Afghanistan One Year Later: Canadian Strategic Lessons Identified and Not Learned


Image: Cplc Robert Bottrill - CAF Photo Gallery


by Howard Coombs
CGAI Fellow
September 2022


Table of Contents


While the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is still recent history, it may soon be forgotten, with Canadian officials possibly learning only one lesson: not to do it again. The entire mission, but especially the time in Kandahar, was the most intense, most expensive and most political of Canada’s interventions since Korea. It would be a mistake to leave behind the lessons we can draw.1

- Stephen M. Saideman, “Lessons of History: What the Afghanistan Mission Teaches Canada” (2017)

In this 2017 statement, Canadian political scientist Stephen Saideman indicated the nascent state of Canada’s post-Afghanistan learning. One year after the August 2021 capitulation of the Western-sponsored Afghan government to insurgent factions, the time is right to review the strategic aspects of our participation in the NATO intervention in Afghanistan. The primary difference between Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan and other international engagements of this type, both before and since, is the level of interdepartmental co-operation and involvement that was necessary to advance objectives, as part of alliance, coalition or national commitments. By the end of our combat mission in 2010-2011, the need for integrated strategic co-ordination, planning and guidance, as well as the requirement for departments to be inter-operational were accepted and applied. All of this was to produce integrated effects, or impacts, in the mission area. Other countries involved in this NATO commitment, like the United States, underwent similar challenges, which resulted in like adaptation and innovation. This examination demonstrates that despite the identification and utilization of these lessons during the Canadian combat mission, they were not integrated into national and international activities post-Afghanistan. They are “lessons identified” not “lessons learned.”  This lapse has had and will have a deleterious impact on the Canadian government’s ability to address the challenges of inter-agency, or whole-of-government co-operation in current and future interventions, or even ongoing support to NATO activities in Ukraine.2


Afghanistan and Canada

Canadian researchers Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang depicted Canada’s early involvement in Afghanistan in their 2007 work, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar. At the outset, Canadian participation was to be limited to a post-9/11 combat mission in tandem with the United States in 2002. This led to a much longer Canadian involvement in Afghanistan than originally anticipated. The initial commitment of a light infantry battalion group, within a United States Army brigade, was followed over three successive years by continued involvement in the Afghan stabilization mission. In 2003, as part of this effort, Canada generated the headquarters for a multinational brigade and an infantry battle group, both of which were based in Kabul. The following year, from February to August 2004, Canadians also assumed responsibility for the command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). These obligations were succeeded by what was supposed to be provincial stabilization and capacity building. This included establishment of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. However, by 2006 the CF had inexorably migrated into participation in low-intensity conflict through counterinsurgency operations.3 Canada’s role changed again in 2011, shifting from fighting in southern Afghanistan, primarily Kandahar, to giving advice and assistance within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Training Mission – Afghan (NTM-A), with the preponderance of Canadian military forces located centrally in the region of Kabul. This latter involvement ended in 2014. Over the course of this involvement, more than 158 Canadian soldiers were killed and more than 1,800 were wounded. Seven Canadian civilians were also killed. In total, there were 165 Canadian deaths.4

Canada’s Afghanistan mission also provided the initial trial of the amalgamation of defence, diplomacy and development – known as the 3D approach – that had been created in 2003 as the expression of Canadian foreign policy in conflicted regions. This concept evolved into the ideas represented by the more all-inclusive expression “whole of government,” and remained primarily concerned with integrating all instruments of governance and development in order to produce a desired effect linked to national strategy. Ultimately, if any discernable lessons arose for Canada from this conflict, they were associated with this whole-of-government methodology. Rebuilding Afghanistan required these integrated efforts to achieve positive and lasting results in regenerating this war-torn nation.


Canadian Whole-of-Government Operations (2004-2011)

The foundation of Canada’s intergovernmental efforts in Afghanistan in this campaign were laid in January 2004 when then Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, Canadian commander of the International Security Assistance Forces (Rotation V) (ISAF V), entered into discussion concerning national challenges with then-president Hamid Karzai, who led the Afghanistan Transitional Authority (ATA).5 Most important of these national challenges was the lack of unified action by all those with whom Hillier had come in contact and were engaged in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. These governments and organizations had no common plan or co-ordinating mechanism. This lack of coherency resulted in a weakening of potential positive nation-building outcomes. As a further result of the lack of a shared approach, ISAF V could not move beyond lower order, or tactical, military activities; while these activities were able to achieve immediate effects, they were unable to bring about the desired higher level and enduring strategic objectives.

Hillier understood that without a coherent strategic concept in which all involved parties – military, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, donor institutions, the international community and most importantly, the ATA and Afghan people – could partake, no operational level campaign could be created. He also believed that “…rebuilding failed states or failing states was not a security, governance or economic problem; it was all three…”6 This was the underlying principle of what later became formalized as the Canadian whole-of-government approach.

