Thursday, August 16, 2018

Afghanistan Retrospective Book and Review

I got a copy of General (ret.) David Fraser's book on Operation Medusa several weeks ago, and have been reading it in my spare time.  I have some thoughts, of course, as I have written much about Canada and Afghanistan.  I also have some caveats--I am not an expert on battles nor did I spend much time in Afghanistan (8 days).  But I have interviewed people, including Fraser, who were involved in the battle or were there afterwards.  So, take what I have to say with a grain of salt. 

First, the book is engaging and interesting.  It covers the battle and not much else--not a whole lot of context for the whys and the aftermath, but that is fine. The book presents itself in a very uncritical, patriotic manner--that the general led brave men and women in a difficult fight, and the book is more or less a tribute to those folks. 

Second, the book is not very self-reflective--again, it is not that kind of book.  While Fraser admits that not everything went well, he does not really elaborate on what he could have done better.  He is critical of others, and when there are mentions of arguments with subordinates about tactics, he argues this is natural, rather than maybe not listening to those who understand the local conditions better?  I have heard enough over the past ten years or so in Ottawa and elsewhere that I am pretty sure this book is rubbing some key folks the wrong way. 

Third, one could read into it what you want.  Any discussions of surprises or intelligence problems could be seen as criticism of the current Defence Minister, Harjit Sajjan who was the key intel officer for Fraser's team.  Or it could be that Fraser didn't listen well or that the situation was too fluid, so it was not really anybody's mistake.

Fourth, the story reminds me of the most important military problem in Afghanistan in 2006--size. Yeah, caveats and all that, but the big problem was simply not enough troops on the ground.  One company had responsibility for Zhari, Panjwayi and Maywand?  A company is about a hundred soldiers.  That is not Fraser's fault, but is something that, along with all kinds of other basic stuff (giving the President too much power, Karzais being a bad group of "allies", Pakistan, etc), made victory very difficult.

Fifth, Fraser's attitude about NATO is both strange and informative.  It is strange in that he keeps appreciating the Americans, the Brits, UK, and such while blasting NATO but those folks are there as part of a NATO mission.  What is informative is his depticiton of the Danes being unwilling on page 138.  I got the Danish side of the story when I was working on the Dave and Steve book. The Danes were quite willing to go into the fight--spent most of the war in the one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan--where the poppies grow in Helmand--but they pushed back against Fraser. Why?  Because he was trying to treat their recon vehicle like a tank or armored vehicle--he wanted it on the front lines, whereas the Danes viewed this system as good for being on the edge of the battle to provide info.  So, perhaps Fraser didn't know how to handle some allies or didn't listen well?   I get being frustrated that the Germans and French didn't show up, and that NATO ROE were less friendly, less flexible than the American ones (speaking of which, he claims credit for making sure the wounded would get treated within one "golden" hour--but that was a NATO-wide policy, not his innovation or initiative).  This stuff mattered, but Fraser's job in 2006 was to be the NATO commander and not just the Canadian one.  He wore two hats, and one he mismanaged. 

Sixth, a key challenge in reading this book is that one of the central complains about Fraser is hard to evaluate from Ottawa in 2018.  There was a plan to engage in bombardment of the Taliban compounds for three days, but Fraser called that off.  He says that it was not doing much damage since the Taliban were dug in and underground.  Folks who served there suggest otherwise.  I am in no position to adjudicate this, but I didn't find Fraser's explanation very convincing.  This is a sore spot that he could have addressed better. Similarly, I heard that the basic plans were unimaginative and were repeated, which Fraser's narrative contradicts.  I'd like to have someone who served in the battle speak up and clarify this. 

The funny thing is that when I interviewed Fraser in 2007, I was focused on figuring out the NATO side of things and he wanted to lecture me on "effects-based operations."  The notion that any military plan should figure out what the likely effects are in the short, medium and long term.  That Kandahar didn't fall then and hasn't fallen does speak to the importance of both Medusa and the Canadian effort in Kandahar.  I am tempted to go on a tangent about a recent Macleans piece that seems to want to make the Canadians the good guys and the Americans the bad guys, but that is a Spew for another day. 

Back to grant-writing.

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