Nearly seven years after Operation Apollo brought Canadian troops to Afghanistan, public opinion polls indicate that Canadians remain torn about the country’s continued presence there. As the Report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan (Manley report) suggested, some of this divi- sion stems from the Canadian government’s inability to clearly articulate the parameters and rationale of the mis- sion; in this sense, Canadians can be forgiven for wonder- ing why their armed forces are in Afghanistan, given that their government has done such a poor job of explaining it to them.
However, much of this confusion also emanates from the complexities present at the level of grand strategy; a muddled communication strategy is bound to originate from a military operation as convoluted as the current one, which, to the Canadian Forces’ credit, has gradually changed along with the situation on the ground. After all, it was not long ago that certain circles in the Canadian defence community were disappointed that the Canadian Forces were deployed to Afghanistan rather than Iraq, since serving in Iraq would have provided an opportunity to restructure the Forces to withstand heavy combat, whereas the Afghan mission was seen as merely extending the status quo. Instead, the status quo has shattered.
This latest Seven Years’ War therefore prompts reflection over what Canada is doing in Afghanistan. Regardless of whether the Canadian Forces ended up in Kandahar because of Ottawa’s desire to curry favour with the post- 9/11 Bush White House, or merely as a reflexive response to NATO’s invocation of article 5 of the Washington Treaty, it remains important to consider what precisely Canada is engaged in now that it is there. This article argues that the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan can best be under- stood from the perspective of counter-insurgency doctrine, a paradigm that has experienced a strong resurgence in American security strategy but that remains poorly under- stood in the Canadian context.
Since the mid 1990s, the American approach to counter-terrorism has undergone two major paradigm shifts. The Clinton administration understood terrorism primarily as a law enforcement problem, like the drug trade and organized crime: challenges requiring institutionalized multilateral cooperation, particularly between law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Following the September 11 attacks, however, the Bush administration decided that its predeces- sor was not sufficiently serious about fighting terrorism, and shifted from understanding terrorism as a law enforcement issue to viewing it as a national security problem. The 9/11 attacks were widely criticized as an intelligence failure, so it was an emboldened Pentagon, rather than the intelligence agencies, that was given the lead in the war on terror. As the 2002 National Security Strategy emphasized, the central aim was to ensure that the war was fought abroad, rather than at home.
As the situation on the ground in Iraq stagnated, however, momentum grew in policy circles toward under- standing the war on terror as a counter- insurgency (COIN) operation. The distinction is not merely a semantic one: COIN doctrine sees terrorism as a tactic rather than as a group’s defining charac- teristic, and advocates an integrated mil- itary, economic and political strategy to delegitimize insurgent groups and pre- vent them from achieving their objec- tives. In this sense, the shift toward COIN, culminating in the release of the US military’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the appointment of one of its authors, General David Petraeus, to oversee the multinational forces in Iraq, can be seen as a revolution in military affairs of a very different kind, a recogni- tion that ”œshock and awe” is unable to win over hearts and minds.
The fanfare that has greeted the ”œsurge” in Iraq and the subsequent promotion of General Petraeus to over- see both the Iraqi and Afghan mis- sions, as the new head of the US Central Command, indicate the increased clout that COIN doctrine continues to exert in Washington.
The American embrace of COIN operations is fascinating for at least three reasons. First, although the COIN field manual is new, its argu- ments are not, culling the ”œbest practices” gleaned from decades of COIN operations beforehand: the Israelis against Hamas, the Russians against the Chechens and so on. Second, the re- coronation of COIN as the last best hope on earth is somewhat surprising given that its failures are plentiful and prominent ”” the Vietnam War, the Algerian civil war, the Cuban civil war and so on ”” and its successes fall into that undesirable zone between rare and obscure, such as the British defeat of the Malayan emergency in the 1950s. Although COIN practitioners have made a concerted effort to learn from history ”” the Pentagon’s COIN train- ing reportedly includes watching the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers, and COIN scholars revisit the works of Che Guevara, T.E. Lawrence and Mao Zedong ”” it is worth recalling that counter-insurgents lost the former, and were defeated by the latter. Third, and most important for our purposes, this shift toward COIN has occurred almost simultaneously on both sides of the 49th parallel, but through very different routes. Whereas the American embrace of COIN implied a decreased emphasis on military force, the Canadian adapta- tion required a remuscularization of Canadian policy.
