The Good War?

What Canada’s mission in Afghanistan teaches us for the next time.

A grey granite cenotaph, inscribed with the names of every Canadian killed in the country’s twelve-year mission in Afghanistan, sits somewhere in a warehouse in the east end of Ottawa.

The cenotaph once stood in the Canadian compound at Kandahar Airfield. Every morning, a member of the civilian support staff arrived with a bucket of soapy water and scrubbed it free of dust. Soldiers, when passing by, snapped rigid and offered a salute. It was the site of Remembrance Day ceremonies and a requisite stop on every dignitary’s visit. If you searched for names, you were confronted with faces: those of the dead, chiselled into the black rock, and your own, staring back at you from its polished surface.

When the mission was over, the cenotaph was packed up and shipped back to Canada. It was taken out once for a cross-country tour, but otherwise remains tucked away and forgotten. In this, it is not unlike the war itself: an event that once loomed so large, but now barely registers in our national conversation.

Since Canada wrapped up operations in Afghanistan in 2014, there has been little desire to revisit the war. A number of books emerged while Canadians were still in theatre, but the flow has since slowed to a trickle. The Canadian government commissioned a study of the war—a lessons-learned exercise—but has not made it public. Even as the country debates how best to tackle ISIS, few invoke the Afghan mission as a source of ideas.

The appearance of Stephen Saideman’s Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan is, therefore, propitious. It reintroduces the war at a moment when we stand to benefit from its memory. In this slim volume, Saideman evaluates Canada’s performance in Afghanistan with an eye toward securing better results “next time.” That there will be a next time Saideman takes as a matter of fact. Indeed, it may already be upon us as the Syrian civil war continues to destabilize the global community. Saideman’s book is thus a helpful resource for thinking through the foreign policy choices that Canada currently faces. It also forces readers to confront what is perhaps a more fundamental issue by asking whether ambitious involvement in international conflicts is worth the price in blood.

Adapting in the Dust marks the beginning of what might be called second-wave analysis of the war in Afghanistan.

The initial wave was composed largely of first-hand accounts by journalists and frontline soldiers (Graeme Smith’s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan and Ryan Flavelle’s The Patrol: Seven Days in the Life of a Canadian Soldier in Afghanistan, to take an example from each category). The second wave, by contrast, will likely feature more contributions from academics and professional historians. Already, scholars such as Caroline Leprince and H. Christian Breede have published important journal articles on the mission. This is Saideman’s crowd—he is a professor of international relations at Carleton University—but what he offers is not an academic book per se. He dispenses with the method and theory sections that open conventional monographs, yet retains the insights gleaned from comparative case study and institutional analysis.

Saideman makes three important contributions to how we think about the war and its contemporary relevance.

First, he checks the impulse Canadians might have to exceptionalize the country’s experience in Afghanistan. “It should be clear that much of what occurred in Afghanistan and the impact at home were experiences shared by many, if not most, of the allied countries,” he tells us. Almost all the contributing countries sent fewer troops than the mission required, and almost all were ill equipped. Canada’s casualty rate was on par with the British, Americans and Danes. Canada was not even the only country with a minority parliament while it had troops in combat; this experience was shared with Denmark and the Netherlands.

Second, Saideman offers a plausible explanation of how Canadian troops ended up in Kandahar, which became one of the most violent provinces in the country. The insurgency was far less intense in northern and western Afghanistan. As Canadian casualties began to mount after deploying to Kandahar, many back home wondered why we were left holding this particularly nasty bit of real estate. One popular answer at the time was that the Canadian military had deliberately downplayed the risks of the mission in order to convince Paul Martin’s government to sign on. This, Saideman recalls, was a key talking point for the Liberals following the 2006 election, as they tried to disassociate themselves from the mission they had agreed to in the first place.

The truth is both more simple and more complex. Saideman argues that we ended up in Kandahar because it served our national interests. By this Saideman really means that a conjunction of players—namely the military and civilian foreign affairs officials—were seeking ways to boost Canada’s influence on the world stage. Moreover, after failing to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was a sense in Ottawa that we needed to show the United States that we could still be a dependable ally. In this light, agreeing to take on a potentially dicey mission in Kandahar had obvious benefits.

