Canada in Afghanistan

The Sun Times (Owen Sound) - - FORUM - GE­OF­FREY P. JOHN­STON Fol­low Ge­of­frey P. John­ston on Twit­ter @Ge­offyPJohn­ston.

Although Canada’s mil­i­tary com­mit­ment to Afghanistan ended in 2014, the NATO-led mis­sion to sta­bi­lize the South Asian coun­try and sup­port the Afghan gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues.

Even though the Tal­iban has yet to be de­feated and the fu­ture of the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­try re­mains un­cer­tain, Cana­di­ans should take pride in and hon­our the bat­tle­field suc­cesses and sac­ri­fices of the Cana­dian Forces in Afghanistan.

Af­ter the hor­rific ji­hadist strikes on the United States of Sept .11,2001, that killed nearly 3,000 peo­ple, Canada joined a NATO-led, UN-sanc­tioned mis­sion to oust the Tal­iban regime, which aided and abet­ted the al- Qaida ter­ror net­work that ex­e­cuted the 9/11 at­tacks.

Af­ter NATO ousted the Tal­iban, Canada re-es­tab­lished diplo­matic re­la­tions with Afghanistan in 2002, ap­point­ing Chris Alexan­der as its first res­i­dent am­bas­sador to Afghanistan. In Au­gust 2003, at the age of 35, Alexan­der took up his post in Kabul. Alexan­der later served as the deputy spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the United Na­tions Sec­re­tary Gen­eral for Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009.

Did Alexan­der get to know any of the Cana­dian sol­diers in Afghanistan? “Get to know would be an un­der­state­ment,” he replied. “Be­cause dur­ing my whole time as am­bas­sador, we had 2,500 to 3,000 troops just down the road from my em­bassy in Kabul at Camp Ju­lian.

“I met and worked closely with thou­sands of Cana­dian sol­diers,” he said of his time as am­bas­sador and then as a high-rank­ing UN of­fi­cial in Afghanistan. “With­out any ques­tion, in my ex­pe­ri­ence, these are the best sol­diers in the world, be­cause they are tough. They are ex­tremely dis­ci­plined. They were well equipped and well led.”

Cana­dian suc­cess

What made the Cana­di­ans so im­pres­sive in Afghanistan? “The first amaz­ing thing about them was their com­pe­tence,” Alexan­der de­clared.

“Se­condly, courage,” he con­tin­ued. “Cana­di­ans started pa­trolling Kabul when other coun­tries hadn’t yet done that. Cana­di­ans led the mil­i­tary ef­fort to bring about the re­for­ma­tion of old Afghan mili­tias. And when the go­ing started to get really tough, the Cana­di­ans went to Kan­da­har, which [they] knew well in ad­vance was go­ing to be the hard­est work avail­able to NATO.”

Thirdly, Alexan­der was im­pressed by the Cana­di­ans com­bat prow­ess. “That goes well be­yond their com­pe­tence and their courage,” he ex­plained. “Be­cause to suc­ceed in com­bat, you need the ca­pa­bil­i­ties, you need the plan­ning, you need the abil­ity to re­act to events -- that, hon­estly, most mil­i­taries don’t have.”

Alexan­der at­tributes Canada’s suc­cess on the bat­tle­field in Afghanistan to the valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence that the Cana­dian Forces gained dur­ing tough peace­keep­ing de­ploy­ments to the bloody Balkan con­flicts in the 1990s. In ad­di­tion, the Cana­dian Forces had trained closely with U.S. forces, sharp­en­ing their skills.

“It all meant that when we came to Kan­da­har, the Tal­iban ex­pected us to col­lapse like a house of cards, be­cause Canada’s rep­u­ta­tion in that part of the world, up to that era, was mostly for peace­keep­ing,” Alexan­der ex­plained.

“But in­stead, they saw an army that had been rated among the best in the world -- sol­dier for sol­dier for a hun­dred years, since the Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge. They saw what it could do that com­bat readi­ness was ab­so­lutely there and our peo­ple -- men, women, re­servists, reg­u­lar forces -- had what it took to suc­ceed in the first largescale above com­pany level com­bat led by NATO forces in his­tory.”

Per­form­ing un­der pres­sure

As a high-rank­ing UN of­fi­cial in Afghanistan, Alexan­der had spe­cial in­sight into the per­for­mance of the Cana­dian Forces. “The per­formed ex­tremely well,” he said.