Over the course of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, there were two heavily debated parliamentary votes – one in May 2006 and the other in March 2008 – concerning the extension of the mission and its essential character.7 The latter debate was informed by the results of an independent panel on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan convened by the Conservative government in 2007 to make recommendations on Canadian involvement in the mission. The resulting report was known as the Manley Report, after its chair, the Hon. John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister. To determine their recommendations, the panel conducted interviews and discussions within Canada and with allies between October 12 and December 14, 2007.

After these interviews and associated research, the Manley Report supported continuation of the mission. It argued that security forces needed to be strengthened, agriculture encouraged, government institutions strengthened and national infrastructure restored. The Canadian portion of this could only be achieved through a holistic governmental approach with clear benchmarks supporting the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, an international agreement on achieving peace and security in Afghanistan, and implementation of a strategic level co-ordination body to assess, publicly report on and achieve these integrated objectives.8

Consequently, by early 2008, Canadian efforts in Afghanistan were, for the first time, overseen by a cabinet committee on Afghanistan, supported by a newly created Afghanistan Task Force in the Privy Council Office. This committee, although mainly staffed by senior DFAIT officials, had representatives from several other departments, including National Defence and CIDA. This whole-of-government innovation was a first in Canadian political affairs. The Clerk of the Privy Council reported the Afghanistan Task Force’s activities directly to the prime minister and supported a five-minister cabinet committee on Afghanistan. The deployed Canadian civilian and police contingents grew from a handful in 2006 to more than 100 in 2009, with a relatively robust civilian leadership cadre at the embassy in Kabul and at Kandahar Airfield under the leadership of the representative of Canada in Kandahar (RoCK), as well as a senior civilian director of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT).9

In March 2008, the Canadian government unveiled a detailed set of six policy objectives for the mission. These were:

… enable the Afghan National Security Forces in Kandahar to sustain a more secure environment and promote law and order; strengthen Afghan institutional capacity to deliver basic services; provide humanitarian aid to vulnerable people; enhance border security with facilitation of Afghan-Pakistani dialogue; help advance Afghanistan’s democratic governance; and facilitate Afghan-led political reconciliation …10

Following from that, benchmarks were developed to report on the progress achieved on each of these six priorities. These measures included focused objectives for Kandahar (regional) and those connected to the entirety of Afghanistan (national). Altogether, the ultimate objective was that these Canadian efforts would contribute to Afghan-led political reconciliation efforts aimed at weakening the insurgency and fostering a sustainable peace.11

These six policy objectives and their corresponding measures facilitated integration of Canadian officials into Canadian military operations. It was the expression of governmental (Privy Council Office and Cabinet) interest in and co-ordination of a comprehensive governmental approach. This teamwork was further encouraged by the requirement to provide corresponding detailed quarterly assessment of activities to Parliament. As a result, by the end of the combat mission, this whole-of-government process included not only the CF, DFAIT and CIDA, but also other government departments like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Correctional Services Canada (CSC). However, it should be noted that even with increased harmonization among the efforts of all partners throughout this time, strategic communications and public affairs remained inconsistent in how they were visualized and carried out by the various participants.12

With the success of the 2007 American military surge in Iraq and the subsequent 2008 election of president Barack Obama with his renewed commitment to ISAF, the United States became re-invested in the dilemmas of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Accordingly, the Americans provided a strategic vision and the resources necessary to create a multinational counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. With an influx of tens of thousands of American troops and more clearly defined international objectives in late 2009, the various national campaigns became more fully integrated into a broader international counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign. This improved strategic coherence – on top of the flow of American personnel and material – renewed international interest in Afghanistan and gave fresh impetus to NATO efforts to resolve the expanding violence. It was within this increased security context that a relatively robust Canadian whole-of-government approach developed in Kandahar Province and the role of the KPRT evolved.13


Kandahar Province (2010-2011)

During the final year of Canada’s combat mission in 2010-2011, one can discern the policy objectives originating in the Manley Report and laid out in 2008 through the whole-of-government approach in Canadian-supported activities in Afghanistan at both the regional and national levels. The KPRT, by then a combined Canadian-American effort, included 62 Canadian civilians. This group worked closely with the Afghan governing structure, through the Office of the Provincial Governor, the Provincial Ministries and the Provincial Council to support the implementation of projects determined in co-operation with the provincial government as principal priorities throughout the province. The Canadian staff of this organization was comprised of diplomats, aid workers, corrections officers and civilian police who shared the mission of reconnecting Kandaharis with an effective representative government. In support of these efforts, the KPRT collaborated with the CF, American civilian and military partners and the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

At the same time, the Canadian and American military forces that comprised the Canadian-led brigade, Task Force Kandahar (TFK), implemented initiatives in conjunction with the KPRT to ensure that all military activities were co-ordinated within a whole-of-government framework. Security aims were to: recruit and equip, as well as organize community policing; train, mentor and partner with an increasingly independent ANA; and deny insurgent capacity to influence the population. Governance goals included: creating responsible and responsive district leadership, subordinate to the governor; developing representative subnational processes (i.e., community meetings called shuras); and establishing a capable ministry staff that delivered basic services. Finally, development objectives included the establishment of functional district development committees, village development representation and increased economic capacity.