By itself, Saideman’s explanation does not amount to a revelation. Sceptics have often derided the mission as nothing more than attempt to appease Washington. What Saideman does offer, though, is a coherent justification for heading to war for the sake of maintaining alliances. Is placating the United States such a bad thing? he asks. By committing to Kandahar, Canada helped reinforce the relevance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in a post-9/11 world. Doing so encouraged the United States to maintain its involvement with the organization. Saideman argues that such multilateral institutions are important for countries like Canada because they provide an arena where they can meet with larger international players on equal terms.

Furthermore, the danger associated with the Kandahar mission was its own currency within NATO. By sending a sizable contingent of troops who were willing to fight, Canada was given a greater role in NATO’s decision-making process. In Saideman’s terms, we went from policy consumers to policy drivers. As it turns out, though, this currency is non-transferable. When a group of anti-ISIS coalition members met in Paris in January, Canada was not invited. The widely speculated reason was Ottawa’s decision to withdraw its small contingent of CF-18 jets from the combat mission against ISIS. The message was clear: the sacrifices of the previous mission do not carry over to the next.

The third significant contribution that Saideman makes comes in the form of an indictment of Parliament’s ability to offer oversight of the government’s handling of national defence. He makes his point with reference to the detainee scandal, arguably the aspect of the mission that received the most attention in the House of Commons. The heated rhetoric over the military’s handling of detainee transfers, according to Saideman, was more noise than signal. As government and opposition bickered, far more pressing issues were being ignored, such as whether anything was actually being accomplished by the Canadian presence in Kandahar.

Parliament’s fixation with the detainee issue is symptomatic, for Saideman, of its structural limitations when it comes to matters of defence and national security. Whereas parliamentarians in other countries are granted access to classified information, no such courtesy is extended to Canadian members of Parliament. Without access to relevant information about the issues they are meant to be discussing, MPs are left kicking up a dust storm wherever they can, regardless of its relevance. “In Canada,” writes Saideman, “MPs are largely ignorant about the CF [Canadian Forces] and almost always happy to remain so.” He adds that not much has changed since the end of the Afghan mission. The House has not provided much oversight of subsequent military deployments to Libya, eastern Europe or elsewhere in the Middle East.

Current debate about democratic reform is largely centred on the electoral system. But a more representative distribution of MPs will count for little unless they are given more institutional power within Parliament to check the whims of cabinet. If Canada is to continue to engage in global affairs, be it on a civilian or military level, Parliament must be able to acquit its democratic function, that is, provide a measure of accountability through the representation of voices from across the country.

This institutional reform is all the more important given the ambivalent relationship between war and democracy. Indeed, the fundamental challenge of war in the 21st century has been reconciling long-held democratic principles with the state’s ability to target its shadowy enemies. The major democracies of the West have thus far proved unable to accomplish the latter without sacrificing the former. From mass surveillance to kill lists, the measures used to defend the democratic state have rendered its democratic character unrecognizable to many citizens. Canada’s democratic institutions are not exempt from this tension; strengthening them would help steel ourselves against the authoritarian temptation that sings in times of crisis.

Saideman jams a lot into his 167 pages. As a result, some topics are passed over too quickly to offer much insight. This is the case, notably, with his discussions of Canadian public opinion and media coverage of the war, which amount to little more than reporting polling data. And as in most Canadian books about Afghanistan, the Afghans themselves make only a fleeting appearance. On the whole, Canadians still have precious little evidence about what the people of Kandahar thought about our presence and what it contributed to their daily lives. Introducing their perspective should be a central task of second-wave analysis.

