Learning Lessons from Canada’s Foreign (and Domestic) Engagements: Time to get Serious


Image credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz


by Brett Boudreau, Howard G. Coombs, and George Petrolekas
CGAI Fellows
September 2021


Table of Contents

Learning Lessons from Canada's Foreign (and Domestic) Engagements: Time to get Serious

The recent horrific events marking the nadir of the Western world’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan unfolded at a speed few imagined, but with an ultimate outcome many predicted. The Doha Agreement of February 2020 between the Taliban and then-president Donald Trump set the stage by establishing a U.S. withdrawal deadline and committed the Afghan government – not represented at the talks – to release 5,000 battle-hardened prisoners to fight again. The U.S. action rendered any continued, substantive NATO engagement in the country politically untenable.

The denouement came in April 2021 when President Joe Biden committed to the U.S. pull-out. At the same time, NATO announced it would end its Resolute Support Mission, insisting its withdrawal from Afghanistan would be “orderly, coordinated, and deliberate.”1 Four months later, the country fell to the Taliban and chaos ensued.

These events were manifestly outside Canada’s ability to influence, given that our combat role in Afghanistan ended in July 2011 and our military training mission ceased in March 2014. However, the timeline and process our officials would follow to evacuate and provide documents to Canadians and those who helped us, to decide what resources would be committed and to manage the overall process, were reasonably within our control. How Canada would respond was shaped by government interdepartmental processes and consultations, and guided by the prime minister, key cabinet members and the Privy Council Office. Time and again, these interdepartmental processes are shown to be ad hoc, not fit for purpose and overly reliant on the herculean efforts of officials in the midst of a crisis.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau acknowledged as much, noting that “in terms of the criticism of us starting too late – fair enough, fair enough,” and “we are moving forward with trying to deal with the situation.”2 Canadians need and deserve honest self-examination and some form of public accounting by the federal government to learn from what has happened to inform better outcomes. But will we? The evidence to date suggests not.

The international airlift was an extraordinary effort under difficult circumstances. The United States, along with several NATO allies, flew more than 120,000 people out on extremely short notice through the last bastion, the airport in Kabul. A valiant “move-now” approach led by the Canadian military and supported by Global Affairs and Immigration officials extracted an estimated 3,700 evacuees on 17 flights. Officials in Ottawa and people on the ground worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome and they deserve real credit. Gen. Wayne Eyre, the acting chief of the defence staff, described a heroic effort by all under tremendous adversity that pushed people and equipment to the limit.3

Though a notable accomplishment, we should not get lost in an orgy of self-congratulation. As consultant Lauren Dobson-Hughes recently observed, “It can both be true that military and diplomatic staff on the ground did an excellent job in Kabul in incredibly difficult circumstances, AND that the wider process was mismanaged, late, under-resourced, disjointed and badly communicated.”4

In the last few years internationally, we have faced Haitian earthquakes, the evacuation of Canadians from Lebanon, the Syrian refugee relief effort, our Middle East campaign against Daesh and the Ukraine International Airlines flight PS752 tragedy. At home, recent crises with major implications for Canada include rail blockades, wildfires in British Columbia and most prominently, the 18-month-and-counting battle against COVID-19. Some of these incidents were of sufficient severity to lead Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to convene the Incident Response Group, a cabinet-level committee formed in 2018 to provide early and co-ordinated policy, planning and execution oversight during crises or significant events affecting Canada but apparently, it never met about Afghanistan.5

Our institutions are not learning – and are not publicly communicating – the lessons of past events. Truth be told, we barely observe the lessons good and bad, let alone learn them: that is, to implement changes to improve the capability and capacity to sense, plan, co-ordinate, respond and evaluate. As proof, try asking any of the dozen departments involved in the 2001-2014 Canadian mission in Afghanistan what they learned, and what specifically has changed as a result. Can any – including Defence, which has the most to gain from such introspection – show this has happened?

The silence will be deafening.

We cannot come to terms with the ultimate Afghanistan crisis of August 2021 without a full understanding of how Canada got into the country in the first place, and a better appreciation of how the mission evolved, and how it was conducted and managed. It is a travesty we did not do so even after all the terrible human and financial sacrifice.

