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An Unexpected War, A Not-Unexpected Mission

Matthew Willis examines the decision-making process behind the 2005 deployment.

By: /
8 January, 2013
By: Matthew Willis
Research Associate at RUSI

The following article will be published in the upcoming issue of the International Journal. 

As the fullest mobilization of Canadian men and materiel since the Korean War, and also the costliest in blood and treasure, the 2005 deployment of the Canadian Forces (CF) to Kandahar would deserve scholars’ attention even if it had gone according to plan. That it instead developed into something neither the government nor the public had anticipated only enhances the challenge – and value – of understanding it. Fuelled by the mission’s controversial nature, a sizeable literature soon developed to explain the government’s actions. The international system, institutional imperatives, and even specific individuals have all been identified as key shapers of policy. Diverse though it is in some respects, however, the literature is in others strikingly homogeneous, particularly as concerns its geography: most of the studies of Canada’s third Afghan deployment have been carried out in North America, and usually Canada.

This is hardly surprising, but it also has implications, especially with respect to perspective: the story has almost always been told from a North American political standpoint and by scholars placing Canada near the centre of the action. Not only has Ottawa’s relationship with Washington often assumed central importance (and explanatory power), but characteristically, Canadian suspicion of the military’s motives and underestimation of the government’s own agency have together popularized the idea that Kandahar was a case of “tail wagging dog.” Although a counter-narrative has now emerged, its perspective is predominantly North American as well. Missing from the literature is a study putting the Canadian policy process in both the historical and international politico-military context of the time. The purpose of this study is to provide that context by demonstrating the impact of three sets of insufficiently-appreciated policy drivers. In this study I use published primary- and secondary-source material, as well as Canadian government files released following access-to-information requests, but I rely above all on close to 20 interviews with British, Dutch, American, NATO, and Canadian officials.

In this article I first argue that Kandahar was in large measure the product of powerful forces brought into being by political decisions in NATO. Those decisions, such as that leading NATO to assume leadership of the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) in mid-2003, entailed binding commitments on national governments, whose maturation, though it could take years, was almost inescapable. Second, I demonstrate that Canadian mission preferences had less to do with Kandahar or any other Afghan province per se, and more to do with experience gained from past deployments, notably in the Balkans. These preferences coalesced into a virtual policy that required any Canadian contribution to meet a number of precise conditions, and Kandahar was one of few provinces that allowed for doing so. Third, I show that Kandahar was also the result of long and extensive talks between Canadian officials and their NATO allies – the Dutch and especially the British. The talks, for the most part informal andexploratory (in the sense that no side had a set agenda), were integral to the gradual development of a plan aligned with Canadian priorities. Without partnership with Great Britain, Canada’s deployment might never have happened.

Perhaps most usefully, in presenting the arguments above, this analysis of the origins of the second Kandahar mission reconciles two seemingly contradictory notions. On the one hand, it reveals that the policy process that ended with a deployment to Kandahar was far more organic (ie. not “pre-cooked”) than is generally believed; on the other, it demonstrates how the interplay of the aforementioned drivers made a mission there a strong possibility well before it happened.

Setting the Domestic Stage: Kandahar and Kabul, Chrétien and Martin

Full-length books could, and likely will, be written about the missions preceding Kandahar. The limited purpose of the following sketch is only to highlight the existence of a common thread linking Kandahar “One” to Kabul and to Kandahar “Two” to illustrate the Canadian government’s continued receptivity to – and indeed expectation of – lasting engagement with Afghanistan. Recognition of this thread is integral to seeing Kandahar for what it was – not a departure from past Afghan missions, but rather part of a troika of intimately linked deployments that need to be taken together. Senior political, military, and civil service leaders’ genuine openness to a lasting Canadian presence in Central Asia was the sine qua non of the 2005 deployment.

In the wake of 9/11, Ottawa was quick to offer military support to the U.S., and later the nascent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Canadian special forces were on the ground within weeks, and 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (3 PPCLI) joined U.S. troops in Kandahar in February 2002. Despite its swift reaction, the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien received criticism from all sides – from those who would have liked to see an even swifter response, as well as from those who thought it had simply been too weak-kneed to keep out. In the words of Paul Chapin, “The Chrétien government undertook [Kandahar] in large part because it couldn’t avoid doing so in the face of overwhelming support for participation from the public, Parliament, the media, allies and the United Nations.”

