Saturday, January 7, 2012

Living Via Observation Bias

I am both thrilled and displeased by this new piece about Canada's decision to go to Kandahar in 2005-06.

I am thrilled because it indicates something that I have long believed--that Canada didn't want to go any of the places in safer, less controversial Regional Command West because they didn't want to be commanded by the Italians.  Since the Italians had/have pretty strict caveats, the Canadian Forces would not have much confidence that they would receive help in a tough battle, especially since Italy had very few helicopters in its Afghanistan inventory. 

I am displeased because the article tends to portray the mil to mil planning as something sinister and repeats the canard that only the CF wanted to go to Kandahar even if it gets right the CF's motivations to have more control over how it is deployed.  This article omits, like most stories like this, the reality that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade was also most interested in deploying to Kandahar for some of the same reasons as the CF.  To make a difference, to have more influence.  And that was something Paul Martin also wanted--not just to have 40 Canadian flags showing a dispersed force in many UN missions, playing a marginal role in each.  Rather, he, DFAIT and DND (CF) all wanted to be in a spot where Canada could have influence on how it was used, and that help would be readily available (especially since years of mistakes meant that the CF had no helos deployable to Kandahar in 2005).

Also, the article makes it sound like UK-CA planning was anti-NATO, which astounds me.  Yes, two of the allies' militaries worked together to try to figure out the future--this is Standard Operating Procedure.  Few decisions are only first discussed at the North Atlantic Council or the Military Committee.  Instead, small groups of allies work together to figure out how to set the agenda, whether it is the top five contributors to the Balkans (the QUINT, also see here) or two countries that often work together (CA and UK had been in same sector in Bosnia).  The reality was that in the move to Southern Afghanistan, the Brits did not want to be alone and worked hard to put together a coalition of countries that can work well together in a tough area--and they chose the Canadians, Danes, Dutch, and Australians as reliable partners, along with the US. 

Yes, there was wishful thinking that the size of the force would be enough, that the Taliban was not likely to come back in real strength, and so on. Yes, it would play out well for US-Canadian politics, but Canada was going back to Afghanistan one way or another, since supporting the NATO alliance is and has been very much a core Canadian national interestYoking the US to multilateral institutions is also a core Canadian national interest.  Articles like these make it sound like the CF was alone and was acting against Canadian interests when the reality is very much the opposite--it really was a whole of government effort to get involved (at least CF, DND, PMO, DFAIT--CIDA had other concerns).

To conclude: aargh! Of course, I could be reading into all of this what I want to read.  I thought the article was really cool at first when it provided support for my existing beliefs.  Then I got upset when it argued stuff that I found objectionable.  Another example of biased observation, right?  Well, it is for the readers to assess.


Rob said...

Well done. Thank you for the counter-spin. Don't worry about biased observation, it's more of a problem when we're blind to it.

Jon said...


Link to the article is incorrect. Could you fix, as I'd love to read this?


Steve Saideman said...

Ooops, I bet my co-author must be thrilled. Fixed.