The truth about Afghanistan
Despite the Canadian military’s claim of success, the mission failed to extinguish Afghanistan’s insurgency or stabilize the country.
Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan officially ends in March 2014. It began in 2001 with the dispatch of a small number of special operations troops to oust the Taliban and punish al-Qaeda militants in wake of the 9/11 attacks, and grew to include the deployment of a battle group to secure the southern province of Kandahar between 2006 and 2011. At its peak, the Kandahar deployment numbered over 3,000 Canadian soldiers. Of these, 158 died, in addition to one Canadian diplomat, and thousands more suffered physical or psychiatric injuries.
In visits to Kandahar in 2008 and 2010, I saw Canadian soldiers and government officials performing with professionalism and courage under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. To suggest that their sacrifices may have been in vain seems like wretched recompense.
Yet anything short of an honest assessment of the mission’s legacy would do a greater disservice to the military and civilian veterans of the Afghan operation, as well as to the soldiers and diplomats who may be sent to risk their lives elsewhere in the future. Canadians deserve nothing less than an unvarnished presentation of the operation’s balance sheet, even if the bottom line is written in red, not black.
Canada’s military and political leaders do not seem to share this perspective. For years, they have described Canada’s Afghanistan operation as a success — against considerable evidence to the contrary. Their desire to cast the mission in a positive light may be understandable, but avoiding painful truths is not an effective way to learn — and Canada still has much to learn from its Afghan experience.
This much seems clear: the international mission to stabilize Afghanistan following the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 has not succeeded. Early hopes for a democratic renewal gave way to mounting disillusionment, corruption and violence. Although important gains were achieved in national development indicators — including the number of children in school, women’s rights, and access to health care — these improvements rested heavily on the presence of an enormous foreign military and a deluge of aid money, all of which is now waning.
Determining what our military accomplished during these years is not a simple task. For one thing, Canada was part of a large coalition of countries contributing forces to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which set out to secure first the Afghan capital after the Taliban regime was routed, and then the rest of the country. It is difficult to identify the impact of Canada’s contribution in isolation from this larger enterprise, and the long-term results of the mission are still unknown. Afghanistan may limp toward greater stability in the coming years — or, alternatively, it may collapse back into civil war, or even become a haven for al-Qaeda once again. These outcomes will inevitably colour future assessments of ISAF’s legacy, including Canada’s contribution to the operation.
What, exactly, was Canada trying to achieve in Kandahar? One useful guide is the May 2006 campaign plan, which was produced around the time the Canadian battle group deployed to southern Afghanistan (originally classified secret, it has since been released with redactions). This plan states that Canada’s mission was “to conduct operations in Afghanistan in order to support the [Government of Afghanistan’s] effort to create a secure, democratic and self-sustaining nation state.”
It also identified two “strategic objectives” for Canada in Kandahar: first, to “help maintain a secure environment” in its area of operations; and second, to “support the establishment of efficient and durable Afghan security structures.” This included helping to build “the human capacity and processes in [Government of Afghanistan] institutions while extending their reach and credibility” and “supporting reconstruction activities.”
These orders reflected the then-prevailing view that the Taliban had been largely defeated and that Kandahar province, the Taliban’s erstwhile homeland, was now relatively calm. The reality, however, was that the Taliban had been busy reconstituting itself in Pakistan and quietly reinfiltrating fighters into Kandahar. The newly arrived Canadians soon learned that Taliban fighters were gathering in the rural districts of Panjwa’i and Zhari near Kandahar City. In Operation Medusa, launched in September 2006, the Canadian contingent attacked and decisively defeated these Taliban fighters, who could not prevail in a conventional battle against better-equipped foreign forces backed by aircraft.
Operation Medusa was undoubtedly a victory for the Canadian Forces, but the gains were only tactical. That did not stop Canadian Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope from declaring at a press conference following the fighting, “We beat them… Four successive strikes against the Taliban broke the back of their insurgency here.”
