Canada in Afghanistan: The Need to Remember, and Lessons Unlearned

Editor’s note: A version of this article appears in today’s Globe and Mail.

Remembrance Day is approaching.

Despite some 160 dead, several thousand wounded, and perhaps tens of thousands afflicted with continuing  psychological disorders, the extent to which Canada’s long and costly engagement in Afghanistan has faded from the public mind is striking.

Major questions, ranging from the handling of detainees to the decision to pursue aggressive counterinsurgency warfare in Kandahar, remain unanswered.

Yet there is no appetite, particularly at the political level, for a searching retrospective.

Absent a full public enquiry into Canadian involvement, it may be that the most that can be salvaged from over a decade of war will be the possibility of avoiding similar mistakes in the future.

What lessons, then, might be learned by Canadians in the wake of this tragedy? There are many, but three in particular stand out.

Look before you leap.  Going to war carries enormous consequences. If a commitment of that nature is being considered, the public interest requires that the full implications be carefully weighed and evaluated. Elected authorities and senior officials must ensure that comprehensive analysis and wide ranging consultations have been conducted in advance of any decision.

By all indications, however, that was not the case in 2004-5, when Canada withdrew from participation in UN-mandated peace support operations in Kabul in favour of joining Operation Enduring Freedom in Kandahar, and with it the “Global War on Terror”. This signalled a radical departure, but it was not acknowledged as such at the time. With a minimum of forethought, this country jettisoned a long tradition of diplomacy and internationalism, and substituted in its place a much harder edge. As the costs began to multiply, it was as if as if burden of history and the complexity of Afghan demography, society and culture came as a surprise.

Canadian decision-making performance in this instance displayed an appalling lack of due diligence and public communications, and there has still been no adequate accounting on the part of those responsible.

Act strategically. Fundamental changes in international policy direction require clear priorities, a detailed plan and defined performance benchmarks. Canada, the US and NATO had practically none of the above. Objectives kept changing, and now the enterprise is showing every sign of ending badly. The case in support of some form of multilateral intervention was compelling in late 2001. Yet following from the initial success, things went badly off track.

The US-led coalition likely obtained its major achievable strategic objectives – removal of the Taliban government and dismantling of al-Qaeda – by early 2003. If the promotion of democracy, economic recovery and nation-building were the ultimate goals, then the intercession should have been largely demilitarized at that juncture, with a wholesale move to civil society-led development assistance. Instead, the coalition leader became distracted by another, much larger war of choice – Iraq – and ISAF lost its way.

When you don’t know where you want to go, or where you are going, you will never arrive.

Learn from failure. NATO’s ill-advised decision to effectively join one side in a civil war has wrought a terrible backlash. The Taliban are now firmly re-established, and quite possibly poised to resume control – or try – following the almost certain collapse of the Karzai regime or its post-war successor. Afghanistan is in many respects worse off now than it was a decade ago.

The recent huge increase in “green on blue” attacks directed at ISAF personnel are especially worrisome and now account for about one quarter of all  coalition casualties. Moreover, this latest insurgent tactic, the “insider” threat which cannot easily be defeated through enhanced “vetting”, threatens to derail NATO’s 2014 exit planning. The message here – not unlike that carried by the successful use of IEDs or the two large scale jailbreaks from the Sarposa prison in Kandahar – is that there are no foreign military solutions to Afghanistan’s vexing problems of underdevelopment and insecurity.

The current attempt at the “Vietnamization” of this conflict shows every sign of going the same way as it did in Southeast Asia in 1975.

There is scant evidence, in Ottawa or in other ISAF capitals, that any of these lessons have been learned. After almost 12 years of intense engagement in Afghanistan, this country has never had much more than an ad hoc, reactive policy. Above all, we seem to have forgotten one of the Cold War’s most enduring truths, namely that militaries work best when they are not used. Take the sword from the scabbard and it makes a dreadful mess.

When policy becomes an instrument of war, rather than the reverse, problems quickly compound.

As November 11th approaches, that axiom – in addition to the need for due diligence, strategic oversight and learning from failure –  is one that all Canadians might usefully remember.

After an expenditure of almost $30 billion, many lives lost or damaged, and with over 900 military trainers still in harm’s way, it is surely too soon to turn the page.