Are we heeding Afghanistan lessons?


Afghan National Army soldiers at a graduation parade at the Kabul Military Training Centre  Photo: Sgt Norm McLean, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Afghan National Army soldiers at a graduation parade at the Kabul Military Training Centre

Canada in Afghanistan: A Role Model for Canada’s Middle East Mission, by Nipa Banerjee, visiting professor at the University of Ottawa Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and Senior Advisor at the Rideau Institute, was originally posted on the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) blog. It is reproduced in its entirety below.

While recalling six fighter jets from the bombing mission in the Middle East, Canada promises to provide military training, humanitarian aid, and diplomacy in fostering a peace process. The Liberal government’s promise of humanitarian assistance and intent to find a political solution through diplomacy are important acknowledgements of the reality that military action alone will not offer sustainable results and an end to the violence. This new mission against ISIL resembles Canada’s Afghanistan mission, following the precepts of the 3Ds — defence (including military), diplomacy, and development. But caution must be taken to avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan.

While learning from the decade-and-a-half Afghan experience might enrich the mission in the Middle East, the overly optimistic hype, heard in certain quarters, is a matter of concern. The fact that both missions address the 3Ds is certainly similar, but should Canada’s Middle East mission model Afghanistan in other respects?

The Afghanistan mission started as a military campaign and this element was dominant throughout Canada’s presence there. Kandahar was home to the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), in which Canadian troops assumed a combat role.

Canada’s new Middle East mission retains a significant military component as well. While the jets are leaving the bombing to other allies, Canada’s military air campaign will continue through reconnaissance and refuelling. We will also see an increase in the size of the military contingent as more troops are deployed for training. According to Trudeau’s announcement, the training mission will equip, advise, and assist. Full clarification of what “assist” might involve has not yet been provided. But Defence Minister Sajjan speaks of the possibility of direct assistance in fighting with the ISIL on the ground — equivalent to a defensive combat role. Canadian troops will be in a conflict zone in a high threat environment and if they do come under attack, they will have to fight back

Canada’s combat intervention in Kandahar was less than successful and thus not a model to be followed. Kandahar is still one of the most insecure provinces in Afghanistan.

The results of the training provided by the NATO mission (of which Canada was a member) in Afghanistan is not any better. The NATO-trained Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) took full responsibility for the country’s security in January 2015. Since then, they have faced growing challenges in tackling terrorist threats. Taliban resurgence has expanded and strengthened with the ANSF unable to contain the rampage. Kunduz, Helmand, and Baghlan provinces are the most recent examples of poor performance by the Afghan troops fighting without back up from foreign forces.

In Kunduz, it took only 500 Taliban to capture the city from 1,500 (NATO-trained) ANSF troops. Clearly, ANSF troop number is not the issue; the issue is the absence of foreign troops to back them up. Recognizing the difficulties encountered by the ANSF, hundreds of American troops have been sent to southern Afghanistan to assist in Baghlan. The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan will also be slowed down. American commanders, while continuing their rhetoric of success by praising the ANSF, dare not leave them.

Canadian defence analyst David Pugliese’s recent enumeration of some non-combat options against ISIL includes provision of Canadian police trainers. Suggestions have been made that the new mission could be guided by Canada’s police training activities in Afghanistan. However, police training in Afghanistan focused on military training for police involvement in direct combat. The trained police, along with the armed forces, comprise the ANSF, which, as already seen, has not been performing well against the Taliban.

All of this provides a not-too-successful model for training by NATO and its allies in the Middle East.

With respect to diplomatic efforts for peacebuilding — a desirable concept, of course — opportunities for the Middle East mission to benefit from Canada’s Afghanistan experience are non-existent. Despite the objective of using diplomacy as a tool for peace and reconciliation in official documents regarding Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, no concrete diplomatic measures were ever taken.

On the third D — development — poor design, planning, and delivery marred some of Canada’s very expensive Afghan development projects, the PRT’s “signature projects” in Kandahar. The Kandahar program was driven more by Canada’s interest in raising its own international profile than in aiding Afghanistan. Replicating this ill-conceived program should obviously be avoided.

Some of the Afghan-designed and -implemented programs financed by Canada in the years before launching the PRT could, however, serve as models to follow. But only if remolded to fit the context in the Middle East. The U.N.-coordinated Refugee and Internally Displaced Peoples’ Rehabilitation Program, which operated following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, could also serve as a model for the Middle East mission. This program allocated significant funding for rehabilitation and resettlement purposes. Obviously, with so many Syrians displaced both inside and outside of the country, this must be a priority.

A strategy based on a comprehensive 3D approach, combining defence, diplomacy, and development, promises a longer term, sustainable solution to the Middle East conflict. To bear fruit, however, the principles must be translated into strategic action. Canada adopted the 3D principles in Afghanistan but unfortunately failed to take strategic action. With no concrete shape, the program failed to deliver.

The notion of a comprehensive approach underlying Canada’s mission in the Middle East is praiseworthy. A note of caution, however, is essential: while learning from and integrating the positive experiences, the pitfalls of the Afghanistan mission must be avoided in planning this new Middle East mission.

For a direct link to the analysis, click on Canada in Afghanistan: A Role Model for Canada’s Middle East Mission? (Nipa Banerjee, Centre for International Policy Studies, 17 February 2016).


Photo: Sgt Norm McLean, Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Tags: Afghanistan, Afhan National Security Force, ANSF, Canada, Canadian defence policy, Canadian Forces, Canadian foreign policy, Canadian military mission in Afghanistan, Canadian mission against ISIL, CF-18s, Defence, Department of National Defence, dipomacy and development, Iraq, Islamic State, Middle East, Military spending, Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan, NATO, Nipa Banerjee, Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRTs, Syria, Three D, Training