What Lieutenant-Colonel Hope did not know at the time, however, was that Operation Medusa was also a critical learning experience for the Taliban, which thereafter shifted its strategy to small-group guerrilla-type attacks and subterfuge. The Taliban would return to the same territory soon after the Canadians left. Panjwa’i and Zhari, like other areas of the province, would fall under increasing Taliban influence over the ensuing years, despite repeated Canadian sweeps to try to clear the area of insurgents.
Yet rather than adopting a more cautious approach before claiming victory in future engagements, subsequent Canadian military commanders tended to follow Lieutenant-Colonel Hope’s imprudent lead in overselling battlefield accomplishments. With each new operation came reports of progress and achievements — insurgents killed, weapons caches discovered and destroyed, Taliban leaders captured — along with the suggestion that security conditions were either improving or on the verge of improving.
These reports were almost always incomplete and misleading. Tactical gains, while often hard won, were rarely sustainable. Indeed, security in the province deteriorated over time as the Taliban extended and deepened its influence, including in areas immediately around Kandahar City.
One of the most comprehensive open-source accounts of the Taliban’s campaign during this period is by Carl Forsberg, a former research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, who describes how the insurgents adapted their strategy, using ambushes, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombers to disrupt ISAF’s lines of communication. The Canadian battle group was forced to devote ever-greater attention to defending itself and to building safer road links between its bases, all of which had to be patrolled and defended.
For a contingent that was already too small to establish a permanent presence in most parts of the province, the growing demands of “force protection” left even fewer troops available for clearing operations. Moreover, when the Canadians moved into new areas or reentered areas they had previously cleared, the insurgents continued to slip away or melt into the local population, only to reappear once the foreigners had left.
In the meantime, the Taliban were developing parallel institutions of informal governance as a means of winning the support (or, at least, the obedience) of the local population. They threatened and sometimes assassinated local tribal figures and government officials, thus eliminating opponents who could not be co-opted. Among the areas they infiltrated were districts immediately north of Kandahar City, including Arghandab, where few Canadian or other ISAF forces were located. They then used Arghandab as a launching pad in June 2008 for a brazen attack on Sarpoza prison inside Kandahar City, a short drive from Canada’s “provincial reconstruction team” headquarters.
Once established in districts to the north, west and southwest of the city, the Taliban were better able “to move weapons, fighters and IEDs or IED components into safe houses in several neighbourhoods of Kandahar City,” writes Forsberg. The infiltration routes also allowed insurgents to directly intimidate the city’s inhabitants and to carry out a campaign of targeted assassinations that were “carefully chosen both to degrade government capabilities and exert a psychological influence over the population,” by methods that included killing leading figures who were working with, or for, the Afghan government or international forces. By 2009, a Globe and Mail article reported, Taliban fighters had become “nightly visitors” in the city, creating a climate of acute fear for residents.
Despite extensive evidence to the contrary, Canadian military leaders continued to suggest that the strategic situation was improving. In January 2010, senior officers I interviewed in Afghanistan were downplaying rumours that Kandahar City was under threat. In fact, these were more than rumours. A few months earlier, the overall commander of ISAF, US Army General Stanley McChrystal, had written a classified (but quickly leaked) report to Washington indicating that the Taliban’s influence over Kandahar City and neighbouring districts was “significant and growing.”
At the time, I found it strange but not inconceivable that Canadian officers would disagree with the ISAF commander’s assessment. It later emerged, however, that the Canadian military’s own secret quarterly campaign assessments were also underscoring the degree of danger felt in the city. A March 2010 Canadian Press report based on access to one of those assessments said it noted that “most provincial committee members have left due to security.”
Moreover, Canadian officials were well aware that security in other parts of the province had deteriorated. In partially redacted documents I acquired through an access-to-information request, briefing materials prepared for an interdepartmental meeting of assistant deputy ministers in January 2010 noted that “Afghanistan-wide, [the] insurgency appears stronger than at any time since 2002” and charted a steady increase in the number of “violent events” in Kandahar province from 2007 until the end of 2009.
Furthermore, the released documents show Ottawa’s regularly commissioned surveys of the province’s population were exposing a decline in support for the ISAF presence and a marked decline in support for the Afghan government from early 2007 to late 2009, along with growing perceptions of insecurity within the populace.
But in public, Canadian commanders gave little indication that anything was wrong, continuing to deliver positive reports of progress. Canadian troops always seemed to be handing defeats to the Taliban, clearing areas of insurgents and establishing promising new partnerships with local communities.
There were exceptions. Brigadier-General Denis Thompson, who commanded the Canadian mission from May 2008 to February 2009, offered an unusually honest assessment of conditions in Kandahar near the end of his tour of duty, telling the Globe and Mail, “People’s sense of security has absolutely plummeted.” But the determination to present a misleadingly upbeat line would persist to the end. The last Canadian commander of Canada’s Kandahar contingent, Brigadier-General Dean Milner, said in October 2010 that the Taliban were on the verge of being pushed out of a strategic part of Kandahar province.
The strategic location in question was none other than Panjwa’i, the scene of Operation Medusa in 2006. Canadian troops had undertaken clearing operations in Panjwa’i many times in the intervening years but never succeeded in dislodging the Taliban, who always returned, often stronger than before. That Milner would stand in the same place and, without any apparent chagrin, stick to the same script displayed the Canadian military’s enduring commitment to reporting progress — no matter what was actually happening in Kandahar.
The relentlessly positive spin may simply be an expression of the military’s can-do ethos. But it also smacks of a deliberate communications strategy aimed at maintaining popular support for the war. “I was willing to tell the Canadian public a positive spin on the mission, not a lie, but a positive spin on the mission, for the effect of buying time,” said Ian Hope, now a full colonel, in an interview in the January 2014 issue of Legion Magazine, six years after claiming that Canadian troops had broken the back of the Taliban. “If I could buy six more months, if I could buy one year so that somebody else could build an institution that could take over this fight, then we’ve contributed.”
Yet the gap between these claims of progress and the reality of a mounting insurgency grew larger with each attempt to “buy more time.” By March 2010, when US “surge” troops send by President Barack Obama began to arrive in Kandahar in large numbers, a survey conducted for the US Army found that among the nine districts in and around Kandahar City, three were under Taliban control, five were under a mix of Taliban and Afghan government influence, and only one was under government control.
Given all this, what can we say about the results of Canada’s military efforts to secure the province? One conclusion, which now appears to be a dominant narrative within the Canadian military, is that Canada’s forces kept the Taliban at bay — specifically, that a relatively small number of Canadian troops performed with distinction on a critical front of the Afghan war by preventing the Taliban from advancing on strategically vital Kandahar City. “That Kandahar City did not fall was a victory for Canada,” said Michel Gauthier, the now retired general who was responsible for all Canadian forces overseas between 2005 and 2009 (quoted in June 2011).
These claims have some truth to them. As noted above, Canadian forces were stretched thin, and it is difficult to imagine that they could have done much better under the circumstances. And preventing the Taliban from gaining physical control of Kandahar City was certainly important, holding it until the American surge arrived.
The fact remains, however, that security conditions in Kandahar worsened every year from 2006 to 2010 and that the Taliban appeared to outmanoeuvre the Canadian contingent by infiltrating Arghandab and other close-in suburbs of Kandahar City, which the insurgents then used as footholds to conduct a mounting intimidation and assassination campaign within the city. In late 2009, ABC News described the Canadians’ “failure to secure — or develop — Kandahar [as] one of the most glaring failures of the eight-year war.”
The arrival of additional US troops provided some relief, but American forces now faced the same challenges that had bedevilled the Canadians for years. By mid-2011, when Canadian soldiers were removed from Kandahar and tasked with training Afghan military and police units in other parts of the country, the American surge had reached its peak. Thereafter, Washington began withdrawing its troops — a process that continues. (Washington and Kabul have yet to agree on whether a limited number of US troops will remain in the country beyond 2014.)
The results of the surge in Kandahar already seem evanescent. After several years of steadily worsening violence, the number of insurgent attacks in the province dipped in 2012, but sources cited by the respected International Crisis Group suggest that the number of attacks shot back up in 2013.
