by Stephen Saideman
Several years ago, I had heard in various bars in the Byward Market that the Canadian government under Stephen Harper had engaged in a serious Lessons Learned exercise about Afghanistan. I heard that the document was buried (I used the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark to illustrate). I tried an Access to Information Request in January of 2013, but got rejected because the document was viewed as “advice to cabinet” and containing sensitive information about Canada’s allies. I thought this was hogwash, so I appealed. I got the document just before my recent trip to Brazil (here it is),* so I didn’t have time to process it.
* I was so enthused that I wrote all over my one copy of the document, sorry. Had I realized that I would be posting it, I would have copied it and then written on the copy. My bad.
Although I have other stuff I need to do, I got inspired by the new discussion about Canada returning to Afghanistan (unlikely), so I will review the document here. You will probably be as underwhelmed as I was. The good news is that my book remains alone as a real effort to learn lessons about the Canadian mission.
The document is only ten pages, which means that it is only a shallow cut at best, and the first two or three pages are intro and context, not lessons. Thus, there really is little text for such a complicated mission. So, I will go through the document below… it shouldn’t take too long.
The intro is fine–500 interviews from participants across government and across all levels is swell. If this is the only document out of that work, then lots and lots of stuff was left behind, alas. The Manley Report gets a heap of notice on the second page and rightfully so. It produced a “Transformational Agenda” which, I would suggest, is a bit much. Yes, stuff got better but it did not transform the bureaucratic politics that determined how the mission was conducted before 2008 and how much of it was conducted after 2008. This reads too much like cheerleading and not enough like lesson learning.
The first lesson–the need for strategic assessment and direction. Absolutely and one reason why any advocacy of Canada returning to Afghanistan should hesitate unless they have a clear strategy based on the real challenges. This leads into more back-patting–arguing that the establishment of the six priorities became everyone’s priorities. Well, everyone but the military’s (who were focused on counterinsurgency, which was not one of the six priorities) and CIDA’s (reluctant all the way along). The document does acknowledge “inconsistencies between Canadian objectives and those at the international level.” The Six Priorities were good as a checklist for telling Canada what was being accomplished so that Canada could leave (they were an exit strategy), but how did they fit into winning the war? The language here does recognize that the CF were more focused on the combat mission, suggesting how the civ and mil were not on the same page.
This section has a key lesson:
“A single, overarching strategy that integrates respective national involvement with that of the international mission would be ideal for ultimate coordination.” Yeah, multilateral warfare is hard and multilateral COIN is really hard. The recommendation that follows from this is pretty vague and leads to this conclusion:
“To the extent possible. such assessment and direction should also preface the
operationalization of any engagement and be aligned with a framework of principles and
objectives agreed upon by the international community and the host country.”
This is striking–that implicitly, this still puts the aim of the larger effort–the host and the international community second. To the extent possible? Hmmm. This should be the starting point–how Canada helps the effort reach its goals. But I get the political dynamics–that it is about Canadian interests first, but it is hard to see how Canadian interests are served well when the mission is not tied very firmly to the larger endeavor. In the case of Kandahar, the civilian effort–the six priorities–focused Canada but were mostly detached from winning the war, especially as things evolved.
The second section focuses on cross-organization integration–the whole of government stuff. The key lessons here were the creation of a cabinet committee and task force in PCO and the RoCK. The former is heralded as providing much coordination, which it did as long as the Prime Minister cared about the mission and lended his heft to the person running the task force (David Mulroney at first). Ok, that last part was my addition. The RoCK or Representative of Canada in Kandahar is lauded as improving interagency command and control (my caveat: depending on how the Rock and the CAF commander got along–not all got along great–personalities/relationships matter). Seniority of the appointments is mentioned, but I don’t think the RoCKs were all very senior DFAIT (GAC) officials. I do think the RoCK idea is important and is something that should be applied in future efforts.
