On Afghanistan

Afghanistan is making a lot of news again, and I figured it’s probably time to put something on the blog about it. Primarily, there’s the whole detainee scandal, something I’m not going to get into too much. I don’t really know enough about it, and the investigation is ongoing, and so I’m not going to speculate on it. I don’t think anyone is blaming soldiers for anything that happened, since it seems like they were the ones raising concerns more than anything else. I’m sure it’ll all become clearer.

However, the other thing about Afghanistan that’s making news I will comment on. Canadians, by and large, remain totally ignorant of how we wound up in Afghanistan in the first place, who sent us for what and when and all that jazz. Unlike any previous expeditionary military operation this country has undertaken to the best of my knowledge, we have a time-certain pull-out date in Afghanistan: come 2011 by will of Parliament, we’re packing up and going home, regardless of what the situation at the time is. So this blog post will take the form of a little bit of disclosure, a brief history lesson, and my take.

So, first, disclosures. I’m an Army Reserve officer, but I only ever blog as a private citizen. Nothing I say reflects any sort of official policy, I’m not going to even hazard a guess at what the brass thinks of anything. All I’ll write is what I’ve observed. Most importantly, I have not served in Afghanistan. That’s not for lack of trying, though. I’ve actually volunteered to go twice. The first time I was missing a trade course component (and I knew that, but I tried to get a waiver for on-the-job training, and it didn’t work). The second time, I was apparently selected to go, I started all the pre-deployment nonsense (what’s called “DAG”) – I DAG’d green (good to go), and was expecting to be heading to Petawawa to join the 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group, which was forming Task Force 1-10 deploying to Afghanistan – well – this week or so. Just before I was supposed to show up in Petawawa in September I learned, along with about 40 other officers, that the positions we were supposed to fill didn’t exist. Adding insult to injury, I’d dragged my heels on applying to another position thinking I already was going on tour – and missed a second shot at going as a result. I challenge you to imagine the frustration of getting your life in order to be away from home for over a year, pissing off your civilian employer who resents you going (and more, that’s a whole other story), being all set to go, and finding out at the last minute that it’s not actually happening. I was a pretty bitter person, that’s for sure.

I’ve lost friends in Afghanistan. Last winter in particular, on December 5, a very good friend of mine, my former platoon signaller, Corporal Mark “Chinaman” McLaren, was killed there. He wasn’t the first person I’d been acquainted with to die there. I went through basic with Corporal Glen Arnold’s brother Lance. I was awed and inspired Chief Warrant Officer Robert Girouard, the Regimental Sergeant Major of 1RCR, who terrified me as a CSM at the Infantry School but then came to visit me in the hospital when I got injured on course. I knoew Cpl Jordan Anderson through his online persona on a Canadian military website only, but found him to be an incredibly insightful young man. His favourite quote was “Often I have regretted my silence, never my speech.” I had met Capt Matt Dawe a couple times and worked with his brother for a while as well. The Canadian Army, after all, is a small one – we all seem to know everyone, or know of them, or know someone who knows them.

When Mark died it hit me pretty hard. It was his second tour in Afghanistan. On the first tour, he was wounded by shrapnel when his position was strafed by a US A-10A Warthog who mistook them for Taliban. The driver of his LAV-III, Cpl Mark Graham, was killed, and some 31 men were wounded. Mark took some shrapnel and was medevac’d to the Role 3 at Kandahar Airfield, patched up, and returned to duty. He showed off his scars when he got home, and was very proud to have been one of the now somewhat infamous “Crazy Eights” – 8 Platoon, Charles Company, The 1st Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment. The Crazy Eights were apparently always in the shit, their unofficial unit patch by the end of their tour was an eight-ball.

