Eastern Promises - Macleans.ca
 

Eastern Promises


 

Domestic politics are playing an increasingly destabilizing role in the coalition mission in Afghanistan.  A disagreement over whether to extend the country’s military mission has brought down the Dutch government. The centre-right prime minister wanted to accede to NATO’s request for an extension, while one of his coalition partners on the left wanted to stick to the agreed-upon plan to leave Afghanistan this year.

NATO isn’t pretending this isn’t a problem.

The Dutch have been holding Uruzgan province, one of the more unstable regions after Kandahar and Helmand. The Australians were asked to step into the breach, and declined, which means that some of the American troops who were sent over as part of the surge into the south are going to have to go up to Uruzgan to replace the Dutch.

Meanwhile, Canada continues to proceed under the assumption that we are leaving Kandahar in 2011, regardless of how this summer’s counterinsurgency campaign turns out. On the record, Canadian officials will say that NATO is perfectly fine with that – we’ve done good work, paid our dues, etc. And on the record, NATO officials will say that Canada’s departure is just another operational constraint that needs to be factored into mission planning.

When it comes to don’t-quote-me-on-this discussions,  it is a different thing entirely. Most officials I spoke with over there are very unhappy with Canada’s plan to leave. A senior British officer put it most bluntly: “It’s an absolute disaster, unless we can fill in the lost experience and that’s unlikely.  It’s bad campaign work, and it’s bad alliance work.”

Most of the Afghans we met didn’t like it either. An ANA commander at one of the OMLT bases was very unhappy with the prospect of Canada leaving, and he got rather emotional when discussing how much the relationship his men had with the Canadians meant to him. And that’s one aspect that tends to get ignored in the debate over whether to stay or go – the deep personal bonds of trust that have been established between the Afghan troops and their Canadian mentors. Replacing that trust isn’t as simple as simply bringing in new troops from a new country.

None of this is an argument for extending the mission.I find it very hard to be hawkish about a war that has cost far too many lives on all sides and that promises to take still more lives over the next year and a half, to very little obvious effect. But the fact is Canada has made a commitment over there, not only to our NATO partners but – more importantly – to the Afghan people. Whatever we do, I think it is vital that we not betray that commitment.

What this country ought to have is a proper public debate the role we are going to play in Afghanistan after summer 2011. The state-building project we are engaged in is a decades-long endeavour, even assuming the military side of McChrystal’s COIN strategy works as planned. There are options that fall somewhere between a total pullout and remaining in full combat operations. One thing that McChrystal has repeatedly asked for is more trainers, and he hasn’t received anywhere close to the number he needs.

Meanwhile, today’s WSJ has a very interesting article about the surprisingly high level of support in Denmark for the country’s mission in Afghanistan. Despite having the second highest ratio of casualties to troops (after Canada), around half of all Danes support the mission, while only a third think that Denmark should not have troops in Afghanistan. In contrast, the latest Angus Reid poll has 47 percent of Canadians in support of the military operation, with 49 percent opposed.

One thing the Danes have done to engineer a rough consensus on the mission is to give reporters “deep access” to soldiers who are allowed to talk, on the record, about the mission. According to the Danish defense minister:

When troops say, ” ‘We did a job and we did it good, and it is worth doing,’ then it is very hard indeed for a lot of people to oppose, because those are the men and women who risk their lives,” he said.

In contrast, Canadians rarely hear from the rank and file about the work they are doing over there. Canadian soldiers are generally allowed to talk to reporters only about their specific job or area of expertise – any freelancing about geopolitics or the broader implications of what they are doing is forbidden. You can see why the military would want it this way, but one effect is that it reduces stories about the mission tend to two general types: Political stories, or dead-soldier stories. What we don’t hear much about is the huge amount of highly dedicated professional soldiering that is going on down in Kandahar.


 
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Eastern Promises

  1. First off, I don't think Brit Officers should be lecturing anyone on bad campaign or alliance work because they don't have stellar record themselves. I don't agree with decision to pull out but we have been there for a decade and have given a couple of years notice, not much more we should be expected to do. It is unfortunate the Americans only decided to get serious about Afghan now and not five years ago.

    "Most of the Afghans we met didn't like it either. An ANA commander at one of the OMLT bases was very unhappy with the prospect of Canada leaving, and he got rather emotional when discussing how much the relationship his men had with the Canadians meant to him."

    We need a Colonial Office (call it some it different of course or liberals will flap their gums) if we are going to start involving ourselves in Nation building projects, which it looks like we are going to do in Afghan, Haiti and who knows where else. Soldiers should be killing bad guys, not digging wells or helping to electrify a neighbourhood. They are two entirely different jobs/skills/training and should not be mixed. The Afghans should be building close relationships with people in my imaginary Colonial Office branch and we could ensure relationships are built over the years.

    • Although I agree with your sentiment jolyon, I do disagree in part with your second argument that soldiers should be for killing bad guys and not building wells. As a former peace keeping nation, and not war mongers and with an obligation to our soldiers to prepare them for life after the battle field it is essential that our armies be capable of these exact things. What good would our soldiers be to a country like Haiti in a time of natural disaster if they were only trained to kill? If it weren't for the excellent training provided to our troops beyond pulling a trigger I suggest getting volunteers would become that much harder.

      • We were a war monger nation, as you put it, before we were a peace keeping one but that's been mostly airbrushed out of our history.

        "What good would our soldiers be to a country like Haiti in a time of natural disaster if they were only trained to kill?"

        They could either act as police, stop riots, keep order I guess but I would prefer if they were not there at all. We send Colonial Office people to respond to natural disasters, ChrisWPG. Wars and disaster relief should be two separate functions.

    • That's a good point, but in an environment where the electricians/well-diggers are getting shot at and may need to shoot back, the two roles tend to get mixed. There are army engineers who do this sort of thing for a living and are very good at it, so until things reach a certain level of stability it makes sense to have the soldiers kickstart the nation building.

  2. Andrew,

    "One thing the Danes have done to engineer a rough consensus on the mission is to give reporters “deep access” to soldiers who are allowed to talk, on the record, about the mission."

    This point is essential and as you correctly state Canadian media reports have been largely restricted to "Political stories, or dead-soldier stories."

    If Canadians were getting a fuller picture of what is going on day-to-day rather than just nothing and then a slodier dies we would be able to form a much better view on the value of staying versus not staying.

    As well, nobody in politics, on either side of the debate, wants to talk about this at all. There might be real, valid reasons to keep our troops (or at least some) there but nobody is willing to have a real debate about this and put forward some real ideas. Thanks to Haprer it has become aspersion and mud-throwing.

  3. It is not just the lack of access to soldiers. We should not have to rely upon our soldiers to explain what they are doing, the importance of what they are doing and why they are doing it.

    There has been a real failure of the political leadership on Afghanistan. I'll give Chretien a pass because when he brought us into the war it was clear why were there and it was generally supported: to defeat the Taliban and destroy the Al Qeada.

    Since then, the best we have gotten from Martin and Harper has been, and I'm paraphrasing here, variations of "shut up and support the troops" and "why do you hate Afghanistan women so much". You hear quips about nation building, but it seems from the rhetoric and the number of occasions Afghanistan gets referred to that we are there so the PM has something to bash the opposition with (and good photo ops, natch).

    It is a shameful lost opportunity and it is why the support for the war is so much lower than in Denmark.

    • I spent all of six days in Afghanistan last week, so it's not like I'm any sort of expert. But what surprised me (and, I think, all four journos on the trip) the most was the sheer scope of Canada's mission over there. We have our hands in literally every aspect of the state-building project — diplomacy, governance, development, infrastructure, policing, justice… on it goes. I talk about this a bit more in my piece for the magazine this week, but what is annoying is that *none* of these stories get reported back home in Canada.

      Partly it is because there are no Canadian reporters based in Kabul, where a lot of interesting non-combat work is being done. Canadian media have basically decided that reporting on Afgh consists of a death-watch out of Kandahar, which does no justice to the troops.

      But also, the Canadian government has done a poor job of communicating its mission to Canadians. To give just one example, the last quarterly report to parliament wasn't even properly tabled — the government tried to bury it shortly before they prorogued parliament. And even the good news stories, the ones you'd think we would be bragging about, are almost impossible to get decent information on. CIDA in particular is atrocious at communications; getting anything out of their offices in Ottawa is like a trip to the dentist.

  4. "What we don't hear much about is the huge amount of highly dedicated professional soldiering that is going on down in Kandahar."

    Actually this is what every correspondent embedded or otherwise comes back with. It's also the theme of every episode of Afghanada on CBC Radio and the theme of almost everything our politicians say about Afghanistan. It's almost the only thing we hear.

    What we don't hear is any evidence of a coherent plan, or objectives for Canadian participation. We've heard a smorgasbord of reasons why we should just shut and do whatever Rick Hillier thinks, and we've been told contradictory things about what is or isn't going to be happening after 2011. In other words a vacuum of political leadership, and a pronounced lack of transparency and accountability from the Department of Defence, military and civilian.

    That's what we've been missing since 2001 and that's why Canadians don't trust what they are being told now.

  5. Good article. I thought this hit the crux of the issue:
    "But the fact is Canada has made a commitment over there, not only to our NATO partners but – more importantly – to the Afghan people. Whatever we do, I think it is vital that we not betray that commitment."

    And this hit the solution:
    "What this country ought to have is a proper public debate the role we are going to play in Afghanistan after summer 2011."

    Once one decides to let even a single soldier die, the goal is all or nothing. There is no finite cost for a human life. Therefore either the entire mission was a mistake or we are in it until it's done, and done well.

    Our country has almost lost the art of debating such matters with dispassionate reason, but if we can recover it this issue is crying out to be hammered out in a public forum such that there is some kind of national consensus afterwards.

  6. There are options that fall somewhere between a total pullout and remaining in full combat operations. One thing that McChrystal has repeatedly asked for is more trainers, and he hasn't received anywhere close to the number he needs.

    I'm certainly in favour of figuring out how we're going to continue to help Afghanistan after 2011, and I think that trainers might be an acceptable option, but I think it's important to remember that "training" means combat. Soldiers who are training the Afghan security forces aren't, for the most part, working in some safe, walled-off compound, separate from the Taliban. You train an army in Afghanistan's present situation on how to fight and kill insurgents by going out with them to fight and kill insurgents. At least one (large) aspect of training in this sense is actually embedding the trainers with the forces being trained and showing them how to conduct combat missions by conducting combat missions with them.

    Again, I could perhaps be convinced that this is a useful and important thing for our soldiers to do post-2011, however, I don't think there's NEARLY the distinction between "training" AND "combat" that people in Canada think there is. An awful lot of the time, training IS combat.

    • Couldn't agree with you more. Not only does training = combat, it's also the part of our combat work over there that is *most* tied to the specific relationships built up between Canadian mentors and their ANA mentees. In some cases (we were told), Canadian trainers, working in pairs, are out in the field with 100 or so ANA troops. This is dangerous work, hugely reliant on bonds of trust and goodwill.

      • But does training of that sort, in which (I presume) Canadian soldiers are giving advice to ANA officers, actually do much to get the ANA from point A to point B? From what I can see, the problem with the ANA is discipline, resulting from poor leadership by ANA officers; and the imposition of different standards of discipline, along with a greater spirit of professionalism in the ANA officer corps, seems to be first and foremost a political problem.

        • That's the big question. To some extent, this is the subject of my column in Maclean's this week.