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.   

By: /
July 28, 2016
Canadian soldiers prepare to leave Afghanistan at Kandahar Air Field, June 30, 2011. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

In his recently released memoir, former foreign and defence minister Bill Graham recalls his involvement in the military effort Canada said “yes” to – the war in Afghanistan. Unlike the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he writes, Afghanistan was “a multilateral, peace-support mission mandated by the United Nations Security Council…it was neither an invasion nor a patchwork coalition of the willing, and therefore it was fully in accord with international law."

Graham highlights the challenges that nevertheless plagued the Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin and the Conservatives under Stephen Harper as both parties sought to deal with Pakistan’s porous border, the balancing of the ‘3Ds’ – defence, development and diplomacy – in war, and the frustrations that came with being under the command of NATO.

The following passage is excerpted from The Call of the World: A Political Memoir, published by On Point Press, a UBC Press imprint. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. 

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The 3D War

When I stepped down in January 2006 as minister of national defence after the Liberals lost the election, Canada was on the cusp of engaging in a combat mission in Afghanistan that would last almost six more years, exceeding the duration of the First World War, bringing heavy casualties, and involving the deployment of troops in many different capacities at a cost of more than $15 billion. Moreover, the combat mission was only one part of a significant Canadian presence that entailed reconstruction and development spending of almost $2 billion from 2001 to 2011 – by far our largest aid contribution to any single country during that period. And yet, with each passing year, a secure and democratic Afghanistan remained beyond our grasp.

As a result of the Conservatives’ victory, neither Prime Minister [Paul] Martin nor I were in government when approximately one thousand Canadian Forces troops arrived in Kandahar in February 2006 to do battle alongside the American troops in Operation Enduring Freedom. The following September, under the command of General David Fraser, Operation Medusa defeated the Taliban in a large-scale battle that saved Kandahar and perhaps the whole country. If the war had stopped at that point, everybody might still be congratulating us on our intelligent and triumphant policy. However, as a consequence of their losses, the Taliban returned to their original use of guerrilla warfare, shifting from conventional combat back to insurgency. We had to reassess both our strategy and the tactics to make it work while the war was raging. In fairness, our American and British colleagues had to do the same. Our initial planning had failed to take into full account how easy it was for the Taliban to find refuge by slipping into Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier region, though there were early indications that it would be a problem. “The solution to Afghanistan is still Pakistan,” I had been told in a briefing as early as July 2005. “A secure border is key.” Yet our policies continued to deal with Afghanistan as primarily a management problem within NATO, and as a result they failed to focus sufficiently on the regional dynamics.

The conflict in Afghanistan could not be geographically insulated from outside developments, as our counterinsurgency models tended to assume. Many of the insurgents were recruited from Pakistani madrassas, and because Pakistan’s foreign and defence policy was largely determined by the military and intelligence services, there was a great deal of sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in those quarters as potential allies against their “real” enemy, India. Not just sympathy, but even practical assistance. Every time the Taliban took a pasting, they crossed the border and came back refreshed and rearmed with the latest generations of IEDs. As their operations in Kandahar increased, it became clear that we couldn’t deal with the military situation in Afghanistan unless we also dealt with Pakistan and the porous border. However, according to international law, our forces couldn’t pursue and destroy them across the border, even if that made perfect military sense. The Americans eventually resorted to drones, which sometimes managed to kill selected adversaries but at a high civilian-casualty and political cost.

Whenever Canada and our allies pressed Pakistan to do more to control its border, we were told that the Northwest Frontier had always been an uncontrollable no man’s land, though the fact that Pakistan had about ten times as many troops on its Indian frontier was a telling statement of its priorities. I had raised this issue as early as September 2003 during the private, forty-five-minute discussion I had with President Pervez Musharraf when I met with him in Rawalpindi. Because he was also the head of the army at that time, I pointed out that he should deploy more troops along the border with Afghanistan. He responded that the Northwest Frontier provinces, as far back as Alexander the Great, had never been subdued. He also emphasized that the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, drawn by the British and Afghans at the close of the nineteenth century, wasn’t a defined, formal border but a vague and contested line of demarcation, with Pashtuns on both sides of the boundary.

