.

"The Americans have 45,000 special ops troops, but you don't read about the ones like us," he said. "They have a ruthless adherence to secrecy."

Day added that more information about the secret war in Afghanistan will eventually be disclosed, but Canadians have to be patient. "We are writing the history of our organization," he added. "There will be full disclosure."

I'm loathe to criticize officers for erring on the side of caution to protect lives, but I also believe Canadians don't have a clear idea of what their soldiers are doing in Afghanistan. Loose lips might sinks ships, but sealed lips don't contribute to an informed citizenry, either.

We may not need to know about battle injuries as they occur, but a report just once a year is inadequate to provide a true sense of events on the ground. Somehow there must be a better balance between justifiable secrecy, and the ability of Canadians to know their army, its successes, its failures and its challenges.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2010 A10

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