Last of Canada’s Afghan military gear headed home almost three years late

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

A lot of us have had the experience of being parted from our luggage during a trip. Sometimes it disappears forever, possibly into the same spatial dimension as socks that vanish from the dryer. But usually we get our bags eventually.

So we can sympathize in a small way with the Canadian Armed Forces, who've been living through the mother of all baggage snafus.

Almost three years after Canada's military mission in Kandahar, Afghanistan, wrapped up, the last containers of equipment stored at the Canadian base are just now finding their way back home, CBC News reports.

The containers, which held equipment such as tents and spare parts, but no weaponry, were stranded in Afghanistan after Pakistan closed the land route out of the country to NATO traffic.

The Pakistani government closed the border crossing in November 2011 in retaliation for a U.S. air strike that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. More than 400 of the 1,800 Canadian equipment containers remained at the Kandahar base when Pakistan closed the border.

[ Related: Canada’s 375 containers of military gear stranded in Kandahar ]

A February 2013 briefing note prepared for the then-Defence Minister Peter MacKay and obtained by CBC News under access-to-information legislation outlines the logistical odyssey needed to get the remaining containers out of Afghanistan.

Some 67 containers of "high-priority material" were removed but the military debated on how to ship the rest. At one point, plans called for about half the remaining containers to be shipped overland through Europe to Germany, where they'd be loaded on ships for Canada, CBC News said.

The briefing note doesn't say whether any containers were actually shipped that way but the lengthy delay created another complication. The containers' seaworthiness certifications began expiring.

"Commercial liner services will not accept uncertified sea containers as this would void the carrier's insurance and would contravene international convention," the briefing note says, according to CBC News.

The Department of National Defence opted to spend $750,000 to send 15 soldiers back to Kandahar for a month to unpack the remaining 375 containers, inspect them and re-certify them as seaworthy.

Col. Chuck Mathé, the director of logistics at Canadian Joint Operations Command, told CBC News the team also sorted through the gear and downsized the shipment by determining which was essential and which could be left behind. Non-essential, less valuable equipment was sold to allies still operating in Kanadahar, or demilitarized and destroyed.

That editing process left 212 repacked containers to be shipped. By then, Mathé said, the military decided to give up on trying to ship them by land.

[ Related: Alberta students to lower flags as troops leave Afghanistan ]

"It was essentially a crapshoot," he told CBC News. "You know you could throw dice and say, 'Is it going to be next month, or is it going to be eight months.' There was no light at the end of the tunnel.

"A decision was made that we were going to fly this stuff into another location in the Middle East and then put it on liner service and bring it home."

The expensive airlift option was the most expensive. The government hired two civilian contractors who flew the containers to seaports in the United Arab Emirates for transshipment by sea to Montreal.

The military wouldn't say how much the airlift cost but CBC News estimated the range between $7 million and $22 million, based on the number of flights needed to move all the containers.

And they're not all home yet. CBC News said 140 have arrived at the military depot in Montreal, 29 are in transit and 43 remain in the U.A.E. awaiting shipment. The last are expected back by next month.

The added cost of repatriating the equipment containers is a relative drop in the bucket in the overall price tag for Canada's Afghan intervention – $11.3 billion in mid 2011, when combat forces pulled out of Kandahar. That doesn't include the cost of 950 personnel who remained in Kabul to help train Afghan forces. That mission ends officially in mid-March.

And, of course, it doesn't include the price Canada paid in blood: 162 Canadian soldiers and civilians killed, hundreds more wounded and an untold number suffering psychological effects of their service in Afghanistan.