As an interesting supplement to the piece spotted by Edward Campbell earlier this year
here's another account of how Canada got into K'Har, shared in accordance with the "fair dealing" provisions, Section 29, of the Copyright Act - http://www.cb-cda.gc.ca/info/act-e.html#rid-33409
The road to Kandahar
At an afternoon meeting in Ottawa, a decision was made that would cost soldiers' lives, billions of taxpayers' dollars and, perhaps, Canada's reputation
Bill Schiller, Toronto Star, 9 Sept 06
It was the afternoon of March 21, 2005 — 48 hours before Prime Minister Paul Martin's first visit to the ranch with presidents George W. Bush and Vicente Fox in Waco, Texas.
Members of Martin's inner circle were filing into Room 323-S in Parliament's Centre Block, among them, freshly minted Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier, a charismatic and articulate man hand-picked by the Prime Minister himself.
Martin had called the meeting to discuss an array of foreign-policy issues.
But Hillier and planners in the defence department were fixed on one thing and one thing only: Afghanistan.
The meeting was the perfect opportunity to win confirmation for an idea they'd been planning for months, one that had the potential to transform Canada's military and embolden its reputation worldwide.
Defence Minister Bill Graham had already confirmed Canada would be sending soldiers in Afghanistan south to Kandahar, the dangerous stronghold and birthplace of the Taliban. There, Canadians would run a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), a military formation combined with small components of diplomacy and development. The goal: to help reconstruct the country.
But Hillier wanted more than that — and he'd already won backing from the government's foreign affairs establishment.
Hillier wanted a battle group — at least 1,000 soldiers strong.
Three hours later, Hillier had won the room. Canadian soldiers would move from the relative comfort of Kabul to the pointy edge of combat in the turbulent south.
A cabinet committee would later refine the details, then the full cabinet would approve it.
But that afternoon in the oval-shaped room will be remembered as the day the deal was done, the day that paved the Canadian road to Kandahar.
In time, the decision would cost the lives of Canadian soldiers, billions of taxpayers' dollars and, possibly, our well-earned reputation for peacekeeping built during the last 50 years.
The mission has stirred controversy — one that will endure, especially since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has extended that mission from 2007 until at least 2009.
How long it will actually take to stabilize Afghanistan, nobody knows. But former Canadian ambassador to Kabul Chris Alexander has been quoted as saying: "Five generations."
Some who were in the room that day (they numbered about a dozen), say there were no raised voices, no clashes and certainly no outrage.
Those assembled knew the assignment would be risky. They knew that Canadians would die. But several say that no one expected the kinds of casualties Canadian forces are now experiencing.
"It was clearly contemplated that peace was going to have to be made," says one. "And that making peace was going to lead to the potential of losing lives. But I don't think it was contemplated on this scale ... people didn't expect this many to be coming home in coffins."
Hillier himself laments the death of every soldier, and stresses that all measures are taken to diminish risk. But neither will he deny the risky reality of soldiering.
"We are soldiers. This is our profession. This is who we are and what we do."
He also argues that the battle group he argued for, and won, was absolutely essential to the mission. There can be no aid and no redevelopment without security, he says.
"We knew the Afghan army was still developing. The Afghan police are even further behind. So, we were going to have to ... provide that security and stability," he says during an interview this week.
But the loss of lives was not the only issue to be considered in the decision-making process.
A number of people in the process were uncomfortable with the fact that to go south to Kandahar, Canada was going to have to step outside of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and once again sign up with the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom. (OEF).
Jonathan Fried, Paul Martin's then-foreign policy adviser, told others he had no problem with that. It was not precedent-setting. We had been there before — in the days following 9/11, Fried said. It was not a big shift.
But others had concerns. ISAF was truly multilateral, led by an international organization. Its mandate was to assist the Afghan government. It had somewhat more restrained rules of engagement.
By contrast, Operation Enduring Freedom was an American-led, counter-terrorism mission, aimed at rooting out and killing Taliban. Other nations assisted it, but it was Washington-run and directed by an administration mainly known for its muscle. And while the operation had been approved by a UN mandate, that mandate was issued on the basis of self-defence — issued on Sept. 12, 2001.
But why couldn't Canada move into the south and remain under ISAF command, some wondered? Why did it have to come under the OEF umbrella?
A now-retired senior defence department official explained that ISAF was not yet ready to go into the volatile south. There were still "discussions" going on in Europe about whether or not to deploy in the southern region.
The Dutch were hesitant in the extreme. The British would debate the issue in Parliament. So would Canada — but only after the decision was already taken.
Following discussions with British and Dutch military officials, Canada decided to pave the way for the eventual deployment of their NATO partners and allow them time to prepare.
But Canada couldn't go there solo. It needed a larger alliance to plug into, an alliance that could provide air support and more guns, and be able to medevac out wounded soldiers and provide them with first-class medical care.
The Americans had all that in spades.
The prevailing attitude to emerge in the March meeting, however, was that "the world had changed," and Canada "had to change with it."
NATO generals were watching, wondering whether Canada was going to keep a commitment made by former defence minister John McCallum at a NATO meeting in December 2003. Was Canada going to live up to it? Would Canada provide a PRT somewhere in Afghanistan?
