The reputation and morale of Canada's military, still reeling from allegations that a base commander committed multiple murders, has suffered another blow with the dismissal of its top soldier in Afghanistan for breaking the rules on personal relationships in the field.
Brigadier-General Daniel Ménard was removed from command following allegations he had an intimate relationship with a member of his staff. The subordinate involved has been sent home, according to a military spokesman.
Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, Gen. Ménard's predecessor, will be returning to Kandahar this week to assume command less than a year after he left, arriving as coalition troops are poised to launch a major operation in Kandahar in June that is cast as the defining moment of the war.
While Canadian military commanders in Afghanistan sought to down play the controversy as a personal ordeal, military observers and former officers said Gen. Ménard's dismissal could be damaging to the morale of the troops on the ground, and possibly taint Canadians' image of the armed forces.
It will certainly "take away some of the glitter" that was associated with Canadian soldiers' performance in Afghanistan, said Michel Drapeau, a professor of military law and a former armed forces colonel.
I'm encouraged by the fact that Ménard was removed from his post, since it suggests that the Forces are taking the rules, and the rights and interests of female soldiers, seriously. Michael Byers, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia
It is particularly unfortunate that it comes so soon after Colonel Russell Williams, the former base commander at CFB Trenton, was charged with multiple murders and sexual assaults, he said. While the allegations against Gen. Ménard are in no way similar, they will add to the public's concern about the quality of leadership in the armed forces and raise worries within the Forces as well, he said. "People in the military [will say]'Here we go again,'"
However, the greatest impact, Mr. Drapeau said, will be on the morale of troops in Afghanistan who served under Gen. Ménard. "It's devastating," he said. "They [put]all of their trust and respect in him, and they were prepared to follow him into battle ... Their sense of confidence in leadership will take a hit."
Military historian Jack Granatstein said it is important to note that the allegations against Gen. Ménard are "infinitely less serious" than those against Col. Williams. If proven, they will primarily demonstrate "stupidity on the part of a commanding officer who's job it is to set an example."
Gen. Ménard commanded 2,800 Canadian soldiers in southern Afghanistan, as well as a contingent of American troops serving under Canadian command.
The allegations against him caused military command to "lose confidence" in his "capacity to command," the military said in a brief statement. Military rules strictly forbid any kind of intimacy on deployments, including relationships of an emotional, romantic or sexual nature.
Gen. Ménard, is 42 and married with two children. Major Daryl Morrell, senior public affairs officer with Joint Task Force Afghanistan, said it was "too early to speculate on the charges" Gen. Ménard could face, because they won't be known until the military completes its investigation.
Lieutenant-General Marc Lessard, commander of Canadian forces overseas, made a brief visit to Afghanistan several weeks ago, before Gen. Ménard went on a three-week leave, from which he has just returned. However, reporters at Kandahar Air Field were told the allegations were only revealed to Gen. Lessard on Saturday. Lt.-Gen. Lessard acted immediately to replace Gen. Ménard.
Colonel Simon Hetherington, previously Brig.-Gen. Ménard's second-in-command, is now acting commander until Gen. Vance arrives. He sought to down play any consequences the allegations could have on the military's reputation.
"The allegations against Brig-Gen. Ménard are that - they're allegations," Col. Hetherington said. "It's a personal thing, so I don't see that as any sort of mark against the institution at all," he added.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay declined to comment on the case while it was under investigation by the military.
Michael Byers, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said that while it is clearly discouraging for troops to see a senior officer accused of breaking the rules, it also tells the public that those rules are being applied at all levels.
"I'm encouraged by the fact that Ménard was removed from his post, since it suggests that the Forces are taking the rules, and the rights and interests of female soldiers, seriously," Prof. Byers said.
Retired major-general Lewis Mackenzie said the fact that Gen. Ménard was the commander in Afghanistan raises the situation above a minor issue, because he would be the one to make final decisions in other cases of inappropriate behaviour. "He's the last level of authority in the theatre in disciplinary matters."
Douglas Bland, the chair of defence management studies at the Queen's University School of Policy Studies, said the military has moved quickly to deal with leadership issues since the Somalia inquiry, when problems in command were linked to the fatal beating of a teenager by two Canadian soldiers during a humanitarian mission in Somalia. "That is a sign of their sensitivity and seriousness about maintaining good order and discipline across the forces," he said.
But Prof. Bland said the rules prohibiting personal relationships are essential, especially in combat zones, "where the integrity of the unit is supreme," and must be followed, particularly, by the highest-ranking soldiers.
This is not the first time controversy has dogged Gen. Ménard.
Last week he was fined $3,500 for accidentally firing his rifle at Kandahar Air Field in March. He had failed to switch is C8 carbine rifle to the "safe" position before departing in a helicopter with his boss, General Walter Natynczyk.
Nobody was injured, but the incident qualifies as an offence under the National Defence Act, with a maximum penalty of dismissal from the military. At a military hearing into the incident, Gen. Ménard's defence lawyer argued for leniency, noting the commander reported the mishap to investigators and discussed the incident openly with his soldiers.
Brig.-Gen Ménard joined the Canadian forces in 1984 and was posted to the Royal 22nd Regiment where initially served as a platoon commander.
He rose quickly through the ranks, serving in Great Britain, Berlin, Germany and Bosnia. He assumed command of Task Force Kandahar in November.
With a report from Erin Anderssen in Ottawa