CANADA’S FALLEN
Understanding Canadian Military Deaths in Afghanistan
By Steven Staples and Bill Robinson

Summary

• After the United States, Canada has sustained the highest number of military deaths as a result of hostile actions in Afghanistan since the original invasion in 2001 (27 of 244).
• Since February 2006, when our troops began operations in Kandahar, Canada has sustained 43% of all military deaths among U.S. allies in the coalition (20 of 47 non-U.S. deaths).
• When adjusted for the relative size of troop commitments, a Canadian soldier in Kandahar is nearly three times more likely to be killed in hostile action than a British soldier, and four-and-a-half times more likely than an American soldier in Afghanistan.
• A Canadian soldier in Kandahar is still nearly six times more likely to die in hostilities than a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq.
• If the current rate of military deaths since February 2006 were to remain unchanged until the end of the mission in January 2009, the Canadian military would sustain another 108 military deaths, bringing the total number of military deaths for Afghanistan to 140, or four times higher than what is today.

Questions

• Why are Canadian troops suffering a disproportionately higher number of military deaths than our NATO allies?
• Were casualty estimates provided by the Department of National Defence to the Liberal government of
Paul Martin, as suggested by Senator Colin Kenny
and Colonel Steve Noonan, and were new estimates provided to the current Conservative government of Stephen Harper? If so, what was the estimated number of deaths?
Introduction
As the number of casualties in Afghanistan mounts, Canadians have been appropriately focused on the 32 soldiers and one diplomat who have paid the ultimate price in service of their country, and the grieving families whose lives have been irrevocably changed.
Since the military’s first deployment to Afghanistan in the months following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 33 flag-draped coffins have been returned to Canada. The public has been stirred by the growing number of deaths, and their increasing frequency.
In this study, we examine the circumstances of Canadian soldiers’ deaths in Afghanistan, and try to gain a greater understanding of our mission, and what we can learn from these tragedies.

A note on our methodology: generating comparative data across the coalition is a difficult task. For instance, NATO does not provide data publicly on troop commitments from members of the coalition, and so a variety of sources have been employed to have the most accurate data possible in our calculations.
We would like to acknowledge the work of Michael White and his team at www.icasualties.org, whose research we have used in preparation of this study. We encourage the reader to support their research.

Estimating casualties
Rarely discussed publicly, the Department of National Defence produces estimates for the number of casualties that will be sustained by the Canadian Forces before undertaking new missions. In a rare public disclosure, in June 2003 the national Post published such an estimate for the ensuing six- month rotation of troops to Kabul, Afghanistan. The national Post reported on June 17, 2003:

Military intelligence experts have estimated the Canadian troops being sent to Afghanistan will almost certainly suffer as many as 10 fatal casualties during their first six-month tour of duty.

Military sources said the Canadian Forces intelligence planners prepared their estimates based on the casualties suffered by previous members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul.
They concluded the Canadians have a 99% probability of losing five to 10 of the 1,800 soldiers that are leaving this summer for the Afghan capital.1

The estimate was too high, but quite close to the actual number of deaths sustained in the mission, which by January 2004 stood at three deaths, all of which were from hostile action. No such estimate has ever been released publicly since the national Post report in 2003.

However, the public record contains contradictory statements by government and military officials on whether or not the military provided the government with an estimate of the number of Canadian soliders who would be killed during the new mission to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.

The relocation of Canadian Forces from the relative safety of Kabul to the unstable southern province was announced quietly by the government on May 16, 2005. Then Defence Minister Bill Graham, serving in the Liberal government of Prime Minister Paul Martin, and newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, told a joint meeting of the Commons Defence and the Foreign Affairs committees that Canada would be sending an additional 1,250 troops to Kandahar province, comprising a 250-member provincial reconstruction team, a 700-strong task force, and a 300-member brigade headquarters (this number of troops would increase later to 2,300).2

In the ensuing months, both Defence Minister Graham and Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier made public statements about the increased likelihood that this new mission would be much more dangerous than previous missions in the country, and would included combat and casualties.

