Earlier this year, David Auerswald and Stephen Saideman published NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone, an exploration of how government structures and party politics in NATO countries shape how battles are waged in the field. Auerswald is a professor of security studies at the National War College and the author of several books, including Disarmed Democracies: Domestic Institutions and the Use of Force. Saideman is the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and served between 2001-2002 as politico-military planner on the Balkans Branch of the U.S. Joint Staff’s Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate (J-5). Below are two excerpts from Chapter 5.
The Canadians in Kandahar
Canada is a second case of a single-party, parliamentary government operating in Afghanistan. Though both the Canadians and the British operated in RC-South, two things differentiate their behavior. First, while the British were ruled by a majority parliamentary government, the Canadians were led by a series of minority governments during the intervention in Afghanistan. Second, Canada’s behavior in Afghanistan varied quite widely, from being heavily laden with caveats and ineffective to barely restricted and aggressive, making British behavior appear relatively consistent in comparison. That this occurred largely at a time of Canadian minority government, a rare phenomenon in Canadian politics, made the increased delegation to the ground quite a puzzle. Because of both institutional legacies and the weakness of the Canadian opposition, however, the Canadian Forces (CF) ultimately had significant control over operations in the field. Variations in delegation, oversight, and incentives were largely driven by the individuals at the top of the Canadian military.
Behind the Wire and Out in Front
Canadian forces in Afghanistan had very limited discretion for the first three years of the conflict. This was certainly the case when they served as part of American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2002. Canadian ground commanders at the time faced the same rules as bomber pilots and special forces units: any mission that might risk collateral damage needed to be approved ahead of time. This meant a phone call home anytime the Canadians were to leave the base, since collateral damage is always a possibility when hundreds of soldiers move out. Lieutenant Colonel Pat Stogran, CF commander in Afghanistan in the first half of 2002, feared that these conditions would dangerously restrict his ability to act when necessary and that micromanagement from home might create a disaster akin to events in Bosnia and Rwanda, where officers had to stand by and watch war crimes take place in front of them.
After one six-month tour in Kandahar, the CF were withdrawn from Afghanistan, only to return in 2003 to Kabul where they helped to institutionalize ISAF. Lieutenant General Andrew Leslie became deputy commander of ISAF and the Canadian contingent commander in 2003. Leslie had to ask Ottawa for permission for operations where there was a significant chance of collateral damage, or the potential for lethal force, significant casualties, or strategic failure. He also called home whenever Canadian special operations forces engaged in any significant activities, even when operating outside of ISAF as part of OEF. Leslie found that approval was almost always granted, often immediately. Major General Peter Devlin, commander of NATO’s effort in Kabul under Leslie, believed that the home office said yes to about half of the requests to use the special operations units. Devlin considered the Canadians to be in the middle tier in terms of flexibility and restrictions.
In the next Canadian troop rotation, Devlin’s replacement, Brigadier General Jocelyn Lacroix, received his official national guidance via a “Letter of Intent.” That letter stated that “NDHQ [National Defence Headquarters] authority is required, prior to committing CF personnel to any operations, wherein there is a reasonable belief that CF units or personnel may be exposed to a higher degree of risk.” Officials in Canada were very slow to respond to field requests, sometimes taking up to twenty-four hours or more. On a few occasions, Lacroix had to face the galling situation of needing to find an alternative to the Canadian contingent while waiting for deliberations in Ottawa to conclude.
When Canadian Lieutenant General Rick Hillier became overall ISAF commander, overlapping with Lacroix’s Kabul rotation, he faced a similarly frustrating situation. The leaders of the CF gave Hillier the authority to act as a NATO commander but little influence over Canadian forces in Afghanistan. Instead, a Canadian colonel was the commander of the nation’s contingent, so Hillier was forced to call Ottawa should he want to override decisions made by this colonel. This was problematic, since the colonel was operating under relatively strict caveats. Hillier later referred to the Canadian contingents in Bosnia and Afghanistan as “CAN’T BATs” (instead of the traditional NATO term CANBAT for a Canadian battalion) because he frequently had to rely on other national contingents that were far more flexible.
