After Kandahar, the history war
by David Bercuson
Virtually every significant war in history is followed by another, smaller war: the bloodless war among historians, journalists and veterans to set the historical narrative of the war that just ended. That’s what the former Athenian general Thucydides was doing when he wrote his account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. And now we have Afghanistan, still being fought, with the postwar accounts already appearing, written mostly by journalists – including a few very good ones by Canadians – and generals and diplomats.
Canada has not fared well in many of the accounts by non-Canadians – in particular, recent books by respected Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran, British General David Richards and Britain’s former ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles.
Mr. Chandrasekaran’s book is not a memoir; it is based fundamentally on interviews, as most recent journalistic accounts are. That’s not a criticism of the book, because the real evidence of what happened in the war, from the highest political and diplomatic levels to the almost daily encounters between the soldiers at the sharp end and the Taliban, is mostly still classified and will remain so for years to come.
Nonetheless, a clear picture is beginning to emerge from these three books, and others, of a Canadian war effort that was confused, somewhat amateurish, overly optimistic and, in many parts of Kandahar province, simply ineffective. Mr. Chandrasekaran, for example, relates the disappointment of some U.S. commanders at Canada’s failure to actually occupy and secure the city of Kandahar, concentrating instead on keeping the main roads open and attempting to secure corridors from Kabul to Kandahar and from the Pakistani border at Spin Boldak to the Panjwai and Zhari districts, about 25 kilometres west of Kandahar city – the heart of the insurgency.
General Richards is particularly critical that Canada opted to take on Kandahar province instead of Helmand, where the British fought, because there weren’t enough Canadians for the job. The British had roughly three times the number of troops in Helmand (immediately to the west of Kandahar) than Canada had.
There is much truth to these evaluations of Canadian accomplishments in Afghanistan and they have recently been written about by Canadians as well. But there is also much truth to the old Chaucerian remonstrance that those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. It applies equally to writers judging the conduct of other nations in war as it does to life in general.
Consider the British effort in Helmand province. The United Kingdom sent troops there equipped with Land Rovers that could not stand up to Taliban IEDs. They tended to place their operating bases inside villages that were controlled by the Taliban and wound up being constantly shot at, especially at night. Though equipped with Chinook helicopters, the British positions were so vulnerable that they were often under siege. In the summer of 2006, the road-bound Canadian Battle Group led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Hope was forced to leave its position in Kandahar province to rescue an important British position in Helmand.
Now, none of these failures are of themselves indicative of the overall British effort in Helmand. Rather, they are indicative of the very real fact that everyone who fights wars makes mistakes and that shortcomings can be found throughout a campaign and at all levels of command. Some British journalists, military historians and veterans too often write as if the British invented war and are the best at it. And that attitude is too often reflected in their observations of how Canadians performed, especially in the Second World War.
As for the Americans, it can only be said that the biggest blunder made by any country in the Afghan campaign was made by the United States, in virtually abandoning the necessary war there for the optional war in Iraq. Was Canada too weak on the ground in Kandahar? Without a doubt. But Canada was there between 2006 and 2008 – and the Americans were not. And U.S. mistakes were made at all levels, from the White House and the Department of Defence to the Korengal Valley in northeast Afghanistan, where dozens of American soldiers died trying to hold an indefensible area from forward bases far removed from close support. They abandoned the Korengal after about a year.
Whatever Canada may or may not have accomplished in Kandahar, one fact is indisputable: The Taliban could not seize it. The British and Americans have much to evaluate regarding their own performance. As do Canadians.
David Bercuson is a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. With J.L. Granatstein, he is author of October’s CDFAI paper Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn From Afghanistan.