Saideman’s book is strongest when offering sober assessments of the difficulties the mission faced. He details, for instance, the coordination issues that beset both civilian-military relations and relations between the main civilian agencies, the Canadian International Development Agency and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (now both subsumed under Global Affairs Canada). In an effort to streamline the Canadian effort, Ottawa drew up a list of priorities that was to orient the remaining years of the Kandahar mission. When military or civilian officials declare the mission a success, their claims usually rest on a percentage of these priorities having been met, such as the number of schools built or children vaccinated. But, as Saideman points out, there is a difference between output and outcome. “The temptation to hoist a Canadian flag over [these projects] meant that the Afghan people did not see their own government as providing these improvements.” Outputs help sell the mission back home, but it is an open question whether the outcome was a functioning state in Kandahar.

Saideman, however, does not press the issue. Absent is a sustained discussion of the counter-insurgency principles that were unveiled with much fanfare by then Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, now the chief of defence staff. The military’s initial experiment with enemy-centric warfare proved incapable of doing much beyond keeping the Taliban from taking Kandahar City. Enabled by an influx of American troops in 2009, the military switched to a population-centric approach. This was the heyday of COIN, the acronym by which military advisors refer to counter-insurgency. Its theorists and practitioners were celebrities within the defence community, following its apparent success in Iraq. COIN guru David Kilcullen even made an appearance on The Colbert Report.

How effective was the Canadian application of COIN in Kandahar? It was rolled out in the village of Deh-e-Bagh, where it was most likely to succeed given local ties to the Karzai clan. But where tribal affiliations ran against the grain, it did little to shift the allegiance of locals. Whatever calm has settled on Kandahar in recent years likely has more to do with the American-sanctioned killing sprees of General Abdul Raziq, the butcher/hero police chief of the province. His take-no-prisoners approach—a literal Raziq directive—is far from the hearts-and-minds approach that Vance had preached.

In preparing for the next war, we ought to have a better sense of COIN’s effectiveness. Was the Canadian military’s inability to stabilize Kandahar on its own a reflection of an incomplete application of COIN principles, hamstrung as it was by a lack of personnel? Or is COIN itself flawed? It may be that COIN is simply incompatible with modern democracies, which are unable to commit money and troops in sufficient numbers and for sufficient periods for it to be executed successfully. The COIN doctrine, after all, has its roots in the attempts of dying empires to retain overseas colonies. The arc of history eventually bent away from the British in Malaya and the French in Algeria.

There is little talk of COIN these days as the West calculates how to fight ISIS. Enemy-centric warfare is back in fashion, augmented by the ostensible accuracy of drones and other precision-guided weapons. The West is effectively mounting an ambitious counterterrorism campaign in Syria, made up of assassinations and targeted strikes. This fits well with the current liberal fantasy of war—a fight where only the bad guys get hurt. The modern army confronted its limit in Afghanistan. In the aftermath, a more surgical, less involved warcraft holds special appeal.

The failure of COIN in Afghanistan is not part of Saideman’s story. His is concerned rather with whether the Afghan mission was “worth it.” The price tag was certainly hefty: more than $20 billion spent, more than 160 lives lost and more than 1,000 wounded. Saideman points out that we did not go to war for the sake of Afghans, but for the sake of our ties to NATO and the United States. By the time Canadian troops returned home, our relationships with Washington and NATO had been strengthened. So mission accomplished.

As a descriptive claim, this is difficult to dispute. But there is a troubling normative implication of Saideman’s policy-centric analysis. It is problematic to establish our own standards for determining the success of a mission that involved a fair bit of violence in someone else’s backyard. National self-interest is an insufficient justification. Such a justification would require, at a minimum, a consideration of the consequences our actions generated for others. What good, if any, did we bring to Afghans while pursuing our self-interest? To drop that variable from the equation is to invite amoral policy making. It puts out of reach the prospect of making war in a way that accords with democratic principles; not because democracy calls for utopian benevolence, but because it would seem to forbid externalizing the costs of its own existence.

Saideman makes an admirable first step toward dragging the Afghan war out of storage. But for it to be brought fully into the light, we must be willing to broach the ethical dimension of violence -committed in the name of Canadian
democracy.