Friday, July 8, 2011

Canada Out of Combat

Some additional thoughts and comments in the aftermath of the transfer of authority ceremony marking the end of the Canadian combat mission:
  1. The coverage is so very Kandahar-centric.  It ignores one of the key realities of Canada's first few years in southern Afghanistan and one of the ways in which the Canadians were distinct from most other countries operating in Afghanistan--a willingness to move outside of one's area of responsibility to help out others.  Canadian Forces went to Helmand to support the British, to Uruzgan to support the Dutch (before they left) and Australians, and (I think) to Zabul to help the Americans and Romanians.  The only other countries with sizable contingents to be this flexible were the Americans, Brits, and Danes.  But this myopia is endemic not just to Canada but to most of the countries who say not so much Afghanistan but just their piece of it.  This did lead to tensions within the Canadian effort as the civilians kept focusing on Kandahar whereas the military became more focused on what NATO command wanted them to do, which could be both beyond Kandahar and only a chunk of it.
  2. I was probably too quick to say it was worth it, as Matthew Fisher suggests that the verdict can only be assessed down the road.  But the media and others will be asking that question now, as one can see in heaps of pieces written the past week or so. 
  3. It is still stunning how few Canadian soldiers died in ordinary combat.  The stats show IED's (improvised explosive devices or land-mines) were responsible for ninety-eight out of 137 combat deaths, with gunfire for twelve.  I don't know what this means exactly except that the enemy cannot shoot straight, that the modern armor these soldiers were is pretty good, that the doctors, medevac and other folks in the medical chain are outstanding, and that the soldiers are trained quite well.  Given that the Canadian Forces did go out on patrol and did not hunker down just in the big base and did engage in operations all through out southern Afghanistan, this outcome is most striking.  The IED threat was the hardest problem to tackle, something that was pretty clear in briefings in Kandahar in 2007, and was the impetus for much of the Manley Report's military recommendations--more troops, more helos, more UAV's. 
  4. These results are suggestive.  It is understandable why countries are reluctant to deploy ground troops to Libya, but it does seem, after the Afghan experience, that one Canadian battle group with allied air support could do a lot of damage to the Qaddafi forces.  Still, the politics both domestic and international make that impossible.  
What next for the Canadian Forces?  Some of the media coverage is predicting a new "decade of darkness" with heaps of budget cuts.  Well, cuts are coming, but they will be unequally felt.  With big plans for expensive air and naval equipment, the army is likely to face some serious cuts, and, as Fred Kaplan reminds us, the fastest way to cut costs is to cut people.   The funny thing is that this one way in which Canada might imitate the US, by cutting army personnel, will probably not face the same epithet that is often used in such circumstances of being "too American" or "Americanized."

And that is the last point I will consider this morning--that some will look at how kinetic the Canadian Forces were (how much combat they engaged in) and say this is a product of spending too much time being with and wanting to be like the Americans.  I think this entirely misses the point.  One of the key attributes that the Canadians brought to Afghanistan was a better grasp initially of what it means to do combat in a populated area.  The Canadians used force but seemed to be more restrained than the Americans.  Not that all Americans are cowboys, but that the Canadians always took greater care, especially when it came to detention (where accountability was always going to be much higher).

This suggests that we might seek to reverse Uncle Ben's famous dictim: it may be the case that with greater responsibility, comes greater power.  Canada had more influence precisely because it acting most responsibly--meeting its alliance commitments, helping to protect folks in a truly difficult area.  If it were easy, anybody could have done it.  Because it was so very hard and so very costly, it tested the Canadian Forces and Canada.  Leaving earlier than the countries does diminish the "grades" the Canadians will receive for the effort, but Exceeds Expectations absolutely.  Outstanding, mostly, especially in the realm of Defence Against the Dark Arts.*

* Yes, I am now contemplating grading all aspects of the Canadian effort in Afghanistan with Hogwarts' grading system.

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