Canada stepped up in Afghanistan when NATO al­lies shied away from the dan­ger­ous mis­sion. “Afghans were dis­ap­pointed, and we in the UN were dis­ap­pointed by the rel­a­tively low de­ploy­ment of NATO forces to Afghanistan in late 2005 and early 2006,” Alexan­der re­vealed.

Mean­while, “the Cana­di­ans came with the PRT (Pro­vin­cial Re­con­struc­tion Teams), then with a bat­tle group,” he said.

“The Cana­di­ans had to carry a lot of the bur­den,” Alexan­der said of those dark days in the Afghan cam­paign. Through that win­ter of 200506, be­fore Bri­tish, Dutch, Dan­ish and other forces de­ployed later in 2006, the pres­sure was on [Canada].”

The Cana­di­ans faced greater dan­ger in Afghanistan than had been an­tic­i­pated. “The pres­ence of Tal­iban was much greater than any­one had pre­dicted,” Alexan­der said. “And the Cana­di­ans at one point were, for sev­eral months, ba­si­cally the only de­fen­sive com­bat force de­fend­ing sev­eral prov­inces of Afghanistan from a ma­jor Tal­iban on­slaught.

“For months in the win­ter and spring of 2005-06, be­fore other NATO coun­tries had de­ployed to the south, Canada’s bat­tle group was the only ef­fec­tive com­bat force, meet­ing and de­feat­ing Tal­iban threats in Helm and, Kan­da­har and Zabol[ prov­inces ],” Alexan­der said of Canada’ s task force. And he noted the stel­lar per­for­mance of the 1st Bat­tal­ion of Princess Pa­tri­cia’s Cana­dian Light In­fantry.

The Cana­di­ans rushed back and forth across the em­bat­tled prov­inces “to pre­vent district cap­i­tals and even pro­vin­cial cap­i­tals from fall­ing,” Alexan­der added. “They proved them­selves at that time. They were ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing.”

Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tion

Cana­dian troops par­tic­i­pated in NATO -led com­bat op­er­a­tions as well as the mis­sion to train Afghan se­cu­rity forces. How im­por­tant were their con­tri­bu­tions? “Ex­tremely im­por­tant,” Alexan­der an­swered with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

The suc­cess of the mis­sion hinged on three key Cana­dian com­mit­ments, he as­serted. First, Alexan­der praised Prime Min­is­ter Jean Chre­tien’s strong re­sponse “in the im­me­di­ate wake of 9/11, which led our Spe­cial Forces and early in­fantry com­po­nents to be de­ployed in the fall of 2001, es­pe­cially to Kan­da­har air­field.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional De­fence and Cana­dian Forces web­site, the first Cana­dian Spe­cial Forces mem­bers ar­rived in Afghanistan in late 2001. And in Fe­bru­ary 2002, the “first el­e­ments of the Cana­dian Bat­tal­ion Group” de­ployed to Afghanistan and be­came “an in­te­gral part of the 187th Bri­gade Com­bat Team of the US 101st Air­borne Di­vi­sion.”

In Au­gust 2003, Canada con­trib­uted com­bat forces to NATO’s In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force (ISAF) mis­sion in Kabul as part of Op­er­a­tion Athena. And in Fe­bru­ary 2004, Canada’s Lt.-Gen. Rick Hil­lier as­sumed com­mand of ISAF.

Sec­ond, Alexan­der said that Canada’s com­mit­ment to pro­tect Kabul in 2003 was vi­tal, be­cause it came at a time “when Amer­i­can and Bri­tish forces were lit­er­ally with­draw­ing from Afghanistan to fo­cus on Iraq.”

Third, Canada’s com­mit­ment to act as the “spear­head of a NATO de­ploy­ment in south­ern Afghanistan was vi­tal to the suc­cess of the mis­sion, Alexan­der ex­plained. Joined by Bri­tish, French, Es­to­ni­ans and other al­lies, Canada led the way.

In Jan­uary 2006, the Cana­di­ans com­menced com­bat op­er­a­tions in Kan­da­har as part of Op­er­a­tion Athena. A Na­tional De­fence Canada mis­sion time­line re­veals that “at its height, nearly 3,000 CAF mem­bers were de­ployed at any one time in Kan­da­har.”