Given the Canadian public’s peculiar outlook on the world, one that in recent decades favoured plenty of engagement but of a certain variety only (no fighting), the government had reason to think carefully about its response to 9/11. Certainly, there was no unanimity within the defence and foreign affairs establishments as to the appropriate course of action. But claims the government dragged its feet are unconvincing. Indeed, it was Canada, represented by its ambassador to NATO, David Wright, that spearheaded the effort to bring NATO into the picture from the beginning. Wright suggested the alliance invoke article V, the collective defence clause, to Ambassador Nicholas Burns, his U.S. counterpart, and Lord Robertson, NATO’s secretary general, the very day of the attacks. On 12 September 2001, Lord Robertson formally proposed invoking article V, and the decision to do so was taken unanimously by the North Atlantic Council that evening. Ottawa’s support for Wright does not prove it was gung-ho about Afghanistan; indeed, it was too early to know what was about to happen. It does strongly suggest, however, that senior Canadian policymakers were committed to action in Central Asia from the outset, and in a military way if necessary. Pulling the trigger on article V was not to be done lightly.

Then came the first Kandahar deployment. Kenneth Calder, the assistant deputy minister in the Department of National Defence (DND), then responsible for policy, does not recall government decision-makers being reluctant to field troops when the question of a mission arose. What is more, notwithstanding an initial decision to send in the PPCLI for a single six-month rotation, the government actually asked the CF in spring 2002 about extending the mission by a further rotation. Citing the CF’s level of depletion, General Ray Henault, chief of the defence staff, informed defence minister Art Eggleton that an extension would not be possible. Henault himself has observed that the government had wanted to make a more substantial, multi-rotation commitment from the very beginning. He had deemed two rotations possible, but only if separated by a six-month pause for rest, training, and re-equipping. The first Kandahar episode strongly indicates that, despite a concern for the optics of Canadian involvement and its domestic implications, the government was fundamentally open to engaging – and in more than a token way.

Commentators have portrayed the CF’s next mission, to Kabul in August 2003, as a second instance of Canadian weakness under pressure – almost as an undignified scramble for cover as Iraq loomed. Writes Chapin, “The government’s decision in January 2003 to commit a large force to ISAF in Kabul had little to do with keeping Canadian soldiers out of harm’s way in Afghanistan and almost everything to do with keeping them out of Iraq.” Even General Rick Hillier, who as chief of the land staff subsequently commanded the ISAF mission in Kabul, has observed that the appeal of ISAF seemed to grow at the same rate as the prospect of a second Gulf War. Nonetheless, here too, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Ottawa evaluated the Afghan option on its merits.

For one, Iraq was not nearly the “hot potato” issue it was portrayed as. Internal CF/DND assessments carried out in fall 2002 had already concluded that Canada did not have the land capabilities to participate in an invasion. John McCallum, Eggleton’s successor at DND, had for his part been pondering a potential role in ISAF since at least summer 2002, long before Iraq began attracting much commentary. He clearly recalls that he was not attempting to appease Washington by offering to do Kabul instead; he and his advisors simply thought it “an appropriate mission for Canada”. Supporting ISAF was a way to further the goal of denying Al-Qaeda and its supporters a base in Afghanistan, and these objectives were at the core of the western intervention. Providing stability in Kabul also seemed like a way of helping that country’s people. In any case, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in fact told McCallum in January 2003 that the U.S. was keen for Canada to play a leadership role in ISAF, even if it meant not taking part in Iraqi ground operations.

But even if Canada’s land forces had been available and the U.S. had pressed, it is questionable whether Ottawa would have needed the political cover of a new Afghan mission. Canada was already in line to be a leading member of the “coalition of the willing.” Among other things, its navy would assume leadership of TF 151, a multinational task force enabling the invasion from the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Paul Cellucci, the American ambassador to Canada, later remarked that “Canadian naval vessels, aircraft and personnel…will supply more support to this war in Iraq indirectly than most of those 46 countries that are fully supporting our efforts there.” That is not to say that Canada won friends in Washington for its refusal to support the invasion publicly – it is well-known that relations at some levels were fraught for a time. Nor is it to suggest that Canadian policymakers, perhaps even Chrétien himself, did not see Kabul as a politically advantageous place to be when Iraq was highly unpopular. Nor is it even to deny that some people, even in cabinet, might have been adamant in believing the Kabul decision was all about Iraq. The overall point is that the “convenience” of being committed to Kabul was neither sufficient reason for, nor the deciding factor in, the policy the government adopted.

canadian soldier
A Canadian soldier walks in the deserted Camp Julien in Kabul November 29, 2005 (Reuters)

It is worth noting, finally, that the government’s attitude towards Afghanistan did not change markedly when Paul Martin replaced Chrétien in December 2003. His arrival marked a now well-chronicled change in foreign policy outlook, but his memoirs suggest he was less reticent about carrying through with Canada’s commitments than is often claimed. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, “[as] members of NATO, which is after all a self-defence pact,” he wrote, “we had a moral if not a legal duty to support them. We absolutely had self-interest in doing so…. Having been a part of displacing the Taliban regime, we continued to have a duty to help construct something sturdy to replace it.” The fundamental openness to Afghan engagement unequivocally remained. Martin was concerned to ensure, however, that Canada carried out its duty in an appropriate way. That meant fitting Afghanistan into the country’s overall foreign and defence priorities and ensuring Canada did not end up bearing more than its share of the burden.