On July 23, 2005, the Toronto Star quoted then Defence Minister Graham: “Sometimes peacekeeping requires you to do some riskier combat in order to get the stability you need.”3

In the same article, Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hiller put it more bluntly. “We are not another department. We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people,” he was quoted. “It is a high risk area. Is there a probability that we will take casualties? Yes, of course. Can I give you a number… absolutely not.”

But on the matter of a casualty estimate, General Hiller was possibly only speaking a half-truth. While
he may not have been able to provide the number to the reporter, comments from other military and government officials indicate that the number of potential casualties had been calculated by the Department of National Defence, and that number had been provided to the government.

Senator Colin Kenny told the ottawa citizen that the military had informed the government of the estimated number of Canadian casualties. As reported on July 4, 2005, “Mr. Kenny said the military is well aware of the potential for casualties and has informed the Martin government of its estimate of how many soldiers could be killed or wounded, although that figure isn’t being released.”4

Kenny’s remarks seem to be supported by Canadian Forces Colonel Steve Noonan who was preparing to take over Canadian command in Afghanistan. On CTV’s Question Period on July 24, 2005 host Craig Oliver asked him directly about casualty estimates:

OLIVER: Before the first Canadian troops went to Kandahar, people in the military came up with
an estimate of casualties that turned out to be extraordinarily accurate. A number of people killed there. What kind of an estimate have you made this time, if you can tell me?
NOONAN: We call the kind of warfare peace support, peacekeeping operations that we’re doing right now, operations in an asymmetric environment. The threat can come from any place. And, as such, our casualty estimates associated with that are very hard to pin down.

We’ve gone through and are prepared for casualties. But in terms of detailed numbers, no, we have not; we have done a study of that, but we’re not prepared to release the actual numbers.5

Despite these revelations about the military’s estimation of casualties, General Hiller has not confirmed whether these estimates exist. On March 2, 2006, he told the globe and Mail, “You simply cannot sit down and formulate any percentage that you might or might not expect in terms of casualties. So what you do is shape and learn and reduce the risk to the lowest possible level…but you cannot project.”
Did the military and government underestimate the number of soldiers who would die in Kandahar?
Since the government has not disclosed the military’s estimate of the number of casualties that would have been sustained with the new mission in Kandahar, it is impossible to gauge whether 32 military deaths were anticipated by decision-makers in the military and the government.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the military may have underestimated the level of violence Canadians troops would face, which would in turn affect any estimate of casualties. Comments made by officials at the outset of the current military mission leave the impression that they expected combat with insurgents to be minimal.

For example, the Toronto Star reported on July 23, 2005, that Colonel Noonan expected violence to increase leading up to the September 18 Afghanistan national elections, but that he was “confident that the rise in violence is the ‘last gasps’ of the insurgents.”6
If the military had underestimated the number of casualties, did the Liberal government base its decision on flawed intelligence information?

Very recently, the Toronto Star interviewed an unnamed senior official in the Martin government who was present at a meeting of Prime Minister Martin and his senior staff; his Defence and Foreign Affairs Ministers, Bill Graham and Pierre Pettigrew, and members of their staff; Deputy Defence Minister Ward Elcock and Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier.
According to the Toronto Star, it was at this meeting, on March 21, 2005, that the decision was made to accept the current mission in Kandahar. In an article published on September 9, 2006, the Star reported: Those assembled knew the assignment would be risky. They knew that Canadians would die. But several say that no one expected the kinds of casualties Canadian forces are now experiencing. “It was clearly contemplated that peace was going to have to be made,” says one. “And that making peace was going to lead to the potential of losing lives. But I don’t think it was contemplated on this scale… People didn’t expect this many to be coming home in coffins.”7 The comment made by this unnamed official raises many questions about the information provided by the military to be used by the government in making the original decision to move to Kandahar.
A similar question could be asked of the Conservative government when it decided to extend the mission an additional two years, to the end of January 2009, beyond the Liberals’ original one-year mission which was scheduled to end in February 2007.

