EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: The inside story of one man’s push for an Afghan mission, and a government that let itself be persuaded
JANICE GROSS STEIN
On Feb. 4, 2005, Gen. Rick Hillier, a charismatic and forceful Newfoundlander, became Canada’s new chief of defence staff. The visionary field commander had convinced prime minister Paid Martin that he was the man to wrench Canada's military from its Cold Warera thinking and retool it for the post-9/ll world. As two expert commentators—Eugene Lang, former chief of staff to two Liberal defence ministers, and Janice Gross Stein, director of theMunk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto—set out in their book, The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Penguin), within weeks of his appointment Hillier had secured from Martin’s government the Canadian Forces’ largest funding increase in a generation. And Hillier had also persuaded the government to set the nation on the path to a war that no one, least of all Paul Martin, expected or wanted.
In March 2005, the moral imperative to stop crimes against humanity such as those being committed in Darfur or the anarchy and violence in Haiti weighed heavily on Paul Martin’s mind. The UN General Assembly had just passed a resolution giving legal weight to the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P). The resolution emphasized that governments had obligations toward their citizens and when they abused these obligations the international community had a moral responsibility to intervene within states to protect innocent civilians who were the victims of systematic violence or genocide. Sovereignty no longer trumped criminal behaviour. Canada had been a strong supporter of R2P for several years, prominent Canadians had been involved in its development at every stage, and the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations, Alan Rock, had been instrumental in steering the resolution through to passage by the General Assembly. Canadian fingerprints were all over this, along with a strong sense of pride and Canadian ownership.
But the attitude within the Department of National Defence was very different. R2P was
regarded as dangerous and recklessly naive, divorced from geopolitical and military realities. Deployment of several thousand troops would make little difference in many of these fragile or war-torn states, and Western governments, officials argued, were unwilling to suffer the casualties that would inevitably flow from these kinds of actions.
Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier had been in office for only one month, but already he had managed to develop a considered and integrated Canadian plan for what he thought should be the nation’s priority: Afghanistan. He wanted a deployment that would get Canada deeper and deeper into the most troubled part of Afghanistan. It was heavy lifting. And it was an initiative that would impress the Pentagon and even George Bush.
Any barriers to Hillier’s proposal to increase Canada’s presence in Afghanistan that might have existed at Foreign Affairs melted away after Canada declared it would not join the ballistic missile defence program on Feb. 25. A new consensus, led by DND, was rapidly emerging in Ottawa: Canada, and in particu-
lar the Canadian Forces, needed to do something significant for Washington—something that the Pentagon really valued—to compensate for the refusal to participate in BMD. Michael Kergin, former Canadian ambassador to Washington, put it this way: “There was this sense that we had let the side down... and then there was the sense that we could be more helpful, militarily, by taking on a role in Afghanistan... We could make a contribution in a place like Kandahar.” Martin’s chief of staff Tim Murphy went further: “We would have done this anyway, but there was pressure to be seen to be doing something as a result of BMD.” Paul Martin clearly felt the pressure: “There was a view coming out of the military and the Department of Foreign Affairs that we had to do something in order to repair the relationship in terms of both Iraq and BMD. I didn’t agree,” said Martin.
The new CDS put on the table an Afghanistan package consisting of five elements. The first would be the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, beginning in the late
summer of 2005. It would stay in place for at least two to three years, given the challenges of reconstruction in that part of Afghanistan. In addition, he argued that Canada should deploy JTF2 special forces in the same region. This was the highest value-added military contribution that Canada could make to the ongoing combat in Afghanistan, a contribution that Washington would greatly appreciate.
Hillier also recommended that Canada respond positively to a British request to lead and command the Kandahar region multinational headquarters for nine months, beginning in the fall of 2005. That would require about 350 members of the Canadian Forces and a one-star general. Hillier argued the CF had the capability to run the headquarters and doing so would give Canada an important and unique window on the situation on the ground in southern Afghanistan.
To add to the Kandahar package, the CDS proposed that Canada deploy for one year (beginning in February 2006) a combat infantry task force of about 800 to 1,000 troops.
This unit would work with the Americans to conduct stabilization and combat operations throughout Kandahar province. The task force would not be deployed to protect the PRT ; it would have a robust capability to defend itself and would not be geographically co-located with the task force. To be sure, it would be advantageous to have a combat unit that could be rapidly deployed to assist the PRT if it found itself in a particularly threatening situation. But that was not the primary reason for the task force. The fifth and final element was a 15-person team, including a CIDA memberlabelled a Strategic Advisory Team—that would go to Kabul to work in important ministries of the Afghan government, such as Defence and Finance.
The plan was big and bold.
It was quintessential Rick Hillier. He argued with great confidence and clarity that the Canadian Forces could meet the challenge, that Ottawa should focus on the opportunity rather than the risk. Not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom, NATO, the UN, and the Afghan government would respect Canada’s contribution. Canada would no longer be on the margins.
