Magazine article The American Prospect

The Canadian Way of War: Can We Learn to Fight from Our Staid Northern Neighbors?

Magazine article The American Prospect

The Canadian Way of War: Can We Learn to Fight from Our Staid Northern Neighbors?

Article excerpt


It was a public-relations stunt worthy of P.T. Barnum, perfect for getting the attention of a uninterested American audience: Tuck an Afghan village, complete with authentic Afghans, into the heart of Washington, D.C., right between the White House and Capitol Hill. Then, blow it the hell up.

The most surprising part of the whole idea was who came up with it: the Canadian government.


Alas, sober-minded authorities managed to shut down this worthwhile Canadian initiative a few days before it occurred, thinking the melodramatics might frighten citizens still trained by the Bush administration to panic at the slightest whiff of terrorism. The staff of the Canadian Embassy, where the staged attack was set to take place, elected to soldier on with a decidedly less-flashy forum designed to remind Americans that Canadians are still fighting alongside--and, for a time, were fighting without--U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The Canadian Embassy is an expansive limestone structure, modernist in style, beautiful to approach, and apparently an architectural joke on us--an anecdote from the biography of the designer, Arthur Erickson, reports that the zoning-mandated columns in the facade are hollow, "mocking the U.S. and all of its imperial pretensions." Maybe so, but it's the little touches--like the sign by the fountain informing passersby of "eau non potable'--that retain an air of Canadian punctiliousness.


Inside, instead of Afghang and pyrotechnics, I found an assemblage of Canadian officials, an assortment of representatives from other NATO allies, and even a bagpipe player flown in from Montreal specifically for the event. But scant few Americans were in attendance. Following a couple of Canadian military officers who joked about their need for a drink--"It's the Afghanistan effect!"--I ran into Jennie Chen, an embassy counselor who had just returned from a year-long diplomatic stint in Afghanistan. The conflict, she said, is a big issue in Canada, which has committed some 2,700 troops through 2011. Canadians, she explained, emphasize a whole-of-government approach, primarily focused on developing the Afghan army rather than engaging in the kind of counterinsurgency operations now popular in the U.S. military.

"We welcome the U.S.," Chen said of the recent American troop deployments to Afghanistan, "particularly in the south--we've been holding it on our own.

Indeed, around Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, the Canadians were essentially on their own until last year as they attempted to train new Afghan forces and conduct security patrols of the surrounding area but lacked the troops and direction to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy of fighting to protect civilians. The Taliban gained ground in the south--its traditional ethnic home--against frustrated Canadian forces.

"[Americans] need to understand this is the toughest environment," Canadian Capt. Chris Blouin told a McClatchy reporter over the summer. "Expect everything."

American military observers have looked down upon the work of our NATO allies in Afghanistan, deriding them for failing to leave their bases and engage the enemy "outside the wire." (Indeed, a decision by German military officers to attack suspected Taliban with missiles instead of troops led to over a hundred civilian casualties and a major public-relations debacle.) They say the Canadians are better than most but still fault their ability to go after insurgents. …

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