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Adding Up Kandahar

| June 19, 2013
Adding Up Kandahar

Reuters

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.

 

KIA

Max Size of Contingent

Pop.

KIA/ Cont.

Rank, KIA/ Cont.

KIA/ Pop

Rank, KIA/ Pop.

Size of Army, 2012

Cont./ Army

Cont/ Army rank

KIA/ Army

Rank, KIA/ Army

Canada

158

3079

35,002,447

5.13%

3

0.0005%

5

34800

8.85%

5

0.45%

1

UK

440

9500

62,989,550

4.63%

5

0.0007%

2

99950

9.50%

4

0.44%

2

Denmark

43

780

5,580,516

5.51%

2

0.0008%

1

9925

7.86%

7

0.43%

3

US

2177

100000

313,914,040

2.18%

8

0.0007%

3

641,470

15.59%

1

0.34%

4

Latvia

3

174

2,041,763

1.72%

12

0.0001%

11

1137

15.30%

2

0.26%

5

New Zealand

11

236

4,430,400

4.66%

4

0.0002%

7

4905

4.81%

16

0.22%

6

Estonia

9

163

1,339,662

5.52%

1

0.0007%

4

5300

3.08%

23

0.17%

7

Australia

39

1660

22,683,600

2.35%

6

0.0002%

9

28246

5.88%

10

0.14%

8

Netherlands

25

2200

16,730,348

1.14%

14

0.0001%

10

20,836

10.56%

3

0.12%

9

Norway

10

580

4,985,870

1.72%

10

0.0002%

8

8900

6.52%

9

0.11%

10

Georgia

17

1561

4,570,934

1.09%

20

0.0004%

6

17767

8.79%

6

0.10%

11

Poland

36

2597

38,538,447

1.39%

11

0.0001%

13

46900

5.54%

12

0.08%

12

Sweden

5

500

9,482,855

1.00%

16

0.0001%

19

6718

7.44%

8

0.07%

13

Hungary

7

582

9,957,731

1.20%

17

0.0001%

17

9911

5.87%

11

0.07%

14

France

86

4005

65,397,912

2.15%

7

0.0001%

12

130600

3.07%

24

0.07%

15

Romania

19

1949

21,355,849

0.97%

15

0.0001%

14

41500

4.70%

18

0.05%

16

Italy

47

4000

60,820,764

1.18%

19

0.0001%

15

107500

3.72%

20

0.04%

17

Spain

34

1606

46,196,276

2.12%

9

0.0001%

16

78121

2.06%

26

0.04%

18

Germany

45

5000

81,843,743

0.90%

21

0.0001%

18

105291

4.75%

17

0.04%

19

Czech Republic

5

623

10,505,445

0.80%

18

0.0000%

20

12833

4.85%

14

0.04%

20

Albania

1

286

3,002,859

0.35%

23

0.0000%

21

8150

3.51%

21

0.01%

21

Lithuania

1

260

3,007,758

0.38%

24

0.0000%

22

8200

3.17%

22

0.01%

22

Belgium

1

607

11,041,266

0.16%

25

0.0000%

25

12544

4.84%

15

0.01%

23

Portugal

2

170

10,541,840

1.18%

13

0.0000%

23

25701

0.66%

30

0.01%

24

Turkey

14

1840

74,724,269

0.76%

22

0.0000%

24

258700

0.71%

29

0.01%

25

Bulgaria

0

611

7,327,224

0.00%

26

0.0000%

26

16304

3.75%

19

0.00%

26

Croatia

0

320

4,398,150

0.00%

27

0.0000%

27

11390

2.81%

25

0.00%

27

Greece

0

170

11,290,067

0.00%

28

0.0000%

28

87441

0.19%

31

0.00%

28

Iceland

0

11

319,575

0.00%

29

0.0000%

29

0

0.00%

32

0.00%

29

Luxembourg

0

11

524,853

0.00%

30

0.0000%

30

900

1.22%

27

0.00%

30

Slovakia

0

309

5,404,322

0.00%

31

0.0000%

31

6230

4.96%

13

0.00%

31

Slovenia

0

80

2,055,496

0.00%

32

0.0000%

32

7600

1.05%

28

0.00%

32

Average

101

4545

29,750,182

1.57%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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. I-casualties.org 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.
  • Jonathan Montpetit