It may seem slightly presumptu- ous to speak of Canadian strategy, not because the word sounds too grandiose but because Canadian gov- ernments have tended to eschew the term. Whereas the White House releases a National Security Strategy e v e ry four years, the Canadian gov- ernment tends to release policy papers, such as the 2005 International Policy Statement, or the 2004 National Security Policy. Yet even if the government skirts around the term on paper, Canada has tended to embrace strategic doctrines in prac- tice, and the shift from the Axworthy doctrine of the mid-1990s to the counter-insurgency approach of the mid-2000s constitutes a dramatic transformation worth examining in detail.
When Lloyd Axworthy took the reins of the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1996 in the midst of budg- etary cutbacks that affected Canada’s defence and devel- opment budgets with particu- lar severity, he immediately embarked upon a policy direction designed to rejuvenate the battered department, resulting in what colloquial- ly became known as the Axworthy doc- trine. According to this paradigm, the end of the Cold War fundamentally trans- formed the character of global affairs: mil- itary force is less useful while ”œsoft power” is indispensable; human security trumps state security; and NGOs and public diplomacy have crucial roles in the new security environment. It was under Lloyd Axworthy’s leadership that Canada spear- headed the Ottawa Treaty banning anti- personnel mines, pushed for restrictions on the use of child soldiers and created the International Commission on Intervention in State Sovereignty, the panel that articulated the ”œresponsibility to protect” doctrine, which articulates the conditions under which states can inter- vene in response to government abuses.
The Axworthy doctrine came under considerable fire by the end of the Foreign Affairs Minister’s tenure, with academic critics deriding it as ”œpinch- penny diplomacy” and ”œfunctional isolationism.” The problem is not that its precepts are invalid: as scholars like Joseph Nye have convincingly argued, technological diffusion, economic interdependence and nationalist movements have increased the costs of using military force, such that it is often a less useful way of achieving one’s foreign policy objectives. Similarly, scholars have noted for decades that the international system is becoming less state-centric, as multi- national corporations, intergovern- mental organizations, transnational terrorist groups and non-governmen- tal organizations have all become major actors in their own right. In this respect, Axworthy’s analysis of the changing international system is large- ly correct.
The primary fault of the Axworthy doctrine, then, was not that it was inaccurate about the transfor- mations taking place on the global stage, but that it convinced those holding the purse strings that foreign policy could now be conducted on a shoe string budget, and that the severe slashes to Canadian foreign aid and military budgets that had occurred from 1993 to 1998 (cuts of 29 perc e n t and 23 percent, respectively) need not be reversed. Soft power may be more important due to the declining utility of military force, but that does not mean that military power is useless altogether; indeed, when Nye defined soft power he made clear that he still understood military power as the ”œultimate” form. Likewise, safe- guarding human security is important, but it is not possible without an effective state apparatus protecting its citizens; as defence scholar Douglas Bland notes, peace and order are prerequi- sites for good government.
Herein lies the paradox about the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Canada’s involvement with ISAF seems to constitute a break from the Canadian foreign policy doctrines of the 1990s. Counter-insurgency doc- trine certainly lacks the soaring rheto- ric of a human security agenda, such as when it refers to local populations not as human beings whose rights need protection, but as the ”œpolitical space” of a conflict. The contrast goes beyond clumsy phrasing; when former chief of defence staff General Rick Hillier sug- gested that the purpose of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan was to kill Taliban ”œscumbags,” an outcry arose as pundits and politicians sug- gested that Canada was abandoning its historical role as a peacekeeping power. Much of the debate in the House of Commons on the Afghan mission touched upon a similar theme, with members of Parliament suggesting that Canada was unwittingly becoming a ”œwar-fighting” power. Certainly the Canadian mission in Afghanistan is far removed from first-generation peace- keeping operations, where lightly armed troops maintained a previously established peace while remaining neu- tral between the two hostile parties. Indeed, Axworthy himself published a Globe and Mail op-ed during the Liberal leadership campaign criticizing the militaristic nature of the Canadian role in Afghanistan, suggesting that the cur- rent Canadian approach bears no simi- larity to the one he pursued as foreign affairs minister.
And yet it is unclear that COIN operations are that far removed from the principles underlying Axworthy’s human security agenda, even if they operationalize them in a divergent manner. Just as the Axworthy doctrine emphasized the declining utility of military force, classical COIN doctrine suggests that only 20 percent of a counter-insurgency effort should be military in nature. David Kilcullen, the former chief strategist on counter- terrorism in the State Department, goes further in suggesting that modern counter-insurgencies are actually 100 percent political, and that perceptions and political outcomes far outweigh military achievements. COIN theory places a similar importance on human security: COIN operations should not just capture insurgents, but also bring stability and security to local popula- tions, addressing grievances and there- by denying insurgents a support base.
The provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) that the Canadian Forces head in Kandahar, combining Canadian Forces personnel with staff from the Canadian International Development Agency, Foreign Affairs, and the RCMP, are an example of the integrated nature of the conflict, which the Canadian government dubbed a ”œ3D” (diplomacy, defence, develop- ment) approach. In this sense, the doc- trinal difference between a human security agenda and the strategy guiding the Afghan mission is minimal; the major distinction is that consideration has also been paid to the hard-power capabilities needed to support the humanitarian goals. Thus, although critics of the Afghan mission have suggested that the Canadian role in Afghanistan has become Americanized, the presence of a human security agenda within counter-insur- gency doctrine suggests that to a certain extent American strategy has been Canadianized.
Understanding the Canadian engagement in Afghanistan as a coun- terinsurgency operation is useful since it points out some of the key missteps in the mission thus far, of which four interrelated points will be presented here: a lack of resources, a lack of pres- ence, a lack of follow-through and a lack of state capacity.
First, COIN is resource-intensive, and ISAF is simply not large enough to get the job done. Classic counter- insurgency texts speak of a ratio of 20 counter-insurgents per 1,000 residents, while NATO’s 50,000 troops in Afghanistan amount to a ratio of around 1.56 counter-insurgents per 1,000 Afghans, only one-twelfth of the ideal proportion. In comparison, the Soviet Union failed to quell an insur- gency in Afghanistan in the 1980s when it had over twice as many troops on the ground as ISAF currently has, and troop deployment would have to increase by 300 percent to match the same levels maintained by coalition forces in Iraq in 2004. The Canadian government has repeatedly called for additional contri- butions from NATO members, but this 20:1,000 ratio remains well beyond the wildest dreams of NATO commanders, who rejoiced at the Bucharest summit when France pledged an additional bat- talion. Given the current inability of the Pakistan government to crack down on insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan, and the recent increase in the intensity of the insurgency through the spring and summer, NATO’s insuffi- cient presence in Afghanistan remains highly problematic.
Second, this lack of presence on the ground sends the wrong signal to the Afghan population. Whereas Canadian discussions of Afghanistan have tended to focus on burden- sharing issues within NATO and over- coming national caveats, Afghans have focused on whether NATO has the political will to withstand what twice as many Soviet troops could not. Indeed, although many pundits have treated as an unfortunate coincidence the simultaneous rise of the Taliban insurgency and NATO’s assumption of control of southern Afghanistan, oth- ers, like security scholar Renée de Nevers, have suggested that the increased Taliban attacks were part of a deliberate strategy to weaken NATO’s resolve, especially with the United States bogged down in Iraq. This per- ception of a lack of political will is problematic not because it emboldens the Taliban ”” scholarship in political psychology suggests that it is extreme- ly difficult to earn a reputation for resolve in the eyes of your opponents ”” but because of how it affects the Afghan population caught in the mid- dle. COIN operations, after all, are all about shaping the perceptions of the local population, denying insurgents the resources they need for mobiliza- tion. The Afghan National Army is unlikely to recruit dedicated members if there is a widespread belief that its NATO allies are not prepared to stay for the long haul, and villagers in Helmand province are unlikely to assist NATO forces if they are being threatened by insurgents and feel that NATO cannot offer them security.
The Manley report attempted to mitigate this lack of presence in Kandahar by recommending that Canada adopt ”œsignature” aid projects whose visible contribution to Afghan society will also remind Afghans of the depth of the Canadian commitment. Beneficial as these projects may be ”” both for the people of Kandahar and for a Canadian government eager for feel-good stories on the nightly news ”” the fundamental predicament remains NATO’s overall lack of presence, of which Canadians make up only a small component. Part of the problem is the skewed distribution of capabilities within NATO; the United States spent twice as much on its military in 2007 as all of the 25 other NATO members combined, but much of this might is tied up in Iraq. The Iraq War has also raised the domestic political costs for many ISAF members, who, although willing to sign up for a peacekeeping mission, encounter little domestic support for tactics tarred by association with the American misadventures in Iraq; this phenomenon also appeared in Canada, amid cries that the country was now fighting an ”œAmerican-style counter-insurgency.”
As of this writing, Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, has proposed redeploying two brigades (around 7,000 troops) from Iraq to Afghanistan, which would greatly bolster the coalition’s presence in the latter. His Republican counterpart, Senator John McCain, after spending months equating rede- ployment with surrendering to al- Qaeda, recently reversed course and proposed the redeployment of three brigades. Nevertheless, American over- commitment in the region has led to a fundamental strategic dilemma. On the one hand, the United States is eager to foster a reputation for political will in the Middle East and is therefore reticent about pulling out from Iraq, as evident in Senator McCain’s famous assertion that he was willing to stay in Iraq for ”œmaybe a hundred years.” On the other hand, maintaining an insuf- ficient presence in Afghanistan and letting the Taliban eke out a gradual victory sends the opposite signal, and it is unclear what the effects of trans- ferring US troops from one arena to another will be.
