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Canadians play key role in NATO offensive Add to ...

Given the scale of the campaign he's a part of, with 41 helicopters carrying 1,100 troops into a battle zone as part of a major assault on a Taliban stronghold, Captain Steve Robertson sounded surprisingly calm.

Speeding over the farms of southern Afghanistan at the controls of a Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter, Capt. Robertson was escorting Canadian Chinook transport helicopters in the opening moments of a massive NATO offensive. The largest air assault since the start of the Afghanistan war, it is aimed at breaking the back of the Taliban insurgency in the war-torn south.

The Canadian helicopters were carrying coalition troops from the British base at Camp Bastion into Nad Ali, part of a two-pronged attack by U.S., British and Afghan soldiers that began early this morning in what NATO hopes will be a turning point in the campaign against the insurgents.

Capt. Robertson's crew was busy. Two men staffed heavy machine guns watching for any sign of trouble, while Capt. Robertson and co-pilot Mike O'Kane navigated, trying to stay on course and not hit any of the 39 other helicopters in the air. But in three waves of attack, not a shot was fired. There were no insurgents to be seen.

"Really quiet. Those with any sense left," Capt. Robertson said.

That NATO was planning a massive, multination offensive in Helmand was no secret. Leaflets were dropped in Nad Ali and the larger nearby town of Marjah warning residents a fight was coming. The Taliban responded by claiming to have dug in, preparing for a battle.

What they weren't to know was the nature of NATO's plan - an air assault of unprecedented scale.

It was billed as the largest air operation of the war and the biggest mission Canadian helicopters have ever flown. It was also a watershed moment in the development of the Afghan military - half of the 2,500 troops ferried into a series of landing zones were from the Afghan National Army, whose key role in the assault was intended as a sign to the local populace that the government in Kabul is viable and capable of protecting them.

The operation came after weeks of planning - and after being postponed for 24 hours for a tribal shura , a conference convened by Marjah elders concerned about potential civilian casualties.

Backed by fighter jets, unmanned drones and reserve helicopters at Camp Bastion, the first wave of Canadian helicopters took off at 4 a.m. sharp, part of a 40-helicopter operation focused on Nad Ali.

"This is the shit," declared Lieutenant-Colonel Jeff Smyth, the officer in charge of Canadian helicopter operations in Afghanistan, in an interview at Kandahar Air Field ahead of the operation. "In my career, in 21 years, this is what I've been training the entire time for. This is the big show for us."


Kandahar Air Field, 2 a.m., Wednesday, Feb. 10

Major Andrew (Drew) Gagne isn't afraid to be blunt while briefing the Canadian pilots and crew.

"I have no doubt in my mind that this thing is going to get screwed up at some point," he says as he lays out the plan.

In a room with garbage bags covering the windows, Major Gagne wields a laser pointer as he walks his audience through a PowerPoint presentation. Three Canadian Chinook transport helicopters, four Canadian Griffon escort gunships, and 33 U.S. and British helicopters will combine for 11 waves of troop drops, making up one half of Operation Moshtarak, a massive, two-pronged assault against the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. The other half will kick off about two hours before.

"With the Americans and the British - it's not everybody who gets invited to the big ball game we're in," Col. Smyth boasts.

The briefing marks the beginning of Moshtarak's final stage. In keeping with Canadian tradition, Major Gagne begins with the weather.

"It's nice and cold, so that's going to work in our favour," he says. NATO hopes the Taliban will be shivering in bed when the troops arrive.

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