Was a new estimate generated by the Department of National Defence and presented to Stephen Harper’s government? Based on
the rapidly deteriorating situation in southern Afghanistan, was that estimate adjusted higher than any previous estimates?
The rate and number of Coalition casualties is increasing

Canada is part of a coalition of 37 countries with military forces in Afghanistan. Roughly half of the troops in the country—approximately 18,500—are American. NATO contributes another 18,500 troops, most of which comprise nearly 5,000 British soldiers, with Germany, Canada, and the Netherlands each contributing 2,000 or more each, Italy and France contributing approximately 1,000 each (2,000 U.S. troops are in NATO-ISAF, with the main U.S. force in Operation Enduring Freedom). The remaining smaller
numbers of troops are contributed by other countries. Poland, for example, contributes only 100 soldiers.

Coalition forces in Afghanistan have suffered 408 deaths since the beginning of fighting. After the United States, which has incurred 269 deaths, the recent crash of the British aircraft killing all 14 people on board left the U.K. with the next highest death toll. In third position is Canada with 32, or 7.8% of all coalition deaths. Among U.S. allies, Canada’s fatalities account for 23%, or nearly one in four deaths (32 of 139 non- U.S.).

As chart 1 shows, the resurgence of the Taliban and other insurgent forces in the last two years has claimed many more soldiers’ lives than in previous years. Fuelled by a growing opium drug trade and widely held grievances against Coalition forces and the Afghan government, the insurgency’s lethality has also been bolstered by improved weapons and tactics.

In 2005, the United States was the hardest hit member of the coalition, sustaining practically all of the deaths caused by hostile action. Canada and other allies agreed to shoulder more of the burden in Afghanistan, and assisting the strapped U.S. military was a factor in accepting this new, deadly mission. Along with more British and Dutch troops, U.S. allies took over the bulk of the military operations in the south (though U.S. forces continue to fight alongside allies).
The result is that, in 2006, the total number of deaths for all U.S. allies is rising precipitously, and for the
first time since the invasion, U.S. allies have incurred more hostile deaths than the U.S. itself. And Canada is suffering more combat deaths than any other U.S. ally.

Comparing the absolute number of casualties does not factor in the difference in relative sizes of the various nations’ forces. Accounting for roughly half of coalition forces in the country, the United States will naturally incur the greatest proportion of deaths.
But when coalition members are compared on the basis of deaths per soldiers, Canada’s casualty rate is even more alarming.
Using the time from the official commencement of our mission in Kandahar in February 2006 to September 8, 2006, Canadian soldiers are nearly three times more likely to be killed than British soldiers, and four-and- a-half times more likely than an American soldier in Afghanistan. In fact, a Canadian soldier in Kandahar is nearly six times more likely to be killed by hostile attacks than an American soldier serving in Iraq.8

Counting Canada’s Military Deaths

Prior to Canada’s taking on the responsibility for Kandahar province, the U.S. military claimed more Canadian lives in a single friendly fire incident than insurgent forces did in two separate attacks in the

northern city of Kabul. At the outset of this latest mission, the Canadian military had suffered eight deaths: four in the friendly fire incident, two in a suicide bombing, one from a roadside bomb, and one in a vehicle accident. But there is no question that the current phase of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, where some 2,000 troops are engaged in a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban and its allies in southern Afghanistan, is the most deadly. The first Canadian troops arrived in Afghanistan in December 2001, when 40 members of the élite Joint Task Force 2 had been sent to join the U.S. invasion aimed at destroying al-Qaeda and toppling the Taliban. In the nearly five years that have followed, Canada’s role in the country has changed several times, and throughout the war our country has incurred 32 fatalities among the members of the Canadian Forces deployed there, as well as the death of diplomat Glyn Berry. Of the military deaths, 27 have been the result of hostile action.9

Canada’s military presence can be roughly divided into three phases:

1. Invasion (Deaths: 4, 4 hostile) In October 2001, the U.S. began strategic bombing of Afghanistan, followed by the arrival of hundreds of U.S. Marines in November. The Taliban government was overthrown in January 2002, the same month that the first soldiers of the nearly 1,000-strong Canadian battle group arrived in Kandahar in Operation Appollo. Canadian troops joined U.S.-led coalition efforts to hunt down remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. During this phase, Canada sustained four deaths in a “friendly-fire” incident when a U.S. F-16 pilot mistakenly bombed Canadian troops during a night- time training exercise.

