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Bookshelf: Understanding our Afghan war

What The Thunder Said: Reflections of a Canadian Officer in Kandahar
Lieutenant Colonel John Conrad
Dundurn Press, 2009
$29.95, 239 pages

Warriors and Nation Builders: Development and the Military in Afghanistan
Andy Tamas
Canadian Defence Academy Press, 2009
Free, 249 pages

Unembedded: Two Decades of Maverick War Reporting
Scott Taylor
Douglas & McIntyre, 2009
$34.95, 374 pages

With a 2011 date looming on the horizon for the withdrawal of Canadian forces from Afghanistan, it is important we understand the nature of the conflict in which we are engaged.

What the Thunder Said is the first story ever told of a Canadian Service Battalion, a concept conceived in the 1960s. It is also the story of the war itself that serves well both the Canadian public and the memories of those logisticians who were killed. The environment, LCol John Conrad reminds us, was one in which “anywhere along the line between departure and destination you must be prepared to fight for your life…[and] the non-contiguous battlefield is also typified by the absence of battle.”

The tactics of tackling the Taliban, as described by Colonel Ian Hope in Dancing with the Dushman (May/June 2009), would not have been possible without the support of this less than 300-strong logistics unit. Though the unit commanded by Conrad in 2006 was designed to operate only from Kandahar, it sustained the Canadian combat elements described by Colonel Hope across a wide swath of not only Kandahar, but also Helmand provinces. Without the efforts of Conrad’s personnel, there would have been no tactics by those of Hope.

For those tasked with deciding our withdrawal, he offers sage advice: “if we really want to know how Canada is doing in Afghanistan, we should ask the Afghans more often.”

In Warriors and Nation Builders, Andy Tamas shares a different perspective of Afghan, though often from the same time period as Conrad. As its subtitle – “Development and the Military in Afghanistan” – makes clear, this book is about assisting developers and their military colleagues collaborate “in helping build a society where people have more to gain by laying down their arms and becoming engaged in the local economy than by continuing to fight;” its main aim is “to provide a set of navigational aids for military leaders to help them have some sense of what this field of development is all about.”

In doing so in the context of the Afghan war, Tamas provides readers with unique insight into the interplay between humanitarian and military efforts and what the “whole-of-government” approach means to a civilian practitioner. How many readers, for example, realize that in Afghanistan “simply identifying all the NGOs can be a major challenge.”

Tamas served as a civilian on the first Canadian Strategic Advisory Team, established by Gen. Rick Hillier to assist the Afghan government in Kabul. He offers an insider’s account that will permit readers to form their own judgment about this unique element, now terminated, and the contribution it made to Canada’s mission.

In a chapter titled “What is the Mission?” Tamas discusses the goal of counter-insurgency campaigns and what mindsets might need change, information vital to Canadian voters to evaluate the political rhetoric that will undoubtedly gain volume as the 2011 deadline approaches.

Certainly, Tamas has written a guide for more than just military officers; he has written a guide for those who wish to understand a mission for which our present contribution, military and perhaps civilian, is about to change.

Finally, though Unembedded is a mid-life memoir, author Scott Taylor, an “unembedded” journalist and self-labeled maverick, provides snapshots of Senlis Council operations, Norine MacDonald, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Mullah Zaeef, Amrullah Saleh and Kandahar’s National Directorate of Security detention center, among others. Taylor’s thoughts contribute to yet another valuable vantage point from Afghanistan.

It has been suggested that in a democracy it is particularly important for voters to understand the nature of warfare “so that they are equipped to make intelligent judgments about the way in which their own governments seek to employ force,” or, in the case of Canada in 2011, withdraw that force. These three books provide a valuable contribution to understanding the nature of the Afghan conflict.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) served in the tribal areas of Pakistan and also in Afghanistan in 1989 with UNGOMAP.

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