The wire that surrounds the sprawling, city-sized base at Kandahar Airfield is being pushed back to make room for more rows of armoured vehicles, barracks and arsenals. The surge of thousands of additional U.S. troops is complete and a new campaign for war-scarred Kandahar is on.
The main Canadian battle group of about 1,000 troops, which once fought across Kandahar province, is now concentrated in one tough rural district, Panjwaii, fighting alongside more U.S. and Afghan soldiers in a push to clear out a few hundred hard-core insurgents in a hide-and-seek war. But locals who braced for coalition offensives earlier this month have seen Canadians clear insurgents out of Panjwaii villages such as Zangabad and Talokan several times in recent years, only to see the Taliban return after their exit.
“Many Taliban and many ordinary people were killed, many gardens and orchards destroyed, and many soldiers killed,” Door Mohammad, a 49-year-old taxi driver from Talokan said three weeks ago, before the latest offensive. “At the end, the post was empty, and the Canadians gone, we don’t know where. And now Talokan area is an important place for the Taliban ... there is sort of Taliban-like government like the last time.”
Few would bet there will be a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Kandahar city when Canadian combat troops leave next July. A last rotation of Canadian Forces troops will dismantle equipment and ship it home. By then, senior Canadian officers in Kandahar hope the surge will have dramatically changed the momentum, but U.S., coalition and Afghan National Army troops will fight on.
Afghanistan has been a tough war – the 152 fallen Canadian soldiers, billions spent, years of seemingly fruitless attempts to displace the Taliban, and the gnawing sense Afghans’ lives have not improved. When the troops come home next summer, most Canadians would be happy if it marks the end of nasty foreign military adventures.
But the irony is that years of deadly war have forged a Canadian army the world needs: a small but mobile, technologically-advanced, combat-hardened force, with big strategic-lift planes to transport a force into the conflict zone, helicopters to move around it, intelligence and pinpoint strikes of special forces, and the ability to mount communications and command-and-control.
“We have the capability, the credibility, the command-and-control experience to deliver what a lot of other nations just don’t have,” said Major-General David Fraser, the Canadian who commanded 10,000 coalition troops in southern Afghanistan in 2006.
Canada’s military will leave Afghanistan with a bitter taste in its mouth about the scope and scale of what it can accomplish, but it has evolved into something in critical short supply: a force that can deliver a few thousand troops, able to help lash together multi-national contingents and confront the low-tech insurgencies, warlords and rebel groups that are the new, vexing face of conflict in the world.
While public will and political appetite will be low, these dysfunctional hot spots will pose the dual threats of destabilizing entire regions and exporting terror. The world can’t afford to ignore them.
Despite the bruises from Afghanistan, Canada has compelling reasons to lend weight to collective global security, just as it did as peacekeeper and honest broker, in a world that now needs middle powers in messier tasks. Shunning them will come at a price, in lost influence in the world, and to our interests in a rules-based international order.
But our military can’t be all things; resources are limited so choices must be made. Canada has a modest defence budget, and there’s no evidence of a public or political will to spend more. A pro-military Conservative government has budgeted annual increases for 20 years, but not enough to pay for the plans. We must choose a post-Afghanistan military: at home, to respond to North American dangers with the United States; and abroad, to combat lower-tech conflicts within states, not the biggest nation-to-nation wars.
The small army must maintain its strength not just to respond to natural disasters at home, but to serve in an expeditionary fighting force with high-tech, combat-hardened, post-Cold War capacity, including special forces, to confront warlords and insurgents.
The rusting navy needs ships because navies will matter more in the future, both to guard our ocean approaches and to sail abroad to clear shipping lanes from piracy and separate rival navies – the kind of niche role for which a middle power like Canada is needed, and capable of playing.
The air force will require tough choices: it must be built primarily for homeland defence, watching over vast territory with surveillance planes and unmanned drones, and fighters, too: but the price tag of F35 stealth fighters, and their advantage in an allied air campaign in state-to state war, will cut too much from other priorities if another fighter can do the domestic job for billions less.