RoCK Thoughts on Canada Leaving Afghanistan

March 20, 2014 § 12 Comments

I was the last Representative of Canada in Kandahar (RoCK), and worked with an outstanding team of Canadian civilian professionals to deliver development, humanitarian assistance, human rights and governance right through to the end of our combat mission in July 2011. This was followed by a non-combat, military training mission that ended yesterday, when the last troops came home.

General Dean Milner was the Commander who came home with the troops. He led the Canadian task force in its last combat rotation in Kandahar, and also brought our training mission to its correct completion and will be remembered by Canadian history as one of our great generals. It’s important that our troops have been properly honoured, but in this post I want to talk about the civilian work we did in Kandahar.

In 2011 when Canada completed its Kandahar military and civilian mission, PM Harper said that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to international peace and security. That remains true. It took a long time, a lot of learning and great sacrifice.  But reconstructing the Afghan state after its defeat and disastrous collapse, to where it is no longer an international security liability and can defend itself is no mean feat. Significantly, the international effort brought with it great achievements in the civilian domains of humanitarian conditions, social development, economic prospects, human rights and governance.  We can debate around the edges, but the historical fact of progress is plain. What’s more, when Canada found itself at the epicenter of the first geopolitical crisis of the twenty-first century, we performed with courage, proficiency and full depth of commitment.

To recap what happened after 9/11 – within 24 hours, NATO invoked the collective defense clause if it was determined that the attack originated outside the US. As we know, it originated in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden planned and executed the World Trade Center atrocity. As a matter of fact, Mohamed Atta, pilot of one of the planes, delivered his last will and testament to Bin Laden at Tarnak Farms, the Al Quaeda stronghold in Kandahar. It did not take long for the United States with its allies to utterly defeat the Taliban government in their homeland, which is Kandahar.

But the very difficult part was reconstruction. And then, this difficulty was compounded in the extreme with the surprising emergence of the determined and elusive Taliban insurgency. However, there is no military solution to the problems of reconstruction and development.

In the distribution by NATO of reconstruction responsibilities across the country, and the establishment of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, Canada received the province of Kandahar. Canada learned fast and adapted to put together a remarkably effective combined military/civilian response to the challenges of our area of operations. You will remember that in 2006 Prime Minister Harper tasked John Manley to prepare recommendations on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan for consideration of Parliament.

In his report, Manley said “The essential questions for Canada are: how do we move from a military role to a civilian one, and how do we oversee a shift in responsibility for Afghanistan’s security from the international community to Afghans themselves?”

The operational response on the civilian side was to create a large integrated team of some 80 civilians composed of brave and skilled professionals from across the federal government. Large scale project funding from CIDA and Foreign Affairs was key to support that effort. The RCMP trained Afghan policemen and policewomen. CIDA delivered schools, irrigation canals, vaccination programs and economic development. Corrections Canada brought the notorious Sarpoza prison up to international standards. Foreign Affairs advanced governance, democracy and monitored human rights in Afghan prisons. My American colleague, Bill Harris, described the Canadian reconstruction model as “wildly successful”. (Let me express here my thanks to our US friends and colleagues for their great partnership and the surge, which came to Southern Afghanistan when we needed it.)

It is utterly clear that the courage, skill and resolve of the Canadian Forces were absolutely a necessary condition for a civilian role. Without minimum conditions of territorial control and security, no development can take place and governance can never be more than tenuous. At the same time, once this minimum threshold is achieved, we discovered that security operations, development and governance can take place simultaneously and be mutually reinforcing.

Perhaps the most interesting innovation was in our own Canadian governance. Canada did away with the traditional departmental stovepipes and barriers between organizations to mobilize the assets of the public service to deliver a whole of government effort and an integrated reconstruction package in an active war zone. This is a great but hidden capability of the Canadian public service.

Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, and Afghanistan. The last generation of Canadian diplomacy has also been the story of states that catastrophically crash, catch public opinion by surprise and demand a complex international response. In many ways, Canada’s defense, diplomatic and humanitarian policies have been influenced by the tragedy of state failure.

I remember saying to myself in Kandahar that nobody, and certainly not the long-suffering Afghans, deserve the tragedy, pain, poverty and violence that attends state failure. Ultimately, we learned that it’s all about governance. If there was a civ/mil consensus on the challenge in Afghanistan, this is it. But sadly, when we look around, there are new candidates. Divided countries with predatory or incompetent governments end up in crises they cannot resolve without external intervention.

It’s all about governance because a state needs a certain level of legitimacy to defeat an insurgency.

As we look around, there will be other states that fail, and some we won’t be able to ignore.  In the meantime, I believe there are four core questions that international policy professionals should be working on so we are prepared when the time comes.

1. How to establish local governance in the absence of state legitimacy?

2. How to pivot from military counter insurgency to civilian peace building and reconciliation?

3. How to create justice before there is a functioning judicial branch?

4. How to combine the resources of traditional tribal community governance with the establishment of a basic national public service.

But really, Canada has not left Afghanistan. We are where Manley and Parliament wanted us to be. We have completely transitioned to a civilian mission under the leadership of Ambassador Deborah Lyons at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul. Afghans can take responsibility for their own security and a new chapter is unfolding. Bin Ladin’s old Kandahar HQ is now an agricultural research farm, thanks to Canadian civilian efforts.

