Confused by Retrospect
Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs
Last week, I addressed the new trend in finger-pointing—that everyone is looking to give responsibility to everyone else for the failures in Afghanistan. I mentioned in that post I would be addressing the key criticisms this week. There are two main accusations regarding Canada in the new book, Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The first is that the Canadian Forces did not know that much about what was going on in Kandahar City. The second is that the American reinforcements were sent largely elsewhere at first, because of a reluctance to impose on the Canadians. The first accusation is harder to evaluate from my chair in my Ivory Tower than the second, so I will focus on the second—that the Canadians did not want too much help and that the Americans were afraid of offending the Canadians.
If the US sent its Marines to Helmand because they did not want to upset the Canadians, I am utterly confused. Less because the US was trying to be sensitive and more because I find it hard to believe that Canadians told the Americans that they would be upset if they got more help in Kandahar in 2009. Yes, this is all about 2009 after Obama started to send more forces to Afghanistan when he took office (the surge before the surge). From the book’s account, it seems as if Chandrasekaran got his information about Canadian reluctance from one American source. Given my surprise at all of this, I decided to talk to Andrew Exum, who was cited in the book and served as an adviser to General Petraeus.
Exum said that the US at the time was perhaps more concerned with alliance politics than with success in Afghanistan. Perhaps so, but it is very hard to believe that the Canadians would not accept help. Indeed, they were demanding it via the Manley Panel, which made one thousand troops from somewhere else as a condition for renewing the mission. Exum pointed out that “help” means different things. One battalion is what the Canadians welcomed and got, but if the US had sent an entire brigade or more of Marines, Canada would almost certainly have lost the leadership of the province of Kandahar. The general alliance rule and NATO’s habits, in particular, mean that whoever has the most folks in a sector usually runs that sector.
So? In 2009, the Canadian political system was counting down the days until July 2011. Maintaining Kandahar as a Canadian responsibility was almost certainly no longer a redline in its foreign policy. If the US military had been seriously interested in Kandahar, they would have worked the inter-agency process via the U.S. Joint Staff (where I served on a fellowship a decade ago): they would have gotten input from the US Defense Attaché to Ottawa, the political officers at the Canadian desk in the State Department and those working in the Embassy in Ottawa, and found out whether or not the Canadians would be upset to be shouldered aside in Kandahar.
Given that Harper was clearly tired of the impact of Kandahar on his aspirations to have a majority government, that the Canadian public was tired of the casualties coming home, and that there was a myth that Canada was alone in Kandahar, it is not clear who would object to more Americans and even American leadership in the province. Not even the Canadian Forces.
During this period, I had numerous conversations with Canadian officers, including most of those who commanded in Afghanistan. It was clear that Canada didn’t have enough personnel on the ground in Kandahar, that the Afghan National Army was not that reliable, and that the Americans were a very valuable partner. American troops tend to show up with the equipment they need, unlike the Canadians who first had no significant helicopter support when they arrived in Kandahar. More importantly, the Americans did not have the same kind of restrictions (caveats) that other NATO partners had, so if you ask an American for help in a firefight, they show up.
Would the CF have been upset if they no longer had the top post in the province? Perhaps a bit, but that was happening eventually anyway—2011. Brigadier General Jon Vance ended up serving both as commander of Kandahar and as commander of bits and pieces of Kandahar. Vance did two tours in Afghanistan thanks to the firing of Brigadier General Daniel Menard, so Vance got to experience the changes happening in the province as the Americans did eventually take over. Was he upset by this? Well, I interviewed Vance last year, but it did not seem to upset him that he was focused on a smaller hunk of the province. Indeed, he took pride in the greater ability he had to make progress when he had enough resources to do the smaller but realistic mission, rather than just rolling out the troops all over the province to respond to the crisis of the week a.k.a. mowing the lawn or being a fire brigade.
We need to do more research to figure this out, but it seems clear that Chandrasekaran should have talked to a few Canadians before taking one American’s word about the reluctance to accept help. The strange thing, of course, is that the book itself is very critical of the American effort, so it is not clear that this help would have turned the tide of the war. Once again, given the nature of the conflict, it is hard to see how a better effort would have made a big difference given the challenges posed by President Karzai and by Pakistan. Still, if the US had given more assistance to Canada earlier, it is pretty clear that the Canadians would have paid a smaller price and the chances of success would have been higher, even if still rather low. So, the question is a worthwhile one, given that sending the Marines to Helmand made little strategic sense. Perhaps the British were more persuasive in asking for help?