Afghanistan: Management or Mismanagement?
A Retrospective Interview Compendium
TIM LYNCH
© 2015 FrontLine Defence (Vol 12, No 5)

When a nation sends its military into battle, that nation is at war. It used to be very straight forward. There was a clear reluctance within government to use the word “war” in reference to “Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan”, in part because war has become incredibly complex (the preferred word was the nicely ambiguous “mission”), were there other reasons?


Sept 2013 – MGen Dean Milner, Canadian Contribution Training Mission – Afghanistan Commander, explains a tactical manœuvre to an Afghan National Army solider during the mobile strike force kandak validation exercise during Operation Attention. (Photo: MCpl Frieda Van Putten, Canadian Armed Forces)

Despite the semantics of what to call it, the Afghan war is the longest Canada has fought in its history. It began a month after the 9/11/2001 attacks on U.S. soil, when Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, at the head of a majority Liberal government, pledged to “contribute sea, land and air forces to America’s Operation Enduring Freedom”.

The Navy was the first asset to be called in (Oct 2001). Special Forces arrived in Afghanistan shortly after that, and the first army contingent (3 PPCLI) began arriving in late January 2002. A period of unstable politics began its ripple effect as Chrétien resigned from office amid an unrelated scandal, and Paul Martin took over the party leadership in November 2003, then winning a minority government in 2004. Forced into a 2006 election by a non-confidence vote, Conservative leader Stephen Harper won out with a minority government. After two more elections, Harper finally won a majority in May 2011, and Canada pulled out of Afghanistan in March 2014.

Over 12.5 years, this war was overseen by three Prime Ministers, eight Ministers of Foreign Affairs (one acting), seven Ministers of National Defence, and four Chiefs of the Defence Staff (CDS). Due to the humanitarian aspect that permeated the “mission”, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was also involved, and seven ministers had cycled through during this timeframe.

After reporting on the Foreign Policy Conference at the University of Toronto (FrontLine Defence, Issue 4, 2015), I sought to understand how Canada managed its part in the war in Afghanistan. Lessons Learned are key to effective management of future war efforts and, in researching this matter, I was granted interviews with three Canadians involved in managing the Afghan war: the Honourable Bill Graham, who served in the Liberal Government as Minister of Defence at the outset of the war; Major General (retired) David Fraser, who was the first Regional Commander in South Kandahar; and Mr. David Mulroney, who served at the Privy Council Office (PCO) as Advisor to Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Afghanistan, and later as Secretary to the Manley Commission on Afghanistan (January 2008).  

A retrospective review can provide insight into events that occurred within a specific time frame – in this case, the period of Canada’s involvement in the Afghan War. There is no intent to apportion blame; the purpose is to learn how the prevailing rules of due diligence were applied and outcomes assessed. These interviews explore the decision-making culture in Ottawa and on the frontline during the Afghan war. All interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed and reviewed by the interviewees. This paper could not have been written without their free flowing and honest responses to questions asked.

It is important to recognize the general reluctance on the part of the government to acknowledge that Canada was indeed “at war”. The unwillingness to be frank with the populace, plus the new 3D (Defence, Diplomacy and Development) strategy that came into play as a result of the humanitarian component, served to muddy the waters and diluted the appearance of “going to war”.

With the fluctuations of the political landscape at the time, the institution of parliament seemed more interested in political posturing than dealing with the Afghan war. Such observations suggest that parliament should consider a coalition government when the country is at war (such as during WWII, the only time Canada experienced such a form of governance).

On examining the decision-making process of those times, these interviews suggest that, going forward in today’s multi-polar world (of global terrorists; merciless, fifth column suicide bombers; cyber-warfare; and geopolitical hotspots like Ukraine and Syria), politicians will need to openly address the misgivings Canadians have about “going to war”.

Preparing to go to war
Former Minister of Defence, Bill Graham emphasized that Canadian soldiers needed to be prepared, equipped, trained, and have updated rules of engagement for Afghanistan. According to Graham, Prime Minister Paul Martin believed that a robust foreign policy requires a robust defence policy.

The Department of National Defence (DND) has one primary function: “to implement Government decisions regarding the defence of Canadian interests at home and abroad.” To that end, it prepares for any defence and national security related contingency and, if necessary, goes to war. When then-CDS, General Rick Hillier, instructed MGen Fraser on what the government wanted to accomplish, Fraser developed a military campaign plan. Once DND’s foreign and domestic partners signed off on the plan, Canada went to war, though only insiders recognized it as such.