    I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed by the National
    Post story. Unless it is indeed referring to those injured and as well as
    killed, then it is not telling us anything new. It has long been known that
    Canadians faced higher casualties than their NATO allies, just as it has long
    been acknowledged that Kandahar was among the more violent provinces in the
    country. Fortunately, Prof. Saideman’s comments point us in a forward-looking
    direction by focusing on the effectiveness of COIN strategy, as opposed to
    wondering why Canada ended up in Kandahar. To his analysis I humbly add a few
    points of my own based on my experiences in-theatre.

    -For any real assessment of effectiveness of COIN, students
    of the war must have more details about the injured, including dates and
    locations. Few people appreciate the degree to which combat medicine has
    improved in recent years. Many of those injured in Afghanistan would surely
    have died in combat scenarios 20 years ago. I would argue that the total number
    of killed-in-action is too low in absolute terms to offer any real insight to
    COIN effectiveness on a year-to-year basis (especially when using percentages).
    Until we have more details about the injured, we can only guess at the
    direction of certain trends.

    -Prof. Saideman is correct in drawing attention, again, to
    the fact that Canada deployed too few troops given the initial area it was
    responsible for. From what I understand, NATO repeatedly asked for a larger
    commitment and was just as repeatedly rebuffed by Ottawa. This, in my opinion, will
    be the great sin of Stephen Harper’s time in office. His steadfast refusal to
    make what would have been a deeply unpopular decision left Canadian soldiers
    stranded in the wilds of Kandahar. He has always been quick to drape himself in
    the reputation of our military. But when they needed him most, Harper put
    politics first.

    -True as this last point may be, it elides thereal issue about contemporary COIN strategy: does it actually work? It is too easy to attribute the 2010 dip in casualties in Kandahar to Obama’s troop surge and a renewed commitment to a ‘clear, hold, build’ strategy. The Canadian Forces had resigned themselves to fighting an insurgency (as opposed to a red-on-blue war) since Operation Medusa in 2006. Major-General Jon Vance’s tenure as Joint Task Force Commander in 2009 was much heralded for his
    so-called ‘model village’ approach, which saw troops attempt to befriend the
    locals. So it is important to note that COIN didn’t begin in 2010. My own
    reporting in Kandahar suggested that tribal and familial affiliations were much
    more likely to predict which areas were more likely to cooperate with NATO
    plans. I do not think it a coincidence, for instance, that COIN strategy had
    more success in Dand, home of the Karzai family, than in neighboring Panjwaii
    where the family was never welcome much.

    The obvious rejoinder is that more troops allowed a more effective implementation of COIN strategy. I am dubious. More troops allow you to be more vigilant, conduct more patrols, cover wider areas. But, from the Afghan perspective, this was a one-sided deal. More NATO troops meant more NATO troops were safer. The average Afghan I spoke to during my 2010 visit still felt as vulnerable as they did before the surge.
    This is perhaps the clearest reason why NATO casualty rates are a poor
    indicator of COIN success. COIN, after all, isn’t about keeping ‘us’ safe; it’s
    meant to be about keeping ‘them’ safe. And by doing so, it separates the
    population from the insurgents. Or so goes the theory. But this is something
    Canadians, Americans and the rest of NATO systematically failed to do in
    Kandahar. My contention is that an in-depth study of the battle for Kandahar
    would reveal that COIN doctrine is a fundamentally flawed approach to pacifying
    local populations.

    • Eric Morse

      I think I have to go with M. Montpetit’s assessment that COIN is a flawed approach. It works where you already have substantial buy-in and doesn’t where you don’t (Caesar in Gaul vs Varus in Germany being a couple of classic classical examples)

      The following now seems to be off the Web, but might contribute a little to the discussion.

