A Canadian Engineer in Afghanistan, Still

Bridge in Afghanistan
Publication Date 
21 Jul 2014

By Maj Derek Spencer

Canada committed military forces to Afghanistan on 20 September 2001 and engineers were there from the beginning. Starting with Major Rod Keller’s 12 Field Engineer Squadron in Kandahar, engineers have been continually employed in a wide spectrum of important tasks across Afghanistan. Even after our combat mission ended in December 2011, the Engineers strongly committed to Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) development through the NATO Training Mission Afghani-stan (NTM-A) in the areas of general engineering, construction, mobility and counter improvised explosive device (CIED). Engineers were working for Afghanistan’s future right up until the last day of the Canadian Contingent Training Mission. It is into this environment that I found myself again in January 2014; this time within the Inter-national Security Assistance Force Joint Command Headquarters (IJC HQ).

I was employed at the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps Turkey (NRDC-T) in Istanbul and deployed to IJC on 7 January 2014 into the Combined Joint Engineers (CJENG) Operations staff. As a NATO officer, I was assigned as the Senior Engineer Plans Officer and our staff immediately worked to prepare for our Transfer of Authority (TOA). First we completed the transition from 1 German/Netherlands Corps to NRDC-T. Immediately after that, we completed the TOA of III (US) Corps to XVIII (US) Airborne Corps under Lieutenant-General Joseph Anderson. As our HQ transi-tioned, we were immediately faced with a reduction of staff but an increase of tasks. Particularly we were planning the subordination of NTM-A from under ISAF to IJC, the coalition support to the upcoming President of Afghanistan elections, how the Regional Commands would transition to Train-Advise-Assist Commands (TAAC) in October 2014 and how to accelerate retrograde and redeployment.

In CJENG, due to staff vacancies, I also took on the duties of the mobility officer to finalize the ISAF bridging retrograde. This involved completing the donation of the emplaced US and NATO bridges (why are the last ones always the hardest?).Early on while the whole staff was saying, “the ISAF Mission is ending” it was clear no one wanted to take risk and off-ramp theatre capabilities. My first mission was to convince the Regional Commands and HQ staff that the Improved Ribbon Bridge (IRB) needed to be end-missioned. It was a great refresher for this old Medium Raft sapper to understand the theatre requirements, capabilities and mitigations for the United States IRB. Not as easy as you might think to end a mission capability like this even in a desert but it was all out by March. By June, we were accelerating the off-ramp of the U.S. logistic bridge capability while we completed the training of the ANSF. We were able to donate NATO’s contingency bridge equipment to the ANSF’s National Engineer Brigade (NEB) so that Afghanistan would have a national-level mobility response capability.

As IJC postured for NATO’s new Resolute Support mission, as the Government of Afghanistan prepared for the 5 April 2014 elections, those of us on exchange with Allied units watched the Canadian Contingent Training Mission - Afghanistan depart on 12 March 2014. It was a good celebration to watch our Canadian brothers and sisters return to Canada after their successful mission. Then the small remainder of us from IJC and ISAF went back to work that day.

For me, I additionally took on responsibility for the three-man Theater Mine Action Center (T-MAC) in Bagram to cover another staff shortfall in IJC. The T-MAC mission is to coordinate the Regional Commands’ decisions concerning high explosive training ranges as they related to Base transitions. These decisions were then handed over to troop contributing nations who then undertook range clearance operations to remove ISAF explosive remnants of war (ERW) from the ranges. It started with vague ISAF direction and an incomplete database in January. Over six months the whole theatre engineer team re-organized the data, focused on the 100+ ranges requiring a nine-nation clearance plan to achieve the Commander ISAF-directed deadline of the end of 2015 not the original 2017.

Coalition warfare creates its own dynamics. It is only strange from the outside that a Canadian working for a Polish officer was needed to coordinate a UK-US-NZ $48 million cost sharing agreement. It was a normal day for me to work with a Ukrainian officer trying to convince me that Spain, Italy and Lithuania had met all their remediation requirements (they had!). Myself and my Turkish officer worked with Sweden to finalize their unexploded ord-nance clearance plan.

It was truly my honour to command the T-MAC during my tour and with some regret that I handed the team over to 2 (US) Engineer Brigade, Task Force TRAILBLAZER so that they could continue their mission into RESOLUTE SUPPORT. I stood on parade as the Canadian Flag get lowered at ISAF and watched the military mission end as my colleagues boarded the C-17 to return home. I cannot claim to be “last out” though. Already there are other Canadian engineers here on sup-porting our Allies on exchange. I suspect that our motto of UBIQUE will continue to apply as we continue to add our professionalism and unique outlook to support engineering operations as Afghanistan continues to grow and develop.


Major Derek Spencer is an alumni of 1 CER and MCE and is presently serving as Chief CIED at the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps (Turkey) in Istanbul