The Interagency planning section has a big problem: DFAIT/the Task Force made its plan in 2008–which schools would be built, etc, and then was done planning. The military kept on planning as it kept on adapting to changing circumstances. The report admits that “there were conflicting understandings of how the civilian-military actors in the field ought to interoperate in order to achieve the goals, including who had what roles and responsibilities”. The report goes in to argue that there was success in reaching common understandings at the Provincial Reconstruction Team level in Kandahar. From all that I heard and learned, I’d agree that the PRT did amazing work to get everyone on the same page. But that was usually despite the conflicting priorities and decision-processes of the key actors back in Ottawa.
The report goes on to address cultural differences among the key Canadian organizations that were managed via co-location (those living together in Kandahar learned how the other folks thought) and pre-deployment training. Absolutely, but the civilians tended to be late to the pre-deployment training since the civilian organizations don’t have spare capacity to have people be gone for extended training periods. So, the document calls for a civilian deployment capability, which makes much sense but is unlikely given recent budgets.
The report then addresses a big challenge: risk management. How to deploy civilians in a dangerous spot? Protection for the civilians meant less soldiers doing the work that the military valued. The report notes that this meant that the RoCK was not the face of the mission–the commander was. The key lesson here: some force needs to be deployed that is dedicated to protecting the civilians, so that the civilians are not stuck behind the wire when the military is focused on other priorities.
A paragraph on the international side is redacted.
The next section focuses on delegation–that CIDA sucked at giving their folks in the field authority to make decisions, which might have led to more adaptation as things changed. Ok, that’s how I put it, but that is what this part is talking about.
Performance management: how to assess effectiveness. The report then says how wonderful the six priorities were in providing a common approach. I am not a fan, as it tied the entire mission to goalposts set in 2008 and thus could not address changes in the battlefield, in the war, and perhaps made adaptation difficult, if not impossible. Oh, and the reports based on the six priorities were perhaps a smidge overly sunny. Read the stuff on the prisons, for instance and then remember there were two prison breaks, including one right after an especially sunny report. Sure, folks can say that the priority of that effort was to make sure there was not abuse in the prisons, but given that the first job of a prison is to keep people inside the prison, some reflection here might have been appropriate. That we didn’t notice that the folks we were training to not beat the detainees might have been suborned by the Taliban.
And also, of course, not much COIN in the reports. The lessons here, instead of addressing the need for flexibility and adaptation, focuses on the need to come up with measures (quant and qual). Perhaps less frequent reporting (hallejuah most folks down range would say, I am sure), the report advocates. Again, entirely absent from this paragraph on performance management is anything about winning the war. Oops. No real cautions here about the problem of measuring inputs or counting outputs and missing outcomes (which is the thing that really needs to be measured).
The last section addresses “engagement strategy”: explaining the mission to Canadians and to the rest of the world. The report notes that CF casualties and the detainee story dominated the coverage. The report can’t blame Harper for hiding from the mission after 2008, nor that the Conservatives may not have minded the focus on detainees–it allowed them to call Jack Layton Taliban Jack for caring about their human rights. The media was, of course, focused on the exciting stuff of battles and bloodshed, but with the civvies in the field having their talking points written in Ottawa, of course, the press would spend more effort talking to the soldiers. They had more interesting stories to tell not just because they involved combat but because they were unfiltered. Oh, and some of this is alliance-based. NATO was slow at taking video and getting approval from the members and putting it online. The Taliban’s approval process took much less time.
The report concludes with a few key sets of lessons based on what I summarized above. My immediate reaction: meh. Yes, we need to reduce cultural barriers between agencies, but waiting for a crisis is too late. I would suggest that the Canadian government learns from the reforms in the US military in the mid-1980s–to get promoted in the US military now beyond Colonel, one needs time at a joint job, working with those in other branches of the military. It would make sense that the future Director Generals of the various agencies have spent some time working in other agencies–senior DND officials should do time in GAC or Public Safety and vice versa.
Two last notes (you can see what I scribbled on the document):
- Don’t lowball. Each democracy entered Afghanistan trying to commit as little as possible and all ended up increasing significantly. Had they started out with what they finished with, the mission might have been more successful.
- Think about winning. This was and is a war. What does it take to win? The words “win” or “war” are never used in this document. What does that say?
I, of course, have other lessons, but you will have to read Adapting in the Dust for those.