Rumours swirl after dismissal of Canadian commander in Afghanistan

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan – Brig.-Gen. Daniel Menard – who was fired late Saturday as head of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan because of alleged sexual misconduct – is the first Canadian general officer to be dismissed on the battlefield since the Second World War.

Menard had been named to lead a critical NATO campaign against the Taliban in Kandahar – a task that will now fall to his stopgap replacement, Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance, who was in charge of the 2,800 Canadian troops in Afghanistan until six months ago, and will take over again until another general arrives at the end of September.

Only a few hours after Lt.-Gen. Marc Lessard, the leader of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, announced Menard’s precipitous fall from grace, the “one leaf” general quietly boarded a CC-130 Hercules transport in 41 C heat to begin the 11,000-kilometre journey home to Canada and a potential public court martial.

The woman allegedly involved with Menard was also sent back to Canada.

Menard – who had four months left in his 10-month deployment to Afghanistan – is being investigated by the military’s police’s National Investigation Service, which is charged with investigating “serious and sensitive service and criminal matters” for the forces, according to its website. The NIS has the power to lay charges, as does a commander or someone deputized by him.

“Sexual activity or any other form of intimate contact in any context,” is strictly forbidden for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, according to standing orders on personal relationships that every soldier receives before deploying to South Asia.

As explained in the five-page document, the reason is that soldiers in Afghanistan “work, train and live together in conditions of close physical proximity with minimal privacy and separation from partners and loved ones,” according to the document. “(Therefore) certain restrictions must be placed on their conduct to ensure operation effectiveness through the maintenance of discipline, morale and cohesion.”

The exit of the 42-year-old infantry officer from the Royal 22nd Regiment and the reasons for it were the subject of intense speculation Sunday – not only among the 1,000 Canadian soldiers based at Kandahar Airfield, but the thousands of NATO troops from other countries stationed here.

Rumours were rampant about what may or may not have happened and with whom. The firestorm was fuelled by remarks by an aide to Defence Minister Peter MacKay who infuriated officers here by alleging in Ottawa that Menard had an improper relation with a member of his staff, thereby throwing a cloud of suspicion over a small group of women working in the headquarters here.

Told of Menard’s dismissal and alleged misconduct Sunday morning at Kandahar Airfield moments after leaving his sleep tent to grab a shower, a soldier of junior rank shook his head in disgust and said, “First Col. Williams and now Gen. Menard. What is the public to think?”

The soldier was referring to Col. Russell Williams, former commander of Canadian Forces Base Trenton, who was charged in January with two counts of first-degree murder in the sex slayings of two Ontario women. One of the victims was an enlisted woman under his command.

A senior Canadian officer said he was “shocked” by the allegations against Menard and worried because this is “not a great spotlight to cast on Canadians in theatre.”

A captain promoted from the ranks with decades of service, said that what had happened was “a shame.” But the rules regarding personal relations were well known, he said. “This case demonstrates that none of us is above military law.”

Menard is married to Maj. Julie Fortin, who commands a logistics company at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec. They have two children.

Military officials confirmed that the woman allegedly involved with Menard was also under investigation although if charged, the general’s alleged offence would be considered to be more serious misconduct because as commander he was her superior.

The allegation, which falls on the heels of a conviction last week against Menard for negligent use of his rifle two months ago in Kandahar, is an almost certain career-ender for the soldier.

Until Saturday, the general, who was well liked by his troops, had been clearly identified by the military as one of its highest-flyers and was a strong bet to be promoted into the most senior ranks in the next few years.

Menard’s signature project during his tour has been the establishment of “a ring of stability” around Kandahar City, which both NATO and the Taliban consider to be the vital ground in their long conflict. In several interviews two months ago, the general spoke of “breaking the back” of the insurgency.

Chosen in his 20s for a prestigious cross-posting with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, Menard also served in Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Haiti.

After pleading guilty to the gun charge last Tuesday and paying a $3,500 fine, Menard returned to Kandahar on Thursday evening.

Hours after his arrival he looked extremely happy to be back, jumping up from a table to greet a journalist and to tell him how much he looked forward to the next months of his command.

Menard’s swift ascent through the ranks ended the moment Lessard concluded Saturday that there was enough information to merit an investigation into serious misconduct.

It is understood that Lessard made the decision after consulting with MacKay and Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Canada’s top soldier. Some of Menard’s hand-picked team of senior officers in Kandahar appeared shattered by his dismissal. Many of these majors and colonels, who were mostly from Quebec, were intensely loyal to the general. Most had worked closely with Menard in other assignments and all had spent six months training intensely with him in Quebec, Alberta and California before deploying to Kandahar last November.

Menard was not the first Canadian general to leave his tour in Afghanistan prematurely. Another Van Doo, Brig.-Gen. Gerry Champagne, was not half way through his tour with ISAF’s Regional Command South last year when he suddenly returned to Canada after what was described as “a strong personality conflict” with his superior, British Maj.-Gen. Nick Carter.

Menard was to take command of Canadian Land Force Area Quebec in Montreal upon his return to Canada. It is now widely assumed that another French-speaking general will be found to fill that post.

Vance was about to become director general land capability development in Ottawa. That posting at National Defence Headquarters has presumably been delayed for some months.

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