In hundreds of interviews and several trips to Afghanistan in recent years, the Standing Committee on National Security and Defence has observed the progress and setbacks of Canada’s mission and asked some tough questions about its objectives. In its recent report, How are we doing in Afghanistan?, the Senate committee offers 16 recommendations, including benchmarks to measure improvement. It’s chair, Senator Colin Kenny, spoke with associate editor Chris Thatcher about the report.
Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation, among others, told the committee that success in Afghanistan is possible, but not on the cheap. Have we made the necessary investments, both in equipment and personnel?
Equipment has been a hard, long struggle blocked by some bureaucratic regulations and timidity on the part of the government to address those regulations. The best example is unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). There was a significant push about a year ago to sole source Predators or something more robust. The Sperwers we are using now were a cast-off from the Norwegians. The attitude generally was they were better than nothing. But they’re wearing out and it’s apparent they are not going to go the distance. I was getting emails from troops saying, “we were in contact with the enemy and for two hours we had no UAV cover.” That’s a pretty serious indictment of the supply system.
In terms of helicopter lift, we have had a problem since day one. The purchasing process has delayed the Chinooks until 2012. As we saw with the Leopard tanks, we can get them faster. And now we’ve got a half-baked idea that we’re going to use the Griffons as attack helicopters to protect the Chinooks. If you have worries about casualties, a Chinook going down full of Canadian troops is going to cause a real tremor here in Ottawa. But the Griffons don’t fly as fast or as far as Chinooks. The Griffon will either slow down the Chinooks or it won’t keep up. I’d feel better if the government, in the speech from the thrown, had not essentially said, nothing is too good for our boys, they’ll have the best equipment available. Well, they’re not telling the truth, because you wouldn’t take Griffons if you were talking about the best equipment available.
On some fronts they’ve done well. They got the Leopards in quickly. They have a pretty good Expedient Route-Opening Capability team of three vehicles that detect, uncover and neutralize IEDs, but there are a limited number of them. We recommended in the last report that they get up to about a dozen units instead of the three or four they have now. We think that if IEDs are the principle killers of Canadians, we should have the best countermeasures available, and in quantity. There has been an evolution from the Ilitis to the G-Wagon, which was a better vehicle, to the Nyala, which is even better, and we think that was handled pretty smartly. And the new M777 appears to be pretty accurate artillery.
We’ve seen that where the government has a mind to, it can get good equipment. But in the case of the UAVs, what stopped it? Rules and a fear that the auditor general will complain you’re sole-source purchasing. Well, the government should be saying, to hell with the rules. We’ve got young people’s lives at risk and you can beat us up in the next report if you like, but this is something to save lives and we’ll take the flak gladly.
What about people? Various reports, including the committee’s, have called for troop increases. Yours recommends 4,000, well above the Manley Panel’s demand for 1,000.
If you cast your mind back to the problems the British had in WWII, Montgomery was under a great deal of criticism from the pundits of the day, including Churchill, because he refused to attack. He kept waiting and waiting until he’d built up sufficient forces that success was inevitable. The Americans 50 years later relearned that lesson in Vietnam: you don’t go ahead until you have overwhelming force. The numbers that we’re talking about are only for Kandahar. We thought Manley’s numbers were too low. Senior people have agreed with the numbers that we’re talking about and criticized us for being a tad low ourselves. We’re fighting a counterinsurgency, which by its very nature requires a much higher ratio of people. But we’re also spending an enormous amount of our effort as mentors and trainers of people, as opposed to being directly involved in combat.
However, we don’t have enough Canadian forces in the CF. And that’s a serious problem. Our committee put out a report six years ago saying if the government wanted to continue with the same tempo of operations it had had for the previous decade, we needed to have a CF of 90,000 people. Subsequent governments – Chretien, Martin and now Harper – have increased the tempo but the CF, and more specifically the army, has not grown.
We hear terrific, rosy reports about recruiting, but never about attrition. The people stepping out are some of our key people. We have three regiments functioning now and the number of times that we have to go back to the same folk is serious. The personnel tempo of operations is far too high.
When the speech from the throne came out, the words were terrific. You listened and thought, wow, this government gets it. Then two weeks later the annual report of the Department of Defence came out and on page 13 it had two paragraphs below the headline, Growth of the Canadian Forces. The second said, as a result of the war in Afghanistan, transformation and the 2010 Olympics we’ve decided to ‘re-profile’ – that was the magic word – the Canadian Forces, and the increase of 13,000 regulars that we promised last year has been cut to 7,500 and the increase of 10,000 reserves has been cut to 1000. And we have decided to delay those increases by a year. At a time when you’ve got the commanders of the navy, army and air force complaining about their best people being sucked into CANCOM and CEFCOM staffs, a war in Afghanistan that is swallowing personnel, the Olympics, to be followed right away by a G8 conference with the same security demands, your not taking steps…the CF is trying to slowly inch up to 70,000 and then take much longer to get to 75,000, when they really need 90,000.
The issue boils down to this: the government has turned a deaf ear to military spouses. They are the ones saying, you’ve done your turn, dear, you’ve already been in 20 years, you can take your pension and, with a job in the tar sands or some other place like that, you can do really well. And how many times do you want to go back to Afghanistan, anyway. You’re 40 now and it’s about time that you settled down because you’ve got a family and responsibilities.
Yet these are the key people, the non-commissioned members and officers, to do the training and rebuilding of the CF. We keep hearing these woeful tales back from the force generators that they can’t do the training because they’re missing the captains, majors, warrant officers and senior sergeants that are the backbone of the service. Of course, because you’re aggravating the hell out of their families. There is a lot of financial incentive for the very people that the military needs the most.
