Canada’s Army After Afghanistan
Mar 15, 2010

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Canada’s armed forces have undergone dramatic change in the years since L.B. Pearson proposed that first peacekeeping effort as a solution to the Suez Canal Crisis. It was 1956, and the world was fearful of another emerging global conflict… memories of WWII still fresh in our collective mind. No country wanted to be drawn into another deadly battle between the world’s military powers. Pearson’s legacy of peacekeeping was conceived as a direct result of attempting to protect and foster trade by separating warring armies. The dream of peace in the world and support to social and economic progress was presumed to be achievable in the new world order.

Since that time, Canada has been at the forefront of peacekeeping operations around the world. Soldiers, police and civilians have all played prominent roles in the resolution of conflicts in Cyprus, the Middle East, Haiti, Bosnia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Angola, to name a few. ­Currently, Canadians are deployed in 14 operations – in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East. These include peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, drug interdiction, anti-pirating and anti-terror missions and more.

The cold war stagnated much of the Canadian army’s readiness. In General Rick Hillier’s book, A Soldier First, he referred to this as “SALLY – same as always, same as always” where readiness and development stalled, and the Canadian army suffered a crisis of confidence. The army that was trained to fight in the inner German border had developed an archaic mindset relative to the changing world.

However, with determined leadership, a strong and battle-hardened army has since risen from this stark stretch of time, and now stands internationally as an army of example. This Canadian army has strong leaders, soldiers with better skills, and has well educated and well spoken soldiers. It has better quality equipment, and the undisputed support of its government. The army is viewed by our American allies as “friends that have stood by us.” The Canadian Army is now a major contributor to helping stabilize areas of conflict and local economies of re-emerging nations. Canada’s Army has etched out an example of how a mid-sized country can make a strong difference with an earnest contribution, and thus warrant a voice on the international stage.

The Army has secured this reputation through a variety of successes and a determination passed on from armies before them. The army has become expert at not just passing down observations from past experience, but assessing them, learning from them, and embedding them into their entire training mantra. Lessons observed have become lessons learned.

Canada has taken on a heavy load, carrying our own weight in blood and sacrifice. From the beginning, Canada fought in the toughest place in Afghanistan, Kandahar, and per capita, Canada has taken more casualties than our allies. Included in the sacrifice of losing over 140 soldiers are the embedded lessons. To its unreserved credit, the Canadian Army does not take a single soul lost lightly and neither do our friends south of the border, or abroad. The Americans, the British, the Germans and others have a high regard for the Canadian commitment.

To be heard and understood by partners in an international forum, a country must pull its own weight. NATO Senior Leadership, NATO Defence Ministers, NATO Prime Ministers and Presidents have recognized that Canada shouldered a huge part of the heavy fighting in Southern Afghanistan. Canada did not shy away to a less dangerous, softer mission. The lessons and the sacrifices have secured Canada’s new emerging position as a contributor. This has afforded our nation a renewed commanding respect on the world stage.

In the world of diplomatic exchanges, there are political credits for that contribution. There now exists an improved relationship with the U.S., facilitated by the impressive talents of Ambassadors Wilkins and Wilson, who have respectively passed their torches to Ambassador Jacobson and Ambassador Doer. This relationship has strengthened despite past disagreements on the Ballistic Missiles program, Iraq, and the perceived notion that we had been a touch point to terrorists that contributed to 9/11.

The military relationship seems critical to the American government’s appreciation of Canada and as mutual respect returned, other relationships also strengthened. Trade resolutions began to appear, including softwood lumber, infrastructure discussions, and recently we see movement on ITAR (international trade and regulations) issues. An unspoken inference of trust is woven into the interdependencies that define the Canada/U.S. relationship. It has re-emerged as one of a strong ally, an important trading partner, a like-minded security partner and dependable friend. This improved respect is being rewarded.

The Canadian Army, having contributed to this improvement, now looks forward into 2010 and beyond, with a view to shaping its new role post-Afghanistan. The job they will most likely face now is protecting civilian populations, providing security for elections, and guarding humanitarian convoys. In addition to the well-known disaster response (DART) team, the military has also set up a Rapid Response Force to fly (on short notice) to the scene of natural disasters anywhere around the world with a capability that includes medical, engineers, water purification and other aid. Its first deployment came in 1998 when Hurricane Mitch ravaged Central America. Canadian soldiers and medical staff rushed to provide medical and humanitarian relief. More recently, this team responded to Haiti and now Concepcion, Chile.

One must not forget that the ‘Army after Afghanistan’ must be seen as relevant to the Canadian people if it is to be supported with the necessary government funding.

What the army of the future will look like is difficult to gauge at this stage. Chief of the Land Staff (CLS), Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie is attempting to turn the army toward the future, without looking too far into his rearview mirror. His challenge is multi-dimensional. He must simultaneously take the army off its war footing and begin to reshape its domestic footprint while maintaining readiness to combat the expansion of global terrorism when needed.

Added to the pressures faced by the CLS is the requirement to align its objectives and concepts to the national strategy, with greater emphasis on leveraging Canada’s capability, power and influence to oppose terrorism, and simultaneously support the expansion of democracy and free trade. For Canada’s cooperatively small army, this is a tall order.

LGen Leslie’s evaluation of the landscape has focused on two key areas: Continue applying lessons learned and developing leaders; and second, develop and implement a focus on expeditionary forces that allows the government of the day as much flexibility as possible in the diplomatic and international theatre.

To meet his objective of an expeditionary focus, the CLS has created the First Canadian Division, centrally located in Kingston, Ontario, to lead the coordination of deployable forces. Appointing Major-General David Frasier is a strong signal to the community that this is a headquarters of substance and commanding authority. MGen Fraser was the commander of Multi-National Brigade for Regional Command South in Afghanistan’s southern provinces in 2006. He took over from U.S. General Karl Eikenberry on February 28, 2006 and served in that capacity until October of the same year. He oversaw 2,200 Canadian troops being deployed to Kandahar, an elite fighting brigade that included more than 4,000 U.S., British, Dutch and Australian troops, and warplanes from the U.S., Britain and the Netherlands. Despite Frasier’s success and experience in deploying multi-national multi-discipline teams, it’s a risky move in some respects as experience and critics suggest it’s been tried before and failed. Critics consider it a replay of the 90s and define it as a phantom division. They argue that the last real Division existed in WWII and this new configuration it will only draw resources away from “real” commands.

LGen Leslie argues it will be a unifying force for the government to provide one touch stone, one point of contact to provide the Prime Minister any configuration of deployable resource scalable to fit the international objective. It’s arguable that the army needs a joint focus to coral its various services; artillery, armoured, infantry, mechanized brigades, logistics, signals, EME’s, medical intel and service battalion all required to deploy whether its an operational conflict or a Canadian response to a natural disaster. Canada continues to require a modern war fighting capability that is versatile, lethal and deployable for tomorrow’s battlefields. This future war will require an expeditionary land force with broader campaign qualities in order to conduct combat operations and stability operations.

Leslie appears to have a firm grasp on the complexities of the requirements to provide the Canadian government with options for relevant deployment while training his troops to exist between combat – post-conflict stabilization – diplomacy and trade & commerce.

Lasting peace, negotiated by diplomats and politicians for sustainable economies, is the end objective. From the Government’s perspective, having a technologically advanced army that is trained, equipped, and ready to fulfill any parliamentary demand, is a powerful diplomatic instrument.

Louise Mercier-Johnson is President of FrontLine Service.
© FrontLine Defence 2010