This conversation, though disquieting, hardly foretold the degree to which the permeable border would make the Kandahar mission so much more difficult than our early strategies had envisaged. Nor did we know at the time the actual degree of support the Taliban were receiving from Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. The bitter truth was that we had undertaken a 3D operation in a political environment involving regional players whose motives we couldn’t rely on and over whose conduct we had little influence.

As the security situation deteriorated throughout 2006, Canadian troops increasingly began operating as a heavily protected force, which insulated them from the civilian population and inhibited Canada’s PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] efforts. Even our embassy staff in Kabul worried constantly about the possibility of rocket attacks. Nor were we able to achieve a centrally coordinated balance of defence, diplomacy, and development in Ottawa. In 2008 the Manley Report gave the Harper government political cover to adopt some of the ideas we had favoured, but which were otherwise out of bounds by virtue of being Liberal. They included another push to break down the departmental silos that prevented integration of the 3Ds, a stepped-up CIDA effort, and a modest increase in support from other NATO members as a condition of our continued presence.

"We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have."

If I were being crassly political about it, I could blame everything that went wrong on the fact that the Liberals lost the election, and the Tories mismanaged our best-laid plans. In all honesty, however, I have to admit that some of the seeds of our disappointment should have been evident at the start. We knew much less about Afghanistan and the politics of the region than we should have. Many Canadians resisted a combat role for Canada and believed that it was better equipped for traditional peacekeeping operations – despite the fact that such missions were largely a thing of the past. It was unrealistic of us to expect that we could construct a truly effective government and civil society in the midst of the ongoing carnage. Moreover, our efforts to create an accountable, corruption-free, and efficient police force capable of providing basic security for the population met with only modest, highly localized success, and the Afghan army was certainly not ready to shoulder enough of the weight. As a result, public support for the mission, which had been considerable in the wake of 9/11, eroded in the face of mounting casualties, an apparent lack of progress, and a perception that we were carrying an unfairly heavy share of the burden. 

A large part of the criticism was related to the fact that we got into an extended conflict from which we couldn’t extract ourselves. Though NATO remains Canada’s most important international security instrument, the Afghan experience did not boost its reputation with the Canadian public, our political leadership, and the military itself. Canadian participation in combat missions such as Kandahar is predicated on their being multilateral – in this case under a UN mandate and NATO command. In my view, we would not have suffered the number of casualties we did if NATO had been able to provide the appropriate “operational tempo,” rotating our troops in and out every year or two with significant breaks for training and the reconstitution of our forces. The problem was, though every NATO member is entitled to vote in favour of going to war, each is free to choose what assets it will provide for that war, and few are capable of exceeding the commitments they have already made. In effect, the secretary general has to go around like a beggar with a bowl, pleading for a tank or an aircraft.

In this case, NATO failed to get other partners to take their turn in a full combat role. After Afghanistan, public regard for our troops has never been higher, but public support for NATO has never been lower. Yet, for all NATO’s faults, other than hemispheric operations like the 2004 peacekeeping deployment in Haiti, it is difficult to envision Canada engaged in an international combat mission in which NATO is not involved. 

If our overall approach – using the military to create a space in which reconstruction and development could occur – proved disappointing, it wasn’t a complete failure. The Taliban didn’t regain power; democratic elections were held; and new rights and opportunities were secured for women and girls. Furthermore, whatever doubts outside observers might have about the political wisdom and ultimate success of the mission, the men and women of our Armed Forces who risked their lives day after day saw it almost universally as a positive one. Canadians can only be proud of the highly professional, highly skilled, and ultimately humane manner in which they performed their responsibilities and sought to better the lives of the Afghan people. These men and women brought honour to Canada. And the competence and experience of today’s Canadian Forces vastly exceed what they were when we first deployed in Afghanistan. No doubt the lessons learned from the Afghan mission will inform policy makers and military planners for some time to come – or, perhaps more realistically, until the next experience imposes its own unforeseen exigencies. 

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. 


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.   


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.  

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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?


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.