To Canada, Afghanistan had been a country of little to no relevance, but this would immediately change after the September 11 attacks. Once it became clear that al-Qaeda, a Salafi jihadist terrorist group, orchestrated the attacks under the protection of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Canada and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies led by the US were immediately engaged. Under the legitimacy of “collective defence” as enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (1949), the US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan on 4 October 2001. Referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom – Afghanistan (OEF-A), the invasion by mid-November restored the Afghan capital of Kabul back to the anti-Taliban forces who were driven out of the city back in September 1996. After the capture of Kabul, the Canadian Forces (CF) continued to fight alongside the Americans in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar, where the Taliban was still active. However, after much operational success, a bulk of the CF returned to Canada in July 2002. At this point, the Bonn Agreement (2002) was struck between non-Taliban Afghan actors, establishing the Afghan Transitional Administration, and a pathway for democratization for the war-torn state. Progress was being made. However, this was only the start of a decade-long mission in Afghanistan for Canada. The Afghan mission would eventually become the largest commitment the CF has made since the Korean War.
Around late 2002, the political focus in Ottawa shifted from Afghanistan to a preoccupation over the Bush administration’s intention to remove Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship from power in Iraq. The Hussein regime was suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction, and for harboring and sponsoring al-Qaeda. Although officially unverified, a school of thought maintains that Canada’s subsequent extensive commitment to Afghanistan was a quid pro quo for its refusal to join the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq. The then foreign minister Hon. Bill Graham notes that Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan did indeed help attenuate criticism from Washington for its decision on Iraq. Along with this ulterior objective for entering the Afghan theatre, the then CF Chief of the Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier was eager for the Forces to play an important combat role in the theatre. Hiller wanted to essentially prove to Washington and Brussels (NATO headquarters) that Canada was not a free rider within NATO, but also to expand Canada’s lack of influence over the South Asian region. However, this differed from what was officially communicated to the Canadian public: Canada’s objectives in Afghanistan were to aid and advise reconstruction and state-building efforts, and to defend the development of such efforts with Canadian troops on-ground. This was otherwise referred to as the “3D” (defence, diplomacy, and development) or “whole-of-government” approach.
This paper argues that the strategy employed by the Canadian government and the CF during the early phases of the War in Afghanistan severely lacked preparedness, and was not appropriate to their military and state-building capacity and commitment. This severely compromised the government’s 3D objective for Afghanistan. This paper defines the “early phase” of the Afghan war as between 2003 and 2006. This was a period in which the CF were redeployed to Kabul (Operation Athena, 2003-05) and deployed in Kandahar (Operation Archer, 2006). Although many underlying factors deterred the Canadian government and the CF from properly executing their 3D objective, this paper specifically details on the CF’s failure to conflate and jointly apply both counterterrorist (CT) and counterinsurgent (COIN) strategy appropriately; the division among different governmental agencies in regards to what Canada’s objectives were in Afghanistan; the limited operational autonomy the CF suffered due to Ottawa’s overly bureaucratic management of the CF; and the Forces’ overreliance on its NATO allies despite their strict military caveats and restrictions from taking part in combat.
Afghanistan is a South Asian country, landlocked between China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to the north, Iran to the west, and Pakistan to the southeast. The country is comprised of a Sunni Muslim majority, and a diversity of ethnic groups, including, but not limited to Pashtuns, Tajiks, and Hazaras. However, none of these groups make up a majority. History of modern Afghanistan can be considered to have started in May 1919, when the then Emir Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan’s total independence from Great Britain. At the time, although Afghanistan was not formally a British colony, the British still exercised considerable influence over Afghan affairs. Setting precedent for the Third Anglo-Afghan War, the Afghans fought the British, and reaffirmed their right to conduct their own affairs as an independent, sovereign state. For half a century thereafter, even against the backdrop of complex geopolitical forces, Afghanistan would prove to be one of the most stable countries in Asia: The landlocked state maintained its neutrality during the two World Wars; and King Zahir Shah ruled from 1933 to 1973 without any major upheaval. However, after a coup against the King in 1973, Afghanistan would undergo multiple regime changes; an invasion from the USSR to reaffirm Soviet influence over Afghan political leadership (1979-89); a civil war between the pro-Soviet Republic of Afghanistan and the US-supported Mujahideen (1989-92); a Sharia-based rule under the Taliban government (1996-2001); and now, the ongoing War in Afghanistan. These turbulent events had crippled the country’s economy. The Afghan state had long suffered from a downward gross domestic product (GDP) trend, along with the disruption of trade and transport and as well as the loss of labor and capital. To make matters worse, the Taliban continued to operate in the outskirts of Afghanistan after it had been removed from power – disrupting progress from being made for the new Afghan state.
