In The Media

What Canada has learned from its Afghanistan experience 

by Elinor Sloan

May 22, 2012

The occasion of the Chicago NATO Summit is a good time to reflect on Canada’s combat experience in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). What does it reveal about when and whether we should participate in future NATO crisis management operations?

Canada’s forces moved south from Kabul to Kandahar province in early 2006, a much more dangerous operating area than where they had been since summer 2003. An early indication of the things to come was the car bomb that killed Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry.

As the weather warmed up the Taliban progressively built up their forces in the area around Kandahar City. Over the next several months, Canadian troops engaged in skirmishes and battles as they sought to carry out their mission of disrupting Taliban activity. Under the command of America’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Canada enjoyed significant U.S. support. Within minutes of a radio call for assistance U.S. air assets would arrive en masse, whether the need be unmanned aerial vehicles, combat drones, fighter aircraft, or attack and medical evacuation helicopters. U.S. Army intelligence, and psychological and special operations forces also helped.

Such support came to an abrupt halt at the end of July 2006 when ISAF replaced OEF in charge of the regional command in southern Afghanistan. America, committed in Iraq, had pressed for the change in command to lessen the burden on U.S. forces. Suddenly Canadian troops were presented with tactical caveats or restrictions on assets it had relied on, such as attack helicopters. Moreover, Canadian commanders preparing to lead NATO’s Operation Medusa against the Taliban faced a severe shortfall in combat forces. OEF had become an “economy of force” mission and America looked to other Allies to step up. The British were engaged in their own combat operations, while the Dutch declined to participate.

Geographic caveats imposed by national governments meant that NATO countries with large contingents in relatively safer parts of Afghanistan would not move their troops or equipment south. After Operation Medusa the requirement remained, but requests over the next year and a half were consistently rejected. This rejection had a significant, negative, impact on Canadian troops: after a successful rout of the Taliban in Kandahar, they could not consolidate gains; and, without troop lift helicopters, Canada was forced to re-supply its forces by road, exposing them to improvised explosive devices.

In 2008 the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan recommended our continued involvement be contingent on securing troop and helicopter support. Several allies were approached, but it was America that met the requirement. Canada bought Chinook helicopters from the U.S. Army, while the United States sent additional troops. It was part of a change in priority America gave to Afghanistan that slowly took hold from 2007 onward.

Following a White House review, America’s troop strength there began to grow. The Bush administration added almost 7,000 troops and President Obama approved an additional 20,000. A report by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, who took command of both OEF and ISAF in summer 2009, provided unity of thought and action. America decided on a re-focused counterinsurgency campaign and, by summer 2010, deployed another 30,000 soldiers to implement it.

The impact on Canada was huge. In 2006 and 2007 our troops were stretched for resources; the 2008 arrival of Marine Corps forces in neighbouring Helmand province helped ease the pressure. In 2008 and 2009 Canada had the only brigade in Kandahar; by 2010 it shared the province with three and a half U.S. brigades. Early Canadian commanders were challenged by tactical and geographic caveats; more recent commanders reported that caveats had no bearing on Canada’s task force.

Canada’s combat experience in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2011 reveals that when an operation includes a large U.S. combat element we can much more effectively carry out our mission. NATO as an organization does not own many assets and many of the member nations impose restrictive caveats on participation in combat by their forces; most of the critical combat enablers belong to America. The requirement in future is core support and direction of the U.S. government and military. Canada should only take part in non-Article V NATO operations if they are preponderantly led or supported by America.

For more on this, see the report released by the Strategic Studies Working Group (SSWG), a partnership between the Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI) and the Canadian International Council (CIC): “Canada and NATO: A Military Assessment”.

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