Urgent life-and-death situations like the Afghanistan airlift that demand timely, co-ordinated support from multiple government departments and all political leaders, occur with alarming regularity and frightening speed. The precise circumstances of each event may differ, but the principles of adequately anticipating, planning, responding and publicly communicating have much in common. In the absence of formal interdepartmental examinations of major events with conclusions and recommendations that are publicly shared, we will inevitably treat each crisis as a new experience and struggle to re-invent the wheel.6

Deliberate lessons-learned reviews are not about assigning blame. They should be about identifying shortcomings in policy, processes, governance and authorities so that each of those elements can be refined and capabilities enhanced. Done well, such studies can help offer important context to relieve the public’s confusion about politicians’ decisions and officials’ actions. This confusion is often caused by insufficient communications in the heat of the moment. Acknowledging and addressing concerns arising in the media and in public discourse is key to building greater understanding and confidence in government institutions and in the public service, among Canadians.

For instance, the cumbersome bureaucratic processes Canadian officials imposed on Afghans desperate to leave as the Taliban noose tightened would appear to be inadequate to the exigencies of the moment. We should know why a simple attestation that an Afghan citizen had worked with our government – offered by any Canadian official or military officer with time in theatre – could not have sufficed to merit a preliminary entry visa, with the rest sorted out when people were out of harm’s way. We should also know why this effort was not an urgent priority when it was certain by April 2021 that NATO forces were all leaving Afghanistan. If in fact this was a planning priority months ago, why wasn’t this ongoing work by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada publicly communicated?

The closure of the Canadian embassy, removal of all consular services and extraction of the ambassador, staff and security support from the country at the first sign of trouble – rather than establishing a presence at the airport to support the effort for as long as reasonably possible – deserves an explanation from Global Affairs. The Canadian response stands in stark contrast to the approach and distinguished aplomb of several of our allies’ diplomats. Notably, a number of countries still maintain a diplomatic presence in and near Afghanistan post-Taliban takeover to continue to engage in discussions, whereas Canada is forced to rely on the good nature of friends, when they have time, to try to represent our interests.

Regrettably, Defence fell into its usual hyper-reliance on operational security (OPSEC), especially about its special forces, to unnecessarily limit information and imagery from theatre, compared to major allies like the U.K., the U.S. and France. While OPSEC is critical to the safety of those involved in operations, it is absolutely possible to communicate actively and effectively with words and imagery, including video, without compromising ongoing activities. 

In a briefing at the end of the Canadian airlift, Eyre explained that, “for obvious reasons, operational details of what we were doing had to be kept quiet.”7 The need for that protection is understood but is a too-easy crutch for inaction that seriously harms the mission. Eyre’s complaint that criticism was misinformed and that “into that silence some people interjected their own narratives, without any real knowledge of the facts [added] to the confusion” is the height of irony. That is the operating environment in the information age: the situation should have been a clarion call for Defence and its partners to explain themselves, and to share imagery showing Canadian military and officials at work together and with allies. Unlike other countries that publicized operations of their militaries, including special operations forces (and the work of civilian officials), our people’s activities remain shrouded in secrecy and subject to public and media speculation.

Ministers need to start leading. This means changing sclerotic systems that guide government planning capability and actions so we can respond more agilely and decisively. Sometimes, these things need to work at the speed of social media to direct actions across government and to publicly communicate, under responsible political authorities.

At this moment there appears to be no set team or playbook. For instance, was the interdepartmental group tackling the Afghanistan extraction formed months ago – or several days into the crisis?  We cobble together teams and processes on an ad hoc basis for each situation so our ability to manage multiple bad things is stretched. It can take days to get officials and political leaders up to speed, with valuable time passing before direction is set. Today’s challenges demand an integrated effort across the entire government to be more flexible to tackle concurrent wicked problems.

We suggest four actions:

