As the federal government strives for success in Afghanistan, there’s been a growing need for an integrated approach to the efforts of different departments there. With that as backdrop, David Mulroney returned from PCO to Foreign Affairs in February, at the Associate Deputy level, to lead the Afghanistan Task Force. Mulroney, a 26-year veteran of the department, spoke recently with editor Robert Parkins and associate editor Chris Thatcher about his role and the challenges of this whole-of-government approach.

What is the mandate of your Task Force?

Prior to our work together on Afghanistan, we sometimes had three policies that were not well enough coordinated. CIDA, Defence and Foreign Affairs each did its own thing. We would come together during a crisis, but we were not always integrated. The great insight of Afghanistan has been 3D, linking our work on defence, development and diplomacy. Canada has actually helped to define this concept of three closely coordinated policy approaches. The essence of my job is to take that a step further and develop a single, Government of Canada policy perspective that is sufficiently coherent and compelling to shape program activity on the ground. We’re developing a single narrative, a single campaign plan for the three departments and all others who are engaged in Afghanistan.

For me, the key question is: how do you develop the common narrative, how do you develop something that goes beyond an approach that is a coordinated as 3D, to achieve a single narrative that everyone internalizes and says, “that’s the plan and here’s how we’re going to design our programming.” We all need to agree on the same objectives and the same metrics for success. It seems like a no-brainer to everybody out there. But inside this town and inside every capital city, it is a challenge. You have to bring multiple organizations together, respect their cultures but force them to focus on common objectives and approaches. It’s something we have to work on every day…if we’re to get it right. It’s a challenge that all governments face, particularly when it comes to international work. I think Canada has the chance to write a new chapter.

How does this task force differ from, for example, an East Asia bureau?

I used to run the Bilateral Relations Branch here, which had more than 100 countries under it, including Afghanistan. Now I have only one country, and only one ambassador. We’ve brought all parts of this department that deal with Afghanistan under a single shop – if it’s got the word Afghanistan in it, it comes through me. Arif Lalani, our ambassador, and I work closely on a daily basis to achieve policy coherence. I also meet at least once a week with Lieutenant-General Mike Gauthier of CEFCOM, Vincent Rigby, ADM of policy at DND, and Stephen Wallace, the new vice-president of the Afghanistan Task Force at CIDA. When we meet, we also have Arif Lalani and Brigadier-General Tim Grant, commander of Task Force Afghanistan on the line. We work both on long-term policy planning and on shorter-term operations. This coordination is mirrored at various levels. For example, Kerry Buck, who runs both our policy and operations groups in Foreign Affairs, is in daily contact with counterparts at CIDA and DND.

PCO is also part of that conversation. I meet on a regular basis with Margaret Bloodworth, National Security Advisor, and the Deputy Ministers of the three lead departments, who are like my board of directors. I report to them on what we’re doing and how we’re integrating.

Arif is the senior Canadian on the ground in Afghanistan, a position now equivalent in rank to our ambassador to Germany or our High Commissioner to India. Making the job more senior sends a message to our own organization, and to the organizations we work with. We’re also putting a senior person – Ron Hoffman, one of our best Foreign Service officers – to be our number two in Kabul. Michel de Salaberry, who has been ambassador to Egypt, to Iran and to Jordan, will serve as our senior civilian coordinator in the South, effectively our Consular General in Kandahar. Arif’s job is to make sure everything in Afghanistan is focused on achieving that common policy narrative for Canada. Michel supports him in the South.

I also want to be sure that Afghanistan “informs” our broader diplomacy. As an example, during the Canada-EU summit in Berlin in early June, we insisted that Afghanistan be a central part of the discussion. The EU is responsible for the police sector; they need help getting it off the ground. We’re eager to contribute to an EU police effort, but as quid pro quo we want the EU to be engaged in the police development efforts we are doing in Kandahar. Our eventual Canada-EU agreement was commended by G8 leaders as a good example of cooperation. Increasingly the diplomacy of our most senior heads of mission in Washington, Tokyo, Delhi, Berlin and London reflects the priorities that we attach to Afghanistan.

