Adding Up Kandahar

Ask not 'Why Kandahar', ask 'Why we thought the soldiers we sent were enough to do the job' says Steve Saideman.
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June 19, 2013

The National Post recently published an important piece about a classified memo from 2007 informing Prime Minister Stephen Harper that the Canadian Forces [CF] were paying a higher price than most of their allies.1  The memo asserted that the CF’s casualty rate was “up to 10 times higher than that of allies.” There is much truth in this, but it is also a bit deceptive, helping to perpetuate the myth that Canada was alone in Kandahar or that it suffered more than other countries.  Canada certainly paid a high price, but so did many (although not all) of our allies. I want to address three things here: first, the “rates” themselves, second, the explanations for those rates, and third, what we might want to think about all of this.

First, what do we mean by rates of casualties?  My guess is that this discussion is really about the number killed in action rather than total number of soldiers harmed – either killed or wounded.  The data on KIA is very public,2 whereas getting data from various countries on their wounded is less so.  I only recently found out that the CF count of wounded in combat in Afghanistan is 635 (reported at recent conference in Kingston and available here as well).  So, when we speak of the rate, are we referring to the number of KIA. The bigger question here is, is that rate relative to the size of the contingent, the size of a country’s population, or the size of its entire army?

As the figure below shows, where Canada stands relative to other countries varies somewhat depending on what measure is used.  The National Post article focuses on KIA relative to the size of contingent in Afghanistan, which, at 5.13%, puts Canada third, behind the Estonians and the Danes.  Measured this way, the Canadian rate is around twice that of the U.S. and the U.K. at the time of the memo. But unfortunately for the U.K., it would later catch up.  And the U.S.’s number is a bit deceptive since it had large swings in contingent size and thus rate of KIA per contingent from pre-Obama to pre-surge to surge to post-surge.


There is no doubt that Canada paid a higher price than many of its allies, so one could argue that we are quibbling here about which rate is the most important. But we should be clear what we are talking about, because there are implications – did Harper lie or deceive or downplay? Did allies shirk their share of the burden in Afghanistan? Why did the CF face a higher rate of violence and costs?  We need to have a solid grasp of this if we are to learn any lessons from this experience.3

Why did Canada face such high casualties?  The National Post article addresses several explanations, including the challenges of Kandahar, the homeland of the Taliban, but spends the most text on Senator Colin Kenny’s critique that there was a shortage of helicopters.  This shortage compelled the CF to travel on roads seeded with improved explosive devices that ultimately produced almost 60 percent of Canada’s KIA.  Kenny points out that when more helicopters were dispatched as a result of the Manley panel, casualties went down.  However, the timing of this trend suggests that the key factor was not the new helicopters, which, as retired Colonel George Petroekas points out, were still not numerous enough to keep Canadian soldiers off the roads as much as advertised. Indeed, Canada never had enough helicopters to move large numbers of troops around, although they were good for resupplying troops on the ground.

As the figure below shows, the big drop in KIA was not in 2009 after the helicopters arrived but in 2010.

Kandahar Graph

What happened that year?  Obama’s surge.  The biggest problem Canada had in Kandahar was that the Canadian contingent was entirely too small for the task it faced.  Covering so much ground exposed the CF to greater risks. Counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy has three parts: clear, hold, build. But because Canada had so few troops, even after an American battalion joined them (as a product of the Manley report and the extension of the mission in 2008), all they could do was clear. They couldn’t hold territory. 

And this comes back to rate of KIA relative to the size of contingents.  The rates cited in the National Post article can be deceptive. Larger contingents tend to have smaller rates of KIA per contingent since larger forces require more folks behind the wire.  Indeed, the reason why more Canadians could be sent out beyond the wire is precisely because there were so many American, British, and other folks stationed at the Kandahar Air Field, serving a variety of functions, including maintaining and operating most of the helicopters, all of the fighter planes, much of the intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance platforms (satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, etc.), and the rest of the base.

More importantly, from a COIN perspective, the more troops you have on the ground, the safer things eventually become.  The Canadians faced less violence in 2010-2011 in Kandahar because they occupied a much smaller piece of the province after the U.S. surge.  They got to know the neighbourhoods much better, drove shorter distances, lived among the population, and got to implement the counter-insurgency playbook much better.  The province did not become safe, but the forces in it were safer than before.

Why is this important?  Because the critical problem overlooked by most of the folks agonizing about the Kandahar deployment is one of size.  The Canadians never had the capacity on the ground to do what was required.  When folks suggest that Canada chewed off more than it could swallow in Afghanistan, it is not so much about the level violence Canadian soldiers faced but the size of their area of responsibility combined with its complexity.

The Canadian Forces, alongside diplomats and aid workers, did a rather remarkable job given the constraints they faced.  But when historians look back and wonder why the mission failed (depending on how they define success), the mystery will not be whether or not the Canadians tried hard enough, but why they thought at a couple of thousand troops would do the trick.  That is the story that still needs to be told –  not ‘Why Kandahar?’ but ‘Why the force size was thought to be sufficient?’

1. Congrats to the National Post for winning their appeal with the Office of the Information Commissioner. I am in the middle beginning of an appeal of my own. I just found out that just getting an investigator to look into the reject of my Access to Information Request might take a year.2. has tracked the killed in action (and not in action) in Iraq and Afghanistan quite thoroughly, and is the source of the data I use here.3. The irony is that the document I am seeking to get from the PCO is a buried assessment of what the government of Canada sought to learn from the Afghanistan experience.  Hard to “learn lessons” if the exercise produces a document that is on a shelf somewhere.