THE UNEXPECTED WAR: Canada in Kandahar

By Collard-Wexler, Simon | International Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

THE UNEXPECTED WAR: Canada in Kandahar


Collard-Wexler, Simon, International Journal


THE UNEXPECTED WAR Canada in Kandahar Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang Toronto: Viking, 2007. 304pp, $35.00 cloth (ISBN 978-0670067220)

As Afghanistan continues to generate headlines in Canada, many have come to wonder how and why Canada became engaged in such a difficult and seemingly intractable mission. This is the question that Janice Gross Stein, one of Canada's foremost thinkers on international security, and Eugene Lang, a former chief of staff for two Liberal defence ministers, set out to answer in The Unexpected War.

The Unexpected War argues that, as a result of incremental decisionmaking, Canada slid into a war in southern Afghanistan it did not expect. The polished messages that the government delivered on Canadian goals, objectives, and achievements in Afghanistan hid the fact that most policy-including the decision to deploy forces to Kandahar-was the outcome of tradeoffs made incrementally and in the absence of complete information. Understanding the context is therefore essential. According to Stein and Lang, the Liberal government's cautious and incrementalist approach led Canada to accept a high-risk mission in Kandahar.

Stein and Lang argue that Canada-US relations strongly informed Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. Following 9/11, Canada sent the elite JTF2 special forces and the 3rd battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian light infantry, on a short-term mission to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban. It also dispatched navy vessels to the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. "Early in, early out" was the mantra for the government, which wanted both to support the US and to minimize the burden on the Canadian military that had been decimated by years of cutbacks. In 2002 and 2003, Canada came under strong pressure to participate in the US-led invasion of Iraq. Although the Chrétien government and most of the Canadian public opposed the Iraq War, there was nevertheless a sense that Ottawa needed to prove to Washington that it was serious about security. The "Afghanistan solution," which prescribed a lead Canadian role in the international security and assistance force (ISAF) in Kabul, fit the bill. It also freed up American resources for Iraq. Although the Department of National Defence (DND) initially resisted Canada's participation in ISAF, it eventually became a leading advocate of the mission. In 2005, ballistic missile defence became another controversial issue in Canada-US relations. Many of the key players in Paul Martin's minority government supported Canadian participation in missile defence, but given the heated domestic controversy around the issue, Martin decided to stay out of the American program. In order to repair the resulting damage to Canada-US relations, the government again looked to Afghanistan. Ottawa agreed to take charge of a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Kandahar. However, Martin still believed that Afghanistan was but a distraction from his real foreign policy priorities, notably in Haiti and Sudan.

Stein and Lang identify General Rick Hillier, the chief of the defence staff, as a key player in Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. They describe him as brilliant, energetic, visionary, and focused on delivering results. The government's 2005 international policy statement called for greater Canadian leadership in international affairs. Hillier took this objective seriously, but, unlike Martin's cabinet, understood that true leadership required Canada to commit resources, assume risks, and, at times, take casualties. Stein and Lang highlight the perennial contradiction in trying to establish a prominent international role for Canada while trying to avoid the attendant costs.

The Unexpected War is critical of Ottawa's handling of the mission in Afghanistan. According to Stein and Lang, DND repeatedly misjudged the country's political and military environment. Its officials strongly favoured Canadian participation in the Iraq War, believing that Canadian involvement would only last six weeks.

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