The Week Ahead in Foreign Affairs Mark Collins - Guess What? Canadians Losing Interest in Afghanistan, Don’t Know Much About Arctic
Oct 17

Executive Summary of Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn from Afghanistan, available now at

Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn from Afghanistan

Canada fought for a decade in Afghanistan, its troops sustaining casualties and inflicting them.  The war became progressively more unpopular at home, even while Canadian troops, well trained and well equipped, scored successes in the field. But what were the lessons of the war for Canada’s leaders? Did we secure more influence with our Alliance friends? Were there factors that made battlefield success more difficult to achieve? Were there flaws in the government’s organizational structure? In the goals it sought?

Canada first went to Afghanistan in December 2001, dispatching some forty members of its secret Joint Task Force 2 to operate against al Qaeda. Early in 2002, the 3rd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry began serving in Kandahar Province with a United States Army division and after six months returned home. In July and August, 2003, the Canadian Forces began to return to Afghanistan in force with some 2000 troops, becoming the largest troop contributor to the Kabul Multinational Brigade under the still-nascent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), operating in the Afghan capital while the United States’ Operation Enduring Freedom had operational control in the rest of Afghanistan. The Canadian role there would last for over two years, and it included key leadership positions in ISAF Headquarters.

In late 2003-04 policymakers in Ottawa began to consider a transfer of Canadian troops as part of ISAF’s expansion out of Kabul to cover all of Afghanistan with either civilian- or military-run Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). The PRTs would be accompanied by NATO troops tasked to secure them and to train the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). In general, ISAF’s PRT mission aimed to improve the lot of rural Afghans and thus to build closer relations between the people and the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. Another component of the effort to improve Afghan governance was the SAT-A, the Canadian-provided Strategic Advisory Team—Afghanistan that from 2005 to 2008 placed Canadians in key advisory roles with Afghan government ministries.

For a variety of reasons, including advice from the Canadian diplomatic, aid, and military leadership in Kabul, the Departments of National Defence and Foreign Affairs and International Trade in Ottawa believed that Canada ought to establish a Battle Group and PRT presence in Kandahar, beginning in 2006, in order to play a more central, more visible role in Afghan reconstruction. There were some dissenters and the two lead departments jockeyed for control over the Afghan file – and where DND, providing the boots on the ground, including the vast majority of those in the PRT, naturally enough assumed that there should be no contest. But there was general agreement that, with this deployment, Canada would raise its profile in the international community and among its NATO partners (especially the United States) and signal an end to the “human security agenda” period of the Chrétien government. For the Army leadership as well, the Kandahar commitment provided the opportunity to strike squarely at the mythology of peacekeeping.

Nonetheless, the desire to help Afghanistan and to achieve political and status gains may have overridden the fact that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was wide open and the Taliban insurgency was beginning to grow in Kandahar and Helmand provinces by late 2005. This was largely ignored until Canada took its first casualty in the new campaign on January 15, 2006 even before the Canadian area of operations moved south - when diplomat Glyn Berry, who was to run the Canadian PRT from Camp Nathan Smith in a northern suburb of Kandahar City, died in a suicide bomb attack. In total, some 157 Canadian servicemen and women have been killed in Afghanistan, along with an undeclared, but large, number of soldiers wounded.

What does seem clear at this time is that the army learned what was needed as the deployment went on and adapted to the requirements of the job. The Government of Canada, under both Liberals and Conservatives almost always provided the necessary equipment regardless of cost, and the training system in Canada produced soldiers who knew what they faced and how to deal with the enemy.

Canada’s combat mission in Kandahar ended in the summer of 2011. Until 2014 Canadian troops will train members of the ANSF. But although it will take many years before Canadians can begin to evaluate the performance of their troops in Afghanistan, it will probably not be many years before Canada is asked by NATO, the United Nations, or a “coalition of the willing” to commit its armed forces to some other dangerous part of the world.

When that happens, Canada’s involvement in Kabul and Kandahar should provide a guide to the political, diplomatic, and military considerations to be taken into account when making a decision whether or not to commit troops. If the decision to do so is made, such a guide might help Ottawa determine how to provide the best possible civilian leadership for the mission, how to protect Canadian interests, and particularly how to ensure that members of the Canadian Forces are protected militarily, politically, and diplomatically when operating under overall alliance command, whether under another nation or another agency. In other words, what can we learn from the experience of Canada’s long war in Afghanistan that should be taken into consideration the next time the nation considers a major military intervention?

The lessons we should learn, in no particular order of importance, are:

  1. Operational success in “whole of government” missions is achieved through the early injection of well trained, well equipped, prepared, experienced civilian and military personnel in adequate numbers with clear goals. These individuals must have both preparatory and ongoing real-time access, and the skills to process, political, military and cultural intelligence about the area of conflict garnered from all possible domestic and international sources throughout the life of the mission.
  2. Political and military objectives must be clearly defined by all the active partners to a mission. This entails a capability on the part of the government and bureaucratic leadership to understand the changing tactical, operational and strategic contexts in which its troops will operate and the ability to communicate these to both the military and the public in a concise and timely fashion.
  3. There must be clear, consistent and persistent lines of command and communication within and between the military, the government and the bureaucracy, before any deployment of Canadian Forces members in potential combat environments is undertaken. The Prime Minister, if necessary, must ensure that bureaucratic infighting does not jeopardize the achievement of the mission’s objectives.
  4. NATO is divided both politically and militarily and any national caveats which limit the alliance’s ability to succeed politically and militarily in any conflict must be clearly enunciated by all partners at the outset and taken into consideration in Canadian mission planning. Canadian decision makers should think long and hard before entering into any coalition to which national caveats have been attached.

The war in Afghanistan was a just war, and Canada was right to participate. The Canadian Forces served with great distinction and, though our soldiers paid a heavy price, they fought with honour and courage. The Army’s leadership for the next generation was forged in Kandahar, and significant military lessons were learned and, we trust, mastered there. But unless our politicians and bureaucrats also learned the lessons of the Afghan War, the price paid by Canada and Canadians will have been far too high.

2 Responses to “David Bercuson and J.L. Granatstein: Lessons Learned? What Canada Should Learn From Afghanistan”

  1. Derek Says:

    The heading for the article indicates that it is an Executive Summary, but the link to the full report does not seem to work. I would be interested in the the body of evidence supporting each lesson that should be learned and applied after Afghanistan..

  2. admin Says:

    Try this link.

    Hopefully it will help. Thanks.

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