This mission would open doors for Canada in Washington, at a minimum those in
the Pentagon, which had allegedly closed due to Canada’s refusal to participate in military operations in Iraq. It would also prevent doors from closing in pique because of Ottawa’s refusal to participate in ballistic missile defence. Donald Rumsfeld was desperate to backfill U.S. forces in Afghanistan, so that the U.S. Army could concentrate on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq.
But winning the respect of the United States and other allies was not the only argument Hillier made for his proposals. Canadians would be justifiably proud of their government and their military for undertaking a difficult and important assignment. The Canadian Forces could make a real difference on the ground, both in reconstruction and in the stabilization of the security situation. And the prime minister would have transformed Canadian foreign and defence policy in a bold action, one that would make a mark for Canada in the world.
There was comparatively little discussion about the operational challenges of southern Afghanistan in general or of Kandahar specifically. Officials described the region as by far the most unstable and dangerous part of the country. Unlike the last time the Canadian Forces had been in Kandahar, the Taliban had regrouped and reorganized inside Pakistan and now regularly crossed the notoriously porous border, a frontier that the Pashtun communities living on either side—and the Afghan government—had never recognized. The Canadian Forces, and in particular the infantry task force and JTF2, would be engaged in direct combat. There would be casualties. It would be a dangerous assignment, people would get killed, and the government would need to prepare the Canadian public for certain losses.
No official, civilian or military, used the word war to describe what was going on in southern Afghanistan. At that time, no civilian or military leader understood that Taliban attacks signalled the beginning of a new war. The military rarely, if at all, used the word insurgency with the politicians to describe what was happening in southern Afghanistan. Moreover, the term counterinsurgency warfare, which is so widely used today to describe NATO’s role in southern Afghanistan, was never used in Defence Minister Bill Graham’s
presence to describe what the Canadian Forces would be doing in Kandahar. Even as late as January 2006, months after the Forces first started arriving back in Kandahar, Defence Department officials were still referring to the Kandahar deployment in their briefing notes as “a more robust peace support role, which will likely entail even greater risks.” “The mission was described to me as twofold,” recalled Bill Graham. “The PRT would be doing the Three-D work [the integration of defence, diplomacy, and development assistance], but we needed combat troops because there was trouble, we had to pacify the region. But nobody foresaw the summer offensive of2006. The Light Armoured Vehicle (LAV) III was considered the perfect vehicle for the terrain, the perfect tactical response. We needed lightly equipped, agile soldiers who would go into the villages, ‘make love to the people’ and ‘kill the bad guys.’ We sold ourselves that we could do this and that it was possible. That was what I would call prior to the ‘Iraqization’ of Afghanistan. Nobody who planned the mission anticipated this. Nobody used the word war to describe the mission. We were convinced that the Loya Jirga went well. Presidential elections went well. I think everybody was convinced that Afghanistan was a lot further down the road to recovery than it really was.
And those were pretty superficial benchmarks. We were probably drinking too much of our own bathwater.”
Graham and his civilian and military advisers devoted a lot of attention to the political repercussions of the mission. Hillier was proposing to redeploy Canadian troops out of NATO’s ISAF mission and into Operation Enduring Freedom led by the United States. And while the plan was for NATO to take command during Canada’s deployment in Kandahar, the Canadian Forces would be without the cover of a NATO flag for several months at least. Also, there was still some uncertainty as to whether NATO, which had missed more than one target date, would move into the south at all. Given the unpopularity of the Bush administration in Canada since the invasion of Iraq, having large numbers of Canadian Forces in an American-led mission would be politically awkward for the government. It could make it more difficult to persuade the prime minister.
Still, Hillier’s extraordinary powers of persuasion made Graham comfortable with the package, and he agreed to recommend it to the prime minister. If Martin approved, the mission would constitute the largest and most significant deployment of the Canadian Forces since the end of the Cold War.
ON MARCH 20, three days before Martin was scheduled to meet U.S. President George Bush in Texas, word came that the prime minister would convene a meeting the next day to prepare for Waco. But the subject for discussion would not be Afghanistan; it would
be NORAD. As usual, the meeting was held in the cabinet anteroom on the third floor of the Centre Block around a large circular table. Graham, Hillier, Murphy, a handful of other officials and, of course, the prime minister were present. Very quickly, it became apparent that Martin didn’t really want to talk about NORAD; he was preoccupied with Darfur. “Afghanistan was not a priority for me the way Darfur, Haiti and the Middle East were. Afghanistan had become our biggest aid commitment, and it shouldn’t have been,” reflected Martin.
Then Hillier started a conversation on Afghanistan. He laid out three options, with costing—the full-blown five-element package, which had already been recommended to the prime minister, and two smaller options. Hillier made a concise and persuasive presentation on why Afghanistan should be Canada’s principal focus for the next two years, and why all the elements in the package supported one another and would bring significant political and military benefits. No one in the room challenged him on the politics, the policy, or the military dimensions of the proposal. Except Martin.