Canadian Whole-of-Government Lessons Identified

In early 2011, the Afghanistan Task Force launched the Afghanistan whole-of-government lessons-learned project to capture this knowledge. It later put together the results of various inputs, like that of the KPRT, to create high-level perspectives on the results of the Afghanistan whole-of-government experience. These strategic observations reflected the task force’s evolution and its activities. Leading the list was the requirement for an interdepartmental assessment to establish clear national objectives and priorities. Related to this was the requirement for an inter-agency planning exercise to create common understanding and intent, plus establish operational guidance. Directly connected to the formation of the Afghanistan Task Force was the need to create co-ordinating bodies at the political level to produce an integrated approach both across and within departments. To set the conditions for successful intergovernmental collaboration, it was suggested, in a similar fashion to the recommendations expressed by the KPRT, that it was necessary to enhance cultural and process understanding between departments. This could be achieved through cross-department assignments, co-location and shared pre-deployment preparation. The need for a deployable civilian capability was also highlighted. Also, such a resource would need decentralized authorities to be able to make appropriate and timely decisions and would be part of a unified whole-of-government effort from the beginning. In a nod to the quarterly reporting process implemented in Afghanistan, measuring progress was also brought out in underlining the need for a benchmarking framework to monitor and report on whole-of-government activities. Finally, the requirement to build a nuanced and multi-faceted engagement strategy to gain and maintain popular support from the public and partners was also emphasized and had been lacking for the KPRT.14



Canadian efforts to build co-ordinated interdepartmental activities in Afghanistan evolved in conjunction with the growth of the NATO mission, national debate and at the end of the combat mission in 2011. While this discussion and the record it generated is wide-ranging and contains much of value from both strategic and tactical perspectives, points for immediate importance for future whole-of-government practices can be derived from this collaboration. Of all this discussion, the need for more intra-government contact, understanding and collaboration prior to such missions was critical. In the years since the end of our combat mission, it is evident that while these lessons were identified, they were not learned. During the evacuation of Afghans from Kabul in August, it was evident that this operation, named AEGIS, was poorly co-ordinated and ineffective. During that time, Hillier gave an interview to the CBC’s Power and Politics, saying: “Canada had ‘not shone greatly’ and that the operation had been ‘so cluttered by bureaucratic clumsiness, bureaucratic inefficiency, bureaucratic paperwork.’”15

Since the February Russian invasion of Ukraine, Canada has been enmeshed in NATO activities aiding Ukraine. The elements of alliance power being focused on the Russians are considerable and comprehensive, integrating diplomatic, informational, military and economic instruments in a co-ordinated and holistic fashion. Canada too is bringing to bear in a like fashion various governmental elements to support this effort. However, there seems to be little use of systemic structures and processes to ensure that Canada’s efforts are integrated and focused to obtain the maximum effect achievable. The areas identified as gaps in Canadian national security a year ago in CGAI’s “Learning Lessons from Canada’s Foreign (and Domestic) Engagements: Time to Get Serious,” by Brett Boudreau, George Petrolekas and I are still not addressed.

We must start taking these lessons, so painfully identified during our years in Afghanistan, and implement them – now. First, we must restructure national security processes to be agile, interdepartmental and non-partisan. There should be a standing prime minister-led crisis cabinet committee. This body, entrenched in the national security process should be supplemented by senior officials from across government, particularly Foreign Affairs, Defence and Public Safety.

Second, there needs to be a whole-of-government capability to capture lessons identified and help institutionalize them to lessons learned. This should be a deliberate, formal and systemic process and assigned as a responsibility to a federal institution like the Canadian School for the Public Service. With disruptive domestic and international incidents the norm, we cannot afford blunders like those evidenced in August 2021.

Third, we should create and maintain a standing interdepartmental task force, akin to the Afghanistan Task Force, responsive to the crisis cabinet committee. Building an ad hoc structure when crisis has occurred is insufficient to address the need to compel and co-ordinate across the whole of government. Such a body would decrease the impermeable bureaucracy remarked upon by Hillier to permit speedy reactions able to address rapidly evolving crises.

