'This is all about hope. If Afghans bring home a paycheque, they won’t take payment from the Taliban to shoot us.'
'This is all about hope. If Afghans bring home a paycheque, they won’t take payment from the Taliban to shoot us.'
GEN. WALTER NATYNCZYK, CANADA’S NEW CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE STAFF, TALKS WITH MICHAEL FRISCOLANTI ABOUT FILLING RICK HILLIER’S SHOES
First and foremost, General, how do you properly pronounce your last name? A: [Laughs] I always say to people: “If you have a real hard time, call me Walt.” But it’s pronounced “Na-tin-check.” Q: You’re replacing Gen. Rick Hillier. How difficult will it be to fill those shoes?
A: We’re all individuals, and we’re all very, very different. I am who I am and he is the tremendous leader that he is. I will have that same responsibility and duty to not only lead the members of the Canadian Forces but to represent them as well.
Q: Hillier was a tough, no-nonsense general who stuck up for his troops, wasn’t afraid to be vocal, and, on occasion, butt heads with his political masters. Can we expect a similar style from you?
A: I am very approachable, and I’ve been schooled by the same folks who have influenced Gen. Hillier. I’ve been working with Gen. Hillier for the past... well, jeez, since I started out, so I think we have some of the same character traits. One of my problems, however—and I put this right up front—I will only support the Toronto Maple Leafs when they get to the playoffs, otherwise I support the Ottawa Senators. And just so you know, I’m actually a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan.
Q: You grew up in Winnipeg?
A: Absolutely. My father was Polish and my mother German. They both were in World War II and they came to Canada because they wanted a brighter future here. They met in Winnipeg, married, and they agreed that English was going to be the language of the house. My father died just before my 10th birthday, and it was a natural progression to go into Boy Scouts and Cadets and into the military. My dad was a tanker in World War II for the Free Polish Army, and so I turned out to be a tanker in the Canadian army.
Q: How do you walk that fine line between executing government policy and protecting the best interests of the Forces?
A: I’ve seen broad and wide that government has always been in support of the men and women in uniform, and at the same time, how does government understand that when they put men and women into harm’s way, whether that be in Afghanistan, whether that be in Haiti, or the Middle East, or in a flood or an ice storm, that they have the understanding to ensure the success of those men and women? My responsibility is to make sure I represent those interests.
Q: How important is your personal relationship with the Prime Minister?
A: I think it’s very important. The Prime Minister, obviously, is responsible at the end of the day. I report to the minister of defence, but it’s really important—as we’re seeing now with regard to Afghanistan—that the Prime Minister and the minister and the government understand the nature of the operation in-theatre, the needs of those men and women who are representing his government, and all Canadians out there.
Q: Last night \June 19], the Harper government released the details of its new 20-year defence plan. It includes $490 billion in spending over the next two decades. Some Canadians might be shocked by that figure.
A: It’s always shocking when you aggregate 20 years of budget. But you must recognize that of that $490 billion, 51 per cent goes to paying salaries, and then there’s a component for the capital, for buying the aircraft and the ships and the vehicles and all the other pieces of equipment. And then you have the training component. What is very useful is that we’ve finally laid out a road map for the next 20 years to grow, modernize and adapt the armed forces. We have not had this kind of framework—it’s the first time certainly in my 33 years—and so we can actually do the planning. In the past, if you wanted to buy a ship, our best track record is 10 years. So unless you know how much money you’re going to have in 10 years’ time, how can you show government you can afford to purchase this ship and then run the ship?
Q: Your combat resumé includes a year of front-line service in Iraq, directing thousands of American troops—even though Canada didn’t participate in the invasion. It must have been quite a lesson in politics, considering y ou were deployed in a war that your country didn’t support.
A: By the time the orders came to me—again, you’re a soldier and you’re told to move out— you just move out. I was on an exchange program and the government of Canada sent
me on this mission, and so you have very little discretion. What you want to do is make a contribution, and also just be proud of the fact that I’m Canadian. And with regard to Afghanistan now, what’s wonderful is that not only the Americans but some of the Polish people I’ve dealt with in Iraq, the Dutch folks I’ve dealt with, Australians I’ve dealt with, they’re all involved, and you see the same people again right on a continuum from the Bosnia era all the way through to Afghanistan. The same officers, the same leaders are involved. Our business is not only the profession of arms but it’s also about relationships, and when you have those bonds of trust with your allies, it’s those relationships that are so important.
Q: Looking back, do you believe the Iraq invasion was justified?
A: In hindsight, the information—as we know now—the intelligence was faulty.
