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Lessons of a foreign affair: Somalia’s influence on the Afghanistan mission

When Grant Dawson surveys the efforts of Canada’s holistic approach to defence, diplomacy and development in Afghanistan, he sees a direct line back to the Somalia intervention of 1992-93.

Operation Deliverance, the Canadian Forces nickname for its participation in the American-led and United Nations-sanctioned intervention Operation Restore Hope, is remembered for the deaths in March 1993 of two Somalis, one while in Canadian custody, and the subsequent inquiry that raised questions about military leadership, training, discipline and planning, and badly damaged military morale. Ultimately, Deliverance contributed to the demise of the once proud Canadian Airborne Regiment.

Dawson lectures at Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, and is a former post-doctoral fellow of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton. In Here is Hell: Canada’s Engagement in Somalia (2007), he uncovers lessons from that experience that are evident in Afghanistan today.

He argues that forgotten in the scandal is the Airborne Regiment Battlegroup’s ability to promptly secure the town of Beledweyne and surrounding area after deploying in January 1993. These troops brought order to a chaotic region, and, in a precedent-setting foray into the art of local diplomacy, helped the Somalis determine for themselves the surest path to permanent recovery and peaceful change of their desperate situation.

Somalia is very relevant to what is going on in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan case is the Somalia case magnified in terms of the procedures and techniques used.

The concept of 3D – defence, diplomacy and development working in unison – was evident in an embryonic form in Somalia. We saw in Somalia, for the first time in recent memory, the Canadian military coordinating with other government departments, with NGOs, and with its services. This practice is essential to the multinational effort currently underway in Afghanistan.

The military intuitively figures out the best way to respond to the problems they encounter in the field. One of these responses I’ve called ‘leading from behind’. In Somalia, the Canadian troops put Somalis front and centre, listened to their concerns, didn’t make decisions for them, and ensured that the initiatives were what the Somalis wanted. After all, the Somalis would have to maintain them over the long term.

This is also being attempted in Afghanistan. Once invited inside a foreign country, you must be sensitive to local norms and values and requirements or else they’ll take what they can get from you and just wait for you to leave. If you want to forge a lasting peace, you have to provide what the local people believe is desirable and appropriate.

That’s the challenge of failed state intervention. This piece was addressed more or less correctly in Somalia. There were problems – for example, the military had such little time and had to rush. But in Afghanistan it’s far more visible, far more overt and complicated, and more resources and time are being devoted to it. I’m optimistic for the final result.

Intel and reconnaissance
The lack of sufficient foreign affairs expertise on the ground in Somalia was certainly a problem. Canada had almost no relations with Somalia and there wasn’t a lot of knowledge in Canada about the region in the early 1990s, although we had some information from a fairly active High Commission in Nairobi. But it wasn’t the day-to-day, timely, specific information that was needed to make sound commitment decisions. There was regular consultation with the United Nations, which had people on the ground in Somalia, but this wasn’t sufficient either.

Consequently, the government’s initial commitment decision, to the UN Operation in Somalia I, was ill-informed. The government believed its military forces would be responsible for protecting famine relief deliveries in northeast Somalia, but the region was, at least by the standards of Somalia, relatively stable and prosperous. Humanitarian relief was not urgently needed there, in contrast with the south (where a mass famine had claimed thousands), and NGOs were not in need of the military escorts the Canadian military was intending to provide. In the end, perhaps fortunately, that mission was cancelled.

Had the military been able to conduct reconnaissance earlier, it would have helped provide the government with the specific information to make a clearer determination of the situation. But that reconnaissance was delayed – the UN did not want to pay – and there were time pressures and other obstacles that made things difficult.

When the Canadians arrived in southern Somalia with the US, the mission evolved so quickly that there wasn’t time for reconnaissance. So there was a lack of understanding of the dynamics on the ground – the reception they would receive from the Somalis, issues of theft and raiding of the camp. They were not oblivious to them, but I doubt that they were intensely, fully aware of them, and this may have hampered development of the Rules of Engagement.

I’m not sure if our information gathering architecture was that much more superior in 2002 when Canada first deployed to Afghanistan – it was a remote region, too – but there was more time to gather information. As well, the Americans were fully engaged and we were able to tap into their information flows. By 2005, we had a great deal more.

You plan for the worst-case scenarios, but you never really know what you’ll get. In Somalia, the military planned for all out combat because the situation was on a knife’s edge and could have turned on short notice. In southern Afghanistan in 2005, they knew of the dangers and were aware of the combativeness and resiliency of the Taliban, but they could not know for sure it would turn out that way. Somalia highlighted the need for a really accurate assessment of the dynamics on the ground.

Rules of engagement
The Rules of Engagement are boiled down to individual cards that soldiers carry, called aide-mémoires or soldiers cards. In Somalia, the cards may not have taken into account the problems of theft and other local problems, and there may not have been enough time to train the troops in the nuances of these difficult internal situations.

Since Somalia, preparation of soldier’s cards has fallen under the responsibility of the Chief of the Defence Staff. There is more awareness of the importance of getting the cards right and ensuring that the Rules of Engagement are correctly calibrated to the conflict environment, to the potential of asymmetrical and other threats, and to changes in the mission.

Processing prisoners
These types of operations compel militaries to handle prisoners and determine how to arrange transfers of prisoners to local authorities. In 1992-93, the Canadian government hadn’t really thought that through. There hadn’t been serious discussion about what to do so that the Geneva Accords were respected. The Canadian contingent had no choice but to develop its own ‘catch and release’ prisoner policy (to process, for the most part, local thieves), something that should not have been its role. We have gotten better at that. Today, there is an agreement in place with the Afghan government covering prisoner transfers, though it is not without its problems.

Media management
Public diplomacy in Canada might not sound like a military component, but it can be extremely important to overall success. This was done poorly in the Somalia case. The military was not used to media scrutiny at the time. Confronted with a scandal over the incidents of March 1993, the senior bureaucratic and military leaders had difficulty dealing effectively, appropriately, and rapidly with the criticism. They weren’t sufficiently proactive and transparent and weren’t ready with disclosures to the media.

Unfortunately, the scandal broke at the same time that National Defence Minister Kim Campbell was campaigning for leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. There was more caution than might normally have been the case. I also think the government was concerned about not releasing too much information that would prevent any soldiers accused of a crime from receiving due process of law.

Today, the military is much more attuned to how important it is to communicate clearly and regularly with the public to maintain domestic support for complex and difficult missions.

Somalia underlined the critical importance of having the right people in command positions all the way down the command chain. The importance of leadership hasn’t changed since 1992-1993 – they knew it was vitally important then, too – but, if anything, the military is even more intensely conscious of the need to have the right people in command positions because of the Somalia experience. There was an understanding that there were problems in the Airborne Regiment, certain discipline cases, but they weren’t out of synch with discipline infractions in other similar sized units, and the view at the time was a change of battalion commanders would be enough. Probably, they underestimated the leadership challenges within the Airborne.

Grant Dawson is a sessional lecturer in political science and history with Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, respectively (dawson.grant@gmail.com). Hell is Here is available from UBC Press (www.ubcpress.ca).

Author: Grant Dawson from the March/April 2007 issue published

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