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.
“We’re watching the evolution of war. We’re watching the emergence of more sophisticated rebel movements, more sophisticated spoilers,” said Bruce Jones, a senior fellow in global security at New York University and the Brookings Institution. “It needs to be met with sophisticated capacity – sometimes that’s troops on the ground, it could be naval support, it could be intelligence. But I don’t think that Canada’s going to get away with imagining it can contribute without ever putting troops on the ground.”
The old Cold War threat of Russian invasion has disappeared. Many Canadians would prefer a return to blue-helmeted peacekeeping of the ‘70s, when soldiers patrolled between former combatants in Cyprus. But UN missions now mean nastier fighting in places such as the Congo.
On the ground around the world, many predict it will be the common but complicated conflicts of rebels, warlords and insurgents, not the big state-to-state wars, that require middle powers such as Canada.
The United States may still tackle the biggest and thorniest, but won’t have the resources to try to impose a Pax Americana, Mr. Jones argues; middle powers such as Canada with an interest in a rules-based international order shouldn’t want them to. But the future holds dangers, that if failing states such as Somalia or Yemen fester too long, they will pose threats outside their borders. It’s a hard sell after Afghanistan but some will have to be tackled, by coalitions or UN missions.
Multinational peace-making and stabilization missions have worked before, in Sierra Leone where British troops stopped a civil war, and when U.S. and Nigerian forces intervened in Liberia. But in many places such as the Congo and Somalia, they now depend on troops from countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi – who provide manpower but lack needed advanced capabilities such as strategic-lift aircraft to deliver a force, medium-lift helicopters to move it, reconnaissance, communications, and special forces.
“What we’re seeing on the ground is expensive, large, static UN forces simply not able to cope with the kinds of threats that they’re confronting. They’re being out-manoeuvred, and they’re failing,” Mr. Jones said. “We don’t want a situation where the only options are weak, under-capacitated, under-sophisticated, low-capability UN forces, or massive quantities of American troops.”
At sea, navies will be in demand. Canada’s 33-ship navy is in danger of losing the ability to sail a task force of four or five warships across the world if it doesn’t replace its aging destroyers and supply ships within five years, but that is what Canada will need to protect its own trade and security interests, and the world’s.
Navies from the United States, China, India, Brazil and Europe are co-operating to clear pirate-threatened shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia. Canada has joined efforts in the Red Sea. And rising powers such as China, India, or Brazil will grow less comfortable with the U.S. Navy’s current role as naval police, so multi-national task forces will be needed to clear shipping lanes and separate rival navies to prevent clashes in the South China Sea, Persian Gulf, or Straits of Hormuz.
Taking part will require national will and a military that can do it, balanced with needs at home. Meeting those demands means embracing our joint North American security interests with the United States.
The North American bargain is this: the United States will defend Canada against an attack, because it has to, and Canada will stand guard to ensure no threat passes through unimpeded. If Canada doesn’t send ships to guard its ocean approaches or fighters to meet a hijacked plane, the United States will.
But security needs have evolved. The Cold War may be over, but newer threats of terrorists lobbing a missile from a ship or sabotaging gas pipelines, even trans-national criminals and illegal fishing, require maritime surveillance flights, ships to patrol ocean approaches and unmanned aerial vehicles to patrol remote territory.
The warming Arctic climate will open shipping and contested oil-rich territory, but Arctic Ocean nations will divvy up territory through international law, not an imminent oil war; Canada’s interests are in patrolling the Northwest Passage and responding to interlopers and expanding Arctic naval co-operation with the United States to deter future conflicts elsewhere from spilling into Arctic waters.
Canada needs an air force, with fighters, to assert sovereignty in its skies. But if the price tag of the untendered plan to buy 65 F35 stealth Joint Strike Fighters – $9 billion to buy them, an estimated $7 billion for the first 20 years of service support, and there are fears costs will balloon – is billions more than other fighters, as many analysts believe, the extra cost will crowd out other priorities. Without a bidding competition, Canadians can’t be sure if the full cost of yet-to-be flown F35s over 40 years will be $25-billion, or $35-billion – or if a competitor would sell capable fighters for much less.