A Leadership Vacuum
David Mulroney admitted that Foreign Affairs failed to deliver leadership in the early stages; its International Security section, which was responsible for the war, didn’t communicate with its Regional Geography section, which was responsible for Afghanistan, In fact, Foreign Affairs managed the mission at a lower level, whereas DND ensured its top brass was fully briefed and in charge. Mulroney acknowledged that relations between Foreign Affairs and DND were often tense, a phenomenon not uncommon at the civilian / military interface. He expressed frustration that the One-Star General assigned to PCO by DND stuck to the script of his superiors. It seems that the federal civil service was not trained in the art of “going to war” and, at that time, DND had more pressing priorities than leading inter-departmental colleagues in acquiring such insights.

The “robust foreign policy” to complement a “robust defence policy” that Martin told Graham is necessary, doesn’t seem to have existed. This reality is all the more surprising since Graham was Minister of Foreign affairs prior to becoming Minister of Defence, a similar pedigree to Peter MacKay on the Conservative side a few years later.

Describing the reality of managing a war in a minority government, Graham said “When we (Liberals) were [in power], we (DND) was running the show on our own. The Martin Government was a minority government, he had a lot of things on his plate, I am not sure Afghanistan would have made the cut – the first priority being to survive [as a party].” Martin, in fact, lost the election to Harper in 2004. During the five years and four months that Harper led a minority government, he engaged in manœuvres so that his government would remain in power – illustrating survival instincts among politicians in minority. These included a snap election in September 2008, the proroguing of parliament, twice, and combating attempts at coalition forming by opposition parties. Meanwhile the Afghan war continued.

During this time, the institution of parliament seemed more interested in political posturing than dealing with the Afghan war. Such observations suggest that parliament should consider a coalition government when the country is at war.

All interviewees referred to the killing of diplomat Glyn Berry by a suicide bomber in Kandahar January 2006 as a setback in leadership. The impression given is that, as a strong and experienced diplomat, he would have filled the leadership vacuum to some degree.

According to MGen Fraser, the differences between DND and the PCO were more problematic at the highest level (in Ottawa) than in field operations, and suggested that Ottawa’s departmental silos of expertise inhibited the “whole of government” approach that was being championed at the time. Mulroney acknowledged a cooperative environment at the Major and Captain Levels.


A young Afghan girl in Kabul. (Photo: Sgt Norm McLean, CF Combat Camera)

PCO Oversight
David Mulroney expressed confusion over DND ordering tanks through the international procurement program after initially claiming they would not need them. Fraser explained that when Canadian Forces arrived in Kandahar in 2005, the Afghan government was most concerned about humanitarian and infrastructure progress being made.

By 2006 there had been a number of incidents where dropping laser-guided 225-kilogram bombs from planes was killing innocent Afghans. New restrictions were subsequently imposed by the Afghan Government and, from Fraser’s point of view, a tank with a 140 mm round was more precise at 2000 meters and would result in less collateral damage. He needed tanks because they could withstand a land mine or improvised explosive device better than a LAV (light armoured vehicle), mitigated collateral damage, and still got the bad guys.

Apparently this military logic was not explained beforehand to PCO, the mandate of which is to advise the Prime Minister and help the Government implement its vision. Mulroney expressed frustration that DND didn’t seem interested in sharing its expertise on the region within Foreign Affairs. The tactical and operational decisions around fighting the war seemed to be made at DND in consultation with frontline commanders, appearing to make PCO redundant to the decision-making process.

During the interview, Fraser described how the war changed from a “counter terrorism” effort, going after Al-Qaida, to removing the Taliban and doing “nation building.” That shift both changed the timeframe and made talk of an exit strategy non-relevant. He described how cash was used as an incentive to “win over hearts and minds” and how the training of police as part of a US/NATO field operation was part of the “nation building” process. While it seems DND in Ottawa was cognizant of all such operations, the PCO was not being kept in the loop.

The Manley Commission and Civilian Oversight
At PCO, concern over interpretation of the 3D strategy was mounting. In 2004/2005, According to Mulroney, CIDA was in Kabul “writing cheques as if they were part of a traditional multi-lateral assistance project” and, in Kandahar, “the Canadian Forces got into the development and diplomacy business themselves with no real idea what they were about.”

