Canadian Military and Civilian Service in Afghanistan—InquiryPublished on 6 May 2015 Hansard and Statements by Senator Joseph Day
Hon. Joseph A. Day:
Honourable senators, I intend to speak now on Item No. 28, which is an inquiry left here by Senator Segal before he departed. It deals with Canada’s contribution in Afghanistan and the record of the Canadian Forces.
Over the years, Senator Segal has made many noteworthy contributions to public life in Canada, not the least of which has been his stewardship in maintaining the highest standard of participation in the work of this chamber. I am pleased that before he left us he sponsored this inquiry into the contributions that the Canadian military and civilian personnel made to the revival of the Afghan nation-state after the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation.
The inquiries that we address here are often couched in such broad perspectives that one is free to pursue one or more of the aspects of the topic at hand. In the case of the stellar service of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan over a 12-year period, there is more of an understanding of what our countrymen were able to do — and what challenges were to follow the Soviet occupation of that country — when one takes a look at the successes and failures of the Soviet occupation itself, which preceded our involvement, in comparison with the later contribution of NATO, the United Nations and the Canadian Forces.
Afghanistan is rather unique in relation to its neighbours. It’s a nation-state that is 200 years older than its immediate neighbour, Pakistan, which was created only in 1947. The formation of Afghanistan was not unlike the process of ethnocultural conflicts in periods of forced occupation by their neighbours that many smaller countries of Europe endured prior to drawing their defined borders and developing consensual governance.
Afghan sovereignty eventually emerged from the instability of succession conflicts, general domestic rivalries and an overarching sense of territorial fragility. Its own religious dimensions and resistance to foreign challenges were constant destabilizers over the years.
From 1800 to 1979, no foreign power ever occupied Kabul, the Afghan capital. The nation served as a buffer between Russia and the British interests in that part of the world for many years. In World War II, it was neutral. In 1978, there was a communist coup. The Soviets occupied it from 1979 to 1988. This was in response to the coup of 1977-78.
However, the great blunder of that occupation by the Soviet Union was the near exclusion of Soviet political and historical analysis as the basis for the decision making of governance. There was no non-military analytical lens contributing to the strategies of state-building, in spite of directives from the Kremlin. Instead, Soviet generals had free reign on the ground. Unfortunately for the Soviets and for Afghanistan itself, Afghani military planners were the ideological captives of the Soviet model of centralized planning and centralized governance.
In its attempt to alter Afghan history, the Soviets were brutal. It might be an oversimplification to say that through their excessive brutality the Soviets were able to enforce some degree of stability, but the centralization of its control mechanisms ignored the long-term decentralized patterns of Afghan life and the importance of a measure of laissez-faire autonomy for rural communities.
This corresponded to the traditional framework of tribal leadership, which ultimately led to the collapse of the country following the Soviet withdrawal. In short, the Soviets were not good seed-sowers, and once they were gone, the old Afghan patterns of tribalism and corruption immediately returned, almost as if they had never been altered during the Soviet occupation.
These were the challenges that NATO forces met following the Soviet withdrawal. In the case of Canada’s contribution, I’m proud to say that the Canadian presence in Afghanistan did make some differences, and hopefully those differences will result in long-term solutions of state-building for that part of the world.
For two years of our engagement there, Canadian Forces were in the forefront of training of Afghan military personnel. That, in itself, was a substantial contribution to nation-building.
“Success” is a slippery word in the process of state-building. The very concept of success defies universal definition, since success is clearly a matter of perception. Success from our point of view and success from the other side’s point of view is a challenge in objectivity.
By whose standards are we to judge success in Afghanistan? First of all, there are two kinds of wars: wars of choice and wars of necessity. From the Canadian perspective, the discussion of which kind of war was fought will be debated by military historians and political scholars for some time.
The Canadian operation was multi-faceted, resulting in both military and civilian participation. Personnel from Foreign Affairs and the Canadian development agency were deployed with the Canadian Armed Forces to pursue development projects and diplomatic and military agendas.
The great challenge in the field of conflict is that development and diplomatic objectives always require military protection. Ultimately, the troika of divisions of diplomacy, development and security always needed to be synchronized. One element of that troika could never be allowed to eclipse another, in spite of the overarching military imperative.
Our multi-faceted operation in Kandahar consisted of military and civilian participants at a given moment. Military personnel were constantly arriving and leaving. This was an ongoing logistics challenge, needing constant management, and Canada did very well with that logistical management in Kandahar for several years.
Looking back on the Canadian experience in Afghanistan, several factors are clear. Our lack of participation in Iraq, the great conflict involving our traditional allies prior to Afghanistan, notably strained our relations with our friendly and powerful neighbour to the south. However, our contributions and the efforts of our allies in Afghanistan appeared to have revived that faltering friendship quite nicely.
The first factor in analyzing our participation is to ask what the quid pro quo was for Afghanistan participation. What did we get in exchange for participating there? What consideration were we given because of our acquiescent response to the military imperatives of our allies? Where were the diplomatic advantages for Canada?
One might think that reasons to go to war should be clear, if not compelling. Were we actually compelled to go to Afghanistan, or was it our choice? Is the question simply too complex and too sensitive for general domestic discussion and consumption? Or, stated differently, what were the details of the carrot-and-stick diplomacy behind the scenes that were likely employed to persuade the Canadian government to engage with our usual allies in the Afghanistan project?
