Learning Too Few Lessons

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.

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Living among the Population in Southern Afghanistan: A Canadian Approach to Counter-Insurgency

By Caroline Leprince

The Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy brought together last September the three federal party leaders to defend their foreign policy visions for the country. The first question of the debate was on Canada’s military involvement in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This highlights the importance of the role Canada has to play internationally to stop threats to international peace and security. As the world appears to be becoming a more dangerous place with ideological extremism spreading throughout the poorest regions of the globe, Canada must be ready to operate in these complex environments as future conflicts are likely to occur within weak and fragile states.

To do so, the hard-won lessons learned during the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan can help better prepare Canada for the challenges of the twenty-first century. The chapter “Living among the Population in Southern Afghanistan: A Canadian Approach to Counter-insurgency” captures first-hand experiences of the counter-insurgency tactics used by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) during its engagement in Kandahar Province from 2005 to 2011. During the first years of the intervention, the hard fought battles to maintain ground proved unable to tackle the insurgency. The influx of additional American troops to Kandahar in 2009 was the turning point that gave the Canadian-led Task Force Kandahar (TFK) the means to realize its ambitions. It created an unprecedented opportunity to adopt a new counterinsurgency strategy centred on the protection of the population. First introduced in the village of Deh-e-Bag in June 2009, the implementation of the key village approach rapidly demonstrated its capacity to address the root causes of the insurgency. With the American surge that arrived in Spring 2010, the key village approach expanded and was used to plan stability operations in the villages of Dand and Panjwayi districts.

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The End of NATO’s War in Afghanistan

By Steve Saideman

I didn’t blog yesterday about the declaration of ISAF’s end because I am still addled by a winter cold, but had some stray tweets that I would like to bring together today.

  1. The war, obviously is not over.  It is not even over for the Americans since the US is leaving 11,000 troops in Afghanistan.  While most are doing training and providing logistics, some are Special Operations Forces, and will be allowed to engage in combat.  So, this is might mean the end of US (and other outside) conventional forces engaged in combat in Afghanistan, but it is not the end of combat for the US and other SOF providers.
  2. This is not the first time that a mission has changed rather than ended.  The classic case is Bosnia, which went from the Implementation Force [IFOR] to the Stabilization Force [SFOR] after the first year, so that Bill Clinton’s promise of a one year mission could be bet; and then it went from SFOR to European Force [EUFOR] to keep the promise that NATO went in to Bosnia together and would leave together even if it really meant that the US and Canada were leaving and the Europeans were stuck.  So, yes, missions changing names to give lip service to promises is nothing new.  The moves in Afghanistan this month are very significant indeed, but the desire to meet various promises means overselling the meaning of yesterday.  Resolute Support is NATO’s new name for its continued role here, which is a lousy name, but looks good compared to the American replacement of OEF with OFS (oh for F’s sake?): Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
  3. Which leads to more overselling.  We have plenty of speeches talking about completing the mission, accomplishing goals, and so on.  Obviously, Afghanistan is not in great shape, with 2014 being a year of many civilian casualties and much bleeding by the Afghan security forces.  It is not clear whether they can keep it up.  But one must say nice stuff as one takes down flags and hands over bases and such.  It may be the case that the Afghan forces can hold the line (as it were).  We don’t know.  For most countries involved, the mission was more about supporting an ally than about accomplishing something in Afghanistan.  For these countries, the mission was mostly a success.
  4. Yesterday is similar to and distinct from the end of the US effort in Iraq in 2011.  We are leaving mid-war with the future very much uncertain, so that is similar.  But the US is not really leaving, as the 11lk left in country will be doing meaningful stuff, unlike the complete departure in Iraq in 2011.  One of the reasons I resist calling the effort in Afghanistan an occupation is that the intervention there, contra to Iraq, had much more support from key parts of the country.  So, the politicians in Afghanistan were actually trying to get their leader to agree to keeping the Americans around for as long as possible, which is very much distinct from Iraq, where it was politically impossible to support a continued American presence.  It is just frustrating that it seems like Afghanistan got the President it needed way late in the game (too early to tell, of course).
  5. Finally, and most self-centeredly, yes, NATO and Afghanistan is still relevant.  Why?  Because I say so.  No, because the dynamics in the book apply to alliance efforts elsewhere and to coalitions everywhere (such as in the skies over Iraq and Syria), not to mention the comparative civil-military relations of advanced democracies are still in play and always will be.

What Critics are Ignoring About the Prisoner Swap with the Taliban

By Steve Saideman

The latest controversy in U.S. politics is over the trade of five Guantanamo detainees for one American soldier – Bowe Bergdahl. The strange thing about this is how ordinary it is: swapping prisoners is normal in war, even in unconventional wars. So, what is really going on here? Mostly, it is about blame-casting – criticizing the Barack Obama administration no matter what it does. The best illustration of this is John McCain, who is currently blasting President Obama for this trade after advocating it a few months ago. So, what is going on here?

First, there is the concern that the five released Taliban leaders will go back into the fight. Sure, that is a concern but thus far the reports indicate that 29 per cent of the people released from Guantanamo join the Taliban again and engage the U.S. and its allies in combat. Is that high or low? It is a mighty low number. How so? Well, in the U.S., roughly two-thirds of the people released from prison are picked up for crimes within three years. So, I do not want to say that there is much rehabilitation going on in Gitmo, but that we need to be clear that it is unrealistic to expect a recidivism rate of 0 per cent. If we understand that, then 29 per cent does not look so bad. Even if the numbers are off somewhat, we need to think seriously about what these five guys would mean to the war effort. Would they turn the tide of the war? Well, since the U.S. and its allies are leaving in 2016 – with most out by the end of this year – this particular pebble is not going to make big waves when compared to the other dynamics in the Afghan war.