Without attempting, therefore, to analyze all of the policy drivers behind the first two Afghan missions, it can nonetheless be stated confidently that in senior strata at least, official Ottawa was open to committing men and resources to the Afghan intervention from the start. The value of the point lies in the weight accorded to contrary claims – that Canadian ministers were under outside pressure; that the CF/DND had seized control of the agenda; that the government’s Afghan policies between 2001 and 2003 were, in short, misbegotten. These claims are so forceful that they now form part of the Afghanistan “narrative,” conditioning the assumptions scholars use as the starting points for their inquiries – including inquiries into Kandahar. Unsurprisingly, starting points tend to affect end-points.

Running on Empty: The Western Intervention in 2003

NATO assumed leadership of the struggling ISAF mission in August 2003. In doing so, it formalized a long-term strategic plan to expand ISAF gradually from Kabul into the rest of Afghanistan. The takeover, announced in April, had been strongly pushed by Canada and Germany, among others. Beyond the resources, standardization, and sheer power it brought with it, NATO was seen as having the legitimacy and ability to generate and maintain the political will to “do” Afghanistan properly. Canada in particular had been concerned to ensure that if it committed troops to a mission – namely Kabul – a replacement nation would be found for it once its rotation was finished. (Finding new lead nations had been one of ISAF’s many problems.) The optimists saw NATO’s assumption of leadership as the key to reinvigorating the west’s intervention.

But NATO was soon in difficulty itself. The west’s strategy was ponderous and incoherent – a problem that dated back to the mounting of two parallel missions in 2001. Though ostensibly complementary, the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), focusing on counter-terrorism, and the UN-mandated ISAF, focusing on nation-building, were anything but. Not only did they lack unified command and control (that is, a single chain of command to coordinate them) but their objectives were often contradictory: efforts to obtain the Afghan buy-in necessary for development work, for example, were continually undermined by relentless raids and air strikes on Afghan communities.

A second, related, problem was the lack of real U.S. commitment to the more ambitious ISAF concept to which NATO was now midwife. The U.K.’s former chief of the Air Staff later recalled that, from the start,

there was no real interest in [ISAF] at all at CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] or, as far as I could determine, from up the chain of command in Washington. From my perspective, the final arrangement was, “Well, if you want to do that, fine. Just don’t get in our way of chasing al-Qaeda.”

In 2003, that American ambivalence was aggravated by the invasion of Iraq and the ensuing insurgency. Iraq wiped Afghanistan clean off Washington’s radar. Always viewed in the U.S. as a job requiring minimum military investment, Afghanistan instantly became a bona fide “economy of force” mission run on cruise-control. Senior British civil and military officials acknowledge being affected too: for every hour Whitehall spent dealing with Iraq, Afghanistan would get five or ten minutes – if it was lucky. Before the end of 2003, ISAF was in a state of drift.

These headaches would have challenged NATO even if its members had been united and keen to take the mission on. They were not. Some were unconvinced that Afghanistan was relevant to them or unwilling to commit their forces to operations that might turn “kinetic”. Others were put out with the U.S.’s tactless approach to Iraq. Still others, like the Dutch and Poles, had deployed forces under Operation Iraqi Freedom or were otherwise limited in what they could offer. Under such circumstances – and absent leadership from Washington – collective will, troops, and money all remained in short supply. The infamous Brussels NATO summit of December 2003, at which Lord Robertson tried without success to wring six additional helicopters out of the 26 member countries, drove home how badly things were going.

Testifying before the U.K. House of Commons Defence Committee, General Sir Rob Fry recalled that “the NATO campaign looked completely moribund at that stage. It was obvious that Stage 2, which was the movement into the North and West, was taking place, but there was no appetite… anywhere in NATO for taking the campaign [ further].”21 Not only did the mission appear to be stalling, but NATO’s inability to mobilize itself raised troubling questions about its own vitality. Fry observed that “if NATO ran out of fuel [political will] after half a mission, and the easiest, most benign half of a mission, question marks would be placed against its efficacy and its future role.”