2. Kabul (Deaths: 4, 3 hostile) In July 2003, Canada contributed roughly 1,900 troops in Operation Athena to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The 6,500-strong coalition force, for a time led by Canada, conducted peace support operations (patrols, surveillance, training) primarily in the northern capital, Kabul. Canada ended its presence and closed its Kabul base in November, 2005.
During this phase Canada suffered its first hostile casualties from insurgent attacks when two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb. Later, a third soldier was killed by a suicide bombing, and a fourth in a vehicle accident.

3. Kandahar (Deaths: 24, 20 hostile) Moving south from Kabul, Canada deployed a force of roughly 2,300 troops to assume responsibility for the southern province of Kandahar, effective on February 24, 2006 (many of the statistics used in this report are based on the time from this date to the present). Operating under the command of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom for the first six months, it was assumed by NATO-ISAF at the end of July 2006. The force comprises a 250-member Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, a 1,000-member battle group based at Kandahar airfield, with the remainder in command and support roles. Canadian forces are largely engaged in asserting authority through expeditions throughout the province, and seeking out and combating Taliban and other insurgents. Officially established on May 16, 2005, for a one-year term by the Liberal government, the mission began in February 2006. The Conservative government (after winning a parliamentary vote on May 17, 2006) subsequently extended the mission by two years, until February, 2009.

This counterinsurgency mission has been by far the most lethal phase, with 24 soldiers being killed. It also marks the greatest number of deaths by hostile fire.

How Canadians are being killed

The most dangerous weapon used against Canadian troops is improvised explosive devises (IEDs), or roadside bombs. These deadly mines are set by insurgents in crude arrangements of any of the old shells or other ordnance littering Afghanistan and detonating them by remote control. Seven Canadians soldiers have been killed by IEDs. One such attack, on April 22, 2006, claimed the lives of four soldiers when their “G-wagon” was destroyed by a roadside bomb near Gumbad. Sadly, friendly fire attacks are more dangerous than suicide bombers, making accidental attacks by the United States the second greatest danger to Canadian soldiers. In only two attacks, as many Canadians were

In June of 2005, Afghanistan’s Defence Minister, Rahim Wardak, warned that insurgents were preparing to ramp up their attacks and were honing their skills in Iraq, particularly the use of suicide bombers. His prediction, sadly, was correct. According to Reuters, between January 2005 and August 2006 there were 64 attacks by suicide bombers in Afghanistan, killing 181 people (not including the bombers themselves) and wounding 273 others. Nearly half of those attacks, 31, have been in Kandahar, compared to only seven in the relatively calm city of Kabul.10

The use of suicide bombers has doubled this year, and roadside bombs are up 30%, according to the new york Times.11
In terms of the circumstances of the attacks, travelling beyond the confines of the base on patrols or to re- supply other locations is more dangerous than actual combat. Thirteen soldiers have been killed on travel or re-supply missions, while 10 have died in combat.
Some observers may suggest that the type of equipment used by Canadian Forces is related to this death toll, especially the recently acquired “G- Wagons.” But this may be misplaced, according to a recent study by researcher Stephen Priestly of the Canadian American Strategic Review (using data to August 11, 2006). He found that just as many soldiers’ lives were lost in incidents involving the LAV-III lightly armoured vehicle as the “G-Wagon.”12 According to Priestley’s research, there have been 11 incidents involving the LAV-III, resulting in five deaths. The “G-wagon” has been involved in eight incidents, resulting in an equal number of deaths to the LAV-III.
The military has frequently identified the need for transport helicopters, such as U.S.-made Chinooks, which could reduce casualties incurred in re-supplying remote forward bases. The high rate of fatalities sustained in re-supply missions seems to support this; however, other countries have suffered a very high number of casualties from helicopter crashes. For instance, 16 U.S. special forces commandos
were killed when their helicopter was shot down in Kunar province in June 2005. Similarly, Spain lost 17 soldiers in a single helicopter crash in August 2005, representing nearly all of that country’s deaths in Afganistan. Likewise, Germany lost seven soldiers in a helicopter crash in December of 2002.

