Lessons From Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the military made good decisions without Ottawa's okay. Steve Saideman on what this means.
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April 30, 2012

Lessons learning is something that all modern militaries do.  War is too costly to repeat mistakes, so the Canadian Forces along with the rest of the countries operating in Afghanistan have spent and will continue to spend much time and effort looking back at the past decade to figure what they can do better next time. 

The starting point is to consider how the Forces view the effort: as a success.  While Canadians have been wondering what went wrong (see the CIC’s posts of the last week), it is pretty clear that the Canadian Forces saw the Kandahar mission as a success.  How can we tell?  Nearly every officer who commanded in Afghanistan has been promoted.  Why do the folks in the Canadian Forces think the mission was a success?  Because Canada proved it can do some heavy lifting in a hard place, adapting to the circumstances, and being a better ally than most. 

So, what did the Forces do right in its counter-insurgency fight that it will try to repeat next time?  First, the move to Kandahar occurred at the same time that a new command philosophy was put into place, giving the commanders in the field far more discretion than they previously had.  This, more than anything, reflected a generational change from the post-Somalia affair with the officers who had chafed under micro-management from Ottawa now in a position to delegate more to the field commanders.  This contrasted sharply not only with the CF’s past but with CIDA’s situation and largely that of DFAIT as well. 


Which leads to the second lesson learned from Afghanistan and parallels the U.S. playbook on counter-insurgency: to win a COIN campaign, you need to have close cooperation with the civilian efforts, and if they do not show up, you will have to do it yourselves.  The Canadian Forces did much more outside their traditional lanes than ever before—meeting with local elders, mentoring the series of governors (not matter how much they might have resisted), trying to get assistance dollars via alternative sources (USAID), and so on.  The reforms following the Manley Panel, including the creation of the Representative of Canada in Kandahar [RoCK] were meant to improve “Whole of Government” efforts so that the CF would be in synch with the DFAIT, CIDA, RCMP, Corrections.  While this did facilitate better cooperation, it was not very robust.  When General Jon Vance reacted to the US surge by concentrating efforts in a few model villages as the Canadian Forces no longer had to cover all of the province, this contradicted the plans of the civilian agencies that had drawn up maps of the schools that were to be built all over the province.  In the ensuing bureaucratic tussle, the higher ups in the military stood behind their guy in the field.  The lesson to draw: the military will be more responsive to changing situations in the field than the plans of the civilian agencies in Ottawa.

The third lesson would be, unfortunately, from Donald Rumsfeld: "As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.”  With most of the future Canadian defence dollars to be spent on the F-35 and a bunch of ships, the army will once again find itself short of kit the next time it is sent somewhere dangerous.  While there were many jokes about wearing the wrong kind of camouflage uniforms at first, the shortage of helicopters was far more serious, leading to more convoys on the ground and more risk of casualties due to roadside bombs.  The CF adapted by leasing helos (and tanks) and by buying others via processes that Auditors-General do not love.  Expect more innovative acquisitions when the CF is sent into harm’s way without everything it wants.

In sum, the military’s leadership learned that the Forces could perform well on the battlefield and within the alliance if they give commanders room to make decisions, are willing to work with the civilians when the CIDA and DFAIT folks are cooperative and ignore if not, and are creative as they adjust to the inevitable shortfalls in equipment.  Expect the pattern of less micro-management to continue, but also expect the civilians to react by designing missions that restrict what the CF can do.  The two post-Kandahar missions limited what the CF can do: behind the wire training anywhere but Kandahar and air strikes with no boots on the ground in Libya.  Was this by design?  That a military that is less willing to micro-manage from Ottawa is one that politicians might be more reluctant to deploy?  That is a set of lessons that the civilians in charge of the government must ponder.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

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