Monday, January 3, 2011

Known Unknowns in Afghanistan

Canadians are still wondering where their troops will be sent for the new training mission after June.  The problem is, as this article clearly demonstrates, the decision to deploy trainers was both too quick and too late.  It was too late in the sense that other NATO countries already stepped up and filled slots before the Canadians so it is not clear what slots the Canadians are going to fill.  It was too quick in that the decision was clearly taken by the politicians with little or no advice from the military guys about what the Canadians should/could do. 
Caught by surprise at the government's announcement of the training mission, the Canadian Forces is now working overtime to draw up plans for where the Canadian troops will go and what exactly they will be doing.
Lt.-Gen. Marc Lessard, the head of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, acknowledged that Canada may have little choice but to send soldiers into more volatile regions of Afghanistan.
"The direction I have from (Chief of Defence Staff) Gen. Natynczyk is that it is to be Kabul-centric," Lessard told CTV News. "And what that means is that the emphasis is to be on Kabul, but not solely Kabul."

As I said on TV the other day, there are two kinds of training: behind the wire and beyond the wire.  The Canadian Forces, until July 2011, have done a great deal of training beyond the wire, embedding soldiers within Afghan units--Observer, Mentor, Liaison Teams [OMLTs].  This is risky as the Afghan units go into combat and may even be distant from NATO forces, making extraction somewhat iffy.  It seems clear to me that the Harper government will not allow this kind of training to take place.  It is well within the capability of any government to say that its troops will not do certain kinds of activities--these restrictions or caveats have been the focus of my work the past several years.  I have no doubt that Harper will impose caveats upon the Canadian Forces after they leave Kandahar for their new training bases elsewhere.

Yes, the bases can be shelled, but thus far such efforts have hurt few foreigners.  Yes, Canadians can be hurt traveling from an air base to the training base, so the key question is not so much Kabul, but how close will the training bases be to the major air bases.  I am guessing pretty close, but there may be limits on how much space is available at or near the air hubs. 

There will be risks, but they will be far less than what the Canadian Forces faced from 2006-2010.  Perhaps even less than the risks from 2004-05 when they were hanging out in Kabul but not restricted to bases. 

Again, the real problem is that the civilians jumped into a decision without doing due diligence.  It is not a matter of getting approval from the military, but getting their advice, their expertise and their planning.  It is easy to be suspicious of Harper and his government when they really do not know what they are talking about.  Ultimately, I do think the troops will be largely out of harm's way and that Harper will not have lied, but getting to there from here will cause a bunch of folks more anxiety and stomach upset than necessary.

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