The Afghan Mission: Canada’s military is willing to learn, but has it done so?

In the lead up to the Canadian government’s defence review, Steve Saideman lists three lessons learned in Afghanistan: honesty should trump optimism; sometimes we must admit when more resources are needed; and a war cannot be won with force alone.   

By: /
July 21, 2016
A Chinook helicopter with Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper aboard lands in Kandahar province May 30, 2011. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

Like most modern militaries, the Canadian Armed Forces consider themselves to be a learning organization. The risks are too high to not engage in extensive efforts to learn from past and on-going operations—people will die and missions may fail.

While researching Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada’s War in Afghanistan, I found that, of all of the parts of the Canadian political system, the CAF adapted the best, as they systematically engaged in lesson-learning exercises and as their leadership continually sought out expertise from within and beyond the military. 

Indeed, not only do they learn lessons, but they share them. This distinguishes the CAF from the non-military decision makers – in 2011, the Harper government commissioned a report on lessons learned and then subsequently buried it. It is not just academics who cannot read it; the report has not been circulated within the government. A key step in lesson learning is dissemination, but the previous government apparently was afraid to admit mistakes.

Perhaps one reason why the CAF can learn is that the organization's officers understand that it is not so special. One of the challenges in Canada during the time of the war in Afghanistan was that many actors focused on the Canadian experience and kept forgetting that the war was an allied effort. The CAF was aware at all times that what they were doing was not that different from what the British and Danes were doing in Helmand, what the Dutch and Australians were doing in Uruzgan, what the Americans were doing all over the place, and on and on. By constantly comparing and drawing upon the experiences of other countries engaged in the same effort, the CAF could figure out what they were doing well and what they could do better. 

One challenge that the CAF could not overcome was how to be positive about the mission without setting unrealistic expectations. The Canadian military is much like its brothers and sisters in arms elsewhere: they are a can-do outfit. When asked to do something, they say yes and tend not to complain about it. Officers would come back from each deployment and tell everyone how well the Canadians were doing, and how well the war effort was going. Yet Afghanistan remained a deeply problematic place, and the mission was, alas, deeply flawed. 

This relentless optimism might have been good for morale within the CAF, but it created a credibility gap between the CAF and the political world. We kept hearing how great things were going, and then we would watch the news and see that Afghanistan’s progress was slow and fragile at best. In future missions, the leadership of the CAF is going to have to talk plainer to the politicians and to the public about the challenges they face. Otherwise, they might find people will begin to simply doubt much of what they have to say.

"Relentless optimism might have been good for morale within the CAF, but it created a credibility gap between the CAF and the political world."

This leads to the second big challenge: how to respond when asked to do something on the cheap. The biggest problem for the CAF in Kandahar was that they were always too small and under-equipped for the task they faced. When Paul Martin authorized General Rick Hillier to plan the mission, he provided a strict limit on how much it would cost. This forced Hillier into making a variety of difficult tradeoffs. The small size of the force meant that the CAF could not complete the counter-insurgency strategy of clear/hold/build as they did not have enough troops to hold territory that had been cleared until the Americans showed up late in the game. 

The limited envelope also meant that Canada could not bring along helicopters, and thus became dependent on the allies to provide transport. While the U.S. and UK were very dependable for medical airlift, they did not have enough spare capacity to always transport the Canadians. This meant more convoys on Afghan roads seeded with landmines (improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) and, as a result, more Canadian casualties. Of course, the CAF will salute and say yes when ordered to deploy, but their leadership will need to learn how to advocate within channels for more resources when given risky tasks. This is not easy, but is a key lesson to learn.

Finally, the CAF, like the rest of Canada and the rest of our allies and partners, must learn about the limited utility of force. Canada and the rest of NATO could not kill their way to victory. To win these conflicts, the key battlegrounds are inherently political: who governs, how do they govern, on whose behalf, and so on. The job for the CAF and their allies was to provide as much security as possible while the politicians “fixed” the system and provided governance. This required reliable local allies, which are almost always in scarce supply (they naturally have their own agendas). It also requires the civilians at home to figure out how to do the political and development side of state-building. The results thus far of the most recent wars suggest we have not figured that out. 

So, we all need to learn some humility. There is only so much we can do, which might mean saying no when asked to do the impossible.

Also in the series


Stories from Kandahar, the Afghan province Canada left behind

Canada’s multibillion-dollar war effort in Afghanistan largely focused on peace-building and development in Kandahar, but 15 years after the war began, residents there are still wondering what it accomplished. 


Canadians closed the book on Afghanistan long ago — and that’s a shame

Ghost schools. Unusable health facilities. Corruption and violence. The state of Afghanistan should concern all Canadians, but we moved on without a national reckoning over our impact there, argues Naheed Mustafa.  

Chinook helicopter Afghanistan

The war that never left Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been notoriously easy to seize but difficult to hold. John Duncan explains why the country’s lack of centralized government has kept effective and ongoing occupation out of reach for one great power after another.


Hypocrisy and the Afghan detainee scandal

The Canadian government condemned the recent suicide attack on its embassy guards in Kabul as ‘cowardly’ while simultaneously backing away from an inquiry into the Afghan detainee scandal. Is this a case of the pot calling the kettle black?


Bill Graham on Canada’s 3D war: A mission to be proud of

In The Call of the World: A Political Memoir, former foreign and defence minister Bill Graham looks back at the challenges and successes that stretched across party lines during Canada’s time in Afghanistan.   


Not for nothing: The fight to improve human and women’s rights in Afghanistan

International human rights lawyer and activist Georgette Gagnon spent five years in Afghanistan and saw first-hand the contribution made by Canadians. Here she shares her takeaways from her time as director of human rights for the UN in Afghanistan.