Brian Stewart: Canada in Kandahar, some allies weren't impressed

Three new retrospectives on the Afghan war by British and American authors paint a different picture of Canada's military involvement than most Canadians have, Brian Stewart writes.

While most Canadians may have mentally turned the page on the Afghan war, happy to forget our military's long and frustrating struggle in Kandahar province, some of our allies have not.

Increasingly, foreign military and diplomatic assessments of the war are appearing in print, and what is surfacing is not a comforting picture as far as Canada is concerned.

At the very least, one finds little support in these assessments for Ottawa's boast that the Kandahar campaign won Canada much-needed new military prestige throughout NATO, especially with key allies such as Britain and the U.S.

Rather, the impression given is of a Canadian military mission that was deeply out of its depth and politically too hesitant to ask for significant outside help.

In one book just out, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, a highly respected Washington Post writer, Canada's Kandahar mission is even branded as one of the worst NATO failures of the entire almost 10-year campaign.

The courage and resilience of Canada's soldiers are never questioned (not mentioned much either, but at least not disputed). But the view now is of an overly optimistic Canadian military and civilian leadership eagerly volunteering to manage what was arguably the most critical and dangerous province in the whole war — home to the Taliban and linchpin to the Afghan south — while notably lacking the resources necessary for the task.

War within the war

For his book, Chandrasekaran interviewed more than 70 U.S. government and military officials directly involved in Afghan war policy.

Afghan soldiers in Kandahar City watch over the funeral in July 2011, of Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the Afghan president, who was murdered in his home by an associate during Canada's watch. (Murray Brewster / Canadian Press)

The core of the book revolves around the so-called surge of U.S. troops in 2009, and one of the main claims of Little America is that the West effectively lost a year of fighting because these reinforcements went mainly to aid British troops in the lesser battle zone of Helmand province, rather than hard-pressed Kandahar — in part because Canadians were slow to cede operating terrain to the hard-charging marines.

Some senior U.S. generals were angered that Kandahar was bypassed because Canada's military shortcomings were well known in NATO at the time.

Chandrasekaran writes that when a U.S. reassessment team visited southern Afghanistan in 2009 its members were shocked by the disparity of Western forces on the ground.

Only 2,800 or so Canadian soldiers were tasked with holding on to the sprawling Kandahar province, while 9,000 British personnel were based in the smaller, far less strategically important province of Helmand, next door.

The hopelessness of the Canadian effort was made even more evident as most of our troops were involved in support and headquarters' roles inside the main camp, which left only 600-800 on most occasions to patrol hostile territory "outside the wire."

The U.S. team members were appalled to find the Canadians not even holding Kandahar city, the country's second largest, against growing Taliban infiltration.

An unnamed senior Canadian officers is quoted saying, "I have no idea what's going on inside the city."

That's when one of those experts, Andrew Exum, a leading U.S. counterinsurgency strategist, fumed in his private journal that the U.S. should have intervened sooner, writing: "Kandahar — not Helmand — is the single point of failure in Afghanistan."

Ruffled feathers

Leaving aside that some of these after-the-fact assessments may be self-serving, Chandrasekaran's main claim, as it applies to Canada, is that U.S. officers were reluctant to confront their Canadian counterparts over apparent weaknesses because they were told Washington did not want "to ruffle feathers" in Ottawa.

In fact, he even records the senior commander for NATO in Afghanistan at one point, U.S. Brig-Gen. John Nicholson, saying he couldn't order Canadian commanders to act more aggressively in Kandahar city, as Ottawa wouldn't like it.

"Military leaders in Ottawa were reluctant to ask for more help," Gen. Nicholson is quoted saying in Little America. "Some were convinced that security in Kandahar was improving, others didn't want to risk the embarrassment."

Some will take issue with Nicholson on this. In 2008, after the John Manley report to Parliament, Canada did demand NATO provide additional troops as a condition for Canada to extend its mission until the summer of 2011.

Still, we only insisted on 1,000 extra soldiers, which turned out to be barely a drop in a very large bucket of trouble.

The Brits too

Two new British books also raise questions about the Canadian role in Kandahar.

Gen. David Richards, now chief of the U.K. defence staff and the man who commanded all NATO/ISAF forces in southern Afghanistan in 2006-07, was apparently convinced Canada should never have been given the Kandahar mission in the first place.

U.K. Gen. David Richards, shown here in Kabul in 2006, wasn't convinced Canada had the resources for Kandahar. (MUSADEQ SADEQ / Associated Press)

We now know this from War Against the Taliban: Why it All Went Wrong by veteran British foreign correspondent Sandy Gall. He quotes Gen. Richards as being upset his troops ended up in Helmand, while Canada eagerly signed on to Kandahar because Ottawa "wanted a prestigious role, ideally in the key province."

The general told Gall he complained to his political masters that the British should take on Kandahar because Canadians "as we knew, would never have the resources and the manpower to do that as well as we thought it should be done."

The British, he feels, should have confronted Canada and said "Are you certain you are big enough to do Kandahar? Should we swap?"

Too much Can-do?

The charge that Canada was militarily too weak for Kandahar is hardly new. But this was often blamed on the reluctance of our allies to help us out.

However, what's striking in some of these new accounts is the sheer doggedness of Canadian optimism when it came to our Afghan mission, not to mention our paucity of solid intelligence in the field.

In his fascinating memoir, Cables From Kabul: The Inside Story of the West's Afghanistan Campaign, Britain's former Afghan ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles marvels at Canada's cheery boosterism for the war.

He portrays Canada's top civilian on the scene, Chris Alexander, then a former ambassador and top UN official, now a Conservative MP and parliamentary secretary to the minister of defence, as being "among the most persuasive of the optimists, and in many ways the golden boy of the international effort in Afghanistan."

Interestingly, Cowper-Coles believes Alexander was too smart not to see the flaws in the war, but "like many able and ambitious Westerners involved in the project he saw no point in being anything other than optimistic."

Over time, Canada's dogged optimism, whether sincere or assumed, in the face of reality became intensely annoying to many on the receiving end (as many reporters can attest).

Cowper-Coles records how he and then U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice were irritated by a Canadian briefing in February 2008 that was full of optimism about counter-insurgency in Kandahar and which took no account of the fact that the Canadian Forces had neither the resources nor the time to complete the task.

Now, I'm well aware that some foreign officials, going on the record now, may be using Canada as a convenient scapegoat for the setbacks in southern Afghanistan. After all, it was the abrupt U.S. pullout of Kandahar in 2005 that first opened the way to the Taliban resurgence there.

What's more, the professionalism and high morale of Canadian troops was often praised by NATO allies and should not be overlooked.

But, sadly, much of what is coming out now rings true. It seems the more we learn about this conflict the more we must conclude that our political leaders, both Liberal and Conservative, had no business hunting for national prestige in the hostile landscape of Kandahar.

Just why they did so is still a question awaiting convincing answers from those who were once in charge but are now all too willing to simply turn the page and move on.


  • The date of a Canadian briefing of U.S. officials about counter-insurgency in Kandahar was incorrectly noted when this article was first published. The correct date is February 2008.
    Jul 11, 2012 10:33 AM ET