Hudson on the Hill

Learning to Run a War
HUDSON ON THE HILL  |  Nov 15, 2010

The Prime Minister told Canadian troops in Kandahar, on 13 March 2006, that Canada will not “cut and run” as long as he is in charge. For two years after that, Mr. Harper and his government criticized many European NATO allies for imposing caveats on their troops in Afghanistan, caveats that ­prohibited them from joining the counterinsurgency fighting across southern Afghanistan. It never occurred to them that one day, perhaps, Canada would have military forces in Afghanistan with similar ‘no-fighting’ caveats imposed by government.

Then came the Manley panel, an election campaign, parliamentary debates, and casualties… those inconvenient casualties… they did not fit the public image of the mission that Parliament wanted. Nonetheless, a 2008 parliamentary motion agreed to extend the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan until July 2011.

The government was subsequently steadfast in saying it was ‘obeying’ the parliamentary motion. Even Canadian Forces Generals, testifying before parliamentary committees, said they were planning for the repatriation of all Canadian Forces ­personnel. Asked specifically how many soldiers might be left behind, Chief of the Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk replied, “not one.”

Government leaders quickly lost the will to fight, let alone the will to win. In a March 2009 Globe and Mail article (Canada, allies will never defeat Taliban, PM says), Paul Koring quoted Mr. Harper as saying “Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency.”

In Canada, the war in Afghanistan is treated as an “issue” to be “managed” by the Privy Council Office, under the guidance of the Cabinet Committee on Afghanistan. The Committee is chaired by Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon and includes Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay; the Minister responsible for international development, Bev Oda; Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews. It has been virtually mute, is unknown to the troops in Afghanistan and Canadians ­generally, and has done little more than ­generate useless, out-of-date quarterly reports to parliament. In short they have done nothing. While Canadians on the ground in Afghanistan adopt a ‘whole-of-gov­ern­ment’ approach, leaders and manda­rins in Ottawa pursue a ‘some-of-the-time, bits-of-the-gov­ern­ment’ routine. That is no way to run a war.

The House of Commons Special ­Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan has been generally useless too. After tying itself in knots over the handling of Afghan detainees for most of last spring, it visited Afghanistan last May, published a short interim report calling for a parliamentary debate on the future of the mission and quickly dissipated for the summer. Since returning to work in September, it has still not found anything useful to do. It was not consulted at all on the issue of extending the military mission in a training role.

There is however, an important task the Special Committee could undertake.

The Special Committee’s one strength is that all members are relatively senior party people. Most are, or have been ministers, parliamentary secretaries, or party defence or foreign affairs critics. Its one great shame has been that this horsepower has never been harnessed to address anything useful. It needs to find something important to do, or be dissolved.

The Special Committee on Afghanistan could take on the task of reviewing the government’s conduct of the entire Afghanistan mission, to develop lessons learned and recommend how future ­missions of this, or any kind, should be run. A comprehensive study would call on the experience of those Canadians who were involved in the mission, and would consult other like-minded governments with experience in leading a country during times of conflict.

One lesson they will probably learn is that wars, no matter how small, are not issues to be managed part time by a handful of ministers and bureaucrats. Wars are national endeavours during which any country worth its salt puts forth a comprehensive effort to prevail, whatever the mission given.

The population must be educated and motivated to support the effort and government must learn how to apply elements of national power and instruments of coercion to prevail (I use ‘prevail’ because the ultimate aim is to impose your will – to make the adversary do, or stop doing something). True, the result may be costly and painful, but at least you achieve the goal that you fought for. War involves much more than the deployment and ­sustainment of military forces. It includes diplomatic affairs with allies and adversaries. It includes, in the most extreme cases, a re-ordering of national resources and commercial affairs. Whole-of-gov­ernment becomes whole-of-nation for as long need be.

Afghanistan is just a preview. We didn’t do it all that well because we ‘managed the issue’ rather than ‘running the war.’
© FrontLine Defence 2010