Canada may be the U.S.’s “best friend” and “closest ally,” but other countries can claim to have a “special relationship” with America. The United Kingdom is one of them – as well as NATO’s second-most-powerful member. Among the U.K.’s top priorities (still) in 2003 was maintaining its position not only as a global strategic player, but one capable of working militarily with the U.S. on something approaching equal terms. One expression of that intent was the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, which decreed that the British armed forces were to be “resourced for two ‘medium-scale’ operations, one ‘enduring’, one over a limited period.” Despite its heavy involvement in Iraq, therefore, Britain saw itself as having an obligation, as well as an opportunity, to pick up the slack in Afghanistan and corral the U.S. in the process.

If ISAF was to be brought back to life, it needed a more vigorous headquarters; it needed to make better strategic sense; and NATO’s stalwarts needed to step up. Britain began by approaching the U.S. about squeezing the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) into the leadership sequencing of ISAF starting in May 2006. The order in which countries would assume leadership of ISAF had already been agreed in NATO and did not involve the U.K.-led ARRC. Inserting it therefore required “engineering” via delicate negotiations. But the U.K. believed a strong hand at the tiller was imperative, and the U.S. agreed. These discussions began in early 2004, perhaps late 2003.

Canada was now largely taken up with Kabul, where General Hillier was due to assume command of ISAF in February. Some have suggested that Kabul – a relatively low-risk mission – was seen by the political leadership as a convenient way for Canada to begin extricating itself from Afghanistan for good. But those closely involved in planning contradict this theory, saying that it was well understood that Kabul in fact marked the start of a multi-year engagement. Observes Calder, no one “had any illusions about this being over quickly.”

How NATO Strategy Shaped Canadian Policy Options

From the moment it took over the ISAF mission, NATO had begun implementing its plan for the consolidation of ISAF’s presence in Kabul, followed by a phased expansion built on provincial reconstruction teams. This is a fundamental point: the plan had been approved by the North Atlantic Council, and every country had known its implications. For Canadian officials in the defence and foreign ministries, the plan meant that the country would eventually field a provincial reconstruction team (PRT). Thus, when McCallum pledged that team informally at the Brussels summit in December 2003, he was merely confirming – for the benefit of his fellow defence ministers – something that had been simmering in Ottawa since the summer. In essence, NATO’s takeover of ISAF marked the earliest origins of the mission that became Kandahar.

As early as January 2004, there were signs as to where that mission might be. General Henault had already decreed that following Kabul, the CF would require an eighteen-month operational pause to rest, train, and reequip. Set to begin in fall 2004, the pause would end in early 2006. NATO’s ISAF expansion schedule, meanwhile, called for Stage 2, into the west, to be completed by September 2005; Stage 3, into the south, by July 2006; and Stage 4, into the east, by October 2006. Canadian force-generation timelines were thus already pointing to a deployment as part of Stage 3 or possibly 4. Participation in Stage 2, though not impossible, would have been awkward.

In March, the U.K. took its second step towards revivifying the NATO mission. Tied closely to the insertion of the ARRC, it involved rectifying the incoherence of the west’s dual track-intervention by “rationalizing” OEF and ISAF. Despite initial American reticence, the U.K. succeeded in convincing it to go along with this idea too. The missions’ streamlining (never fully achieved) would entail a significant change in the responsibilities of countries involved in ISAF’s expansion: thenceforth, they would be responsible not just for establishing reconstruction teams, but also for providing security in their regions. And the target date for accomplishing the re-organization? Spring 2006.

Other countries, meanwhile, had not been idle. Like Canada, the Netherlands had accepted that ISAF’s expansion meant it would have to field a PRT, and Dutch military planners were exploring options. Indeed, the subject of deployments arose between the two countries bilaterally around this time. The implications of the impending OEF-ISAF merger were stark: in the relatively calm provinces, the addition of security responsibilities to reconstruction efforts would matter little, but in the restive southern ones, it was likely to mean tougher, more intense and more dangerous deployments. Who in NATO had the stomach for those?

Long before U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates said it, everyone knew it: NATO is a multi-tier alliance in which some countries pull their weight and others do not. Looking at the NATO “league tables” in the first half of 2004, it was plain to Canada, as well as the Netherlands, that few countries would volunteer to go south. As officials on both sides, sometimes at the highest military level, shared thinking and observations about available provinces, probable timeframes, and who might “be around” in 2005-2006, that knowledge – and their own countries’ capabilities and standing in NATO – would have figured in their calculations.

In short, alliance dynamics matter. They do not determine outcomes per se, but they heavily condition them. NATO’s strategic plan, agreed fully two and a half years before any troops deployed to Regional Command (South), already contained the seed – the pledging of a PRT – for a future Canadian mission. The timetable contained in that plan, specifying when Stages 2, 3, and 4 would begin, provided a framework within which countries’ own force-generation schedules further conditioned the time, place, and nature of their potential future deployments. And the decision to streamline OEF and ISAF, which changed the risks involved in certain deployments but not others, brought questions of duty and capacity sharply to the fore.