Although Ottawa’s commitment to the 3D approach coincided with the needs of the Afghan state and peoples in principle, its perceived need to “make it up” to the US rushed Canada into war. However, in fragile post-conflict countries, the demands made on on-ground aid personnel are extremely complex; the assigned staff must be well-trained and -equipped to address a variety of problems, and hold years of experience in international development and humanitarian assistance. Yet, this was not the case: Canada had no strategy for a long-term delivery of the 3Ds, and the three governmental agencies involved in Afghanistan – the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the ministries of Defence and Global Affairs – suffered from ideological differences. It should also emphasized that Canada opened its embassy in Kabul a year and half after the initial deployment of Canadian troops in 2001. Only four Canadians were assigned to the embassy post, but without any Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) presence in an environment where Canada was a stranger to. Unpreparedness would be a repeating theme throughout the early phase of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, and prove devastating for the CF’s encounters with the Taliban’s unconventional tactics in Kandahar.
On August 2003, under the banner of Operation Athena, some 1,900-strong Canadian troops were redeployed in Kabul. The CF became the commanding nation of the newly formed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Comprised of NATO ally soldiers, the security body’s organizational purpose was to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and assist the Afghan state in rebuilding vital government institutions, but also fighting against the Taliban insurgents. The ISAF was initially responsible for securing Kabul and the nearby areas from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and tribal warlords. However, to help the Afghan Transitional Administration take control over the rest of Afghan jurisdictions, in October 2003, the United Nations Security Council authorized the expansion of the ISAF mission beyond the Afghan capital. Considering that the German Bundestag was in favour of deploying German troops to the city of Kunduz, the Canadians opted for Kandahar – a province once under the US’ command. Securing Kandahar was strategically important. The Taliban remained active in the province, but this was possible because Kandahar province bordered Pakistan. The porous border between the two countries has historically never been under central control: from Alexander the Great to the British Empire and the Soviets, none of them were able to subdue the border. Because the Taliban shares alliance with many of the Islamic extremist organizations in Pakistan, whenever vulnerable and weak, the Taliban crossed over to Pakistan to replenish, rearm, and regroup – only to return and fight once again. General Hiller favored Kandahar over any other site for this reason. He believed that the CF would undergo combat, which would help raise Canada’s standing with the Americans and NATO.
The CF however was not prepared for Kandahar. The province’s environment was ideal for a “Three Block War” situation, where Canadian troops would have to provide humanitarian relief for the locals, while stabilizing the grounds and helping reconstruction efforts under the constant threat of the Taliban. The CF nevertheless continued to align its operational goals with the 3D approach: The Canadian approach in Kandahar recognized that the Forces’ combat role was subsidiary to that of providing security for the peoples of Kandahar. General Hiller described such approach as “[making] war in the hills and love in the towns.” The CF’s equipment indeed reflected that policy. The CF’s arsenal consisted of light armored and highly mobile vehicles, not tanks or heavy-lift helicopters.
Adapting to the CF’s light-armored, limited conventional warfare capabilities, the Taliban started to unexpectedly employ suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as part of their tactic. Such tactics were unheard of in Afghan tradition. Suffering much casualties, the CF responded with more heavily armored vehicles: the Iltis Jeep and RG-31 Nyala Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) were replaced with Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) III, but these too proved vulnerable against the IEDs. Because of this, in an effort to adapt to the Taliban’s uncongenial tactics, Ottawa borrowed and ordered Leopard tanks from Germany and from the Dutch as well. The CF’s Chinook transport helicopters too proved vulnerable to rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), forcing the Forces to purchase Bell CH-146 Griffon helicopter gunships to escort the Chinooks in combat areas. The extra firepower and protection was needed, yet the CF was now operating like a heavily militarized force – insulated from the local population. Hiller’s policy of “make war in the hills and love in the towns” was slowly being abandoned. These developments erected a wall of distrust that inhibited collaborative partnerships with the locals.
This was problematic for several reasons. Close proximity to the locals and networking help understand the country, its people and culture – thus, their needs and priorities. This is a necessary foundation for the 3D approach. Operating in this manner produces respect and trust from the local government counterparts, and raises the reputation of the country engaged in the mission. Although the CF had every intention to adopt such approach, the Forces had to abandon it because they were unprepared for the Taliban’s unconventional tactic. Contrary to the 3D approach, the CF stayed locked down in compounds for extended periods, contributing to the loss of contact with the locals and neutralizing the field office and its staff. The case of Kandahar indeed demonstrates the CF’s failure to conflate and jointly apply both CT and COIN strategy appropriately.