"There was a feeling that this was the price of being a G-8 country," recalls Scott Reid, formerly Martin's communications director. "It was a question of, you know, after having shown up all these years with a six-pack, whether we were finally going to tend bar."
And then, of course, there was the American angle.
"There was a fairly strong trail of orthodoxy," that ran through the foreign affairs bureaucracy, Reid says, "that was based on an evaluation of strategic interests in terms of our relationship with the United States. A lot of times policy was put to us based on, `This matters to this White House. And things that matter to this White House can't be taken lightly, because these guys take it personally ... So, we really have to evaluate the importance of making a decision that runs counter to this White House.'"
There were, already, decisions taken that had run counter to the Bush administration: Canada had refused to join the coalition of the willing in the war against Iraq; Canada had opted out of the Missile Defence plan. And now, Canada was not going to help the Americans in southern Afghanistan at a time when they were stretched thin in Iraq?
Former Canadian ambassador to Washington Michael Kergin remembers the post-Iraq period well. There was a definite chill there, he says.
"There was this sense that we had let the side down ... and then there was the sense that we could be more helpful, militarily, by taking on a role in Afghanistan ... we could make a contribution in a place like Kandahar."
It was, if not payback time, then pay-up time.
Kergin says that in the world of diplomacy, governments don't spell these things out.
"You don't really need to ... it's pretty obvious ... the Americans were stretched in Iraq."
"There was," says another official who played a role in the decision-making process and attended the meeting, "what you might call an inevitability about the decision."
No one would ever call Hillier "arrogant," but some say another prevailing view emerged in the room: that if you couldn't embrace the new and more dangerous world order you were just "naive."
As for Martin, he saw Afghanistan as an "obligation" from the Chrétien era, one he had to honour.
"But his real belief was that Afghanistan wasn't a natural fit for Canada," says a key adviser. "Fundamentally, (Martin) felt Canada was more suited to places like Haiti and Darfur, where we were within our natural skills — the hard, but also the soft skills in particular."
But Hillier, articulate as always, and speaking without notes, was compelling.
He had been selected by Martin as defence chief because of his transformational leadership. And Martin wanted to see the Canadian Forces transformed.
"There was no doubt after sitting with Gen. Hillier for 20 minutes that he was the man for the job," Reid recalls.
Before endorsing Hillier's battle-group plan, Martin wanted Hillier's assurance that if Canada was called upon to participate in a mission in Darfur, Haiti or — say several who were in the room — even the Middle East, that there would be sufficient Canadian troops available to respond.
Martin made it plain, says one, that he didn't want to be "patronized ... he didn't want any `Yes, Minister' business. He looked Hillier squarely in the eye and demanded his commitment."
He got it.
In return, days later, three different options for the battle group formation were brought back for consideration: small, medium and large.
"One was a kind of `saving-face' deployment that would at least allow us to say we did it," recalls one participant. "One was really big — and defence hoped they'd get that one."
What they got instead was a mid-size plan, the current deployment, but the defence department was much pleased.
"You cannot underestimate the desire of soldiers to prove themselves in combat," says Paul Heinbecker, a former foreign senior policy adviser under the Chrétien and Mulroney governments; nor of commanders to finally show their skill in managing real battlefields, he says.
That said, Heinbecker is wary of the Afghanistan mission.
"Why are we doing this?" he asks in a recent interview. "Do we have any prospects of success? Will we know when it's time to get out — other than the death toll going up?
"And even more important is the fact that this is identifying us with American foreign policy. And in this world, that's a dangerous proposition."
While pleasing the Bush White House might not have been the determining factor in the decision to send combat troops to Kandahar, "pleasing the Americans and earning our spurs" was definitely part of the equation, says Heinbecker, now director of the Laurier Centre for Global Relations in Waterloo.
Was that wise?
"The United States, for a whole series of reasons, from exceptionalism to neo-conism to hubris to ignorance about the world, is conducting itself in a way that is creating a lot of enemies. And I just don't see how our association with that helps," he says.
In fact, he stresses, "it's endangering Canada."
Former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy shares some of those concerns.
"War has its own momentum," he warns, worrying about just where combat in southern Afghanistan will take us. "The deeper you get into it, the more you tend to lose sight of your objectives."
Despite Canada's commitment to focus its efforts on reconstruction in southern Afghanistan, recent turbulence on the ground hasn't allowed much.
"There's virtually very little news about the wider political and diplomatic issues surrounding Afghanistan," Axworthy says. "It's all focused on the military."
Meanwhile, he doubts there's very much resemblance between what Hillier proposed in Room 323-S on March 21, 2005, and what's happening on the ground in Kandahar today.
"There's serious concern that the mandate has gone through mission creep, and that what was defined by Gen. Hillier to the Liberal government has substantially altered.
"I don't think it has ever been defined in clear terms that we have shifted the nature of the mission. We're still using the language that we're still there to build the peace, but the PRTs (the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) that were originally set up are virtually now combat teams.
"Is that what we signed on to do?"
Axworthy points to recent polls showing Canadians turning against the mission.
"There's an innate sense among the public," he says, "that this is not right."