Q: It has been a difficult few weeks in Afghanistan. A report tabled in Parliament says security in the region has deteriorated, there were more civilian casualties in ’07 than any year since the Taliban fell and, of course, the Taliban pulled off a majorjailbreak in Kandahar, which led to a rejuvenated insurgency. How disheartening are those developments?
A: The prison break, no doubt that was a setback. But at the same time, look at the Afghan leadership—the political leadership and the military leadership—who took ownership of this. People believe that the security situation is on a continuum, a linear continuum. It may not be. You might have a significant, extraordinary event that turns things very positive. Conversely, it could go negative. I would just say the last 24 to 48 hours have been hugely positive. We can see it on the news: an Afghan general stepping up to the mike, and colonels stepping up to the mike, and saying: “We got it.” Afghans see their own leadership now—again, as a result of a lot of training and development—and they’re taking ownership. That must be a huge sense of pride for them.
Q: What about those Canadians who are watching the news and thinking that the situation is rapidly deteriorating?
You’ve got to keep in mind that where we are in Regional Command South, in Kandahar province, is the tough neighbourhood. And okay, the Canadians
are taking it, but actually we are making a huge amount of progress there.
Q: Is there more the Canadian Forces could be accomplishing in Afghanistan?
A: I think there’s a lot more that can be done, and we’re realizing the potential of that now in terms of supporting CIDA and enabling the RCMP, enabling Correctional Services and Foreign Affairs in developing governance and the economy. This is all about hope. The moment we can get the Afghan youth working so they can see a much more positive future, we will have that return to normalcy even faster. And it doesn’t take a lot of money. We’re building a road in southern Afghanistan. We have about 350 to 400 people working on that road on a daily basis. They’re bringing home a paycheque, and when that happens, then they won’t have to take payment from the Taliban to shoot us.
Q: How do you envision Afghanistan 20 years from now?
A: In 20 years? You know, in 19941 was in Bosnia and Croatia, okay? Croatia’s now coming on as a NATO partner.
Q: I’m sure you’re going to be stopped on the street over the next few years by a stranger who says: “General, we’ve lost 85 Canadian soldiers over there. Is it worth it?”
A: Keep in mind that Canadians died in those towers, that we know that Canada has been a target, and that our mission is the defence of Canada and Canadians. The security of the country starts thousands of kilometres away from here, and it starts in places on the other side of the world like Afghanistan. If we don’t address it there, it’s a matter of time before that area becomes ungoverned, a sanctuary for terrorism, and it’s exported.
Q: Do you think it’s your job—Gen. Hillier did—to sell this mission to the public?
A: I’m not a salesman. I tell people the way it is. Sometimes a media camera on the ground is pointed at the very worst image. So how do you provide people that broad picture, that landscape of what actually is happening? What reinforces this point is when I talk to a lot of the soldiers and sailors and airmen, many of whom were just there. I just met a medic the other day who was posted with the Afghan army and he said: “Sir, those guys took care of us and we took care of them and they are great, and I’ve seen such a huge change over those six months and there’s real hope.” And then you talk to someone who’s there on his second tour—because he wants to go back on a second tour—and he is able to compare it with his first tour back in 2006, and the change is amazing. People can see progress, and that is very empowering.
Q: Certainly, but we also hear about troops coming home with much different stories. There were reports this week, for example, that some soldiers—after seeing young boys who’d allegedly been raped by Afghan men—felt they didn’t have the authority to report those allegations.
A: That’s terrible, absolutely terrible, and the allegations are horrific. We’re going to do an investigation on this thing. Canadian forces have a responsibility, if they see something that’s wrong, to step in if they have the wherewithal and intervene, and at the same time report it up the chain of command. It’s the basis of our profession.
Q: When you say an investigation, do you mean an official board of inquiry?
Q: Are you satisfied with the way soldiers are being treated when they return home wounded, both physically and mentally?
A: It’s not perfect yet, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get to perfection, but we have to keep on improving. With regard to post-traumatic stress, we don’t understand the complexity of the mind—and I say this from per-
sonal experience dealing with a lot of soldiers up in Petawawa—sometimes they’ll go through a lot of stress, and it might only occur years after the event. That’s why when we talk about care of our soldiers, part of it is preparation and training to go into theatre, but then it’s the support—the medical support, the psychological support—when they get home, and the support to that family who are essential for their health and well-being.
'Keep in mind that Canadians died in those towers. We know that Canada has been a target.'
Q: What would you say to a soldier who is afraid to disclose a mental illness for fear of being shunned, or worse, losing his job?
A: We’re all in the same boat, we’ve all been into operations, and you’ve gotta come forward. You can only get the help if you ask for the help.
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