There is an article, by Murray Brewster of the Canadian Press, in the Toronto Star about retired Major General David Fraser’s views on what we did right and wrong in Afghanistan. Fraser’s comments have been followed up in other newspapers and on CTV News.
I have no comments on the substance of David Fraser’s remarks, and even if I did I would hope that you, dear readers, would look to better, more current sources for informed criticism of our counter-insurgency (COIN) tactics. I retired when Major General Fraser was still a major, serving in Bosnia. I respect him as a soldier, commander and leader, and I respect his views on issues about which he knows a lot more than I. Others may criticize his views on how we should have conducted the Afghanistan mission; I will not.
Two things upon I do feel qualified to comment are: (1) the way we got into Afghanistan; and (2) how we might have done things somewhat differently.
You may remember that we went to Afghanistan two, arguably three times …
The first deployment (Operation Apollo) was in late 2001/early 02. I have it on extremely good authority that on September 12th, the day after 9/11, the then foreign minister John Manley went out amongst
the more than one hundred thousand Canadians who had gathered on parliament hill and then, shaken by what he had seen and heard, went to see Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to tell him that Canada had to “do something,” quickly. Prime Minister Chrétien took advice from his most senior officials and the chief of the defence staff and we sent one infantry battalion (from 3PPCLI) to Kandahar for one, single six month tour of duty. It was good advice. the Canadian Armed Forces were not in good shape, thanks in very large part to Prime Minister Chrétien’s own policies of starving the military to balance the budget and a longer mission would be difficult He also guessed, correctly, that Canadians’ ardour would cool. Readers might remember that the mission ended, just after four Canadian soldiers were killed in a “friendly fire” incident, in an orgy of anti-Americanism that I understand, also on what I believe to be good authority, was directed and stage managed by Ottawa.
The second deployment (Operation Athena) came, in 2003, when the Americans came looking for moral support, political “cover” in the United Nations, especially, for their invasion of Iraq. Prime Minister Chrétien knew, in his calculating political heart and in his mind, too, that the Iraq adventure was just plain dumb. He, and Canada, was having none of it. Just to ensure that all his bases were covered he sent his defence minister (John McCallum) to Brussels to beg, almost literally, for a major, leadership role in the newly formed, at Germany’s behest, International Security assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, thus ensuring that if asked (he likely would not have been) he could say that Canada was already fully committed to the ill-named “global war on terror” in Afghanistan.
The third deployment (Operation Archer) looked, rather, just like a redeployment from Kabul to Afghanistan but, unlike Operation Athena which was an ISAF (multinational) mission, Archer, in Kandahar, beginning in 2006, was a US led mission.
Why does that matter?
Well, notwithstanding the fact that ISAF was a NATO led mission, there was strong US influence everywhere, but, at least, in ISAF, proper, there was some opportunity for others to exercise some high-level operational influence. It doesn’t really matter what Major General (retired) Fraser might have thought we should have done back in 2006, the US had no intention of ditching Hamid Karzai or of declaring victory and going home. The decision to go to Kandahar forced us to accept an altered command relationship and meant that Canadian strategic/operational opinions would receive less than a full and fair hearing in the corridors of the mighty, because policy was now being made in the Pentagon, for purely US reasons, not in Brussels for US reasons modified to suit the NATO allies. That may not seem like much but it did (and still does) matter. The relationship between the US and its lesser allies and partners, and we are all “lesser” when it comes to military power vis-à-vis the USA, is always unbalanced; the US is always the (much) senior partners and everyone else is a junior partner. It is just the way things are.
In fact, in my opinion and with the advantages of 20/20 hindsight, what Prime Minister Paul Martin should have done in 2005, when the provincial reconstruction team idea was first floated, was to get the Australians, British, and New Zealanders together in a room and, quickly, propose to reform the 1st Commonwealth Division and take over a part of the Afghanistan theatre as a unique organization within ISAF. Then Canada’s voice would have been heard, loudly and clearly, as a full (not just junior) partner; General Fraser’s views would have received fair consideration; perhaps he is right now and was right 10 years ago … we will never know because, in Operation Archer, no one cared what Canada said. Command and control relationships really matter and we ought not to assume that just because the leaders are our friends and allies that they will share or even want to hear our strategic views.