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.
Reports have suggested the Taliban may be fortifying in Marjah, a community of about 125,000 people. That's good news for the Canadians, who hope their target in Nad Ali to the north will therefore be less hostile.
The major's presentation outlines details of the terrain, landing zones and threats. A map with red dots shows suspected concentrations of Taliban, thought to total about 150 to 200 fighters in groups no bigger than 35. The insurgents are "organized and semi-cohesive" and have shown "the ability to support and reinforce other groups," the slide says. A massive network of makeshift bombs is expected to be waiting for the troops. And with 40 helicopters flying tightly together in the dark, they're warned about the risk of mid-air collisions.
A nervous flier asks about the "ROE" - rules of engagement, or when they can shoot at something.
"If you guys see guys with weapons in the LZ [landing zone]and they're not friendly, well, you're going to have to get 'em out," Major Gagne responds matter-of-factly. He is asked again, this time about specific scenarios.
Before Major Gagne can respond, he is interrupted. Colonel Christian Drouin, the head of Canadian air forces in Afghanistan, who has until now stayed quiet, stands up. The boss sounds frustrated.
"OK, boys, let me make this clear. Once you're out there right now in this operation, you're protecting our boys. It's all about protecting our boys," he says sharply. "You engage. You protect the Chinooks and the 80 guys, 120 guys onboard. Is that clear?"
He looks at the nervous flier, who replies quickly: "Yes, sir."
Over all, the threat level is condensed to one word: Medium, "possibly rising to High depending on operation effects," the slide says.
"The end goal for us is to have all our helicopters back to Bastion without any bullet holes in 'em and to insert troops at their objective," Col. Smyth says. "Without firing a shot."
THE TALIBAN TARGET
For days, the British and Americans trumpeted their intent to attack Marjah in the hope of encouraging civilians and the Taliban to simply leave.
"We don't necessarily want to kill insurgents, but we will if we have to. But if the insurgents just go away, then the population is left to get on with their normal lives and allow the government of Afghanistan to provide the governance they need. Then we'll have achieved our aim," Col. Smyth said.
In the days before the offensive, coalition forces ran "shaping exercises" - small operations meant to pave the way for the bigger effort, by targeting things like bomb-making sites and places where the Taliban are known to be.
The shaping exercises did not appear to have prompted an exodus, at least at first. Fewer than 200 families had left Marjah by Tuesday. The Taliban, meanwhile, claimed fighters had come from across Afghanistan to mass for a fight.
"We are ready for fighting and we have enough weapons, people and power to fight them and defeat them forever," insurgent Abdul Wahid told The Globe and Mail.
One Marjah commander promised the Taliban would put 6,500 fighters in the field. The Taliban have historically exaggerated such claims, however, and Western estimates put their number closer to 1,000.
THE DRY RUN: Camp Bastion, Helmand province, 3 a.m., Thursday, Feb. 11
Under the darkness of the nighttime sky, the twin-rotor Chinooks sit with engines thundering. The Canadians have brought four to ensure three will be in service when the time comes.
Chinooks can carry up to four dozen soldiers; the Griffon gunship is a utility helicopter modified to carry two large guns and a state-of-the-art tracking system. It's a bodyguard for the Chinook.
With 24 hours to go, it's dress rehearsal time. British, Afghan and Estonian troops gather in roped-off pens, march out to whichever Canadian Chinook they'll be on, and board. It's quick. At 3:41 a.m., the British troops are onboard one Chinook, and by 3:49 a.m. they're off again, without the helicopter leaving.
There are some hiccups - an Estonian soldier has to be corrected after pointing his rifle up while sitting, and an Afghan raises eyebrows when he pulls out a cellphone. NATO soldiers are especially wary of the fledgling ANA.
"Maybe his brother's an insurgent. Who knows?" Col. Smyth says. "It doesn't mean the ANA aren't professional. It just means they don't have the 30 or 40 years of experience."
The dry run ends with only one problem for Canada - a mechanical problem with one of the Chinooks. That's why they have the spare.
Later in the day, the Canadians literally walk through the plan, using a large map etched into the sand of Camp Bastion. By dinnertime, they're in bed. Around 1 a.m., they start trickling back to the helicopters, and word is already starting to spread. Minutes later, Col. Smyth is standing on the bed of a pickup truck.
"OK guys, as you heard we're rolexed [delayed]by 24 hours," he tells the soldiers. A shura in Marjah started late, on "Afghan time," and the Afghan elders had asked for more time. Since Moshtarak is an Afghan-led operation, they had the final call. The West would wait.
"It's disappointing, but it's not a big surprise," Col. Smyth says later. But the clock is ticking. Everything - the sliver of moon minimizing nighttime light, the presence of the four Canadian Chinooks, the imminent end of the British Chinook crews' rotation - is lined up. The offensive must start Saturday morning, or be put off for weeks.
"This is the time to do it," Col. Smyth says.
While the Canadians wait, U.S. Marines skirmish with Taliban fighters around Marjah. What had once been a trickle of families escaping the city becomes a flood. Reports from the area say the road to Lashkar Gah is jammed with people trying to leave.
"We haven't brought any of our belongings," Bibi Gul, an elderly woman who made it Lashkar Gah with three of her six sons, tells the Associated Press. "We just tried to get ourselves out."
H-HOUR: Camp Bastion,
Helmand Province, 4 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 13
This morning, in the bone-chilling Afghan winter and under a deafening phalanx of helicopters, it can be easy to forget that coalition troops aren't all the same. They differ in training, equipment, tactics and language. Thursday's rehearsal is looking more significant by the moment.
The Canadians gather again in their tent, which is stocked with instant coffee and non-perishable food. Two Maxim magazines sit on a table. This morning's attack will be fuelled by Coke, V8 juice, Pop-Tarts, Nutri-Grain bars and bikinis.
By H-Hour, or launch time, the helicopters are loaded and ready. Each wave is spaced minutes apart. Each nation's pilots are given a "lane" of air in which to fly out, with departing flights going at lower altitudes than returning flights, which themselves are flying underneath unmanned aircraft that provide surveillance.
As Canadian Griffons and Chinooks zip back and forth, locals notice only the sound. Without night-vision goggles, only dim red lights are visible. By dawn, the helicopters are back at Camp Bastion, their role done as Operation Moshtarak continues to unfold.
All told, the Canadian contribution to the massive effort in British-led Helmand included 31 pilots and crew, and about 30 soldiers who are mentoring and training ANA troops in nearby Marjah. In Nad Ali, 1,100 troops were inserted in just over an hour. In Marjah, more than 15,000 troops were brought in by air and land.
At press time, ground operations were continuing and it was too early to say what casualties had been suffered.
The broader goal - a strong Afghan government and police force controlling Helmand once and for all - will take years to achieve. A pair of Afghan helicopters, relics of the Soviet war and incapable of nighttime flight, were on hand at Camp Bastion to begin ferrying in government workers. The number of policemen in Marjah was expected to jump from 50 to 500.
"It is significant," said Master Corporal Craig Wiggins, Capt. Robertson's flight engineer. "I'm glad I'm a part of it. It's a part of history."