In the heat of a battle against Al-Qaeda insurgents near Pashmul, Afghanistan, Sean Maloney's Canadian Forces helicopter dropped him off at a base and took off with 26 troops aboard.
Maloney, an associate professor at Royal Military College in Kingston, snapped a photo of the Chinook chopper just as it left the helipad. Two minutes later, it was shot down in flames.
"Everybody got out alive and the pilot was decorated for the whole thing and I watched it happen on the balloon camera from the operations centre," said Maloney. "I saw a picture of the helicopter burning and said, 'Where's that?' and they said, "You just got off it.' That kind of thing happened a lot when I was there."
Maloney, 45, had more than few brushes with death during his 10 tours in Afghanistan over an eight-year span and as a civilian had the rare opportunity to be given a front-row seat alongside Canadian troops.
In his public lecture held Thursday night at the College of New Caledonia, the native of Kingston, Ont., planned to dispel some of the mythology about Canadian soldiers and how the Afghan war changed Canada's traditional peacekeeping role in armed conflicts. Maloney has written four books and dozens of articles about the Afghan war effort from the perspective of Canadian troops stationed in Kanadahar province, one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
"It was quite exciting and fascinating to be a military historian and watch an operation being planned, then going out and watching it executed," said Maloney. "Having been involved in the conflict, I'm in a better position to explain what actually happened and why it matters.
"We had a lot of Canadians serving there, and a lot of people put their asses on the line, and they accomplished a lot of things at a low and medium level that will ultimately benefit us at a higher level," he said. "To have people in the media and academia snidely say this wasn't worth it, is disingenuous and wrong. We have to try to learn from this as a society, that if we are going to get involved in nation-building, this is what it's going to entail, and be ready for it."
The 9/11 attacks on the U.S. triggered a retaliation that centred on Afghanistan, where the ruling Taliban government was harbouring the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden. In October 2001, Canadian troops joined a NATO commitment led by American and British forces to help the Afghan rebel armies remove the extremist Taliban government regime and disrupt the Al-Qaeda-backed insurgent network. Once control of the capital Kabul was handed over to the Afghan Northern Alliance, Canada took on the role of mentoring the Afghan government to create a national development strategy. By 2005, Canada formed a provincial reconstruction team based in Kandahar province to build infrastructure, mentor police security forces, and defend the area against insurgent attacks, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices and conventional weapons. In 2010, Canada handed off its military role to the U.S. and shifted its emphasis from counterinsurgency and took on a training role to increase the capacity of the police and security forces.
"It was a 10-year conflict -- that's four years longer than the Second World War -- and the environment of Afghanistan is not like (the Second World War), where it was a state-on-state fight and one state collapses and victory is declared," said Maloney. "People are conditioned to think wars should end, because of the Second World War, but a fight like this in Afghanistan doesn't end neatly, and then people start asking questions."
Maloney says Canadians should not get too worked up about how the Hollywood movie Argo downplayed Canada's role in the rescue of 52 Americans from the U.S. embassy in Iran and said the dramatization of the movie doesn't diminish the facts of what really happened. He had no problem when a much larger, better-funded U.S. army came into Kandahar to take over Canada's war operations in May-June 2010. By that time, he said Canada had achieved its military objectives.
"Fundamentally, we held the line in Kandahar because the two American administrations [Bush and Obama] were strategically confused about where their priorities were," said Maloney. "We maintained this disrupt operation around the city and the insurgency never really got a grip around the city. In the Canadian narrative and the Afghan narrative, that's what's important."
Canada focused on Kandahar in 2003 because non-governmental organizations and the United Nations were pressuring the International Security Assistance Force to expand to that region to help secure the Durand Line, a disputed border with Pakistan that runs through southern Afghanistan, beyond which lies a mountainous region where Al-Qaeda based its operations.
"What Al-Qaeda was doing inside Afghanistan receives very little media coverage," Maloney said. "When 9/11 takes place, it's not five guys in a cave. It's got 36 training camps. It has a biological weapons production facility they're trying to get off the ground. They're testing chemical weapons on animals. They have plots from their franchises to blow up lots of airliners, including Canadian airliners. They have their communications and propaganda facilities there. It's a multinational terrorist corporation, and that's why Canada gets involved.
"Somebody needed to go down there, because if you disrupt the whole Al-Qaeda structure and get rid of the Taliban shield and it goes on the other side of the Durand Line, and we leave and it comes back in, then what have you accomplished? That's why we recommitted in 2003, because if you walk away from a completely failed state, they'll come right back in and start over again."
The last fighting in Afghanistan for Canadian troops ended in December 2011. There are still about 900 Canadian troops in the country, mostly engaged in educational mentoring roles.
Maloney says the threat to world peace posed by Pakistan looms large because of that country's nuclear weapons capability and its support of the Taliban. He says its been confirmed the storage of those weapons and the country's nuclear production facilities are not secure.
"We chose to stabilize Afghanistan, not stabilize Pakistan, but the two problems are linked," said Maloney. "So there's a complete failure by others to figure out what to do about Pakistan. At what point do we protect the Afghan people against this Pakistan-based threat?
"Pakistan is in serious trouble, and has been for years, it's just nobody knows what to do about it, including the Pakistanis. There are a lot of people sitting here saying it's not our business, but it is our business when we're dealing with a potentially failed state with nuclear weapons. I'm not saying they're going to use a Pakistani nuke against Toronto, but if you destabilize the economic system that we're part of, that affects us."