The prime minister responded that he was concerned Afghanistan would consume resour-
ces, both military and financial, even though it was not central to the kind of foreign policy Canadians wanted their government to pursue. He also rejected Hillier’s implication that a large Canadian role in Afghanistan would build public support for the military. Martin
thought the opposite more likely. “I made four demands of Hillier before I agreed to the mission,” recalled Martin. “I want in, but I want out. We do peacemaking and reconstruction and win hearts and minds. I am going to make a big demand on Darfur soon and you have to tell me I can have all the troops I need. And you must have the capacity for Haiti if that blows up again. I told him none of this could be constrained by Afghanistan or I wouldn’t agree to the mission.”
Officials misread Martin when they thought that the prime minister and his staff would see Hillier’s package as a way to distinguish his government from that of his predecessor. It was now painfully evident that Martin would link anything to do with Afghanistan—no matter how big, or bold, or different from anything done in the past—to Chretien’s government and would, therefore, find the proposal unappealing. Martin viewed Afghanistan, his communications director Scott Reid explained, as an inheritance from the previous government. The prime minister felt that Canada,
`WE CONVINCED OURSELVES. WE WERE PROBABLY DRINKING TOO MUCH OF OUR OWN BATH WATER.'
as a member of NATO, had an obligation to stand with the alliance in Afghanistan, but his interest ended there. Hillier gave the prime minister unequivocal assurances that the complete package that he recommended in Afghanistan would not inhibit the Canadian Forces from contributing significantly to an international force for Darfur (or Haiti or the Middle East), beginning in early 2007.
Hillier thought that by early 2007 the Canadian Forces, and particularly the army, would
be sufficiently regenerated to mount a second mission elsewhere. And since the official plan was to withdraw the combat infantry task force and the headquarters elements from Kandahar by early 2007, scarce resources would be available for other missions.
The prime minister ended the meeting agreeing that
Canada would do more than send a PRT to Kandahar. He would think about the options that had been presented to him and he would speak to the finance minister about the fiscal flexibility that would be needed. He would get back to Graham in due course.
IT WASN’T UNTIL April 20, almost three weeks later, that the Defence Department heard anything. The issue would go to cabinet in early May and the prime minister was not
THE CONSENSUS WAS WE NEEDED TO DO SOMETHING VALUABLE FOR WASHINGTON. THIS MIGHT BE IT.
comfortable with the $1.2-billion cost of the full package. In that cabinet meeting, Paul Martin decided that he would exclude from the package a lead role for Canada in the multinational headquarters. Adding that element to the mix drove the cost too high for the prime minister and for the finance minister as well. As Murphy reflected, “It was recommended that we approve the ‘Goldilocks’ option, which was the priciest one. I talked to Ralph Goodale [the finance minister]. We picked the middle one which we were told would not add to the risk of the mission.”
But Hillier refused to take no for an answer. The prime minister’s only objection was cost, so Hillier decided that the Canadian Forces would find a way to fit the headquarters assignment within the funding envelope that Finance was offering. Some of Hillier’s staff suggested it was impossible to find the funding within the envelope, but the general wasn’t having it. This initiative was far too important to be watered down over money. “You cannot underestimate the desire of soldiers to prove themselves in combat,” said Paul Heinbecker, a former senior foreign policy adviser to the Mulroney and Chrétien
governments, “nor of commanders to show their skill in managing real battlefields.”
The full package was approved at cabinet. Canada would be going big... very big, into Kandahar beginning in late 2005, eventually ramping up to over 2,000 troops for a oneyear assignment.
Eighteen months after the decision, it was apparent that this mission was the most dangerous Canadian military operation in decades. Forty-five Canadian soldiers died in the first few months of the deployment. Canadian deaths in Afghanistan are proportionally higher than those of other NATO countries. The mission in Afghanistan changed the public image of the Canadian Forces from a military largely engaged in peacekeeping and humanitarian work—a public perception that ignored Canada’s long military history—to one of an army engaged in full-scale combat and counterinsurgency warfare. Canada’s military was at war, and it was at war in ways the whole country could see and feel. There is little doubt that some of the senior leadership in the Canadian Forces relished the explosion of the myth that the Canadian Forces were primarily peacekeepers. The mission was a chance to rebuild parts of the military from the ground up, to transform it into an efficient fighting machine. Hillier made that point to reporters in July 2005 at an informal, on-the-record media luncheon. Being a soldier meant “you go out and bayonet somebody. We are not the Public Service of Canada,” he declared. “We are not just another department. We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people.”
The mission to Kandahar prompted the first national debate about Canada’s role in Afghanistan fully five years and three missions after the Canadian Forces had first set foot in Afghanistan. It would sharply divide Parliament and the Liberal party. It would also mark the beginning of a vigorous public debate about the appropriate role for Canada and its military in global peace and security operations.
No one in government or in the military predicted where the decision to go big to Kandahar would lead. No one expected that within a few months the Canadian Forces would be engaged in counterinsurgency warfare. No one predicted the widespread consequences from a package of military options. But Hillier’s proposal was like a stone thrown into a stream. The stone is small, but the ripples are wide. M
From: The Unexpected War by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. Copyright © Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang 2007 Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada).