Chapter condensed and excerpted from Extraordinary Canadians: Stories From the Heart of Our Nation by Peter Mansbridge with Mark Bulgutch. Published by Simon and Schuster Canada. Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.
Former CBC The National anchor Peter Mansbridge and former CBC producer Mark Bulgutch talked to people who have put the lives of Canadians of all walks of life first. This includes Levon Johnson, a pseudonym for a Warrant Officer in Joint Task Force 2, a special operations force of the Canadian Armed Forces that protects Canadian national interests and combats terrorism and threats to Canadians at home and abroad. He has taken part in a dozen special ops missions in hot spots around the world, including three tours in Afghanistan.
‘Deeds, Not Words’
In 2008, I was a Warrant Officer in Joint Task Force 2, a highly secret special operations branch of the Canadian Armed Forces. You may have heard of the US SEAL teams and the British SAS forces – specially trained operational units that are designed to take on the most dangerous missions behind enemy lines. The most famous mission was the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden by US SEAL Team Six.
Canada’s JTF2 never had a target as universally famous as bin Laden, but we too have had serious bad guys in our sights. And, not surprisingly, we think we’re just as good at carrying out our capture or kill missions as anyone else. You won’t see any news conferences explaining our actions – we rarely talk about them ourselves – and little has been written about our missions.
But now that’s going to change a bit, because I’ve been given some freedom to talk. Some freedom. Certain names, including my own, and certain operational details have either been changed or left out to protect those involved. We do worry about retaliation against our families or friends, and that worry governs what we can say. But what is here will give you a sense of one of our special ops missions. This is a story of how Canadian troops held Taliban leaders accountable for how they targeted our own in southern Afghanistan.
In the months and years that followed Canada’s decision to enter the war in Afghanistan, Canadian soldiers were being killed as a result of roadside bombs, or, IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Of the 159 Canadians who lost their lives, 98 were killed not in an active firefight but instead were blown apart in their vehicles by mines hidden in the dirt of Afghan roads. If this had been a conventional battle, where both sides faced each other head-on, the coalition forces of which Canada was a part would have won quickly and relatively easily. We were better trained, better equipped, and, bottom line, better fighters. But it wasn’t conventional, and a lot of Canadians paid the ultimate price as a result.
I know. I was there. I was one of those who witnessed the flag-draped coffins loaded onto the big transport planes at the Kandahar airport for the long, lonely, solemn flight back to Canada. I read the stories about the grieving families and friends back home who were trying to come to grips with the loss of their loved ones so far away. I heard about how thousands of ordinary Canadians lined the highways to honour their soldiers who were returning home in a box instead of to a parade.
In the fall of 2008, our intelligence people got wind of a meeting, or shura, of the Taliban’s top bomb makers, and their intel indicated that they were planning a whole new, next-level IED campaign focused on Canadians on the roads and in the villages in and around Kandahar.
The shura was to be held in a remote compound in the countryside that night, and our team was designated to pull a capture or kill on the four key bomb makers in attendance. Ironically perhaps, we were also designated to end our latest Afghanistan tour and head back to Canada the next day. So this was going to be quite the “end of tour” get-together.
By this time, we had completed many missions in our five-month tour of duty, but when we gathered for the final on-base briefing, our leader said, “Okay, boys, we’re going into the bees' nest. There are hundreds of Taliban fighters in the region.” That was the clear warning that this was going to be a major fight, that if something was ever going to go bad, this was the night it could.
In the last hour before we leave on a major mission, certain traditions are always carried out, and tonight was no different. Some of the guys listened to heavy music, some guys topped up on power drinks like Red Bull, and some guys played video games. Then, and this may sound dark, we got together in our different units and had someone take our picture. It’s been a tradition for special forces teams that dates back to the Second World War. You can probably guess why. We wanted something of the team together in case one of us, or more, didn’t come back.
I told you it was dark.
There were challenges ahead for sure, but there were also things on our side. No. 1: the element of surprise. The target was deep in the desert, but if we did our jobs right, they wouldn’t see or hear us coming. They wouldn’t see us because it was a moonless night and it was very dark, which was a problem for the enemy but not for us. We all had special night-vision equipment; they had candles. As we boarded the Mi-17 helicopters, I felt good knowing that we owned the night.
Outside Kandahar, the pilots dropped the Mi-17s from about 50 feet (about 15 metres). The chopper hit the ground and then rolled forward all in one motion. It was like a crash landing, far from flying business class on Air Canada! Seconds later, the back ramp swung down, and we exited like a herd of cattle. When the last guy stepped off the chopper, it lifted off in a cloud of dust and disappeared.
We all dropped to one knee, weapons at the ready, unsure of what to expect. It was a perfect spot for an ambush, but none unfolded, so we focused on getting to the location of the shura. According to the GPS, we were short of our planned landing area by at least two kilometres, which was still another 10 kilometres from the shura. We were going to have to hike two and a half hours through the desert, avoiding nomad tribes and small villages, all of which could also be doubling as forward listening posts for the bomb makers.
We started walking, and when I say “walk,” it’s a walk where you have a big load, but you also have to be ready to spring into lethal action at any point. We each carried about 65 pounds of gear. We try to divide the weight up equally; each guy is tasked differently with gear. In my case, I carried a ladder and a whole bunch of charges to blow holes in the mud walls of the compound, and the weight of everything was about 75 pounds. It was hard slogging.
After hiking 12 to 14 kilometres, we could see the target buildings that housed the enemy. So far, we had gone undetected. Our special operations colleagues (CSOR) set up key points to encircle the compound. Their job wasn’t about what would happen inside, but rather to make sure nothing bad would come from the outside. We were ready for what we’d come to do. Kill or capture. It was the middle of the night – the darkest hour – the perfect time to strike. Silently we got ready to make our move.
People ask me whether it’s at this moment that I get nervous. To be honest, no one has time to get nervous. The movie had started. I was in it. The action was already under way. The next few minutes would determine the outcome, and there was really no time, no desire, and quite frankly no ability to think about anything other than the mission at hand. There was time to be nervous the night before in those moments before sleep hits, and there might be time to be nervous when it was all over and I relived the moments of great tension, but not now.
And, then, a shot. One of our sharpshooters took out a Taliban lookout who had noticed us. Within minutes a full-scale gunfight was under way. The Taliban may have been asleep, but their fighters quickly hit the ground running.
We might have been better fighters, but that didn’t mean the battle was a walk in the park. Far from it. The Taliban were dedicated to their cause, and every time we thought we’d crushed them, there was another group ready to engage.
But some were farmers, just off the fields with an AK-47 and the most basic of training. They didn’t know that an AK-47 has serious blowback, which means that as it fires the barrel rises up slightly so their shots were over our heads. Meanwhile, we were in the proper firing position, shooting from the shoulder with precise results. Other members of the enemy were behind mud walls holding their guns over the top with a “spray and pray” firing pattern. It didn’t work. Their fighters were inexperienced, a fact the Taliban commanders had accepted, which was why their main strategy was IEDs. They knew that gunfights meant dead fighters.
That was what was unfolding on this night in the Afghan desert, but the battle was going to last at least two hours. We had four teams of commandos with between four and six men on each team. To capture or kill, we had to, as we say, “clean out” the compound, which had about twenty rooms in it. Each team had its own section to deal with.
As my team entered our area, two Taliban guards popped their heads up above a mud wall to our right. They started firing and lobbed something in our direction. My buddy beside me started yelling, and it sounded like: “Rah, rah, rah.”
“What the hell is he talking about?” I thought.
Suddenly, just behind me, a huge explosion blew out part of the wall on that side. Two things happen when there’s an explosion like that. First, fragmentation. Small pieces of steel fly everywhere, but in this case they were mostly absorbed by the mud wall. But the wall couldn’t absorb the sound and the concussion that goes with it. My auditory system kind of shut down, but my mind was still working, and that was when I realized what my buddy had actually been yelling: “RPG, RPG, RPG.”
Rocket-propelled grenade. Believe it or not, it was a comical moment and actually forced both of us to snap back into reality. Within seconds we had neutralized the two Taliban guys. Killed them. There would be no RPGs from them any more.
But the fight was far from over.
The next room contained a much different challenge. It was, in fact, a room within a room. One of the bomb makers was barricaded inside a smaller, walled-off area, further protected by sandbags and carpets piled on top of each other. He had a machine gun and, it appeared, a lot of ammunition. Going inside that room to get him seemed like certain death.
It was time for a different kind of fighter.
It was time for Angus, a highly trained member of a small American special forces team that was working with us on this mission.
Angus was a Belgian Malinois, a breed of Shepherd, slightly smaller than a German shepherd. He’d been trained to show no fear, not to be distracted by unsure footing, dark spaces, or loud noises like gunfire or explosions. Angus and his handler had been with us for some time, sleeping and eating with us so that he got used to our individual scents. He knew us, and in the heat of battle he wouldn’t confuse any of us for the enemy.
So we sent Angus in. But the Taliban fighter was not surrendering to an attacking dog even though Angus managed some serious bites. In return he was shot, a number of times. But not enough to drop him. Angus limped out of the room.
His handler tried to treat him, but Angus wanted another go and managed to get back in for a second attack.
Same result and more shots.
And then a third attempt. It would be the last one. Angus died on the floor of that room. So, moments later, did the Taliban bomb maker when we rushed in and took him out.
None of us who fought that night will ever forget Angus. He was incredibly loyal and brave and saved us from injury, even death.
But the battle was not over. It had been less than 10 minutes since that first shot and my mind was racing, focused on what was ahead, but never forgetting the danger from behind.
We started clearing the compound room by room. The front line members engaged the Taliban who were hiding behind, and firing from, beds and tables and makeshift couches. I was on rear security and I was busy, very busy. There were a lot of enemy coming at us from behind, and I started neutralizing them with everything I had. Gunfire and grenades.
As we cleared each room, the specialized teams came in. First the explosives technicians to make sure there were no IEDs in the room, followed quickly by the medics to handle the wounded, no matter which side they were on. Then the linguists to deal with translation barriers.
But up ahead, our guys were still engaging. I was at the front of my team now, moving ahead, while my buddies were facing about 10 metres behind me dealing with some of the enemy who’d given up as we moved through the compound. I was advancing slowly, careful not to become isolated and alone. We deal with the unexpected better when we’re together.
Then I saw a shadow carrying what to me appeared to be the unmistakable outline of an AK-47. All of a sudden, a shot whizzed past me. While I was assessing the situation he must have noticed me, smelled me, heard me breathing. Something. Whatever it was, he fired a shot in my direction. It missed. My flurry of shots in return didn’t.
I turned to see the guys on my team. The closest to me was in the process of cuffing a prisoner, but he was looking up at me. “Hey, thanks, buddy, that was close.”
He thought the Taliban fighter had been shooting at him because the shot he’d fired that missed me kept on going and just missed him.
“No problem, got your back,” I replied as if it had all been planned that way.
When I think back at this moment now, our whole exchange in the middle of a serious and lengthy gunfight was so matter of fact. It was almost like, “Hey, thanks for saving me that parking spot at Timmies!”
Finally, hours later, the fighting was over and, with the enemy silenced, the cleanup began. We piled up all their weapons and their munitions, and anything that could later be used against us, and then the explosives guys came by and blew them up. The medics looked after the wounded. The prisoners were taken into custody.
There had been casualties. For us, only a few were wounded. Everyone was alive. The Taliban were not so fortunate. Quite a few were wounded and quite a few were dead, including three of the bomb makers. The fourth was taken alive and would be interrogated in the hopes of discovering information about those still out there killing Canadian troops.
But we did have one fatality. Angus. He died on the battlefield. There would be no flag-draped coffin driven down the Highway of Heroes for Angus, but we wrapped him in a body bag and carried him to the helicopters. I remember that walk very well. We carried Angus as if he were on a stretcher with one man at either end. At one end was his handler, who was clearly overcome by what had happened. He never let go. We Canadians took turns holding the other end. The walk was a silent tribute. On the helicopter, it was a slow, quiet, early-morning flight across the Afghan desert back to base. From there, the process of decompression began. But it takes a while to move on from a night like that.
There’s a scene in the movie The Hurt Locker where an expert member of a US forces bomb disposal unit in Iraq returns home after a particularly harrowing tour. He finds himself one day in a supermarket walking along the row of cereals. There are so many different types and he can’t decide. The irony is obvious – when you are overseas at war, you make split-second decisions, decisions that can affect many lives including your own – but back home, picking a cereal is just too much.
I think about that every time I go home. I’m married to an incredible woman and we have a wonderful family. I take my kids to school like other parents. I go shopping with them on the weekends. I cherish every moment with them. They’ve grown accustomed to me leaving without warning in the middle of the night, to waking up in the morning and not even being allowed to know where I am, what I’m doing, or how long I’ll be gone.
This has been my life for almost 20 years, and it’s missions like the one I’ve described that make it worth it. Those bomb makers had killed a lot of Canadians, some of them my friends. Nothing will bring them back, but on that night we reminded everyone that we won’t forget them.
It was important work. But I know it won’t last forever. I also know who will make that determination. When my wife looks at me and says, “Enough,” it will be enough.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.