In Fe­bru­ary 2006, the Cana­di­ans per­son­nel as­sumed com­mand of the Role 3 Multi­na­tional Med­i­cal Unit at Kan­da­har Air­field. Ac­cord­ing to Na­tional De­fence Canada, “Cana­di­ans would re­main in com­mand un­til 2008 and med­i­cal per­son­nel con­tin­ued to serve un­til De­cem­ber 2011.” At that time, Brig.Gen. David Fraser took com­mand of the ISAF’s Multi-Na­tional Bri­gade (Re­gional Com­mand South), which was based in Kan­da­har.

In May 2011, Op­er­a­tion At­ten­tion was launched. Ac­cord­ing to Na­tional De­fence Canada’s web­site, Canada con­trib­uted “the sec­ond-largest con­tin­gent to the NATO Train­ing Mis­sion-Afghanistan,” which de­liv­ered “train­ing and pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment sup­port to the na­tional se­cu­rity forces of Afghanistan.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada web­site, the Afghan mis­sion “in­volved the de­ploy­ment of over 40,000 Cana­dian Armed Forces per­son­nel -- the largest de­ploy­ment since the Sec­ond World War.” And 158 Cana­dian sol­diers “lost their lives in ser­vice while par­tic­i­pat­ing in our coun­try’s mil­i­tary ef­forts in Afghanistan.”

It is also im­por­tant to re­mem­ber that Cana­dian diplo­mat Glyn Berry was killed in Afghanistan. Berry’s name was in­scribed on the Kan­da­har Air­field Memo­rial, which con­sists of in­di­vid­ual plagues ded­i­cated to the fallen. The memo­rial was repa­tri­ated to Canada in 2011.

Legacy

“A lot of peo­ple in Canada and around the world have a wrong idea about the legacy of Afghanistan,” Alexan­der stated. “They tend to see the mis­sion there through the kalei­do­scope or the blurry lens of Iraq, which was a failed mis­sion, where lit­er­ally the gov­ern­ment was over­whelmed.”

How­ever, Afghanistan is a dif­fer­ent story. “In Afghanistan, the Tal­iban fell, the gov­ern­ment of Afghanistan has been in­stalled, three elec­tions have been held,” Alexan­der noted.

“The Tal­iban are still fight­ing, but they are also still los­ing,” he con­tin­ued. And the for­mer diplo­mat con­tends that the Tal­iban have failed to re­gain power, “be­cause of the legacy we and our al­lies left be­hind,” in­clud­ing “le­git­i­mate in­sti­tu­tions, and ed­u­ca­tion, and a po­lice and army that are in­creas­ingly able of look­ing af­ter their se­cu­rity needs on their own.

“With­out Canada be­ing stub­bornly, per­sis­tently com­mit­ted to Afghanistan over 14 years and pre­pared to take a lead­er­ship role, I think a big part of that legacy wouldn’t be there.”

Recom­mit­ment

Alexan­der re­grets that Canada is no longer tak­ing part in the on­go­ing NATO mis­sion in Afghanistan. Canada’s com­bat mis­sion ended in July 2011 and the train­ing mis­sion ter­mi­nated in March 2014. “That de­ci­sion was taken un­der our gov­ern­ment,” said Alexan­der, who served in Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper’s cab­i­net af­ter leav­ing the world of diplo­macy.

“It now con­tin­ues un­der a new gov­ern­ment at a time when the U.S. and some other coun­tries are in­creas­ing their com­mit­ments to Afghanistan,” Alexan­der said of Canada’s mil­i­tary dis­en­gage­ment from the Afghan the­atre.

“I think the best way to hon­our those who lost their lives “-- and build on the strength of the 40,000 Cana­di­ans now home who helped re­build Afghanistan, is to re­join that NATO mis­sion, to add the kind of top-flight ca­pa­bil­ity and lead­er­ship for which we’ve al­ways been renowned.

“If we want to bring peace to Afghanistan, we need to en­sure that this lat­est NATO mis­sion is a suc­cess.”

DAVE ABEL/TORONTO SUN

Chris Alexan­der, seen here an­nounc­ing his in­ten­tion to seek the lead­er­ship of the Con­ser­va­tive Party ear­lier this year, served as an am­bas­sador to Afghanistan.

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