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§ 12 Responses to RoCK Thoughts on Canada Leaving Afghanistan

  • glenn faass says:

    Tim, thank you for sending me this interesting and thought-provoking post. I have the luxury, while on a short sabbatical, to read and think about this kind of material, and I appreciated it very much. It is a good time to look back, and to look forward. Latter is somewhat scary.

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Glenn. It is scary to look forward, but your comment also reminds me of something I heard Shimon Peres say in a speech. “Optimists and pessimists die just the same. What is different is the way they live!”

  • Tarik Khan says:

    Tim, thanks for sharing these valuable and timely reflections on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Your observations on the objective of strengthening governance in fragile or failed states suggests that major long-term investments in state institutions are clearly needed. No small task in a post-colonial era in which aid cycles are short and budgets are routinely cut back. How does Canada and the international community ensure that Afghanistan, largely neglected by international assistance before 2001, does not fall back into state failure?

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tarik. You make an excellent point. A comment that Madeleine Albright made about peace between Israel and Palestine comes to mind. “We can’t want it more than they do.”
      But the point you make about long term donor responsibility for fragile states is a very important one that requires mature reflection.
      All the best,

  • Andrew Hentz says:

    Mr. Martin,

    Thank you for this interesting comment. It is important to reflect on our operations and efforts at this juncture. I appreciated my time in Kandahar; both the challenges and opportunities that province presented. While I was heavily focused on the security and counter-insurgency aspect, I was proud of our efforts within Task Force Kandahar and the interaction we had with the PRT.

    It will be important to maintain the lessons learned because I believe that such integrated civilian-military operations in failed and failing states will be the new norm.

    • diplocounsel says:

      Dear Andrew,
      It is wonderful to hear from you and thank you for contributing this comment. I agree that it will be critical to maintain the lessons learned. This is a challenge because resources are scarce, and we can’t really know where the next crisis will come from. However, I am encouraged that the civilian institutions of the Federal Government have learned from the Canadian Forces and leaders in our diplomatic service have promoted a readiness approach and systematic training for work in hostile environments. It is called the Standby Rapid Deployment Team and will really improve the civ/mil interface when Canada needs combined efforts in a crisis beyond our borders.
      Best regards,

  • Justine says:

    As the spouse of one of the civilians who worked with “courage and full depth of commitment” I am grateful that you acknowledge here the contribution of those hundreds of civilians. That recognition and gratitude is rarely noted by the government and thus almost invisible in the media. The proposed day of remembrance, May 9th, “will recognize those who fought, remember those who fell, and salute all” who contributed to Canada’s mission (as the papers quote in the press release). As we rightly do honour the men and women in uniform, I hope that those not in uniform will also be remembered for what they gave and sacrificed.

    Completely transitioning to a Canadian civilian representation in Afghanistan is a significant achievement. It is a bold undertaking to continue working with a whole of government mind set and building up the governance capacity of Afghanistan with all the commitment and delicate diplomacy offered by civilians in the forefront. May they receive as much support, honour and recognition as the armed forces did when they were front and centre.

    I would be happy to see your post here in the OpEd of Canada’s major newspapers. Did I perhaps miss it there?

    With thanks…

    • diplocounsel says:

      Dear Justine,
      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that our civilian effort had an unfortunately low profile in comparison to the importance and value of the work. I hope that next time there is a major civilian deployment of this nature, the communications policies across the military and civilian spheres are the same. I agree with you about recognition. What the Canada owes those who go into combat is of a unique and special character. At the same time, When diplomats, aid workers and other civilian experts as asked to leave their families, work in a war zone and face the hardships involved, proper recognition is deserved.

      No, you didn’t miss an op ed. But I like your suggestion and will try.

      Your comment as the spouse of one of us on the civilian team in Kandahar also underlines the importance of the Government recognizing that when we work overseas in tough jobs, our families are not a liability. Our families give us strength.

      Best regards,

    • diplocounsel says:

      Hi, Justine.
      I want to thank you again for your comment. Please see my article in Embassy Magazine at
      Best regards to you and David.

      • Justine says:

        Thank you for signalling this to me. I’m glad your piece got published.
        I’ve sent it on to a few people.
        Best regards,

  • Bill Harris says:

    Good article, Tim.

    Here is the distilled version of what I think happened in Kandahar. The Canadian military and civilians came first, did some very heavy lifting and created the conditions for success. American forces and civilians rolled in on that beachhead with more of everything and kicked out the Taliban, while continuing to create important pieces of a civil society and economic life in the province. The Afghan army and police came into the picture and, while not top-drawer organizations, did get into the fight and got better as events unfolded. But the single point of failure turned out to be an Afghan national government that was a virtual no-show when the time came to consolidate the hard won Canadian and U.S. gains. Our NATO strategy was always a three-legged stool: clear a secure space; establish some stability in civil society; turn it all over to the Karzai government. Believe me — Canada and the U.S did a sensational job in the Taliban’s home province. I know because, like you Tim, I was there.

    Bill Harris

    • diplocounsel says:

      Thanks, Bill. It is great to hear from you, and thank you for your insight, with which I agree. It brings me back to repeating a sobering remark Madeleine Albright made about peace in the Middle East. “We can’t want it more than they do.”

      With best wishes and thanks again for your wonderful partnership in Kandahar as lead US civilian and Co-Director of the PRT.


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