Canadian Mission Preferences: Past as Prologue

In the former Yugoslavia, beginning with UNPROFOR in 1992, Canada had made a significant contribution to international missions without gaining commensurate recognition or influence over political or military strategic decisions. The main reason was that its units had been assigned to larger formations under the command of other countries, and it was those countries, with the visibility that command brought, that had acquired recognition and influence. In November 1999, Canada decided to rationalize its contribution to the former Yugoslavia in both the NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo Force (KFOR). By concentrating the bulk of its resources – military, governmental, and diplomatic – on a larger commitment in SFOR, Canada achieved a “critical mass” of capability sufficient to share in the rotating command of Multinational Division (MND) Southwest, in partnership with the Netherlands and Britain.

The influence of the Balkan experience on Canadian thinking in 2004 – just a short five years later – cannot be overstated. Concentration of resources and demonstrability of impact became all-important considerations in planning circles. Missions that did not permit the first or lend themselves to the second were all but written off. The reason was not just about achieving status; it was about being able to make one’s voice heard in the political and military fora where mission-defining decisions were being taken, including, not least, plans for the use of Canadian soldiers. It was thus also about improving Canada’s ability to exert its influence in accordance with its interests and values.

The Canadian military had taken another lesson away from Bosnia that would play into operations in Afghanistan: there were real advantages to working with partners, but particularly “like-minded” partners – ones with similar military capabilities, political and military outlooks, ways of operating, and general ethos. NATO membership brought with it a degree of homogenization in some of these areas, but not nearly enough – a fact that officials in the Canadian military had had ample opportunity to appreciate over the course of Kandahar One and Kabul. Canada’s experience in MND Southwest in Bosnia, on the other hand, had left the military leadership with a very favourable view of Britain and the Netherlands, translating into a degree of comfort with those countries that other potential partnerships would be hard-pressed to match. The British and Dutch had similarly positive views of each other and the Canadians. The collective desire for partnership with like-minded nations was independent of any geopolitical preferences but did predispose all three towards exploring mission options involving the “right” sort of collaboration, should any crop up.

History had thus structured Canadian views on what any post-Kabul mission must be like even before planners began thinking about it in earnest. Whatever was to happen, Canada would make a single, prolonged, whole-of-government contribution; it would choose a mission that brought the best out of the CF; and it would partner, if possible, with countries it trusted. That was more or less policy. By implication, while there was no preconceived idea as to where a military contingent might go, there was a very clear vision as to what the deployment must involve if Ottawa was to commit to it. These expectations, in turn, implied certain things about the type of province that would be suitable for a Canadian mission.

The Beginnings of a Plan

Around the middle of 2004, Ottawa received confirmation that the U.K. was looking at shifting south in a major way. The news would not have been unexpected, since implicit in the British plans for the ARRC and the merging of OEF and ISAF had been a substantial U.K. force ramp-up. Significantly for the CF, however, British intentions made a Canadian deployment to the south in early 2006 not only plausible from an ISAF timeline point of view, but also, from a force-generation standpoint, logistically practicable. As both Calder and Henault have observed, the U.S. presence at Kandahar Airfield, substantial though it was, would not have been enough on its own.

General Jim Jones, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), was at this point struggling to get nations to sign up for Stage 2 stabilization and reconstruction slots in the west. Throughout the summer and fall, he made overtures to Canada to assume responsibility for Herat, then Chaghcharan. Henault travelled to both in the summer of 2004, and a number of other well-documented visits by various Canadian officials followed.

The reasons neither province was deemed suitable in the end are by now well-known. Going to Herat would have meant sharing command with Italy – an unattractive option for many reasons. Moreover, the CF’s contribution would be more valuable – strategically speaking – elsewhere. And then there was the matter of Canada’s operational pause, which would have anyhow made a deployment to Herat difficult until well into Stage 2. Chaghcharan was a backwater, where Canada’s contribution would have had little strategic impact and even less visibility. Described by Vice-Admiral Drew Robertson as “not unlike the Rogers Pass…only without the CPR or Trans Canada, with much worse weather for more of the year, and in the middle of the Hindu Kush,” Chaghcharan also lacked a suitable airfield and other infrastructure, which would have aggravated the logistical challenges involved in going there.

