Canadians are getting a crash course in what a counter-insurgency war is all about. In the past week, they’ve been confronted with a misguided air attack resulting in Canadian casualties; reports that the poppy crop in Afghanistan is the largest ever; concerns that the insurgency in Afghanistan is related to other regional insurgencies in Pakistan; and an opposition politician who wants to cave in and reason with radical Islamic terrorists who want to create a 16th-century state. The Canadian people are caught in a series of historical and rhetorical traps: the misguided attempt to understand what is happening through the desperately obsolete lens of “peacekeeping vs. warfighting” continues its obstinate hold in the dialogue. Critics now hold sway using “bloody shirt” tactics and focusing on Canadian casualties yet again.
What’s missing in all of this is a framework for understanding the nature of a war like this one. The dominant images of war for many Canadians is a combination of trench warfare in the First World War, Juno Beach and the Normandy landings in the Second World War, and the jungle fighting and moral ambiguity of the U.S. experience in Vietnam. Canadians are not taught in school that we have a history of countering insurgencies and unrest going back to the 1800s. How about the Red River and Northwest rebellions? Mackenzie and Papineau in 1837? The Boer War? Dare we suggest the FLQ crisis and Oka?
The flow of a counter-insurgency war is very different from the linear battles of Vimy or Normandy, and this is connected to how success is measured. In those battles, the enemy wore a uniform and held defensive systems that could be attacked directly. Seizure of terrain determined who controlled what territory, and the more territory one side controlled, the closer it was to success. Occupying the enemy capital, convincing them to cease fighting, and thereby subjugating the enemy state meant victory. Then we could go home. Insurgency wars do have territorial aspects,
but also have important social and psychological “terrain.” The battle in an insurgency is sometimes apiece of ground: in Pashmul, for example, the enemy collected in one place and could be attacked. But for the most part insurgent tactics are designed to harass, to get us to leave so they can occupy the entirety of the territory. The battlefield also becomes the allegiance of the people in the territory, especially those who have not taken sides. Insurgents need to be able to operate among the population: they don’t wear uniforms and
You clear out the enemy, leave, they come back, and you have to clear them out again
they seek to conceal themselves so firepower cannot be brought to bear. Killing the wrong people produces recruits for the enemy from that population. But if we don’t kill the right people, they’ll be able to employ unfettered violence and interfere with our objectives.
Fighting an insurgency cannot be measured linearly. Pashmul is not Vimy: we move in, clear it out, leave (because we cannot be everywhere all the time, and the Afghan government is not yet able to exert a permanent presence), the enemy comes in, and we have to remove them again. It is like taking out the garbage—you have to keep doing it. Critics measure enemy success by counting the Canadians killed. That’s what the enemy wants: the more Canadians who pressure for withdrawal, the closer the enemy is to removing a major obstacle to controlling southern Afghanistan: us.
But look at it this way: denying the enemy what they want is a measure of success, too. The Taliban are not able to control southern Afghanistan nor are they able to control the bulk of the population. They can kill people, they can temporarily control some territory, but they have no means of administering those areas, they can’t create governance or
trade, they can only bring violence. Critics of the Canadian effort focus on the false belief that we are using too much violence to the detriment of “reconstruction.” This “either/ or” approach ignores the vital work done by Canadians and allies at the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, the Strategic Advisory Team, and the Canadian soldiers training the Afghan National Army. Indeed, a Canadian general is in charge of helping the Afghans revamp the police. The more capacity that is built, the more we deny the
enemy psychological and social control.
This takes time. At Vimy and Normandy, the success measured in miles could also be measured by time: we will take that hill by such-and-such a time. Fighting insurgents cannot be forced to fit such a schedule. Perseverance is key. Critics want instant gratification-success now so we can leave, now. Many of the same critics had no problem with inconclusive peacekeeping operations like Cyprus, where Canadians served from 1964 to 1993 and took more than 25 dead: nothing has resolved that dispute. Nobody questioned the murder of nine Canadian troops by Syria in 1974. Or how about the Balkans, where Canada took 22 dead between 1992 and 2004? Where were the critics then? They only got involved when NATO had to use force to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
Afghanistan, like any insurgency, is a test of wills. The Americans failed in 1993 when they were tested in Somalia by al-Qaeda supported militias. The terrorist organization ultimately grew in prestige, necessitating intervention in Afghanistan less than 10 years later. What will the consequences for Canada be if we withdraw precipitously from our mission in Kandahar? M
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