How do you solve the problem? By increasing the size of the CF to the point where they are not so stressed, where the personnel tempo is less pressed. We have a CF in the mid 60,000 range and we can only put 1,000 people sustained permanently outside the wire. That’s all you get for $18 billion a year. As you increase to 90,000, a far higher percentage of those people are able to go outside the wire because the basic infrastructure is already behind the wire. It still takes six years to get a corporal with six years of experience, but if you don’t start now, you’re just delaying the problem and making it worse.
At some point there is going to be serious push back as this government is too damn cheap. They are currently spending 1.2 percent of GDP on the military. In the Canada First Defence plan and the budget, they are talking about 1.5 percent increases from now until 2011 and then two percent for the next 20 years. The consumer price index is going to top that. If you go out 10 years we’ll be down to spending .87 percent. The Conference of Defence Associations has done the math going out 15 years – it works out to .77 percent. The government says it has provided the CF with long-term stable funding. But to be stable on starvation is kind of dumb.
The report lists a number of benchmarks. Is it surprising that this far into the mission we’re just now talking about setting benchmarks?
It’s long over due. When the committee was in Kandahar, we asked about metrics. Each person would give us this nervous look and say, “we’re going to be working on those over the summer but we don’t know what the objective is yet.” And they’d whisper that last part to us. Perhaps if we can persuade the Prime Minister to describe what the objectives are, they’ll find it easier to come up with a set of benchmarks.
We prefaced the section with a caveat, though: you don’t have to use any of our benchmarks – we’re putting them in the report to show you it’s possible to have benchmarks. If you’ve got better ones, then use them. But don’t think that you cannot have benchmarks.
You note the lack of coordination among aid agencies and NGOs. Does development need a chain of command to be more accountable? And can more NGOs operate in Kandahar safely?
We saw better cooperation between civilians and the military on our last visit to Kandahar. We’d seen little of it on our first two trips. This time we not only saw it but we tested it and we talked to people privately. We got the impression that there was a fairly high level of cooperation. We’re not convinced that CIDA has a sufficient grasp on it yet – we don’t know that they have the metrics for it – but we felt better about what CIDA is doing than we have before. We were dismayed by the United Nations. We felt that people who came to brief us could not get out of town fast enough, and that they weren’t very keen staying on the ground in Kandahar. And we felt that they were essentially disconnected from what was going forward.
We still feel that there is not a good understanding by Canadians that the security situation hasn’t stabilized sufficiently yet to have good, vibrant NGO participation. We think that when we have arrived at a more secure situation, things will progress much more quickly. The development that is going ahead is limited because we still need military support. If you talked to the Canadian representative in Kandahar, Elisa Goldberg, she’s got a real problem because she can’t get around without a military escort, and it takes a lot of people to do that. The same problem exists for the people from Corrections Canada who are working in the prison – they need an escort to get to and from work. Canadians have to understand that you have to have that level of stability before you can have development.
The report observes that the Taliban could not exist without drugs – is this the elephant in the room the international community has not yet figured out how to address?
Yes, and it’s not something that I can give a sound-bite answer on. I don’t think anybody has a good handle on it. The people who have the best understanding are Afghans and, just like corruption, there’s got to be a determination amongst Afghans that it is not something they are prepared to tolerate. But to expect rapid change given the dynamics of how it works – a farmer gets a loan before planting season and the only way to pay it off is in product, or he may lose a daughter – if you eradicate their crops, these people will find themselves with very few opportunities other than to grab a rifle.
We’ve heard from military commanders that we’re losing the information war – the Taliban and al-Qaeda are much better at information dissemination. How do you counter that?
You’ve got to get out of the armour, get on your feet and walk around. And that entails a higher level of risk. We’ve got to change this silly policy of the minister of defence where he says, “I don’t want any Canadian troops negotiating with the Taliban.” First of all, you can’t tell when you’re talking to an Afghan whether the person is Taliban or not. Also, it assumes that all Taliban are the same – the Taliban have as many different perspectives as we do. So being able to talk to them would be awfully useful in terms of picking up intelligence, developing personal relationships, and in assisting the people who ultimately will do the negotiations, the government of Afghanistan. They will negotiate with whomever they think will assist them bring stability to the country.
The alternative is we keep killing them until the last Taliban is dead? Every time you think you’ve killed one, probably 10 more have popped up. The nature of an insurgency is not that you wipe out the last of the enemy but that you come to some sort of accommodation. However, we think our special forces should be there to eliminate some of the warlords and others who are active in the trafficking. We don’t think jail works.
What is the committee’s assessment of the whole-of-government (WOG) approach? Has it worked well in the field and do we now have the necessary level of collaboration in Ottawa?
We thought the whole-of-government approach is working much better than we’d ever seen it before, and said so in the report. But we would very much like to see a WOG approach back in Ottawa. And we don’t see that. We want the Prime Minister to assume the lead, to chair the committee that David Emerson is now chairing and demonstrate that he considers this to be a very important file. The Prime Minister has never talked to Canadians directly about it and we want him to do that. We want him to go on television and talk to Canadians about this thing that is taking all of our gold and our young people and explain what he expects to achieve, talk about the progress and the setbacks that are happening. And we’d like him to continue to do that every six months with what we refer to as a fireside chat.
You’ve recommended a second Strategic Advisory Team for Kandahar. Do you see the SAT as a whole-of-government tool?
The military would like it more civilianized. I don’t think it matters. The idea of a SAT is a smart one, because there is an opportunity to mentor the public service in a very direct way. We recommended a smaller form of a SAT to assist in the province of Kandahar. There isn’t a provincial government as such and we think it would be useful to have people giving feedback from Kandahar to Kabul. It’s a form of mentoring, a form of support. We’re letting Afghans pick their policies, and that’s a good way to gain confidence and trust.
Interview with Colin Kenny.