Brian Stewart: Canada in Kandahar, wrong place, wrong time

As Canada ends its combat role in Kandahar in a few weeks, a big question still remains: How did we end up there in the first place?

As Canadian troops complete their final combat mission before departing Kandahar officially next month I find myself struggling with very mixed feelings about our war effort there.

I share in the near universal admiration for our troops and their officer corps who maintained morale and professionalism through five years in this worst of all Afghanistan provinces, and at a cost of 156 dead and an estimated 1,500 wounded.

On my visits there, our troops always impressed the hell out of me.

On the other hand, I think our country let its soldiers down even more than we know.

To put it bluntly our small battle group of less than 3,000 was the wrong force to be sent into this wrong mission, in the wrong place and at the wrong time.

Despite their many skills, our Canadians were quite incapable of handling all the security nightmares of Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, no less.

All of NATO knew this. In fact, it was clearly acknowledged when 5,000 top-notch American soldiers were raced in there last year to salvage Canada's deeply troubled counter-insurgency effort.

The far bigger concern, though, is the big historical question that has never been fully answered: Just why did Canada lobby and eagerly volunteer to take on Kandahar in the first place. Especially when there were other honourable and much safer alternatives that were offered.

Plan B

It may surprise many Canadians to learn that in the fall of 2004, NATO was urgently trying to persuade Canada's then Liberal government to send its force to join the Italian contingent in Herat, in western Afghanistan, then and now a far less dangerous part of the country.

Canadian soldiers head out on a patrol during an operation in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province in September 2009. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

At that same time, our Canadian military was advising the government to stay put in the relatively safe capital, Kabul.

It seemed to our generals to be a natural fit. We Canadians had a good reputation in the capital and were heavily involved in building local infrastructure. They saw an important and highly visible role for us running Afghanistan's national airport.

How very different our whole Afghanistan history would have been had these other options been chosen.

We will never know for sure but perhaps there would have been a hundred fewer soldiers killed and many hundred fewer injured.

But in the winter of 2004-05 a chain of events occurred in which we ended up as the single-handed owner of troubled Kandahar province.  Why?

Just a few years ago the accepted wisdom laid the blame at the feet of the high-powered former chief of the defence staff, Rick Hillier. Maclean's magazine even went so far as to headline the conflict "Hillier's War."

But I don't believe that is accurate. In the history of our involvement in Afghanistan, Foreign Affairs's role has largely escaped scrutiny. Yet it provided some of the most vocal advocates for a more high-risk mission like Kandahar.

From what I have learned, our top civilian officials were more pro-Kandahar than the professional soldiers.

Do something 'dramatic'

We don't know the full story yet. But to unravel the mystery of what led us into Kandahar it might be wise to start with a secret meeting in Kabul on Oct. 23, 2004 between a high-ranking NATO general and Canadian officials from Foreign Affairs and Defence.

The purpose was to decide what kind of combined military and civilian aid mission Canada should contribute and where.

Our military official argued that Canada should stay in Kabul, but the two Foreign Affairs people stressed that the mission should be "significant" and "dramatic."

When the NATO commander suggested either Herat in the west, or Kandahar, Foreign Affairs again stressed that we favoured a dramatic role, which would be Kandahar.

Later one of those officials — the then Canadian ambassador to Kabul (now a Conservative MP) Chris Alexander — would say that "We [meaning the embassy] recommended Kandahar from the start. Everyone knew it was going to be a pivotal province."

Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan, now a Conservative MP, Chris Alexander, shakes hands with Prime Minsister Stephen Harper on Parliament Hill in June 2011. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Alexander's remarks can be found in the excellent book The Unexpected War by Eugene Lang and Janice Gross Stein, a colleague of mine, in fact the director, at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

A month later, at another NATO meeting, Canada was again offered Herat or somewhere like it, but this was again rejected, mainly by our foreign officials, as being insufficiently visible and bold.

The following spring, in 2005, Liberal defence minister Bill Graham announced the Kandahar mission and the die was cast.


Another big question that hangs over our Kandahar mission is the glaring failure of our military and diplomatic intelligence.

Yes, Graham warned Canadians to brace for casualties in Kandahar, but no one in government or the military grasped the dangers we were walking into.

At the same time, our close allies in the U.S. military certainly were hearing reports from the field that the Taliban were "playing possum" in 2005, waiting quietly for those early American forces to leave Kandahar so they could take on a weaker NATO partner. 

The Americans may well have known of this ruse on the part of the Taliban and chosen to leave us with the false impression of a safer Kandahar so they could pull their troops out faster and send them to Iraq.

It is a nasty thought, but one that has crossed the minds of some Canadian officers.

Still, there were further warning signs in the fall of 2005, just as the first Canadian forces were shifting to Kandahar. U.S. Special Forces officers were telling reporters that "a stronger Taliban is lying low," hoping to stoke NATO overconfidence.

"The Taliban are playing a clever waiting game," Special Forces officers told military writer Sean Naylor of the Armed Forces Journal. They saw themselves setting a trap for the Canadians, British and Dutch coming into the South to replace the more aggressive Americans.

Lessons to learn

It is painful to reflect that this is pretty much what happened, according to some post-mortem studies of the Kandahar campaign, including a 72-page one by the U.S. think tank, the Institute for the Study of War in 2009, which I wrote about earlier.

It claimed the guerrillas seriously outmanoeuvred a hopelessly under-strength Canadian battle group.

Full credit was given to Canada's brave battle to beat back Taliban offensives in the early days of our mission, but by 2010 the Pentagon had apparently concluded that that Canada's Kandahar campaign was one of the more serious setbacks in the whole war.

Canadian officers struggled to command only two infantry companies stretched 100 kilometres apart. Despite our overall mission numbers, we were really only able to support 380 infantry in the field for any length of time.

In hindsight, these numbers look even more ludicrous today, and I never could understand what successive governments were thinking in leaving our troops in such a weakened state.

It wasn't until the Obama Afghan troop surge arrived in 2010 that an ally offered any significant help.

That's why the Kandahar mission ends with such mixed feelings and still so many unanswered questions. 

We clearly need a much fuller account of how we got ourselves into Kandahar in the first place. Not just to know the past, but to help guide us in the future.