The Paradox of Afghanistan

By McDonough, David S. | International Journal, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Paradox of Afghanistan

McDonough, David S., International Journal

Stability operations and the renewal of Canada's international security policy?

The Canadian commitment to Afghanistan has singularly focused the attention of policymakers in Ottawa. Canada's contribution was initially limited to a naval interdiction task group that, no matter how impressive in speed or size, seemed curiously out of place for a military campaign in a land-locked southwest Asian country. "Boots on the ground," and all the dangers that that entailed, were the sine qua non for an impressive military contribution for this mission.1 Canada responded with the deployment of a small ground force contingent that would operate closely with US counterparts in combat operations in southern Afghanistan and be just as quickly withdrawn in mid-2002.

These initial contributions might have been the beginning and the end of Canada's brief foray with interventionism. Canada would have signalled its political approval of the American response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and could have simply withdrawn to the relative safety of its "fireproof house" in North America. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien would, however, make the strategically fateful decision to deploy relatively substantial Canadian forces (CF) ground troops in early 2003. This government decision, politically motivated as it was, would lay the foundation for this country's principal theatre of operations in the wider US-led "global war on terror." It would begin rather modestly in the relatively safe area of Kabul, but would be severely tested with the CF transfer to Kandahar, where the country appears mired in a complex (and seemingly intractable) stability operation that combines elements of counter insurgency and reconstruction in what Sean Maloney has described as a "post-Apocalyptical environment in the wake of. .a twenty-five year 'civil war'."2

It is not an exaggeration to consider Canada's extra regional engagement of Afghanistan the largest and most significant Canadian commitment since its role in the Korean War. Indeed, it is the most recent and impressive example of Canada's de facto role in "stability campaigns" of the post-Cold War period, where the international community seeks to mitigate the worst excesses of the new world disorder" by "imposing or supporting with armed force the establishment of order in states or regions."3 There are clear antecedents for such a policy in the long standing Canadian efforts to maintain an institutional international order marked by rules of behaviour and predictability. Canada might have had only a small role in its construction, but there is no doubt that it was, to borrow Dean Achesorfs words, "present at the creation" of the postwar order. It is precisely this latent conservative interest in global order that informs Canada's international security policy in the 21st century.

Canada's role in Afghanistan began as a means to assuage American concerns over its security in the post-9/11 period - a "forward defence" policy to complement domestic homeland security measures. But it is precisely this military engagement that will likely result in long-term consequences for Canada's international security policy. On one hand, the intervention has provided some insight into the doctrinal and operational bases for Canada's use of military force. On the other hand, Canada's role in Afghanistan has created a strategic context that is more amenable and even conducive to the development of expeditionary forces, but paradoxically could result in such severe consequences (e.g. accelerated casualties and/or regional destabilization) as to poison any interventionist sentiment in Canada for decades. Despite such a risky gamble, Afghanistan does represent a potentially long-term strategic opportunity for Canada that should not be dismissed.


The terrorist attacks of 9/11 renewed latent American concerns over its societal vulnerability that were largely, but never totally, held in abeyance during the Cold War.

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