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What Afghanistan Taught Us About Our Military

Steve Saideman on why Afghanistan was the best of times for Canadian civil-military relations.

By: /
11 June, 2013
Stephen Saideman
By: Stephen Saideman

Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

I am presenting this week at the Kingston Conference on International Security about the state of civil-military relations in Canada and NATO as Afghanistan winds down (for the outsiders, not so much for those left behind). Because the Afghan conflict was the most intense warfare faced by most of the countries involved and endured for far longer than we might have expected of modern democracies, it will certainly shape the place of these militaries in their societies. Canada is hardly alone in this, although Canadians tend to think so. The long and dangerous engagement had both positive and negative effects on the relationships between civilians and the Canadian Forces, and these dynamics played out in similar ways elsewhere.

Before starting, we must remember that civil-military relations involve both society and the government on the civilian side, and we must keep in mind that the relationship is always dynamic. People tend to get upset when they see tensions, but not every dispute or conflict in perceptions is equal to a crisis.

So, how was Afghanistan the best of times for Canadian civil-military relations? The Canadian public has a better sense of the Canadian Forces than previously. The public has seen that the CF can perform well on the same battlefield as better-funded and bigger militaries such as the American and British armed forces. There are more realistic expectations – that the CF is trained to fight and not just act as peacekeepers. I remember early on being asked by members of the media whether the CF was trained to fight, and the answer was clearly yes. Because misperceptions can be a significant source of tensions, the greater clarity that came with seeing the CF in action has significantly improved the CF’s relationship with the public.

On the other hand, there are also enduring misperceptions. The myth that General Rick Hillier tricked Paul Martin into deploying the CF into Kandahar creates the perception of a mendacious and potentially dangerous military. The reality is that much of government supported this effort. They came to that conclusion by going through the same process as many of Canada’s allies: considering the dangerous of moving to southern Afghanistan, being overly optimistic when reading the conflicting intelligence estimates, feeling obligated by alliance commitments, and finding far more trouble and less success than expected.

Perhaps more importantly, those in government feel burned by the experience. The Harper government, which so values controlling the messaging, found itself overseeing a mission where more than 2,000 voices on the ground (all in uniform) could say what they wanted to embedded media. It is probably no accident that every subsequent deployment provided reporters with far less interesting stories and far fewer soldiers to engage.

The experience in Afghanistan revealed the limitations of Parliament. Members of parliament do not have security clearances, so they cannot really ask penetrating questions of the military. This is, apparently, fine as the members of parliament and the senators I have talked to seem to prefer being ignorant critics rather than informed overseers. Indeed, they see their job as holding the minister accountable and not oversight over the military. But I am still confused how one can hold the minister accountable when the information asymmetry is so wide.

The biggest challenge for Canada and the rest of NATO is one of credibility. The militaries of the various countries will often say how successful the effort was, but that is because the CF and its fellow armed forces may have different understandings of success. Meeting NATO obligations and fighting well on the battlefield may be their focus, but the public notices the continued violence, including large-scale attacks on civilians. 2013 has been more dangerous to Afghan civilians than the preceding year. So, the conflict between the military’s perceptions and the public’s may lead the latter to question the former’s credibility.

The second big challenge is that none of the militaries of NATO are up to another adventure anytime soon. Between austerity and exhaustion, we have seen a very limited Libya mission and none in Syria. This may be for the best, given that we have seen that counter-insurgency and state-building is incredibly difficult.

The third challenge is the enduring resentment produced by disparities in burden-sharing. Canada paid a very high price for its effort in Afghanistan, especially on a per capita basis, compared to some other countries. Countries like Germany that were less enthusiastic for the mission still faced much opposition at home, yet got little credit for it within the alliance. So, the intra-NATO divisions produced by Afghanistan may cause civil-military relations to fray throughout the alliance.

To be clear, that the various militaries emerged from Afghanistan with decent-to-good relations with their governments and their publics is actually quite remarkable. This is not Vietnam all over again, although some similar risks (hollowing out the force) may present themselves. Given the stresses of the war, the state of civil-military relations in the advanced democracies could be far worse. We need to see both sides of civil-military relations – the ups and the downs – as it is never easy for the folks with the guns and the folks who manage them to understand each other. It is a constant effort that Canada and its allies have managed rather well despite some significant bumps in the road.

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