The type of mission itself, rather than the equipment used, seems to be the greatest factor in contributing to casualties.
Our projection for the number of Canadian military deaths to the end of the mission, February 2009 Of course, no one can with absolute confidence predict the number of casualties Canada will sustain in Afghanistan. There is strong evidence, however, to suggest that DND does make these estimates, even though they are not revealed to the public. While our study does not have the benefit of the intelligence available to Defence officials, based on the record since major operations began in Kandahar (February 24, 2006 to September 6, 2006) and averaging the number of casualties incurred during that period and projecting that average over the remainder of the mission, there could be an additional 108 deaths from all causes by the end of the mission in 2009, 90 of which would be from hostile actions.13
When added to the number of deaths already sustained, the total number of Canadian military deaths from all causes in Afghanistan would be 140, or 113 deaths from hostile actions, if the current rate were to remain unchanged.14 Of course, it is highly unlikely that the current rate will remain unchanged. The situation in Afghanistan is very volatile and constantly evolving. Factors that might reduce Canadian deaths include progress towards a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, reductions in Taliban forces or operations, changes in the nature of Canadian operations, or improvements in Canadian equipment or tactics. On the other hand, improvements in Taliban equipment or tactics, or other deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, might lead to an increase in Canadian deaths.

Without a doubt, however, the greatest single factor in Canadian deaths is the nature of the mission itself. Had Canada continued its role of conducting peace support missions in Kabul, we would have suffered far fewer casualties. By comparison, Germany has about the same number of troops as Canada in Afghanistan, but they have sustained no casualties at all since February, and only six deaths from hostile action since 2001.

Conclusion

This study raises many questions about the military mission in Kandahar, and the level of danger faced by Canadian soldiers. Two questions in particular emerge when reviewing this troubling information:
• Why are Canadian troops suffering a disproportionately higher number of deaths than our NATO allies?
• Were casualty estimates provided by the Department of National Defence to the Liberal government of
Paul Martin, as suggested by Senator Colin Kenny and Colonel Steve Noonan, and were new estimates provided to the current Conservative government of Stephen Harper? If so, what was the estimated number of deaths?

 

Canada’s soldiers serve at the request of our democratically elected government. It is therefore incumbent on all citizens to understand the costs that we, through our elected representatives, ask our soldiers to pay—which may include their very lives. We hope that this report contributes to that awareness.

14. It should be noted that all such projections are highly dependent on the baseline rate chosen for projection. Thus, for example, a projection based
on the entire time Canada has been in Afghanistan would produce an estimate of only 12 more deaths due to hostile action (17 due to all causes) during the course of the mission — a number almost certainly far too low given the six deaths due to hostile action in August 2006 alone—while one based solely on that month would produce the absurdly high figure of 174 additional deaths due to hostile action (232 all causes).

Canadian soldiers have been part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since 2002. It’s been a dangerous posting for all of the coalition soldiers involved, with 1,480 coalition military deaths recorded as of Oct. 26, 2009, including 131 Canadians.

The number of Canadian soldiers on the ground there has always been much lower than the numbers of either American or British soldiers posted there. So one would expect that the number of Canadian military fatalities in the Afghan field would be lower than for their closest military allies — and it is.

Statistical analysis, however, also reveals that the Afghan mission is taking a much bigger toll on Canadian forces, proportionately speaking, than the other major coalition nations.

To arrive at that conclusion, the U.K. Medical Research Council’s Biostatistics Unit examined coalition military death rates in Afghanistan in nine consecutive 140-day periods, beginning May 1, 2006 and ending Oct. 4, 2009.

During that 41-month period, 1,070 coalition soldiers died in Afghanistan (all fatality figures are from iCasualties.org). Of these, 590 were American, 213 were British, 116 were Canadian, and the rest were from the 40 other countries contributing soldiers to ISAF.

So the U.S. and Britain lost considerably more soldiers than Canada during that period. But since Canada had far fewer soldiers in Afghanistan throughout the entire period studied (see table below), statistical analysis by the Medical Research Council showed than Canadian soldiers regularly faced a higher fatality rate than either the Americans or the British. At one point, the observed Canadian fatality rate was more than quadruple the U.S. rate.

