Huffpost Canada ca
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Peter Worthington Headshot

The Most Vivid Account of Fighting the Taliban

Posted: Updated:

Anyone is wrong who may think the book by former Capt. Rob Semrau -- The Taliban Don't Wave -- is his justification for what happened in Afghanistan in 2008.

Although Semrau is the first Canadian soldier ever to be court martialed for allegedly killing a wounded enemy on the battlefield, his 291-page book devotes barely a page to the incident that led to his court marital and dismissal from the army.

It's an astonishing book. More than any account I've seen, it tells vividly and graphically what it's like to be an infantry soldier in Afghanistan, working with the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), trying to bring them up to speed to protect their own country against the Taliban.

Semrau led an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT). Usually an officer, warrant officer and two or three other ranks work with an ANA detachment of 40 to 150 men, with the job of training them by advising, recommending, suggesting rather than giving direct orders. Diplomacy is essential, not to cause their Afghan counterparts to lose face.

Difficult and invariably frustrating.

Semrau paints vibrant, realistic picture that is far different from movies, news reports, or even imagination. Some ANA were gung-ho fighters, others wanted no part of fighting. All ANA officers were temperamental -- some ferociously brave and foolhardy, some reluctant to leave their base. All of them, in the heat of battle, were likely to suddenly decide it was time for lunch and to return to their base.

Canadian mentors had to curb impatience and exasperation. To put it mildly. Small wonder that "stress" of command and insecurity could be debilitating.

The Taliban were often innovative. Semrau tells of one occasion where the Taliban planted an IED (improvised explosive device) in a haystack and sent kids out to play on the haystack, hoping to lure the Canadian-guided OMLT to rescue the kids and be ambushed.

Canadian snipers often spotted Taliban planting IEDs, but the Canadian major in command would not allow them to shoot the enemy for fear they were farmers, and there'd be hell to pay. Instead, ANA OMLT troops would be sent to cordon the area -- and the Taliban would escape. In Semrau's experience, the snipers never were wrong, but the major was adamant. He wanted no trouble. Risk averse.

This style changed when the major was replaced.

Some Canadian officers had no idea what it was like on patrol, and never went outside the wire. Their "war" was more sedate than the OMLT function.

Arguably, Semrau's finest moment was when an American Apache helicopter thought his ANA squad were Taliban, and prepared to shoot them up. Instead of telling the men to take cover, Semrau frantically urged them all to stand up and wave at the Apache. The pilot realized that "the Taliban don't wave," and veered off. Semrau's quick judgment saved the Alliance from another "friendly fire" catastrophe. Hence the title of his book.

Semrau has never acknowledged in print or interview that he shot a mortally wounded Taliban fighter. It happened in an operation where other Canadian soldiers were engaged. According to witnesses, the Taliban fighter had apparently been bit by fire from an Apache helicopter and had a hole in his midsection the size of a dinner plate, his legs also were smashed. To one ANA witness, he was "98% dead. ANA troops were kicking and spitting on him, and when Semrau's OMLT group moved on to support others under fire, a couple of shots dispatched the Taliban.

The question begs, how did this incident reach the chain of command? Why didn't it vanish in the fog of battle? Who broke silence?

Semrau doesn't speculate, but likely an ANA officer who routinely avoided contact with the enemy and resented Semrau's determination, filed a complaint. Instead of ignoring it, as should have happened, higher command ordered Semrau's arrest. He was charged with second-degree murder, attempted murder, negligence of duty, and disgraceful conduct.

A lot of people who've been to war felt it a travesty that Semrau was charged. One of these is Maj. Gen. Lew MacKenzie, arguably Canada's most experienced "field" commander, who wrote a persuasive forward to Semrau's book.

From his record in the field, Semrau was a competent, compassionate officer, ever concerned for the welfare of those under him and those he was tasked to protect.

A concern about his court martial was that the judge, the prosecutor, the jury (panel), the defence lawyer and the accused, all worked for the same employer. All were paid by the government seeking to convict Semrau.

I felt Semrau should have gotten a civilian lawyer (Eddie Greenspan came to mind). Semrau said no, he'd stick with a JAG (Judge Advocate General) lawyer. I urged he get retired officers who'd led patrols in war, to testify in his defense that instant decisions have to be made when you're in Indian country, without any source to consult.

At a luncheon at the Royal Canadian Military Institute I spoke to General Hillier, when he was Chief of Defense Staff, about Semrau's upcoming trial. Hillier seemed to think that all would go well. I had doubts.
I solicited members of the Military Institute who had led fighting or probing patrols in WWI, Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, who were prepared to testify on Semrau's behalf. I volunteered to testify, having led fighting patrols in the Korean war, where unexpected decisions were predictable.

As witness to this latter reality, one could mention that the U.S. Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden had practiced their raid a hundred times, yet on the night of the attack a helicopter was damaged and the SEALs had to improvise. That's the story of every patrol, and it is the story of Semrau's patrols -- and the "mercy killed" Taliban.

As it turned out, Semrau and his lawyers (in whom he still has faith) decided he wouldn't testify, or offer a defence for his actions, or call witnesses, or even try to explain to the panel, the unique job of mentoring Afghan soldiers in enemy territory.

The panel or jury that would decide Semrau's fate consisted of a navy commodore, an army major and captain with no field or patrol experience, and two air force majors.

If Semrau and his lawyers weren't prepared to defend him, or to convince the panel that leading a fighting patrol of ANA soldiers was unlike anything they could imagine, then who can fault the panel for not understanding?

Semrau became upset with me when I quoted from an email he sent that if asked he'd gladly serve again in Afghanistan. The Sun claimed he was speaking out (which he wasn't) and used it in a headline which upset me -- but annoyed Semrau more. The moral being, I guess, don't send emails to journalists.
When Semrau was found not guilty of murder, not guilty of attempted murder, not guilty of negligence -- how on earth could he be found guilty of disgraceful conduct?

In every situation his conduct was the very antithesis of disgraceful.

Anyway, it's all academic now.

Semrau was reduced in rank to 2nd lieutenant (so what?) and dismissed from the army, but not dismissed with disgrace. His erstwhile comrades and commanding officers are on record as supporting him and having wanted him back.

Semrau now is in international security consulting work, and should do well. But his story is one that should never have happened. Apart from his own disappointment, the biggest loser is the Canadian army. They lost a good soldier, and a better officer.

The one virtue of his ordeal is a book that may well be the best one, so far, that tells the story of our soldiers in Afghanistan whose work was mostly "outside the wire."