Last, let’s improve departmental capability to successfully communicate their activities. The communications effort for the Afghanistan evacuation could charitably be described as suboptimal. It took several days before any media briefings occurred and even then, they were behind the news cycle other nations had created. Meaningful and informative public communications through various media also help integrate activities among the various government departments and reduce outside pressures to act.16

As the Canadian government looks towards future involvement with other fractured environments, it needs to heed the lessons identified by its contribution in southern Afghanistan, particularly over the last year of the combat mission. It also needs to pay attention to recent failures and ensure that the observations captured by the Afghanistan Task Force, the KPRT and the activities of TFK are addressed, to strengthen and increase the effectiveness of future whole-of-government activities. To be successful, the Canadian lessons identified over the course of the mission in Afghanistan, and indeed our less than stellar national performance during Operation AEGIS need to be operationalized, institutionalized and sustained. Only in this fashion will lessons identified truly become lessons learned.


End Notes

1 Stephen M. Saideman, “Lessons of History: What the Afghanistan Mission Teaches Canada,” International Journal 72, no. 1 (March 2017): 131.

2 This policy note is based on research incorporated into Howard G. Coombs, “Afghanistan’s Lessons: Part I - Canada’s Lessons.” Parameters 49, No. 3 (Autumn 2019): 27-40; Howard G. Coombs, Royal United Services Institute Vancouver Island (RUSI-VI); Online Webinar – The Bay Street Armoury, Victoria, British Columbia, November 10, 2021: “Afghanistan: Canadian Strategic Lessons Identified and Not Learned”; and Howard G. Coombs, “Afghanistan: Canadian Strategic Lessons Identified and Not Learned,” RCMI Sitrep 81, No. 6 (November–December 2021): 5-10.

3 Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Toronto, ON: Penguin Group (Canada, 2007), 1-229 and 244-45.

4 The Canadian civilian casualties included one diplomat, four aid workers, a government contractor and a journalist. Stephen Azzi and Richard Foot, “War in Afghanistan,” The Canadian Encyclopedia (June 4, 2009; last edited March 19, 2019),; accessed November 18, 2021. Estimates pertaining to the number of Canadian wounded are difficult to verify.

5 The Afghan Transitional Authority was the temporary governing body of Afghanistan put in place by Loya Jirga, or traditional Afghan grand assembly, in June 2002 and lasted until national elections in October 2004. See Richard J. Ponzio, “Transforming Political Authority: UN Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan,” Global Governance 13, no. 2 (April–June 2007): 260-63.

6 Gen. Rick Hillier, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War (Toronto ON: HarperCollins Publishers Limited, 2009), 389.

7 Geoffrey Hayes, “Canada in Afghanistan,” in Geoffrey Hayes and Mark Sedra, eds., Afghanistan: Transition under Threat (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008), 292-94.

8 Canada, “Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan,”; November 18, 2021, 8, 20-22, 37-38, 45, and 55.

9 See Nicholas Gammer, “Integrating Civilian-Military Operations: The Comprehensive Approach and the ATF Experience, 2008-2009,” Paper presented at the Canadian Political Science Association Conference, University of Alberta, June 13-15, 2012; and email correspondence from Col. (ret’d.) Brett Boudreau, former director communications, Afghanistan Task Force (Thursday, May 16, 2019 at 10:52) and (Sunday, May 19, 2019 at 14:43).

10 Government of Canada, “Quarterly Report to Parliament for the Period of October 1 to December 31, 2010,” (2010),; November 18, 2021, 2-3.

11 Government of Canada, “Backgrounder: Canada’s Six Priorities in Afghanistan,” Canada's Engagement in Afghanistan,; accessed March 20, 2013.

12 Email correspondence from Boudreau, (Thursday, May 16, 2019 at 10:52).

13 James A. Russell, “Into the Great Wadi: The United States and the War in Afghanistan,” in Theo Farrell, Frans Osinga and James A. Russell, eds., Military Adaptation in Afghanistan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 68-72.

14 See Canada, Afghanistan Task Force “Lessons Learned,” n.d., 10 pp.

15 Harry Miller, “NEWS: Why Canada Failed to Rescue ‘A Hell of a Lot More’ Afghans, According to Former Generals –,” Canada News Media (August 28, 2021),; accessed November 18, 2021.

16 Brett Boudreau, Howard G. Coombs and George Petrolekas. “Learning Lessons from Canada’s Foreign (and Domestic) Engagements: Time to get Serious.” Canadian Global Affairs Institute (September 2021): 4-5.


About the Author

Howard G. Coombs, PhD, is the deputy director of the Centre for International and Defence Policy, Queen’s University, and an associate professor of history at the Royal Military College of Canada, both in Kingston, Ontario.


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