The two strategies would envisage combat action in Afghanistan, but with very different ends. A CT strategy would primarily focus on destroying al-Qaeda, while offering little to no support for reconstructing the new Afghan state. A global terrorist group like al-Qaeda intervenes directly in local conflicts or abroad to bait the US and its allies into exhausting wars of attrition. They often employ irregular tactics like suicide bombings regardless of whether it creates civilian casualties. It has been traditionally uncommon for insurgent groups like the Taliban to rely on such tactics. This is because an insurgent group is interested in governing the civilian population. They want to appear favorable to the locals. Therefore, a COIN strategy aims to defeat an insurgency by means of conventional warfare, and being looked upon favourably by the locals via reconstruction and state-building projects. It is a battle over who wins the hearts and minds of the local population. What the CF failed to foresee was that the Taliban’s major defeat in 2001 placed the group under an existential threat, forcing them to resort to terrorist tactics out of desperation. The CF did not expect the Taliban to fuse terrorist and insurgent tactics, or the rise of irregular warfare as the preferred mode of combat in the Afghan theatre. To the Forces, the Taliban and al-Qaeda had become indistinguishable. Further, purchasing and replacing the CF’s main vehicles was already beyond the Forces’ original capacity, and the needed militarization indeed backfired against the aims of the COIN operations aforementioned. The CF simply did not have enough situational awareness prior to deploying in Kandahar, damaging their larger mission objective of development, diplomacy, and defence. Problems arising from unpreparedness and lack of military and state-building capacity and commitment would continue to appear, especially regarding Canada’s state-building efforts.
As part of General Hiller’s responsibility for managing the ISAF’s expansion out of Kabul and to replicate the developmental success he had in the capital elsewhere in Afghanistan, Hiller focused on assisting the Afghan government to establish effective departments and agencies and training the bureaucrats to run them. To support this goal, Hillier employed members of his ISAF staff as a strategic planning team in Kabul. The Afghan President Karazi likened the CF’s initiative, recognizing that his ministers were in need of guidance. With Karazi’s approval, Hiller requested Ottawa to enlarge his initiative and won the needed support for the plan. The CF as a result in August 2005 established the Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan (SAT-A). The team was essentially made up of military officers and civilian personnel. They were expert planners with various backgrounds, including, but not limited to management, law, engineering, and medicine – all skill sets that were short in supply in Afghanistan. Desperate for assistance, the Afghan bureaucracy welcomed the team, and were willing to trust the Canadians. A rare privilege that could not have been offered to the Americans.
Overall, the SAT-A helped to execute key government recovery efforts, rule of law, civil service reform, and even the National Development Strategy. The SAT-A was unique in that no foreign military personnel before had actually embedded itself within the host nation’s governing sphere. It was clear that the Afghans, along with President Karzai, benefited from and likened the SAT-A’s skillset. However, the initiative produced no direct intelligence benefit for Ottawa. The SAT-A leader Colonel Capstick emphasized that he consciously decided not to collect intelligence because trust needed to be built with the Afghans. Capstick explained that if the SAT-A was perceived to be an intelligence resource, building any trust would have quickly failed. Because of this, while the SAT-A did indeed provide rudiments of proper democratic governance for the Afghans, the initiative was killed in Ottawa. Further, after Chris Alexander, the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan who cooperated with the initiative, returned to Ottawa, his successors demobilized the intimate relationship Alexander had established between the SAT-A and the Afghan political actors. Along with non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan criticizing the military for providing expertise to a civilian government, Global Affairs Canada and the Privy Council Office too joined this bandwagon of criticism against the SAT-A program. In response, General Hiller dismissed such criticisms as “straight jealousy”. He argued that these agencies did not want the CF to get the credit for the work traditionally intended for civilian bureaucrats. And, it indeed had long been clear that no civilian personnel wanted to risk the dangers and discomforts of Afghanistan.
One of the most effective and proven Canadian state-building programs was disbanded due to Ottawa bureaucratic politics. While the SAT-A’s goal aligned with Ottawa’s 3D approach, it was clear that the team’s mission did not complement the amount of state-building commitment Ottawa was willing to invest. As previously noted, the reason for disbanding the initiative was because it did not directly serve Ottawa’s interests. Plus, the initiative was radical in the sense that Canada’s military body was undertaking influence over a civilian government – a role typically meant for civilian actors in Ottawa. Despite the fact that Ottawa had the capacity to promote and even extend a program like the SAT-A, it lacked the commitment to prevail against bureaucratic politics. This bureaucratic mindset of Ottawa deterred progress, and also severely limited the CF’s operational autonomy on-ground.
