Listen Now

Canada’s place in the world: lessons from Afghanistan

Canada’s former Ambassador to China, David Mulroney, shares an excerpt from his new book.

By: /
12 May, 2015
By: David Mulroney
Incoming President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St. Michael’s College

I was asked to provide an excerpt from my book, Middle Power, Middle Kingdom, to serve as a point of departure for a discussion of Asia as a challenge for Canadian foreign policy.

I will be discussing the topic later this week at Canadian Foreign Policy: Traditions and Transitions, a conference held May 13-15 at the University of Toronto.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, I chose a passage where I depart from my main theme —Canada-China relations — to reflect instead on our experience in Kandahar.

The Kandahar mission was an enormously ambitious, cross-cutting call to action for the Public Service and the Canadian Forces, one whose complexity we tended to cloak in reassuring rhetoric about our “whole of government” effort. It was only after two years of sacrifice, confusion and failure that the government accepted hard truths about the need for clarity in setting objectives, honesty in measuring progress and real leadership in the difficult business of ensuring that policy actually gets delivered.

Responding intelligently to the rise of China, India and other dynamic Asian states is vastly more important to us than Afghanistan ever was. But not only do we seem determined not to learn the lessons of Afghanistan, we are abandoning the very idea that we need to think calmly and clearly about our place in a changing global order, or that we need to make intelligent use of the foreign policy assets and experience available to us. Worse, we are failing to challenge the dubious proposition that the world is little more than an exotic extension of the Canadian political landscape.


Before taking up my job as ambassador to China, I spent more than two years as the Canadian government’s coordinator for our mission in Afghanistan. The assignment was professionally challenging, and physically and emotionally draining. It also had a powerful influence on my thinking and professional development. Although I hadn’t anticipated this, I came to see my work on Afghanistan and my work in China as being linked, with my experiences in Ottawa, Kabul and Kandahar on the Afghanistan file serving as a prelude to my work in Beijing. My experience working to coordinate Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan helped me to better understand some of the obstacles I would encounter in China. Both assignments pointed to more fundamental challenges we need to overcome if we are to design and deliver effective Canadian foreign policy.

My job as Afghanistan coordinator, which began in 2007, was far from my first exposure to the place. Janet and I had visited the country twice during the peaceful 1970s, just before it was plunged into more than thirty years of violence and extremism. So, when I took up my Afghanistan assignment, I had the opportunity to reconnect with a country I had known long before. But I was also, although I didn’t know it then, preparing for my China assignment.

I had been asked to bring greater coordination to a Canadian mission in Afghanistan that was uneasily and unevenly divided between the Canadian Forces on the one side and civilians led by Foreign Affairs and CIDA on the other. We were faced with two big problems. The first was that we had allowed ourselves to be drawn into a violent and almost unimaginably complicated mission in Kandahar without having a clearly defined set of Canadian objectives. As a result, different parts of the Canadian government pursued their own, more self-interested, organizational goals.

For the military, Kandahar was a classic counter-insurgency campaign in which Canada’s civilian contributions such as diplomatic engagement, the training of local officials and massive development spending were tools to support what the military saw as a far more important combat mission. For the Canadian Forces, the Kandahar mission was a long-awaited opportunity to re-equip and repurpose a military that was anxious to prove itself as something more than a peacekeeping force.

The civilians at Foreign Affairs and CIDA believed that they were engaged in classic reconstruction work. Their efforts to rebuild a war-torn region would be supported by the security presence of the Canadian Forces. And for the civilians, Afghanistan was only one of a number of priorities, a list that also included commitments in Haiti and Darfur. As a result, the civilian mission to Kandahar was not adequately resourced with people, becoming instead largely a matter of chequebook diplomacy. Asked to define the mission, civilians would rattle off the long list of UN-sponsored projects they were helping to fund.

A second and related problem was that nobody had thought about how to provide the leadership necessary to ensure that the Canadian Forces and Canada’s public servants worked together to achieve truly national objectives. It was as if all that was necessary was to deploy these very disparate national assets to far-off Kandahar and they would figure out how to assemble themselves into a tightly integrated whole. Except that they didn’t. And as our casualties mounted in and around Kandahar, the government struggled, and failed, to explain to Canadians just why we were there. It took the extraordinary intervention of a group of deeply experienced and eminent Canadians led by former deputy prime minister John Manley to turn this around. In addition to my other duties, I was lucky enough to serve as secretary to Manley and his panel, and was later tasked with implementing their recommendations as the head of a special task force based in Ottawa. I travelled to Kandahar, Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan regularly.

Over the coming months, I became part of an effort to refocus the government’s attention on an issue of national importance. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to some tremendously dedicated soldiers and civilians, we achieved most of the goals that we had set for ourselves in Kandahar—no small accomplishment given that these individuals were working in the teeth of a ferocious insurgency. And we rose to a level of civilian–military cooperation that was quite simply the best among the NATO countries operating in Afghanistan.

During the course of my work, I learned a lot about management. Thanks to some distinguished colleagues and mentors, I learned even more about leadership. I saw first-hand what happens when a government isn’t particularly clear about what it’s trying to achieve. But I also learned what’s possible when it is. And I came to appreciate the difference between government as simply the sum of its self-interested parts and government in which the parts are coordinated and skillfully deployed to achieve larger, truly national objectives.

The lessons of Afghanistan were hard learned and deeply felt. By the time I turned my attentions to very different challenges in Beijing, my Afghanistan experience had shaped my approach to leadership and public service.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter