Saunders: Why was Canada in Kandahar?

Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders examines how the Canadian Forces ended up at war in Kandahar (“Canada picked its Kandahar moment,” Globe and Mail, 7 January 2012):

What on earth were we doing in Kandahar? Now that it’s all over, that question hangs in the air…. How did we pour five years, more than $18-billion and 158 lives into something so large and nebulous? How do we avoid repeating the mistake?…

We now have some surprising answers. A team of analysts with London’s Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank, gained unprecedented access to the confidential documents and British official records of the decision by NATO members in 2003 and 2004 to expand the Afghan war. Matthew Willis analyzed the Canadian decision, which was deeply entwined with Britain’s. His paper, to be released this month, describes a decision made in secret by senior Armed Forces officials, without the knowledge of NATO or probably of Canada’s prime minister.

“The Canadians and the British,” a senior NATO official told Mr. Willis, “hammered out the whole thing without NATO’s assistance, behind closed doors. … We were not aware of the details.”

While Canada was ostensibly fighting as one member of the 42-nation NATO International Stability and Assistance Force, the decision to establish a base in Kandahar, the most dangerous province, was negotiated in London without the knowledge – and against the advice – of the Brussels-based military alliance. NATO had been pressuring General Raymond Henault, then head of the Canadian Forces, to set up a mission in the provinces of Chaghcharan or Herat.

But Canada’s military officials had other ideas – and most were rooted in Canada’s experience, five years earlier, in Bosnia. They had come to dislike fighting with some other countries – Mr. Willis writes of “the Canadian leadership’s aversion to partnering with the Italians or certain other European nations.”

The generals also felt that the Bosnia and Kosovo missions hadn’t won Canada much international fame or recognition. Those had been real coalitions, and Canada had blended into the background….

He raises the “contentious question why the senior Canadian military leadership, and the defence and foreign affairs departments, persisted in pushing the mission forward. Ostensibly, the military was seeking redemption after a decade of unremarkable performances in unremarkable (read: peacekeeping) theatres; or perhaps it wanted to show the U.S., the Canadian public and other key allies that it really could do combat if called on.”

“Implicit and sometimes explicit in all of the above,” he concludes, “is the idea that Canadian planners were pursuing a principally national agenda divorced from the NATO plan and heavily conditioned by beliefs about what would go over well in Washington.”

DND photo

Tags: Afghanistan, Canada, Defence policy, Doug Saunders, Matthew Willis, NATO, Royal United Services Institute, United Kingdom