      Managing the end game in Afghanistan (Ottawa Citizen July 15, 2012)

      A year after the withdrawal of Canadian combat forces in 2011,
      Afghanistan has reappeared on the radar screen at a couple of levels. One is the local blowback of a recent book ‘Little America: the War within the war for Afghanistan’ by US journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran. It’s a reaction to suggestions made in the book that Canada didn’t have sufficient force to do the job in Kandahar.

      At least one observer has commented on the unremitting
      optimism of senior Canadian officials throughout the period. If so, we weren’t the only ones, and it’s hardly the first case of groupthink in history. ‘Groupthink’ can also be defined as ‘high morale’; it’s a sword that cuts both ways. But large concentrations of international bureaucrats, and home governments/ media with exceptionally narrow viewpoints (and a tendency to view the war as not a war but a political management issue) tend to magnify the effect.

      It might even be a mild surprise, not that Little America cited critical opinions of us, but that it noticed us at all. But the question of our capacity on the ground is valid.

      Over the years 2006 – 2011, some Canadian observers
      occasionally did ask themselves: wait a minute, isn’t the contingent (about 2800 total, about 600-800 in combat roles) a little small to be holding a front line province? Even so, here in Canada we tended to focus on what Canadians were doing and how well they were doing it, to the extent that we overlooked anything that was happening where we weren’t at the moment. The phrase ‘punching above our weight’ has often come up. Given our actual weight, the CF didn’t have much choice. If there was a wake-up moment to how much local control we didn’t have it might have been the Sarposa prison breakout of 2008.

      It’s arguable that where Canada really did punch above its
      weight was in the creation of the Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan. Military officers were attached at the hip to senior Afghan officials across many ministries in Kabul from 2005 to 2008. In its context that was fairly fresh and is said to have produced results, but as a military initiative it ran into interdepartmental rivalries in Ottawa and was eventually quietly suppressed.

      The second thread making the rounds is: what happens when
      the Americans leave in 2014? University of Ottawa Prof Roland Paris recently commented that the histories of Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89 have suddenly become required reading, and so they should, but they won’t serve as a handbook. The Soviets actually did a good job of managing a withdrawal (a bloody one, they lost 39 men in the last two weeks of the war) and leaving a regime in place that did hang on against all comers in a civil war until the USSR itself fell apart at the end of 1991. But the groundrules and conditions were – to say the least – a little different.

      The authoritarian and unilateralist USSR had fewer problems
      managing the ‘Kabul relationship’. In May 1986, the Kremlin decided that Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal wasn’t up to running a good phased withdrawal/Afghan takeover and quietly replaced him with Najibullah, the secret police chief, who lasted until the regime’s fall. The US doesn’t have that luxury this time around.

      The Najibullah regime fell with the USSR. The usual assumption is that it fell because the Moscow money tap was turned off. Indeed, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute recently told the US House Armed Services Committee that he did not ‘consider it likely that…Congress…will sustain up to 20,000 GIs in Afghanistan [post 2014] at a cost of $25 billion a year and add another $3 billion to $5 billion annually [in development funds] if the next Afghan government is badly corrupt”. It’s hard to disagree.

      But there’s a bigger problem looming than money or even
      training and retention. That’s equipping – and after 2014, resupplying — the Afghan army. The Soviets had an advantage here. The Soviet-model Afghan army of 1989, for all its manifest faults, was better and more uniformly trained than what is likely to emerge post-2014. It was also better equipped, simply because its equipment was sole-sourced from the Soviets, Soviet equipment is almost always easier for troops without much training to use and maintain.

      There appears to be something of a coherent plan for arming
      the Afghan ground forces this time around, with a mix of (mainly) US and Russian equipment, but even so, logistics post-2014 is the real killer. Until 1991 there was at least a common Afghan/Soviet border and a relatively uncomplicated resupply route. This time…the main NATO resupply route through Pakistan has just theoretically re-opened after being closed for a year. ‘Theoretically’ is the operative word. The alternative Northern route through former Soviet Central Asia is grotesquely long and expensive. Iran is out. The answer, as with so many questions about Afghanistan, is nowhere obvious.

      -30-