The search for winning conditions in Afghanistan

The Manley Panel clarified and actually generated consensus on at least one important element of a coherent Afghanistan policy, namely, that Canada should not be putting its soldiers at major risk in support of a military strategy that stands little chance of succeeding. That may seem obvious enough, but given that Canada took on the Kandahar assignment largely out of a misguided desire to curry favour in Washington and without a thorough understanding of the situation in Afghanistan’s south,[i] overt recognition of this key principle, that for the use of force to be appropriate or justified there must be a reasonable prospect for success, is significant.

In his Foreword to the report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan (2008), chairman John Manley puts it this way: “Our Panel concluded that the sacrifice of Canadian lives could only be justified if we and our allies and the Afghans share a coherent, comprehensive plan that can lead to success.”

The Manley Panel also accepts the troubling, but well-documented, truth that under present conditions the counterinsurgency effort is not succeeding and will continue to falter. Prime Minister Stephen Harper also acknowledged this reality when he accepted the Panel’s report. The Manley-Harper acknowledgment is more than the oft-repeated statement that the Afghan insurgency cannot be defeated by military means alone. Rather, it is a recognition that even in the context of a 3D strategy (defence, development, and diplomacy), or whole-of-government effort, the military component of the Kandahar mission should not be continued as is.

Where Manley and the Harper Government part company with many critics of the mission is in their definition of winning conditions – that is, in their assessment of what is required to make the military component of the mission successful.

The Manley-Harper formula is set out in the Panel’s most discussed recommendation, and repeated in the mission extension resolution tabled in Parliament on February 8,[ii] that making the military mission in Kandahar effective and worth continuing will require 1,000 more soldiers from a partner country, as well as additional equipment, principally helicopters and drones. The Panel did not claim that these adjustments would produce an early defeat of the insurgency, but it argued that they would set the insurgency back enough so that, with further training of the Afghan National Army, by 2011 the Afghans would be in a position to take over the lead responsibility for military security operations from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar province.

Critics of the military counterinsurgency effort argue that increases in foreign forces and equipment will not break the back of the insurgency, pointing out that several years of counterinsurgency warfare have actually seen the insurgency steadily gain strength. Some conclude that it is therefore time to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan, but others say Canadian and ISAF troops need to refocus on a mission to protect and stabilize those parts of the country (largely in the north and west) that are not heavily challenged by the insurgency.

The Liberal Party’s amendment to the Government Motion essentially adopts the latter approach, except that they say that Canadian Forces should be “providing security for reconstruction and development efforts in Kandahar.”[iii]To distinguish that military role from a counterinsurgency war would require the focus of operations to be largely confined to Kandahar city and its immediate environs – the only part of Kandahar Province, according to current reporting, in which the Taliban do not have a permanent presence. Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who heads the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, was portrayed in theGlobe and Mail as being critical of the approach proposed by the Liberals, but from his description, current operations actually seem to following the model proposed by the Liberals:

“Gen. Gauthier said the military’s role as it is right now is to create secure conditions in regions around Kandahar city so reconstruction efforts can occur. He noted that the panel on the future of Canada’s role headed by former Liberal minister John Manley also concluded that reconstruction work cannot be separated from military efforts to make areas secure.

“‘It’s less a question of offensive actions than it is of taking the necessary measures to secure a zone of action,’ Gen. Gauthier said. ‚ÄòAnd I think the Manley panel recognized the fact that we cannot separate the needs of security and the security efforts from those related to reconstruction and governance.’

“He also said: ‚ÄòI think that security, reconstruction, the development of the capacity of the Afghan security forces, the development of governance, all these efforts go together. It’s as simple as that. They can’t be separated.'”[iv]

Keeping Kandahar city, like the rest of the country that is not now engulfed by the Taliban insurgency, from becoming a Taliban stronghold is an obviously significant objective and requires a combination of security support and development and governance reform.

In the language of the “clear, hold, and develop” strategy, it is logical to argue that priority should now be given to holding and maintaining security (which can also involve the resort to lethal force) and developing those parts of the country that are largely clear of insurgency. Those areas are in danger of slipping out of control, like much of the south, if residents don’t soon see major improvements in their security and wellbeing and the performance of their government. Thus there should be, as the Manley Panel also says, redoubled emphasis on security sector reform and training, especially of a national police force that respects basic rights and that serves the welfare of, and gains the confidence of, the people of Afghanistan. Accelerated development and reconstruction would not only enhance the welfare of Afghans, but would discourage support for insurgent forces.


[i] The point is made clearly by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang in The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar (Viking Canada, 2007): “A new consensus, led by DND, was rapidly emerging in Ottawa: Canada, and in particular the Canadian Forces, needed to do something significant for Washington‚Äîsomething that the Pentagon really valued‚Äîto compensate for the refusal to participate in Ballistic Missile Defence” (p. 181; see also pp. 181-188).

[ii] On February 8/08 The Government’s “Motion on Afghanistan” calling on the House of Commons to support “the continuation of Canada’s current responsibility for security in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to the end of 2011.”]

[iii] Liberal Amendment to Government Motion on Afghanistan, February 12, 2008 (http://www.liberal.ca/story_13576_e.aspx).

[iv] Campbell Clark, ” Top general wary of Liberal positionCombat, reconstruction ‘can’t be separated’,” The Globe and Mail,February 15, 2008 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20080215.AFGHANBRIEFING15//TPStory/Front).

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