But although Henault seriously considered both options, and for a time even favoured Herat, there was another reason he resisted NATO’s advances: Canada was now seriously considering a deployment with the U.K. Establishing a precise timeline of the talks between the two countries may never be possible because of the talks’ frequently informal basis and the dearth of written records kept; but the talks’ earliest beginnings probably predated the U.K.’s formal confirmation of its intention to go south. What is certain is that by the time David Reddaway, the British High Commissioner, voiced the U.K.’s interest in partnering with Canada during a meeting with Bill Graham in early October, talks had been underway for some time. Hillier’s memoirs substantiate the timeframe. “Even before I returned from commanding ISAF,” he writes, “NATO had announced its intentions to expand the ISAF mission beyond Kabul in 2006, and planning was already well on its way for a move into Kandahar province by the time I landed back in Canada that fall.” Hillier returned from Afghanistan in late September 2004.

The bilateral dynamic reportedly took SACEUR by surprise. A source close to him, relating the trials and tribulations of signing countries up for Stage 2, recalled how, in response to Jones’s persistent solicitations, Canada finally volunteered “more or less out of the blue” (as it seemed) to take on Kandahar. The offer to fill a slot in what would have been Stage 3 was welcome, came the response, but not relevant to the present task. The Canadians were unfazed. “[They] and the British,” said the source, “hammered out the whole thing without NATO’s assistance, behind closed doors.… We were not aware of the details.” That Jones did not anticipate the Canadian offer is unsurprising when one considers the political sensitivity of partnership discussions. Considerable groundwork would have had to be laid on both sides before anyone was prepared to speak about them, so the plan was always going to emerge fully-formed, or not at all.

The decision to undertake a southern deployment was thus based on a case that largely built itself. The broad strategic considerations examined earlier, Canada’s genuine sense of obligation to take on a job commensurate with its capabilities, and the Balkan influence on Canadian thinking all laid the foundations. The subsequent visits by Canadian civil and military officials to Herat and Chaghcharan, by exposing the disadvantages of each province, themselves reinforced the southern preference. All that was then required was something to tip the scales decisively, and Britain was it. A British shift south made a Canadian mission there both possible, because the American presence alone would have been insufficient, and more desirable than the alternatives, because of the two countries’ excellent working relationship. Dutch participation, which looked more and more likely, was an added – though not decisive – plus.

Settling On Kandahar

How Kandahar became the location of Canada’s deployment – and not another southern province – remains unclear. Beyond the factors discussed here, Kandahar satisfied a number of criteria tied to logistics, infrastructure, accessibility, and cost efficiency, which others did not, so Canadian planners had reasons for picking it. But British generals’ testimony indicates that the U.K. also favoured Kandahar and, as “senior partner,” it might reasonably have been expected to prevail. Why did it not?

Partly, Britain was keen to make the project work. With the Dutch almost in, it was worth it to the Brits to keep the Canadians happy. When they made clear their participation in the mission hinged on going to Kandahar, they had significant leverage. Two more considerations may have been Helmand’s centrality to western counter-narcotics efforts (which the U.K. was leading) and the sense that, when it came right down to it, there was very little difference between Kandahar and Helmand anyway.

The decisive factor, however, was likely a combination of Canadian flexibility, unfavourable U.K. timelines, and subtly-applied U.S. pressure. It had been agreed by this point that OEF and ISAF would be streamlined. Operations in the south would be fully under NATO command by spring 2006, with RC (South) headquartered in Kandahar. Despite its initial reticence, the U.S. was now happy to be relieved of the south; all it needed was someone to manage the transition process in fall 2005. And this was the crux of the issue: at that time, Britain’s forces were still going to be tied up in Mazar-e-Sharif, Kabul, and most importantly, Iraq. Because the pace of its Afghanistan ramp-up was contingent on the pace of its Basra drawdown – which could not be sped up – Britain could not spare enough forces soon enough to take on the job.


But Canada could. Though the CF’s operational pause was still due to last till December 2005, the forces required to establish the PRT and oversee the OEF-to-ISAF transition would be comparable to those rotating out of Kabul, and resources would be available to be shifted south beginning in July. That is what Henault meant when he remarked that a final reason for Canada’s going to Kandahar was to provide a reliable “anchor tenant” for the ISAF mission, and this reason strengthened Canada’s case. U.S. support for Canada against the U.K. was thus almost certainly the decisive factor in the tug-of-war over Kandahar – though not, it must be emphasized, in Canada’s decision to “pull” for Kandahar in the first place.

On 9 December 2005, Pierre Pettigrew announced that Canada would be establishing a PRT in Kandahar at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting. Whatever the rate of progression of informal talks over the preceding months, there is no doubt that by December, the cabinet had been briefed on the location and given its go-ahead, at least in principle. Additional details of the mission were agreed informally on the margins of the February 2005 Munich Security Conference, placed formally before Paul Martin in March, when General Hillier, the new chief of the defence staff, outlined the plan, and finally approved by the government in May.

