it was with much fanfare that Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Defence Minister Art Eggleton said goodbye to the troops setting off in frigates for the war in Afghanistan last week.Complete secrecy, however, has shrouded what's arguably Canada's most significant contribution to the war effort, the crack special operations unit known as Joint Task Force II (JTFII).
And that's the way the military brass and their political masters in Ottawa would like to keep it.
Indeed, the unit and its 250 or so members are protected by the Official Secrets Act. The unit's workings are such a secret that not even the name of its commander is a matter of public record.
Ditto for its budget and the name of the media liaison officer with the Department of National Defence who's attached to the unit.
Should the Canadian public be worried?
While some are eager to pump the elite group's prowess in the field, much of what is known about its members should give us pause.
Two members of the unit were last year linked to the planning of a wild Brinks robbery in Calgary during which 80 shots were fired between the robbers and police. One of the two is reportedly still serving as a master corporal in the unit.
The incident prompted calls in Parliament for an investigation.
Another member of the unit was recently convicted of a raft of charges, including torture, after Canadian Forces guards at the Quebec Citadel complained of being beaten during a training exercise.
This officer was also in charge of the patrol in Somalia that was blamed for the death of two Somali civilians during Canada's campaign there in the early 90s. The deaths, one a suspected execution, gave rise to the Somalia inquiry, the disbanding of the Airborne Regiment and a national scandal for the military.
Peter Desbarats, the head of the Somalia inquiry, remembers the officer's testimony at the inquiry.
Says Desbarats, "The official version was nonsense. This was basically an unjustified killing."
Some holdovers from the Airborne seem now to make up JTFII.
"They supposedly brought in air force and navy personnel to water down the Airborne influence, but it's still pretty high up there," says one military insider.
The cloak of secrecy under which the unit has operated since its creation in 93 has provided good cover for military commanders who've sought to pad the unit's budget, now estimated to be $40 million annually.
But military experts worry that the unit is ill-equipped for its mission in Afghanistan. JTFII was deployed in Bosnia to conduct reconnaissance for air strikes, but the unit has never really been battle-tested.
Most of its work has involved providing protection for visiting dignitaries and for Canadian politicos travelling abroad.
There's also been push and pull at the top of the military establishment about how and under what circumstances the unit should be deployed.
Members of the unit were on the ground backing up RCMP officers when all hell broke loose during the native standoff at Gustafsen Lake.
Its commanders have at times shown an over-eagerness to use the unit -- even when Canada's national interest was not involved. In 96, for example, it was put on operational standby and was offered up to help free hostages being held at the home of the Japanese ambassador by leftist rebels in Lima, Peru.
Within a military long considered rife with political interference, JTFII has the strongest political linkages of any unit.
It reports directly to the chief of defence staff and through him to the defence minister and PM.
Most military observers say the government's decision to send JTFII abroad has to do with placating its American and NATO critics -- most of whom see the sending of Canada's navy to landlocked Afghanistan as a less than serious deployment.
Quebec Liberal MP David Price slagged his own government for misleading the public about JTFII's deployment in Bosnia in 99. After repeated denials, Eggleton didn't rule out that the unit was being used there for reconnaissance missions.
Price has no such concerns about JTFII in Afghanistan, but he hints at some discussion -- and concern -- in cabinet about sending regular infantry into hostile territory.
"We didn't want to send in troops who are not prepared for the conditions," he says.
But other military experts NOW has interviewed wonder whether eager generals in the defence staff weren't the ones pulling the strings in the background.
Says Scott Taylor, author of Tested Mettle: Canada's Peacekeepers At War and editor of Esprit De Corps, "What you have in the defence department is these long-in-the-tooth generals who're trying to live vicariously through their cowboys"
Adds another observer who has written widely on defence issues and who asked not to be identified for professional reasons, "The Canadian military likes to think of itself as being on the in, part of the special operations community, even though they haven't done anything. The general attitude of (Defence Minister Art) Eggleton is to give carte blanche to the department."
Eggleton's press secretary, Randy Mylyk, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the defence department, lieutenant Kelly Kilrea, also declined to comment, saying that she cannot offer "any information whose release could jeopardize national security."
It's not known what missions JTFII will be asked to carry out. John Thompson of conservative think-tank the Mackenzie Institute speculates that the numbers deployed in Afghanistan will probably be too small to carry out raids.
Other informed speculation has the unit conducting everything from reconnaissance missions and pinpointing targets for air strikes to hostage snatchings. "Americans want every hand on deck," is how one observer puts it. JTFII has trained with the British SAS, which is also in Afghanistan.
Alec Morrison of the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre in Halifax says sending JFTII to Afghanistan will help bolster our sagging military reputation, which has also brought into question our peacekeeping abilities.
Taylor counters, however, that the Canadian government may be setting itself up for a fall. He says special operations forces like the American Delta Force or British SAS rely on their own military intelligence for their operations. Canada has no such intelligence.
Presumably, the Canadian JTFII contingent will be directed by U.S. or British intelligence in Afghanistan, but neither country has the level of intelligence on the ground in Afghanistan that experts say would be needed to conduct a successful special operations ground war.
"To be effective, to be able to find bin Laden and the terrorists, you've got to have intelligence, time working in the region," Taylor says. "We don't have that."
Chris Hellman, a senior analyst with the non-partisan Center for Defense Information in Washington, says the public has gotten too used to a sterilized version of war where precision smart bombs hit military targets and there are few casualties.
Special ops forces carrying out surgical strikes are an extension of that, he says, although real war is a very dirty and nasty business, especially in Afghanistan, where the enemy is more than likely hiding among civilians.
"Traditionally, there have been certain rules about the way wars have been conducted; we have drawn lines between combatants and non-combatants. Those lines are completely gone. In this situation it's difficult to determine who's with you and who's against you." Which raises the spectre of Somalia and the issue of the public accountability of the military. Some observers wonder what the government would do if something were to go terribly wrong in Afghanistan. Given the secrecy currently surrounding JTFII, we'd never know about it.