U.S. Planes Mistakenly Hit Canadians In Afghanistan

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

TORONTO, Sept. 4 -- U.S. jets mistakenly strafed Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan on Monday, killing one and bringing to five the number of Canadian troops killed during a major push against the Taliban this weekend.

The deaths come as domestic support for the war is sliding and political opposition is growing, and the fatalities are certain to fuel the controversy in Canada over this country's role in supporting NATO and the United States in the five-year-old Afghan war.

Four of the battlefield deaths occurred Sunday as the Canadians attempted to sweep Taliban guerrillas from Panjwai, an area of farms and poppy fields in the southeastern province of Kandahar that has been a staging area for attacks against Canadian troops. The operation, code-named Medusa, met what commanders acknowledged was surprising resistance.

Just after dawn Monday, another Canadian contingent was camped in an open area when two A-10 "Warthog" ground attack planes flown by U.S. pilots under NATO command strafed its camp. One soldier was killed and about 30 suffered what officers described as mostly light wounds.

NATO officials said the planes were called in for support by other Canadian troops during the fighting. Canadian and NATO officers were quick to describe the incident as an unfortunate consequence of war.

The accident "is very regrettable," said Lt. Gen. David Richards, the NATO forces commander in Afghanistan. "But the task they were set is extremely important, perhaps pivotal in some respects, to the operation we are conducting here."

In a similar incident earlier in the Afghan war, four Canadians soldiers were killed in 2002 when a U.S. plane mistakenly dropped a bomb on Canadian forces as they trained. That incident caused bitter feelings for many in Canada and has lingered as a rhetorical touchstone for those who oppose the alliance of Canada with the United States in the war in Afghanistan.

Thirty-two Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan since 2002.

Jack Layton, a member of Parliament from the opposition New Democratic Party, this weekend called Afghanistan "the wrong mission" for Canada, which has 2,300 troops in the country. Most are stationed near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, a stronghold of the Taliban. Layton called for the troops to return home by February.

Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor toured Afghanistan this weekend to boost the morale of the soldiers and offered an upbeat assessment for the country.

"My expectation is that over the next year the security situation will improve," he told reporters in Kandahar. "I believe support for the mission is solid among Canadians."

But opinion polls released this weekend, before the most recent deaths, showed a continuing slide in support for the war in Afghanistan and for the foreign policy of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The polling organization Ipsos-Reid said support for the Conservative-led government elected in January is at 38 percent. Harper's staunch support for Israel in the latest Lebanon war added to his growing unpopularity, the pollsters said.

Canadian Brig. Gen. David Fraser, who is in charge of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, defended the Canadian mission in television interviews from Kandahar, a volatile area where Canadian troops moved from Kabul, the capital, earlier this year.

"I believe in this mission," Fraser said at a news conference at the Kandahar airfield. "In seven months, we have made a significant change. We are having positive effects, but it comes at a cost."

Fraser said the friendly-fire incident will be investigated.

"We do have procedures, we do have communications, we do have training and tactics and techniques and procedures to mitigate the risk," he said. "But we can't reduce those risks to zero."

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