In 2007 Mulroney was back at Foreign Affairs dealing with coordination efforts. His boss, Kevin Lynch, Clerk of the Privy Council, had visited Afghanistan and saw the dysfunction first hand. He recommended appointing a blue ribbon panel, and Stephen Harper responded by appointing former Liberal MP John Manley to head an independent, non-partisan panel to review Canada's mission and future role in Afghanistan.

This Commission recommended more NATO troops, more equipment to Canada’s troops, better cooperation among DND, CIDA and Foreign Affairs, and for Harper to take “ownership” of the mission.

Fraser seemed to feel contempt for the need for a commission; in his opinion, anyone in the field could recognize that the biggest problem with the mission in Afghanistan was a lack of coordination back in Ottawa.

As Minister of National Defence, Graham was under pressure to liaise with Foreign Affairs for the oversight function, but concluded that, as a civilian elected official, he was more than qualified to provide the necessary civilian oversight. He stressed, the Canadian military is very conscious that it reports to a civilian authority, as compared to the Mexican model where the Minister of National Defence is a General. He suggested a non-partisan, all-parties government committee could oversee the military structure. In his time, this was not possible because the Bloc Québecois Party was actively committed to breaking up the country rather than defending it.

Fraser strongly agreed that civilian oversight of DND was provided by the Minister of National Defence, insisting “The military doesn’t run by itself; Canada is not a banana republic.”  


Photo: Cpl Andrew Wesley, CFSU(O) Imaging Services

Mulroney bluntly disagreed; in his opinion, civilian oversight didn't start until the 2008 establishment of the Cabinet Committee on Afghanistan, chaired by David Emerson. That was when, he says, DND was held to higher standard of cooperation and accountability through an agenda that reported to the Prime Minister on a weekly basis. Initially, DND attended meetings uninvited, taking up agenda time with the back-slapping greetings and their favorite combat video clips. Emerson eventually stipulated that the military wouldn’t be at the meetings unless they had an agenda item.

After the Manley report was released, senior CIDA and DND officials came together and objectives were achieved within days or weeks instead of months. DND saw its role as counter insurgency, supported by the deployment of civilian assets to win hearts and minds. CIDA saw its work as rebuilding a failed state, with the military providing security. Minister Graham first heard about broadening the government footprint during wartime to include diplomacy and development from the British. In the Canadian context, the Afghan war would be the first attempt at implementing a “whole of government” approach. Perhaps such a strategy is in need of further conceptualization of respective roles, relationships and responsibilities necessary to make it work effectively.

Mulroney claims the problem is that civilians have difficulty challenging military. He referenced Thomas Rick’s article “General Failure,” The Atlantic, November 2012, which exposes U.S. military incompetency during the Iraq war. When asked if the government did any debriefing on the war, Mulroney said “The government simply stopped talking about the issue and we very quietly slipped out of Afghanistan. They made no effort to do significant lessons learned.”

Who’s in charge?
Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France during the First World War, said “War is too important to be left to the generals.” These interviews suggest generals were more often in charge of Canada’s Afghan war effort, particularly during the pre-Manley phase.

Having recently experienced debilitating budget cuts, the Afghan war gave DND an opportunity to modernize its operations. The distractions caused by frequent federal elections – the swing from a Liberal majority to minority, and then to a Conservative minority and finally majority – were felt on many levels. Perhaps the need to modernize, the political instability, and the lack of civil service maturity around “going to war,” made leadership initiatives by DND a precariously appealing option.

Five points came out loud and clear from these interviews.

  • Lessons Learned, which are so important to future effectiveness, were given short shrift by a government eager to put it all behind them. Would the voting public be surprised by this? Absolutely.
  • Foreign Affairs and National Defence do not play well with each other. Going forward, perhaps tabletop exercises between DND and the rest of the civil service could ameliorate this situation.
  • Accountability and leadership were lacking. Jockeying for political power seemed take precedence over substantive decision-making. Does Canada need a “Council of War” structure within which, when constituted, all are obliged to collaborate, and will be held accountable to parliament?
  • Stabilized investments in the military must be fairly and honestly managed.
  • The uncomfortableness Canadians feel about “going to war” must be frankly articulated by our leaders, not “spun” into something more palatable.  

Will the next government take future war decision-making more seriously, or will jostling for political position always take precedence?

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Tim Lynch is a Toronto-based freelance journalist who writes about national security, mostly from a maritime perspective. He is a member of the Royal Canadian Military Institute.

© FrontLine Defence 2015

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