As we work on this policy narrative, what are the key things we have to achieve? The Afghan Compact, with its focus on security, development and governance, provides a good context. A clear priority under governance is the justice sector, basic rule of law. If you don’t have police on the beat, and if people don’t feel safe in their homes, big-picture achievements like a new constitution and elections won’t make a difference. We have our own interests at stake here. The Canadian Forces eventually want to hand over local security responsibilities to the Afghan National Police, so one of our key priorities is standing up an effective police force. This is obviously more than a Foreign Affairs or DND or CIDA issue. Many departments and agencies play a role, including the RCMP, Justice and Correctional Services.

Is there a specific timeline or is it open-ended?

There is a natural timeline of 2009 when it comes to some of our specific commitments in the south. But whatever we decide to do there, our development efforts and our diplomatic engagement will go beyond 2009. That tells us we’ve got to continue to build capacity in Afghanistan as quickly as possible. Since I started this job in February I’ve been driven to set up a new organization in this department and to put more senior people in the field. This is basically done. The work of policy integration continues, as does the challenge of ensuring that clear policy directions lead to equally clear results on the ground.

The Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team is often held up as the example of whole-of-government in action on the ground. Is there a similar organization or mechanism being created here in Ottawa? And is there a plan beyond the life of the task force keep this integrated process together?

I think that our joint effort in Afghanistan is really about a new way of doing international work. We get that feedback from the Dutch and the British, who are trying to do the same thing. How do you, for example, have the military work hand in hand with the development agency? There are some very practical issues on the ground. If you’re engaging a force like the Taliban, how do you bring development resources into play in the immediate wake of necessary security operations? That’s an issue that challenges everybody. There are basic questions to address like communications, location of respective headquarters, operational planning. In other words, close and effective cooperation is crucial.

Afghanistan will influence how we do other international operations. For example, the other big priority for the government and the department is the Americas. We work a lot with the people running our Americas task force and share ideas on things we are doing in Afghanistan. Our work with the Forces and CIDA is transformational. We have exciting new instruments to work with. CEFCOM is a very valuable partner for us. It represents the Force’s institutional memory when it comes to expeditionary work. There is no need to reinvent the wheel after each deployment. And CIDA has just created its own well-organized Afghanistan unit, bringing the various pieces of CIDA in Afghanistan into a coherent structure. We’re sharing these lessons learned.

Do you have counterparts in other NATO countries with so specific a task, or is Canada leading this type of initiative at the moment?

The British have set up a structure that is not unlike ours. On my first visit to Afghanistan in this job, Stephen Wallace, Mike Gauthier and I stopped in London and met with the Foreign Office, DFID (Department for International Development) and the Ministry of Defence to talk about some of the challenges we all face. I plan to meet soon with the Dutch and the Germans. Like us, both the Americans and the Brits have put more senior ambassadors into Afghanistan. We are all learning, sharing lessons learned and how to manage things better. There is a community of practice developing.

This takes a lot of qualified people. Are you finding you have enough, both within Foreign Affairs and generally?

I’ve been gratified by the response, particularly for the jobs in the field but also for the jobs here. If you make it clear that Afghanistan is a national priority, that’s a pretty significant draw. We spend a lot of time on conditions of service for our people in the field and on what people want to do after this assignment – they need to know that after having served here, we won’t forget them. Foreign Affairs and CIDA are pretty good at getting the first level of staffing down, but DND is much better at multiple rotations – thinking of future deployments is a little harder for us. I’m working on my Afghanistan “depth chart.”

Is that sufficient to get past the fact that this is an initiative that typically the Privy Council Office would lead?

I have a lot of support from PCO. Foreign Affairs in the past has aspired to a central agency role, and not unjustifiably. There are certain positions that naturally reinforce that role. The best example of this is the work of an ambassador. I consider the ambassador the “coherence agent” – he or she is the person who brings it all together and ensures we stay focused. But the ambassador is not just a foreign affairs person – you’ve got to give him or her the independence to speak for those other departments.

Do you see a larger role for other departments – beyond DFAIT, CIDA, DND, RCMP and CSC – in Afghanistan?

Absolutely. We will need help with training judges and lawyers, developing a legal system, writing laws, correctional services. We want to talk to the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) about border management. I worked with CBSA, in the period before the election of a Hamas government, to help advise the Palestinian Authority on managing their borders with Israel – the idea being if your neighbour doesn’t feel you are running a secure operation nothing will move through and economic development stagnates. CBSA did superb work with them on border management and technology. We’ve been thinking about a similar approach to the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Success for us means bringing an even broader array of Canadian resources into the task of rebuilding Afghanistan.