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NATO's conditional support in Kandahar cost Canadian lives, report says

Canadian soldiers and Afghan National Army members take positions during a joint operation to seek out Taliban fighters near the Mas'um Ghar base in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan in this Wednesday Nov. 22, 2006 photo.

David Guttenfelder/AP/David Guttenfelder/AP

Canada should not commit to another Afghanistan-scale mission with NATO unless more alliance members assume their fair share of the blood and treasure burden in such conflicts, two senior military historians say.

They also warn Canada must better prepare for future combat than it did in 2006 when Ottawa failed to anticipate how a Pakistan-fed insurgency would frustrate Canadian efforts in the deadly southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

In a new paper drawing lessons from the Afghanistan war, David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein say restrictions that some NATO allies maintained on their participation in the mission cost Canada dearly.

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"Less constrained military commitments, and greater political will from NATO members, will be essential if Canada should ever again wish to place its soldiers and treasure in a major and long-lasting NATO operation," they write in a report titled "Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn from Afghanistan."

"Anything less must call into question Canada's membership in the Alliance."

The restrictions, commonly called "caveats," meant that many NATO Alliance members such as Germany, France and Italy stayed away from the Kandahar where Canada found itself in ferocious combat with the Taliban from 2006 onwards.

"Most of the Alliance members were unwilling to commit troops to Kandahar province, even when a single battle group of Canadians in 2006 faced the Taliban's major offensive effort," the authors write in the 19,600-word paper.

"Canadian decision makers should think long and hard before entering into any coalition to which national caveats have been attached," the authors warned.

The refusal to help Canada in Kandahar cost lives, they say.

"This greatly affected Canadian commanders and soldiers in Kandahar; inflicted unnecessary casualties and forced them to rely on U.S. resources, the only military resources that could be counted upon, for succour."

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The authors, who were also helped by Nancy Pearson Mackie, stressed they're big supporters of the mission and their analysis is an attempt to improve future missions rather than lay blame.

Canada dropped its own restrictions on military commitment in late 2005 as it moved from Kabul to take in the lead in a combat mission in Kandahar. The U.S., by far the lead nation in Afghanistan, and the U.K., had huge unrestrained commitments in the south too – although the Americans were preoccupied with the fight in Iraq between 2003 and 2009.

The war in Afghanistan was the largest Canadian military effort since the Korean War and eventually surpassed the 1950s effort in numbers of troops deployed and the length of commitment. Canada's five-year combat mission in Kandahar ended this year, capping a nine-year engagement by Ottawa in that country that saw 157 soldiers killed.

More than 900 Canadian soldiers remain in Afghanistan solely to train Afghan troops.

The authors sharply fault the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force for letting down Canadians as they replaced the American operation in Kandahar. They describe how Canadian commanders were shocked to discover how alone they were.

"Canada expected NATO/ISAF to deliver the command, logistics, air support, and intelligence that the Americans enjoyed under their Operation Enduring Freedom, the backing it needed to carry out its mission successfully, wherever it decided to locate its PRT and Battle Group," Mr. Bercuson and Mr. Granatstein write.

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"Canada was wrong."

The authors take aim at notion that former Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier was virtually alone in convincing Ottawa in 2005 to head to Kandahar. "That is an oversimplification to say the least."

The Hillier-did-it version of history is often used to heap blame at the former general's feet for the problems Canada encountered in Kandahar.

Mr. Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, and Mr. Granatstein, say the decision to go to this particular province came about after "considerable discussion and consultation within the Department of Foreign Affairs and National Defence and the Canadian International Development Agency."

They say Ottawa had considered and rejected at least two safer locations in Ghor and Herat provinces and picked Kandahar because it was close to a major airfield and strategically more important than Herat.

The failure of Canada to anticipate just how ferocious the battle against the Taliban would be in Kandahar was a government-wide intelligence blunder that they blame on weak preparation.

"That any number of senior Canadian diplomats, intelligence officers, strategic analysts, and policy advisors at DND were unaware or neglectful of Pakistani complicity in the Taliban insurgency or of the almost insurmountable challenges to Afghan security posed by the Taliban's safe havens just across the border seems very difficult to comprehend."

The authors call for Ottawa to develop a far better capability to analyze and predict the environment Canadians troops will face in combat missions.

They are especially critical of the muddled and shifting objectives that Canada publicly set for itself in Afghanistan and the confusing way it was explained to Canadian voters by successive governments, most notably Stephen Harper's.

"The mission from which Canada would not 'cut and run' in March 2006 became the mission that would definitely end for the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan by the end of 2011," they wrote.

Subsequently, of course, the Harper government announced Canada would keep 900 to 1,000 soldiers in the Kabul area until 2014 to train Afghan forces.

Mr. Bercuson and Mr. Granatstein say the changing public rationale for the mission confused Canadians and didn't help the eroding support for the war.

In 2005, the Liberals sold the Kandahar deployment as a "quintessentially Canadian" effort to rebuild a war-torn country. Then, in 2008 – after years of fighting the Taliban – the Manley panel talked of being part of an international response to the threat to peace and "human security" – one that supported the United Nations and NATO.

"All these objectives, from those laid down by Bill Graham in the summer of 2005 to those articulated by the Manley Panel in early 2008, were diffuse and difficult to measure, and many could not be achieved at all under the prevailing political and social conditions in Afghanistan," the authors wrote.

"With its limited number of troops and even smaller number of aid workers, capacity builders and police training teams, Canada could certainly have some effect improving conditions in a small part of Kandahar Province, but the rest of the province and country was well beyond Canada's means or reach."

As the months rolled by it was clear Canada was not meeting its lofty goals.

"Thus the Canadian public was told that Canada was fighting to build a better Afghanistan even though the media clearly showed almost every day that a better Afghanistan was not being achieved,"

Mr. Bercuson and Mr. Granatstein said Ottawa should have been more frank with Canadians about why it was spending lives and dollars in southern Afghanistan.

"Canada did have one core reason and one secondary reason to be in Kandahar from beginning to end. Ottawa wanted to take on a dangerous and heroic mission in a difficult struggle in order to achieve influence in determining the course of that struggle," they said.

"That was so that Canada would no longer be seen in Washington and Brussels as a free rider and, secondarily, so that the limited Canadian interests in central Asia could be addressed. But no one in government wanted to put things that bluntly to Canadians."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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