After he got home, Mark did what many expected – he transferred from the Reserve to the Regular Force, joining 1RCR. He soon started workup training for his second tour, his last one. I remember that I signed a letter of recommendation for him to go on his first tour, and a letter of recommendation for him to transfer. He was a tremendous soldier and I was proud to see him go. I even talked to him through Facebook Chat a couple times when he was over there. The morning of the 5th, I had called in sick when the phone ran, and a Master Corporal from my Regiment gave me the news that he had been killed. I stood on the ramp, in the freezing cold, a couple of days later when a C-17 unloaded his casket along with Private Demetrios Diplaros and Warrant Officer Robert Wilson. They were casualties 98, 99, and 100. We felt a relief of sorts that there wasn’t one single person who was “number 100”. The following week, I stood at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa while he was interred, again on a freezing cold day. It was not an experience I’d like to repeat.

That’s my story. I have countless friends who’ve served in Afghanistan, on various tours, and in various positions. It is from the discussions I’ve had with them about my own plans to deploy and about their observations that I draw most of my opinions on the subject. It’s from there I’ll depart once I cover the history piece.

Canada first sent soldiers to Afghanistan in 2001, a tiny cadre of special forces, followed by a battle group, built around the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, which deployed to Kandahar Airfield starting in January 2002. This first deployment (“Roto 0”) was a full-bore combat operation. We took our first combat KIAs on April 18, 2002, when two USAF pilots bombed a Canadian range practice in the Tarnak Farms complex, killing four Patricias and wounding several more. It ended those pilots’ careers, and was an inexcusable act, but that’s fodder for some other blog – or you can just read the books on it.

After the Patricias finished their tour (Operation Apollo), 3RCR sent a Battle Group, this time to Kabul, where they began Operation Athena. Kabul was quieter, safer. There, Canada commanded the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led force which seeks to provide training support to the Afghan National Security Forces and to facilitate redevelopment of the country, in terms in governance, economy, etc. Kabul was relatively quiet, though the first RCR casualties were big news and generated much controversy about the CF’s old, open-top, totally unarmoured Iltis “jeeps”, and started the process of buying new vehicles like Mercedes-Benz G-Wagens which were then later also declared unsuitable for use there, and replaced.

In 2005, Liberal Defence Minister announced that Canadian Forces would be moving to Kandahar. In what was called his “bodybag tour”, he warned Canadians that we were headed to do a lot of heavy lifting in southern Afghanistan, and it was going to be dangerous and deadly. He was not understating things. The Canadian base at Camp Julien was packed up and the force moved south to Kandahar, establishing its main base at KAF, and a Provincial Reconstruction Team base at Camp Nathan Smith (named after one of the friendly fire incident victims) in Kandahar City.

This is where the history gets screwy. When Op Athena ended and Op Archer started, and Canadian troops went back to combat operations, and casualties followed. The thing is, around the same time, the Liberal government of Paul Martin was defeated by the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper. To this day, many Canadians have the erroneous belief that it was Harper’s decision to send Canadians into full-scale combat operations again. This is totally, utterly false. Often conflated with this is the idea that charismatic General Rick Hillier somehow decided that Canadians were going to fight. While Hillier had an advisory role, these folks need to understand that soldiers in this country do not make policy. Politicians do. That’s why in Canada members of the armed forces are prohibited from seeking or holding public office, to ensure civil control of the military. The reality is that it was politicians – Liberal politicians – that made the decisions and bear the responsibility.

Debate over the involvement in Afghanistan was intensive during subsequent election campaigns as Harper sought to maintain his tenuous minority government. In September 2008, he made the rather bizarre statement that Canada would end its operations in 2011. Funny enough, all parties seized on this, including the ridiculous and comical Stephane Dion, who basically ensured the Liberals’ defeat for being arguably the most inept political candidate I’ve ever seem.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I don’t think there’s any other Canadian deployment that’s had an end date established three years out – certainly not an operation as intense as Afghanistan. Now we’re getting close, and there’s been a resurgence in debate, in part fuelled by a Canadian Press story on the remarks of a number of families who were in Kandahar on the Easter weekend on a sort of pilgrimage to see where their sons fell. They were there under a scarcely publicized program that’s been around for quite a while. Included in that group was the family of Mark McLaren, though they made no reported public statements. Those statements suggested that Canada should stay the course in Afghanistan – that they should see the mission through and so on. It seems there’s a small swelling of calls to reopen the debate, to determine what should happen in 2011. Much has changed since 2008. The Americans have made a major recommitment to Afghanistan after all but abandoning it to launch their disastrous and unnecessary invasion of Iraq, and they are learning counterinsurgency very rapidy. President Obama seems to be quite committed to achieving success in Afghanistan, and if he provides the leadership then it may just work.