Unanswered Questions

Controversy still swirls around many aspects of Canada’s deployment, and the final section of this article will discuss some of them. The first is the mission’s violence, which led to charges Ottawa had departed radically from the pattern established by the first two deployments. Certainly, owing to the beefing-up of ISAF’s mandate and the mission’s geography, the 2005 deployment was expected to be more intense than its predecessors and almost certainly involve combat. (And the government acknowledged as much; some will recall General Hillier’s “body bag tour” of summer 2005.) To say that defence planners and the politicians believed they were committing to a war, however, is untrue. Paul Martin clearly states that although he understood the troops would be engaged in “peacemaking” rather than peacekeeping activities, “we never envisaged a broad military campaign that would make reconstruction efforts more difficult if not impossible.”

Calder, Henault, and others have said the same thing: everyone knew the mission would be tough, but no one anticipated how strong the Taliban would become. The American presence in the region had been so light that little intelligence was available, but the troops had not been unduly molested. Both the British and Dutch militaries were comfortable with the mission (the Dutch politicians, not the generals, were divided) and the senior U.K. leadership, like the Canadian, has been emphatic that nobody expected to disturb a hornets’ nest. The intelligence failure, if a failure it was, was general.

A second, related, source of controversy concerns the mission’s very nature. Led to believe it would be all about reconstruction, Parliament, press, and public reacted with consternation when the reality proved far different. But the provincial reconstruction team never was the heart of the Canadian mission. The confusion surrounding it had two sources, one “perceptual,” one fundamental. The latter related to the mistaken belief that what Canada and other countries were “vying” over was where their reconstruction teams would go. In fact, the real question was always where Canadian troops could most logically be inserted to provide security. “The battle group was definitely the dominant factor,” Henault has said. “The PRT would have come as an adjunct to it.” Given ISAF’s new stabilization function in the wake of its rationalization with OEF, prioritizing the CF’s manoeuvre force made perfect sense.

What compounded the fundamental misconception was the way the mission was presented to the public. Pettigrew’s December announcement about the PRT referred to 250 to 500 troops only, which seemed in keeping with popular perceptions of what a PRT was about. When the full-scale deployment, including the battle group, was announced following cabinet approval in May 2005, it therefore appeared to reflect the last-minute introduction of a new, game-changing combat element. Of course, the battle group had been part of the plan long before December, but since the final details had yet to be sorted out between Canada and the U.K. at that point, and Martin had not approved it, no mention had been made of it. The false distinction between the PRT and the battle group is ubiquitous and has confused commentators since the beginning.

The root of both sources of confusion likely lies in the very term “Provincial Reconstruction Team.” PRTs were designed for security, reconstruction, and central government support, theoretically helping to “expand the legitimacy of the central government to the regions and enhance security by supporting security sector reform and facilitating the reconstruction process.” The actual acronym, however, conveyed only one of these purposes, and governments, as well as NATO, had little reason to dispel the impression that conveyed.

The third controversy surrounds the role the military played in policymaking. It has been alleged that getting into the south and “cracking heads” was the Canadian military’s goal from the outset and that “the generals,” once they got the bit between their teeth, went for it hell-bent. One reason, it is said, was the desire to redeem a decade of ostensibly unremarkable performances in peacekeeping theatres. Another was reputation-building – the desire to show the U.S., other key allies, and the Canadian public that the CF was, in Hillier’s words, “not the public service of Canada” but a genuine fighting organization. The supposed enthusiasm of Foreign Affairs Canada for doing something “dramatic” – ignored by commentators until recently – is yet another theory. Implicit and sometimes explicit in all of the above is the suggestion that Canadian defence planners were pursuing a principally national agenda divorced from the NATO plan, where national objectives were heavily conditioned by beliefs about what would go over well in Washington. An excerpt from Stein and Lang’s Unexpected War captures the tone:

By the late fall of 2004…NATO’s preference for Canada was clear. Brussels was pressing Canada to deploy to Chaghcharan; NATO did not seem at all concerned about the need for Canada to be in Kandahar to facilitate Stage 3 expansion. It was also clear that Italy was more than prepared to partner with Canada in Herat.… But what was unclear was what Washington thought. Henault decided he would call [chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Dick] Myers to ask where the Americans wanted Canada’s PRT. And Graham would raise the matter with Rumsfeld when he next had the opportunity.