Third, because the resources to fight a successful COIN operation have simply not been there, a counter- insurgency strategy on paper has often turned into a traditional military oper- ation in practice. From 2001 to 2005, the United States spent 11 times as much on its military operations in the Afghanistan as it did on all other reconstruction activities combined. Although Afghanistan is now Canada’s largest bilateral aid recipient, this sta- tistic says less about the Afghan mis- sion and more about the minuscule
Canadian foreign aid budget. In the American case, much of the under- emphasis on reconstruction and overemphasis on military operations stems from the Donald Rumsfeld-led Pentagon, which reflects the policy environment in Washington that developed over the previous decade. In the early 1990s, when Madeleine Albright was the American ambassador to the United Nations, she famously asked Colin Powell, then chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, what the point was ”œof having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it.” A decade later, the Pentagon inverted the question: what was the point of having this superb military if its efforts were spent on reconstruction and nation building, activities which any other nation could pursue? Thus, although the United States advocated training the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, it wanted to leave it to the trainees to rebuild the country, and was less interested in international assistance. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s midsummer critique of the ”œcreeping militariza- tion” in American foreign policy is therefore a promising sign, although it’s unclear what his comments will mean in practical terms.
An overreliance on the military, however, is not the only way in which COIN strategies have evolved in Afghanistan. The lack of boots on the ground has resulted in depend- ence on planes in the air: as Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out, the number of US air support strikes where munitions were used doubled from 2004 to 2005, increased tenfold in 2006 and nearly doubled again in 2007.
Although this crescendo is partially explained by the increasing intensity of the insurgency, it is nevertheless problematic for COIN scholars, since air power brings an increase in coer- cive force at the expense of targeting precision. Euphemisms such as ”œcol- lateral damage” fail to convey just how counter-productive the bomb- ing of innocent parties is, angering the local population, presenting free propaganda for insurgent groups and making the counter-insurgents’ jobs more difficult.
Finally, a key challenge for counter- insurgency operations in Afghanistan is 20 that ISAF is not engaged in a traditional counter-insurgency operation. Classical COIN doctrine envisions three sets of actors: groups of insurgents seeking to weaken (although not necessarily over- throw) the state, the government target- ed by the insurgents and the counter-insurgent forces, who may belong either to the local government or to a third party intervening on the gov- ernment’s behalf. Either way, implicit in the literature is the assumption that there is a state for the insurgents to resist. In Afghanistan, however, the national government exists more on paper than in practice; counter-insurgent forces aren’t just protecting the state, they must build it too. State capacity is both marred by widespread corruption and severely undeveloped, with local warlords exerting considerable control throughout much of the country and the Karzai government’s strength mostly limited to the largest cities.
Thus, although much of the for- eign and economic aid in Afghanistan has been channelled through the national government, considerable development needs to take place at local levels, since it is in remote villages where government capacity is weakest that the insurgency will be won or lost.
It is too soon to tell what military his- torians will write when they look back at NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. What is clear, though, is that even if Canadian casualty rates have been slowing down, the insurgency as a whole has been heating up. Viewing the engagement through the prism of counter-insurgency strategy helps clari- fy the integrated nature of the mission and suggests both the continuity and the change present in Canadian grand strategy. Politicians and pundits alike have muddied the conversation about Afghanistan ”” both by failing to connect the mission with counter-insurgency strategy and by invoking COIN tactically rather than strategical- ly. It has become common to speak of counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan as being limited to fighting the Taliban, and therefore as distinct from ”” and perhaps in competition with ”” the reconstruction and human- itarian efforts taking place. For COIN scholars, however, the PRTs are as central to counterinsurgency strategy as the firefights, and both civil and mili- tary responses need to be understood as connected, not as alternatives.
COIN strategy does not come without its own set of problems. Successful COIN operations are few and far between, are resource inten- sive, and tend to degenerate in prac- tice into more traditional military operations. The Afghan mission cur- rently suffers from a lack of troops, a paucity of economic assistance and a dearth of attention by the interna- tional community. Without further investments in all three of these areas, it is unlikely that the successes incurred over the past seven years ”” whether in training the Afghan National Army, in capturing Taliban or in building roads and hospitals ”” will outlast the next seven.