University of Ottawa defence analyst Philippe Lagassé argues the F35s stealth and networking advantages are in evading defences in a foreign air war, not, as the government and air force argue, in meeting threats to Canadian airspace.
“Let’s be clear: we’re talking about Russia here,” he said. China has no intention of coming near our airspace and has no long-range bombers to do it, and another country like Iran would have to fly through the airspace of several countries to get here, he said. Russia doesn’t have a stealth bomber to intrude unseen. And if Russia or China enters our airspace, it will be a massive attack with more planes than 65 fighters can handle, triggering U.S. retaliation and risking nuclear war.
The F35, designed to be flown in thousands by allies, with stealth technology and high-tech networked systems, does have advantages for evading air defences if Canada joined an allied campaign to knock out a foreign country’s air force and launch a bombing campaign, as it did in Kosovo or the first Gulf War. But Canada could send only a dozen or so fighters; U.S. and NATO allies fly thousands. Even if the F35 costs only $2-billion more, Mr. Lagassé argues, it means the military won’t have money to do something else.
The world is more likely to need a Canadian naval task force, or its advanced troops confronting factions in failed states.
“The problem is, we’ve been there, done that, and didn’t like it,” said Fen Hampson, head of Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. “But we may come under pressure to do it again. And there may be a lot of them.”
Having a military isn’t a reason to go to war. There will be missions to avoid. For Canada, the question is not just whether a failing state might pose a future threat to our interests, but whether there is a political strategy, backed by the United States, the UN, or regional powers, to broker with factions including combatants, to reach stability – not create a western democracy.
In Afghanistan, international strategy was lacking. Goals swerved from capturing al-Qaeda fighters to eradicating Taliban to democracy and nation-building; efforts to build the Afghan government and army lagged, and the insurgency was fuelled by years of police abuses and weak and corrupt government.
The Canadian Forces arrived in Kandahar in late 2005 optimistic its 2,500 troops could secure the province, but fought pitched battles with the Taliban throughout 2006. When they won, insurgents with rifles returned hidden among the people, in twos and threes, setting IEDs and ambushes.
Canadian generals now concede that for years the thin presence of Canadian troops could only fight to not lose, waiting for a surge of U.S. troops, concentrated in Iraq, so they could start a real counterinsurgency campaign, focusing forces in smaller patches to improve security, bring back a few Afghan officials, and launch projects such as road-building to convince terrified villagers to point out insurgents, not join them.
But Canadian troops, now concentrated in Panjwaii, have over time developed beyond Cold War training and have gained tactics and tools for needle-in-haystack fighting: electronics to counter IEDs, heavy-lift helicopters to reduce risk by taking troops by air, with Griffons with long-distance sensor cameras escorting them.
At Kandahar airfield, Canadians control unmanned aerial vehicles that hang unseen with sensors that intercept radio signals or transmit video. Guided by intelligence, image analysts can distinguish farmers from insurgents, see weapons-stashing, and call in air strikes, or more often, send reports to troops and special forces. Individuals can be spotted, and bigger operations thwarted, said Captain Chris Radl, a reconnaissance officer. “When they move around in big groups,” he said, snapping his fingers, “we’ve got ‘em.”
In Kingston, Gen. Fraser, is gearing up a virtual headquarters of 130, First Canadian Division, for any future mission, such as relief to Haiti or another Afghanistan.
He counts the Canadian Forces among a few with crucial tools – strategic-lift and transport, Chinook helicopters, UAVs, intelligence, special forces, experienced troops and commanders, and the ability to set up command-and-control, satellite and radio communications for a multi-national force of 20,000 across 400,000 square kilometres – to enable a multi-national force many times larger.
“So you may have a small force, but that small force delivers far more weight on the ground,” Gen. Fraser said.
In a world that faces a proliferation of destabilizing conflicts of factions within nations, that capacity will be needed. Afghanistan will mark the Canadian Forces for a generation, as corporals and captains who served here become warrant officers and colonels; it revealed limits of scale and scope for militaries that can only provide space for political strategies. It has marked Canada with bitter reluctance. But Canada will need to confront threats in the world again, with realism, and will need to shape the military to do it.