  1. Reform the national security structure. Our national security and Canada’s reputation are at risk and our political system needs to mature – fast. Parties must work together to agree to new terms and conditions for information sharing to help decision-makers deal with bona fide national threats and emergencies. We need to build systems as the U.K. and Australia have, where competing political parties are able to meet quickly for classified briefings on national security issues.
  2. Create a new capability for observing and learning lessons across government. Lessons learned should be a deliberate, formal and permanent process. Perhaps the Canadian School for the Public Service or an external agency with a degree of independence could take the lead. We should not shy away from bringing in outside experts to assist – external advisors can be key to holding an organization to honesty and embracing new ideas. With luck, such a process might become iterative with institutionalized systems. We need to stop the cycle of relearning the same lessons over and over again.
  3. Establish a permanent interdepartmental task force. Disruptive events are the norm and they can happen fast. The Government Operations Centre now in place, and the drawing together of representatives into a task force only when a crisis is in full bloom are not sufficient. We should consider creating a robust and permanent crisis task force, similar to the U.K.’s COBRA group or the U.S. National Security Council Situation Room, with the ability to co-ordinate and, where needed, compel action across departments. Such a body would have immediately identified that Immigration requirements were overly onerous under the particular urgent circumstances, and swiftly organized fixes or work-arounds. This type of organization offers prospects to reduce departmental parochialism and bureaucratic resistance, and to better support senior officials and political decision-makers.8
  4. Enhance integrated department communications. COVID-19, a national election and confusion about what the “caretaker” provision means, plus the fast pace of developments, made for a significant communications challenge. That said, the effort to inform Canadians throughout the Afghanistan evacuation was seriously deficient.9 We lack capacity in this area, and lack a whole-of-government mindset to co-ordinating such communications. More insight from identifiable spokespersons starting before the obvious crisis, and daily briefings before the information deficiency became painfully obvious, would have provided important context into what was happening and what our forces and officials were doing. It would have given solace to worried people that departments on the ground were doing what Ottawa was saying. Defence has Combat Camera, an image-gathering team expressly designed for this type of situation, which was inexplicably left at home during the evacuation. We needed to see our forces and our officials in action. Meaningful communications through joint briefings and online content also serve an integrating function for departments to work together. Such communications also reduce the media, public and political pressure on officials to do more.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said two days after the fall of Kabul, “There are lessons that need to be learned from Afghanistan, and we will do that.” Will they? Will we? Before accepting at face value from any politician or official that Canada will also “learn from this,” we may wish to ask: What’s the process for that? What’s the mechanism to do that better, more deliberately, than we have before? How do we capture that information and data, and translate good intent into action? Recent events have been sobering: let us not squander the opportunity for reflection and chance for positive and relevant change.


End Notes

1 North Atlantic Council Ministerial Statement on Afghanistan, Press Release, April 14, 2021, Accessed August 27, 2021.

2 Interview with Marc Garneau on CTV’s Question Period, August 29, 2021.

3 Operation Aegis: Technical Briefing, August 26, 2021. Accessed August 28, 2021. operations/current-operations/operation-aegis/technical-briefing-08-26.html

4 Lauren Dobson-Hughes, Twitter, August 28, 2021. Accessed August 28, 2021.

5 This cabinet-level committee has ad hoc membership, with representation by ministers and senior officials of departments most directly implicated in an event. In the past, the government has publicly communicated when this group convened. If the group had met at any time during the lead-up to and during the evacuation from Kabul, presumably the government would have communicated this, as an expression to Canadians that the issue was taken seriously at senior levels. See Cabinet Committee Mandate and Membership. Accessed August 28, 2021.

6 In 2011 or 2012 (the document is undated), the Privy Council Office published a little-known “lessons learned” report for the 2008-11 post-Manley Report period. Classified “secret” – but released through Access to Information – the scant 10-page document checked a box for staff to claim some effort had been made. This highlights that absent a codified process, top-down direction, guidance and knowledgeable external advisors, senior officials will preciously guard their commentary on how the sausage was really made, fearful of Access to Information and the risk of being critical of colleagues from other departments.

7 Comments by Gen. Wayne Eyre at technical briefing, August 26, 2021.

8 Such an organization did exist, for about four years, and was widely agreed upon as successful. By fall 2007, the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, almost entirely military-driven, was in trouble. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper appointed John Manley, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, to head a blue-ribbon panel to study options for Canada’s future on the Afghanistan mission and bring forward recommendations for parliamentarians, which the government subsequently accepted. One lesser known outcome of the Manley panel was the creation of an Afghanistan Task Force within the Privy Council Office, headed by a deputy minister equivalent (initially, David Mulroney), reporting through the Clerk of the Privy Council to a five-person cabinet committee on Afghanistan. By mid-2008, this whole-of-government initiative included officials from several departments directly implicated in Afghanistan. The task force served to bring critically needed coherence and priority setting to the overall effort, driving a host of innovations, including increasing the civilian component of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan from one to more than 100; and publishing more than a dozen frank quarterly reports on progress against benchmarks related to the Manley report, which served to hold ministers at least to some media and public account for the mission.

9 Notably, the effort to inform those for whom we have some responsibility, who are in need during a crisis in a country, is a different and much more challenging communications problem to tackle than providing information to a domestic audience.


About the Authors

Brett Boudreau (Col. Ret’d.) was a director of communications with the Afghanistan Task Force at the Privy Council Office, and a military spokesperson at NATO HQ Brussels.

Dr. Howard G. Coombs is a historian at the Royal Military College of Canada with experience as both a military officer and civilian advisor in Afghanistan.

George Petrolekas (Col. Ret’d.) served in Bosnia, NATO and as advisor to two chiefs of the defence staff.


Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

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