Behind the detainees issue: the 2006 Kandahar surprise

The Richard Colvin controversy raises broader historical questions about why Canada was so ill-prepared for combat in Kandahar—and the need to take all those detainees—in the first place. This is admittedly a matter of recent history, not current news, but I find it intriguing.

Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, who arrived in Kandahar as Canada’s top officer in southern Afghanistan in early 2006, recalled yesterday the unpleasant surprise that awaited him there.

“We went there with the idea that we would conduct operations designed to establish security and assist in the development of Afghan capacity to govern,” Fraser told the House committee on Afghanistan. “However, we ended up in an armed conflict in 2006 of a prolonged intensity unseen by Canadian Forces since Korea.”

More than three years hence, his tone still conveyed the alarm he must have felt when he realized Canadian troops were truly at war in the spring and summer of 2006. And he wasn’t the only ranking Canadian caught off guard.

Gordon O’Connor, who was defence minister at the time, had told me that March: “Our role in Afghanistan is not to conduct combat operations.” There might be some “rooting out of insurgents,” O’Connor allowed in an interview, but he stressed, “we’re not primarily there for combat operations.”

One possible explanation for this falsely reassuring sense of what Canadian troops were facing is that nobody could have known very far in advance that the soldiers would be asked to pursue relatively large groups of Taliban insurgents into their strongholds.

However, Operation Mountain Thrust, the major offensive operation launched under American leadership in June 2006, and in which Canadian Forces fought alongside U.S., British and Afghan troops, had been planned by U.S. strategists for many months.

American media reports at the time, apparently based largely on briefings from the U.S. Department of Defense, left no doubt that the operation was not, say, a hastily improvised response to an unanticipated upswing in Taliban activity.

In a story on the start of Operation Mountain Thrust on June 13, 2006, USA Today said: “The offensive, which the military says it has been planning for 18 months, coincides with a surge in militant attacks in the southern and eastern provinces near the border with Pakistan, where Afghan authorities have little or no presence.”

And on June 16, 2006, a Time article offered this: “Reports of suicide bombings, battles, beheadings and school burnings have become commonplace, and are expected to worsen as NATO prepares to take military command of the region from American hands. Operation Mountain Thrust, while set into planning long before the recent upswing in violence, anticipated such a test by insurgent forces, and was designed in part to clear the ground for the upcoming transfer of power.”

To me, the fact that Canadian politicians, like O’Connor, and military leaders, like Fraser, did not foresee difficult combat operations is hard to square with the fact that Operation Mountain Thrust was being planned many months before the bulk of Canadian troops arrived to join the Americans in Kandahar.

One troubling possibility is that the U.S. military leaders who had the clearest understanding of the worsening situation in Kandahar did not properly inform the Canadians about how bad it might get. This theory was put forward as long ago as July 10, 2007, by Sarah Chayes, author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban, in an op-ed piece published in the New York Times:

“In 2003, NATO moved peacekeeping forces into Kabul and parts of northern Afghanistan,” Chayes wrote. “But not until 2005, when it was clear that the United States was bogged down in Iraq and lacked sufficient resources to fight on two fronts, did Washington belatedly turn to NATO to take the Afghan south off its hands. And then it misrepresented the situation our allies would find there. NATO was basically sold a beefed-up peacekeeping mission. It was told, in effect, that it would simply need to maintain the order the United States had established and to help with reconstruction and security.”

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