I can say that amongst most of ot the people I know who’ve been there, the opinion is that we should stay – that we need to stay – because there’s been progress. It’s been slow, costly, difficult, dirty, dangerous – but it has happened. Particularly with those who have multiple tours, they report progress and a strong desire to return, almost unanimously. I know some people who don’t share the sentiment, a good friend of mine told me not to go, it wasn’t worth it, and I know of a few other veterans who had similar sentiments, that they were engaged in a deadly Sisyphean task.

Overall, I think that if there’s still signs of progress, which seems to be the case despite the many challenges Afghanistan faces, then we have got to stay. The key is to really focus on the counterinsurgency (COIN) effort – because what any of the people involved in the development effort will tell you is that the best way to keep the fighting-age males from picking up weapons and fighting is to give them better alternatives and jobs. The trick is in a country with no real infrastructure, no education, and no history of effective national government, it’s not going to be easy. Afghanistan will take a generation to fix – a generation of children need to grow up, get educated, and live without war to really build the country. That’s a big commitment.

The counterpoint though is that the burn rate for the Canadian Forces is huge. Equipment wears out very quickly there, and more importantly, troops wear out. The toll of long, dangerous deployments is becoming clear. That coupled with the economic realities facing Canada – being back into deficit and all – makes a pullout very attractive. In the end, I don’t really know just how much good we can do in Afghanistan. Canadians like to cling to a cultural myth about peacekeeping, gleefully bragging abroad that we invented it. It’s so burned into our culture by brilliant propaganda, that peacekeepers even feature on the Canadian $10 bill. When I hear people talking about it, I ask them for examples of success in peacekeeping. Other than its early success defusing tensions in proxy wars (like UNEF), blue berets don’t really have a history of success. They failed in Rwanda. They failed in Somalia. They failed in the Balkans. It wasn’t until more robust mandate-bearing forces showed up that anything happened in the Former Yugoslavia, for example.

Notwithstanding this it seems like a lot of Canadians feel like we’ve done more than our share in Afghanistan, and that there might be somewhere else we can do more. I don’t know that I believe that. Part of this is fuelled amongst extremists by a view that there’s some evil conspiracy behind being in Afghanistan, a conspiracy usually running around oil (Afghanistan has none) or gas pipelines – something that could happen, but wouldn’t actually be all that strategically important for the US as some would allege.

I don’t totally disagree with the idea advanced by some that Canada’s military needs a rest – to suck back, re-equip, train up new leaders, recruit new people to fill the gaps, and that sort of thing. Whether that’s going to be something that will mean we have to end any major expeditionary operations, I’m not quite sure. That’d be one of those things about which I’m not going to speculate.

In all, I think there needs to be a good Parliamentary debate. For that to happen, the detainee issue needs to be dealt with, preferably in the form of a public inquiry, but a swift one – it at least needs to be underway. Then we need to really engage Canadians both in getting educated about Afghanistan and what’s going there, and what the real costs and benefits could be. Of course, this is only going to work in my fantasy land where everyone actually reads the news and has some idea of what’s going on, rather than just braying like ignorant sheep, so I’m not sure it’ll actually work. I can hope, though.

I can say this – if we do extend our commitment there, I will not hesitate to step forward again to take my place in the line. It is, after all, what I joined up for.

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