These and other indicators are not encouraging. A December 2013 US intelligence assessment representing the consensus view of the country’s 16 intelligence agencies reportedly predicted that conditions in Afghanistan would erode in the coming years, and that a rapid descent into chaos would likely take place if all Western troops were to leave. In most scenarios for Afghanistan’s future, the Taliban are likely to gain further control over rural areas of southern and eastern parts of the country, including Kandahar. Preexisting patterns of local politics will return to the fore, and the Taliban have already demonstrated their skill at navigating and exploiting these patterns.
Another argument put forward by the war’s defenders is that establishing security was not the sole objective of Canada’s Kandahar deployment. On several occasions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper characterized the purposes of this operation as “helping rescue Afghanistan and its long-suffering people from violence and oppression” and assisting them to “realize their vision of a successful and secure democracy that is not a haven for terrorists.” This included a substantial amount of development assistance, which turned Afghanistan into Canada’s number one recipient of bilateral development aid.
In 2008, Canada identified three “signature” development projects in Kandahar: the rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam and its irrigation and canal system, the building or repair of 50 schools and expanded support for polio immunization. It is still too early to reach definitive judgment about the outcomes of these projects. Will the schools that Canada built remain open after foreign forces leave the country, or will the Taliban use intimidation to shut them down (or prevent girls from attending classes)? Given that Canada completed only part of the work required to rehabilitate the Dahla Dam system, will this project be finished by US or Afghan authorities?
The effort to immunize Kandahar’s children against polio was also incomplete, which led to new cases in the province and elsewhere in Afghanistan, while the fate of the inoculation campaign remains uncertain. In February 2013, Afghanistan’s minister of public health reportedly remarked that insecurity in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar prevented “about 40 percent of children” in these areas from being vaccinated. These and other Canadian development projects undoubtedly benefited many Kandaharis. But the sustainability of these gains remains in doubt.
In the end, the Canadian exertions and sacrifices in Kandahar did little to change the underlying conditions of this conflict. Perhaps recognizing the limited prospects of the operation, Canadian political leaders also began scaling back their description of the mission’s objectives. By May 2011, Harper had boiled these purposes down to preventing Afghanistan from becoming, once again, a source of global terrorism. Speaking in Kandahar, shortly before the termination of Canada’s military and development effort in that province, he said, “You have to look at this mission as a great success. The world came to Afghanistan because Afghanistan had become such a terrible and brutal place — it had become a threat to the entire world. Whatever the challenges and troubles that remain, Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”
But as the May 2006 campaign plan made clear, Canada’s mission to Kandahar had once been considerably more ambitious. Like other Western politicians, Harper kept reducing these objectives until all that was left was the goal of preventing Afghan territory from becoming a terrorist haven. It was reminiscent of US Senator George Aiken’s famous 1966 recommendation to President Lyndon Johnson regarding American strategy in the Vietnam War: declare victory and withdraw.
A truly accurate measure of success or failure remains dependent on what happens in Afghanistan after we leave. The Governor of Kandahar was one of the many who found Harper’s self-congratulatory assessment to be “a bit of an optimistic statement at this time of Afghanistan’s situation.” Indeed, some analysts have suggested that al-Qaeda may experience a “renaissance” in the largely ungoverned tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border when Western forces leave Afghanistan, just as the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda recently gained control of two major Iraqi cities. Should this happen, even the minimalist basis that some observers still use to characterize the Afghanistan intervention as a success would evaporate, leaving us facing the uncomfortable but unavoidable truth that the ISAF coalition failed to achieve the operation’s strategic goals in Afghanistan and that Canada failed to do so in Kandahar.
Canada made an extraordinary expenditure of lives and resources during its dozen years in Afghanistan, particularly during the Kandahar phase of the mission. The country can be justly proud of how most of our military and civilian personnel performed under the circumstances. But this experience raises questions about the capacity of our political and military leaders to speak frankly with Canadians on a matter of utmost seriousness — one involving the loss of Canadian lives, the taking of Afghan lives and the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars.
There is no shame in admitting that we did not succeed in Afghanistan. It is a necessary step to learning from this experience. The only real shame is to pretend otherwise.