Our participation in Afghanistan was probably a combination of necessity and a matter of choice. Only the history books will ultimately settle on a definitive answer. However, there is a compelling view, articulated by scholars currently, that Canada went to Afghanistan for reasons that have never been precisely stated. It remains clear that our United States allies are much more pleased with us now since our Afghanistan participation.
The second factor is the considerable contrast between our treatment of ordinary Afghans, which had a sensitive human-needs awareness to it, and the sheer violence of the Russian tactics used to impose their rule.
Another factor to take into consideration was the contribution to the containment of the Taliban, the push back — for which we suffered a number of unfortunate casualties.
A fourth factor in considering our participation was the Canadian contribution to the very basis of governance — the capacity and the ability for the exercise of universal suffrage, for example.
A fifth factor was our thoroughly commendable contribution to nation building at the humanitarian level. We built 30 schools and a dormitory for women students at a university, and we accelerated teacher training. Women’s rights and improved literacy were ongoing objectives, as well as irrigation training. That’s water for farmers. In the beginning of Canadian deployment in 2006, children would throw rocks at Canadian vehicles as they passed. By 2009, the children were waving Canadian flags as our soldiers passed. We must have been doing something right.
It follows that the sixth objective in being there was to initiate local projects that would provide much needed employment and support for the rank and file of Afghans. The major Canadian development project — the Dahla Dam, 35 kilometres north of Kandahar — to promote irrigation is unfortunately not projected to be completed for a couple of years or more, even though it was started while we were there. It is predicted that the ultimate cost will now be $200 million more than the original $50 million that was earmarked for this project when we started.
Another factor is health care. When Canadians arrived in Afghanistan, the country had the fifth least level development and the fifth lowest gross domestic product on the planet, and that has been improved considerably as a result of the work that Canadians did while we were in Afghanistan.
In such circumstances, what do policy-makers decide to tackle first? Obviously, many diverse undertakings were pursued by Canadians while we were in Afghanistan, but the enormously successful answer for Canadians, and for Afghans, was the simple issue of the provision of safe drinking water. In fact, Canadians became known as the miracle well-diggers to such an extent that we have earned that stereotypical characterization probably forever in Afghan folklore. Nothing we did there impressed the general population more than our repeated success in rural areas in providing the sudden availability of safe and unlimited drinking water.
One can imagine the positive, long-term impact of this Canadian contribution leading to increased longevity and reduced persistence of health issues in future decades. We hope that this is true. I believe that we can be quite self-congratulatory about that contribution.
Of course, this last issue speaks directly to the perceptions of success from our own perspective, compared to the perspective of our success on the part of Afghans themselves. We excelled at digging water wells, and that was no mean feat. In other matters, admittedly we missed the mark in terms of receiving overarching applause both from the Afghan perspective and from our perspective as well.
The final matter is the shift of emphasis in one of our most important public policy mantras, our almost sacred role in international peacekeeping. How did the Afghan experience impact on our long-term loyalty to our concept of peacemaking and peacekeeping?
I wonder if I might have a little while longer?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
Senator Day: Thank you, colleagues.
I was referring to the long-term cherished policy of peacemaking and peacekeeping that has been a characteristic of Canada’s foreign policy for more than 50 years. How did this new framework play out in the context of our sudden adoption of a combative role against the persistent Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan? In retrospect, it is clear that our role in Afghanistan was a major game changer from Canada’s usual foreign policy initiatives.
Our participation there in combative activities has redirected the previous 50 years of Canadian foreign policy — 50 years of peacekeeping that was purposely non-combative. Perhaps this change will last forever. This dramatic change occurred under the watch of Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham and under the direction of military chief of staff General Hillier. Perhaps our new way of engaging in “peacekeeping” will never revert to our traditional concept of peacekeeping.
For the first time in decades of peacekeeping, our troops engaged in classical counter-insurgency practices. This was not immediately obvious to Canadians since there were only seven Canadian deaths in Afghanistan prior to 2006. After that, Canadian deaths multiplied, and by 2012 more than 2,000 Canadians had been wounded there. So-called peacekeeping took on new meaning, and for war to be considered a success, the domestic observer must believe it to be a success.
Eventually, opposition to the war increased here at home with more than half of Canadians being opposed to our continued participation in that activity in Afghanistan. Thereafter, it seemed to be time the leave, and so we left. Of course, increasing Canadian opposition may have been partly due to the lack of a well-crafted, persuasive public narrative of why we had gone to Afghanistan in the first place. The negative realities of war always require great care in the deployment of the purposes of war for domestic consumption.
There are those who may lament the Canadian shift in the nature of peacekeeping participation, and there are those who will commend it. The world is changing dramatically and has changed over the last 50 years, making our lives both apprehensive and hopeful for the future.
However, our contribution to nation-state building in Afghanistan will, I believe, stand the test of time.
We commend those Canadians who participated in this process. We remember those who gave the supreme sacrifice for a noble cause. We honour those who remain among us who bravely served in Afghanistan, and we declare to all of them, sincerely and gratefully, well done.