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Time for Humility in Foreign Policy

By Steve Saideman

Social scientists like to have a lot of variation when they study something—this way, they can figure out which aspects of the situation are likely to be related with the outcome—war/peace; democracy/authoritarianism; free trade/protectionism. The good news about the Western involvement in Northern Africa and Southwest Asia is that we have seen many different kinds of efforts. The bad news is that the outcomes have been lousy. That is, we have pretty much tried every major policy option and they have all looked pretty bad.

Massive intervention? Check. Or check minus, as the United States with some friends in Iraq and NATO in Afghanistan has not been able to snuff out violence and build self-sustaining political institutions in either state as yet. While it may be too soon to call Afghanistan a failure, it is hardly a success story. The Taliban are hardly quelled and they engage in violence throughout the country with the Afghan security forces taking a serious beating. One piece of evidence for the success argument is that the Afghan army is still fighting, but real questions can be raised about whether it can sustain this effort given the toll they are taking. Meanwhile, in Iraq the U.S. surge combined with the Anbar Awakening to temporarily reduce the level of violence in the country. But the surge was temporary and the Iraqi government largely betrayed the Sunnis who sided with the government.

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Always Open for Business: NATO, Afghanistan, and Ukraine

By Steve Saideman

In the aftermath of Russia’s decision to annex Crimea, the media has turned to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), suggesting that it gives NATO new purpose or that it brings NATO back into the spotlight.  This, of course, reflects how limited our attention span apparently must be. After all, when the United States was attacked on 9/11, article V of the NATO treaty was invoked—an attack on one is equal to an attack on all—for the first time, ultimately leading to NATO taking ownership of the International Security Assistance Force  (ISAF) in Afghanistan. This effort came at great cost to NATO’s members and partners with much blood spilled and billions of dollars spent on a country that hitherto few had appeared to really cared about. 

Since 2003, ISAF has been a NATO mission, one that took place in the shadow of Iraq. While the United States was focused elsewhere, Canadian and European troops provided more than half of the troops engaged in the effort until the American surge in 2009. Certainly, the allies sparred with each other over burden sharing, especially over the restrictions that kept some countries confined to the less dangerous parts of the country.  Still, even these countries, such as Germany and Italy, paid a significant price.

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Going to War with the Proxies You Have

Hamid Karzai is the gift that keeps on giving. He is now accusing the U.S. of being behind dozens of attacks, including the recent bombing of a Kabul restaurant that resulted in 21 fatalities, including two Canadians. “It’s a deeply conspiratorial view that’s divorced from reality,” U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham said on Monday. The Taliban seem to be in agreement with the U.S.: “Whatever claims we make, those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces,” spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a phone interview. This comes hard on the heels of a decision to release more than 30 Afghans who had been arrested for attacking elements of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF].  The U.S. wanted these Afghans tried, and Karzai released them instead. How do we possibly make sense of Karzai?

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A Serious Question

Was the Afghanistan mission worth it? It’s a complex question but one that needs to be asked.

A debate about the worth of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has broken out in multiple media: Twitter, newspapers, Canadian military journals, and elsewhere.  The question at the heart of this debate is not whether the mission was worth it, but whether we should be asking that question at all.

Sean Maloney initiated the conversation with a piece for the Canadian Military Journal.  In it, he raises a very important issue – that we need to be careful about how we ask the question “was it worth it?”  Canada sent multiple missions to Afghanistan with varying goals, so asking whether it was worth it really depends on which of the things Canada was trying to accomplish in Afghanistan you want to consider.

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What To Remember?

This is the last Remembrance Day for the Canadians in Afghanistan.  This time, next year, the last of the trainers and logistics troops will be back in Canada.  Already, there are those who are asking what will Canadians remember about the Afghanistan mission on future Remembrance days.  Until Canada gets in another nasty fight, it is likely that Afghanistan will remain quite visible in the rearview mirror.  Given that one of the lessons of Afghanistan may be to avoid such battles, this means that Afghanistan will resonate for a while to come.

Of course, our first thoughts this time of year center on the First World War.  Armistice Day has become Remembrance Day here in Canada, Veteran’s Day in the U.S., and elsewhere.  The poppies were “in bloom” in Edinburgh and Glasgow this weekend (I was at a conference speculating about the international security dynamics of Scotland’s referendum).  Our memories of the First World War are entirely constructed — the number of surviving veterans from that conflict is now zero.  What we think of that conflict is what has been passed down via press reports, history books, and what our relatives have told us.

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The Afghanistan Endgame: Questionable Assumptions

Reports that the Obama Administration may be considering a “zero option” for the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 have made plenty of waves and sparked debates over the future stability of the country (see Richard Weitz’s nice synopsis here). Given the war-exhaustion of Americans and their NATO allies, the stalled and uncertain peace process between Karzai and the Taliban, and the looming Afghan Presidential elections scheduled for next year, it really is a time of great uncertainty in South and Central Asia. Nobody knows what will happen over the course of the next 12 months, let alone five years from now.

Nevertheless, it is striking how little the popular narrative about the West’s intervention in Afghanistan has changed over the last decade. Political and military leaders give the same familiar talking points about building democracy and nation-building, although nobody seems to know what exactly these terms mean any better than we did in 2001.  James F. Dobbins, the Obama Administrations special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently offered his view that “the future stability of Afghanistan rests on a peaceful transition of political authority from President Karzai to his successor in 2014 through an election that Afghans themselves accept as credible … Inclusive elections are critical to their country’s stability.”

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