To be sure, the nature of the Afghan mission varies dramatically for each nation’s soldiers. Canada’s military efforts, for instance, are concentrated in the southern province of Kandahar. The coalition’s soldiers face very different risks, depending on where they’re based, the kind of work they’re doing, the support they receive, the nature and degree of Taliban resistance, etc. But the study’s authors note that an “explanation is needed for the consistently higher UK/Canadian than U.S. military fatality rates in Afghanistan … chance is not the explanation.”

To arrive at fatality-rate figures, the study looked at troop levels for each nationality, the actual number of fatalities, and then calculated the fatality rate per 1,000 personnel years. A personnel year is defined as one soldier posted to the Afghan mission for one year. So 2,500 Canadian soldiers posted for the study period of 20 weeks or 140 days is equal to 962 personnel years.

To simplify matters, we’ve left off any reference to confidence intervals in this graph. But statisticians point out that if one seeks to compare the true fatality rates, confidence intervals do matter. Because the Canadian contingent is smaller, the confidence interval is wider than for either the Americans or the British. But even after taking that into account, the Canadian fatality rate is still demonstrably higher.

For example, the study’s authors added the first four periods (a total of 80 weeks) and found the Canadian fatality rate was 15.7 per 1,000 personnel years. With a 95 per cent confidence interval (in other words, the result one would expect 19 times out of 20 times), the Canadian death rate in that 80-week period would range from 12 to 20 per 1,000 personnel years. It’s high enough that there’s no overlap at all with the U.S. rate over that same period (4.2 to 5.6 deaths per 1,000 personnel years) or the British rate (7 to 11). The same condition holds for a summary of periods five through eight.

The study’s authors note that the observed fatality rates for Canadian and British troops during period nine (the 20-week period ending Oct. 4, 2009) was “akin to the fatality rate for Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

It should also be noted that, as in Iraq, the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan far exceeds the number of military deaths. A report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 1,013 civilians were killed in the first six months of war.

To be sure, the nature of the Afghan mission varies dramatically for each nation’s soldiers. Canada’s military efforts, for instance, are concentrated in the southern province of Kandahar. The coalition’s soldiers face very different risks, depending on where they’re based, the kind of work they’re doing, the support they receive, the nature and degree of Taliban resistance, etc. But the study’s authors note that an “explanation is needed for the consistently higher UK/Canadian than U.S. military fatality rates in Afghanistan … chance is not the explanation.”

To arrive at fatality-rate figures, the study looked at troop levels for each nationality, the actual number of fatalities, and then calculated the fatality rate per 1,000 personnel years. A personnel year is defined as one soldier posted to the Afghan mission for one year. So 2,500 Canadian soldiers posted for the study period of 20 weeks or 140 days is equal to 962 personnel years.

To simplify matters, we’ve left off any reference to confidence intervals in this graph. But statisticians point out that if one seeks to compare the true fatality rates, confidence intervals do matter. Because the Canadian contingent is smaller, the confidence interval is wider than for either the Americans or the British. But even after taking that into account, the Canadian fatality rate is still demonstrably higher.

For example, the study’s authors added the first four periods (a total of 80 weeks) and found the Canadian fatality rate was 15.7 per 1,000 personnel years. With a 95 per cent confidence interval (in other words, the result one would expect 19 times out of 20 times), the Canadian death rate in that 80-week period would range from 12 to 20 per 1,000 personnel years. It’s high enough that there’s no overlap at all with the U.S. rate over that same period (4.2 to 5.6 deaths per 1,000 personnel years) or the British rate (7 to 11). The same condition holds for a summary of periods five through eight.

The study’s authors note that the observed fatality rates for Canadian and British troops during period nine (the 20-week period ending Oct. 4, 2009) was “akin to the fatality rate for Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.”

It should also be noted that, as in Iraq, the number of civilian deaths in Afghanistan far exceeds the number of military deaths. A report by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said 1,013 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2009 and acknowledged that the toll could be higher.