During the NATO intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canadian battalions were jokingly dubbed as “Can’tbats” by its NATO counterparts. The CF indeed suffered a long history of restrictions on what they could and could not do on-ground, especially during peacekeeping missions in Somalia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Afghanistan was not an exception. When the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Pat Stogran landed on Afghan soil in early 2002, Ottawa immediately imposed military caveats: Strogran had to seek approval for any mission that might risk collateral damage. This problem affected the Forces’ partnership with NATO. Even though a CF military personnel, General Hiller, took command of the ISAF in early 2004, he realized he could not rely on his own Canadian troops. The CF struggled over the National Defence Headquarters’ strict caveat rules, and operational requests that took 12 to 72 hours for Ottawa to respond back. Although such caveats were removed when Canadian troops were deployed to Kandahar, some of the NATO members still held onto their caveats. This would later make Canadian combat encounters with the Taliban much more difficult.
Ottawa was under the assumption that the CF was joining a 40,000-strong NATO alliance in Afghanistan. This was not the case in reality. Aside from Canada, only the Americans, British, Danish and a few other countries allowed their commanders on-ground to judge what action their forces should take. The Germans were confined to stay in Kunduz, while the Dutch were restricted from mobilizing beyond the province of Oruzgan. Some contingents were forbidden to leave their compounds during night time. These military caveats became a severe problem for the CF in the wake of the Taliban resurgence in 2006. When the CF and other NATO soldiers landed in Kandahar, the US had already withdrawn most of its military presence from the province and transferred its command to NATO. This left a vacuum for airpower, which was desperately needed to counter the full blown insurgency. However, NATO’s airpower was subject to scarcities and national caveats. And, the problem of caveats continued to persist. During Operation Medusa in September 2006, the Canadians won every encounter against the Taliban, but did not have enough troops to hold the grounds that they took. Because the British were in need of assistance at the time, the CF flew from one side of Kandahar to the other – freely leaving their gained grounds to be recaptured by the Taliban. What frustrated the CF was that the Germans, the French, and the Italians were stationed nearby, but they were restricted from taking part in combat.
Critically, the military caveats imposed by Ottawa prevented the CF from responding to on-ground events with speed, severely compromising the Forces’ objectives. Even though the complex situation in Afghanistan demanded swift response and much work, Ottawa was not committed to extending the CF’s capacity and autonomy. However, aforementioned, Ottawa did indeed backtrack on its caveats. This reveals that Ottawa perceived the Afghan mission lightly, or equivalent to peacekeeping missions the Forces had conducted with caveats. Another visible problem was the caveats the NATO allies had. Their caveats clearly rendered the Canadian combat operations much more difficult. This however begs the question as to why Ottawa relied on its NATO allies for support in the first place. Considering that these caveats were nothing new, the CF should have recognized that the Germans, the French, and the Italians could not offer adequate support. The Forces should have had more troops on-ground to secure the territories they gained. The caveats the NATO allies were suffering from only became a problem for the CF because of the Forces’ overreliance on them. The damage these caveats produced could have been well-mitigated. They could have been identified prior to deployment, and the Forces could have prepared accordingly. Again, the problem of unpreparedness, along with the lack of military capacity and commitment, have damaged Canada’s larger objective of securing stability in Afghanistan.
In retrospect, the repeating theme of the problems the Forces struggled over during the early phase of the War in Afghanistan is unpreparedness, along with the lack of military and state-building capacity and commitment. Lacking situation awareness in Kandahar province, the CF was not able to appropriately conflate and jointly apply both CT and COIN strategy. The CF’s heavy militarization in response to the Taliban’s unconventional tactics unwittingly compromised its goal of building trust with the local population. As well, while the CF-led SAT-A program proved effective in providing assistance to the Afghan governing bodies, Ottawa was not committed enough to consider the radical notion of a military body advising a civilian government. To make matters worse, Ottawa’s imposition of military caveats on the CF in a highly complex and dangerous environment like that of Afghanistan also demonstrated a lack of preparedness and commitment. This shortfall was further compounded by Ottawa’s overreliance on NATO for military support, which its NATO counterparts could not deliver due their own caveats. Ottawa indeed could have better prepared Canadian soldiers, staff and diplomats before committing to the Afghan theatre.
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