All this changed when Colonel Steve Noonan became the senior Canadian on the ground in 2005–6; he found himself having far more latitude than previous commanders – “wide arcs of fire,” as he called it. The orders at the time authorized “full spectrum operations.” Instead of having to ask permission to engage in a variety of operations, Noonan found himself facing a new command philosophy, enunciated by the new chief of defense staff (CDS), none other than the freshly promoted General Rick Hillier (Maloney 2009). Noonan was allowed to act first and explain his actions later if necessary. His successor, Brigadier General David Fraser, found a similar situation: “Everything I did over there was notification, not approval. . . . If I had to go outside the boundaries of the CDS intent, then I would have to get approval. I never got to a boundary.” In the official “Letter of Intent” given to Fraser by the CDS, Fraser was told “Within the bounds of the Strategic Targeting Directive, you have full freedom to authorize and conduct operations as you see fit. In the interest of national situational awareness, whenever possible you are to inform me in advance of the concept of operations for any planned operations, particularly those likely to involve significant contact with the enemy.”
Fraser’s freedom of action was particularly useful when he led Canadian forces during their most intense combat since the Korean War – Operation Medusa in the summer of 2006 (Horn 2010)….
Explaining the Evolution of Canadian Behaviour
At first glance, Canada presents a puzzle for our approach (and many others as well) given that it became one of the most forward-leaning efforts in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan despite being led by a minority government from 2004 to 2011. Under a minority government, one would have expected coalition government–type behavior, with the party leading the government having to compromise with the other parties on the Afghanistan mission to stay in office and avoid or win confidence votes. However, Canadian minority governments were actually empowered by the inability of their parliamentary opponents to work together to restrict the CF in Afghanistan.
Minority Government and Divided Opposition
In theory, the formal commander in chief of the Canadian forces is the Governor General, who is technically an agent of the king or queen of Canada. In reality, the prime minister is empowered by Canadian governing institutions to make decisions in times of conflict and has generally delegated military decisions to the CDS. Usually, Canada’s prime minister is quite powerful, having been delegated significant authority from the majority party in Parliament. The parliamentary rank and file have little influence over daily conflict decisions and exercise practically no oversight over military operations. Indeed, members of Parliament do not even have security clearances, greatly restricting their access to pertinent information.
That Parliament was a relatively weak player when it came to military deployments may seem surprising given recent Canadian election results. The majority Liberal Party government elected in 2000 was followed by minority party rule under the Liberals in 2004 and the Conservatives in 2006 and 2008. One would think that minority government cabinets would be sensitive to opposition party concerns, if only to avoid no-confidence votes, giving Parliament significant influence over how the military was used (Lagassé 2010). That was not the case, however, in large part because the makeup of the four major political parties made it nearly impossible to form a stable opposition coalition. The two main parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, were on opposite sides of most issues. The Bloc Québécois party was not an appealing or viable partner due to its separatist agenda, and instead was a spoiler to the hopes of a left-leaning coalition of the Liberals and the New Democratic Party. The result was that Canadian prime ministers, even when leading minority governments, were in a strong position to make policy, or delegate that authority to a trusted surrogate – in this case the CDS.
That said, because Canada’s was a minority government, Parliament had to periodically reauthorize the overall Canadian mission in Afghanistan, which, in theory, allowed it to exert some influence over the conduct of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had to ask Parliament to extend the mission in Afghanistan on a couple of occasions, with the last mandate expiring in 2011. The Liberals were sufficiently divided on Afghanistan that Harper was able to get enough votes for short extensions of the mission. Moreover, failing to authorize Canadian participation is a very blunt stick. Yet even somewhat less blunt alternatives, such as caveats, were not required by Parliament. There was some brief discussion during the 2008 mandate debate about restricting the CF from engaging in offensive operations, but this did not get very far. Instead, the day-to-day management of Afghan operations was left in the hands of the CDS and his subordinates.
Technically, the governor general selects the CDS, a four-leaf officer, upon the advice of the prime minister. In reality, the prime minister selects the CDS, who serves at the pleasure of the prime minister. The CDS then decides how Canadian forces operate. That said, the CDS must consider what the prime minister will tolerate or else be replaced. As such, the CDS consults the minister of defense and those under the minister. But when trying to understand Canadian behavior, then, we must look to the prime minister’s trusted agent, the CDS.
Indeed, a striking feature of Canadian efforts in Afghanistan was that nearly all of the decisions and dynamics were intramilitary. When asked, Canadian civilians and officers largely concurred that the civilians delegated to the senior military leadership nearly all decisions except for those to deploy to particular places at particular times. Recent Canadian deployments seem to meet the ideal type of Huntington’s (1957) objective form of civil-military relations: the prime minister decides where the Canadian forces deploy and the CDS determines how they will operate once they get there. The CDS along with other top officers (the deputy chief of the defense staff prior to 2006 and the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces Command since then) determined the flexibility of the forces on the ground, including caveats.
Excerpted from NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone by David P. Auerswald and Stephen M. Saideman. Copyright (c) 2014 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. To order: press.princeton.edu