But beyond the reasons already provided – and the simple truth that Kandahar was a military-heavy mission from the outset, naturally suited to a CF/DND lead – there are at least three reasons for giving Canadian planners the benefit of the doubt. Firstly, while it was unquestionably upbeat about the prospect of Kandahar, the military leadership was not nearly as single-minded as it is made out to have been. Recall that it was Henault who refused to extend Canada’s first deployment; it was Hillier, when McCallum was considering Kabul in 2002, who strongly warned him against more than a one-year mission; and it was Henault who decided in 2003 that the CF would need an 18-month operational pause immediately afterwards. Every soldier may yearn to take on challenging missions, but Canada’s generals were not desperate.

Second, the U.S.’s influence on Canadian policy is easily exaggerated, as McCallum’s recollections show. In the case of what became Kandahar Two, the U.S. was certainly in the loop, but there is no evidence it was a driving force. Once it had succeeded in getting NATO to take over ISAF, it became fully absorbed with Iraq. Moreover, as the chronology presented here shows, Canada was looking well beyond NATO horizons. While General Jones was still taken up with securing commitments due to take effect six months later, Ottawa was considering a mission a full year – and one ISAF stage – beyond that. There was no reason, at such an early date, for a distracted U.S. to be leaning on Canada in particular.

Finally, as Vice-Admiral Robertson, then director general for international security policy in DND, has observed, Canada’s going south actually made better strategic sense for the alliance than going west. NATO had a limited supply of nations available, willing, and able to contribute in the south. Although plugging gaps in Stage 2 was naturally SACEUR’s immediate priority, Robertson questioned the benefit to NATO of attempting to draw one of the few countries the alliance could rely on to contribute effectively and lead in the south into a role that any number of other countries could have filled in the west.


The purpose of this article is to identify the drivers of Canadian foreign policy as it concerned Kandahar Two and, in so doing, put the mission in its proper context. My aim, therefore, is to help explain how Canada became a key player in ISAF’s Stage 3 expansion, not why the mission went the way it did. These matters, though related, are largely separate. The first has mainly to do with strategic-level decision-making – how to dispose national chess pieces on the Afghan chessboard in accordance with the NATO plan. The second has mainly to do with operational-level decision-making once the game had begun, and a fortiori, with operational dynamics – the interplay of national chess pieces among themselves and vis-à-vis their adversaries, albeit under conditions still heavily influenced by national governments and NATO.

With hindsight comes the tendency to conflate the levels of analysis, to assess the merit of strategic-level decisions (how and why Canada wound up in Kandahar) on the basis of operational-level developments (how well or badly things unfolded). It is an unhelpful tendency, but one that pervades scholarship on Canada’s Afghan campaign. The contention that Kandahar marked, from the start, a radical departure from Canada’s traditional mission profile is a prime example. A second tendency, common though not exclusive to Canada, is to study national stories from a national perspective, which frequently magnifies the influence of some policy drivers at the expense of other equally and sometimes more influential ones.

This article’s analysis shows that when it comes to the genesis of Kandahar, the domestic Canadian and international strategic spheres were indissociable and both marked by history. To contend that Canada’s deployment was determined by alliance dynamics would be an overstatement – governmental willingness was also fundamental – but it was unquestionably conditioned by them. NATO’s assumption of responsibility for ISAF, and the resulting timeline for the mission’s expansion, defined the number and timing of Canada’s future deployment options. The alliance’s streamlining of OEF and ISAF substantially changed the nature of the latter, making certain deployments under the ISAF banner less desirable to many member states. Canada was not obliged to pick a southern province, but it began to find itself aligned with one by simple virtue of not seeking a way out. The impact of coalition membership on national foreign policy in Afghanistan is probably underappreciated.

Equally apparent is the “organic” nature of the policy process that eventually generated the Kandahar decision. It was organic because it lacked any clear beginning; it was contingent on developments Canadian planners did not control; its outcome was not predetermined; and, though driven by the implicit knowledge that a mission must materialize eventually, it did not proceed in a linear fashion. Ultimately, much of the reason the Kandahar proposal was put before Paul Martin was that it embodied the qualities Canadian planners sought in a deployment. These qualities were determined by extensive Canadian experience of past missions, at least as far back as UNPROFOR and perhaps further. Though constituting something less than a policy, they came very close to constituting a policy line – something that may never have been explicit but whose elements were widely known.

Finally, it is clear that opportunity also played a part. Had not the United Kingdom opted to undertake a major deployment to the south – partly on the basis of its own mistaken prediction of the speed at which it would pull out of Iraq – Canada might never have joined what became Stage 3, or gone to Kandahar. The talks between Canada and Britain, and the Netherlands to a lesser extent, illustrate the hitherto-under-examined multinational dimension of the Stage 3 deployments. They also underscore many commentators’ misconception of the role of the United States and NATO in Canada’s policy process.

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