Canada leaves the Kandahar mission with a reputation for having the best small army in the world. Canadian soldiers are respected around the globe for their battle-hardened professionalism, innovative application of counterinsurgency doctrine and holding their nerve in Kandahar, while other NATO allies cowered on heavily fortified bases munching lobster instead of fighting insurgents. The Americans, who lead the mission, have noticed: Jon Vance, a Canadian general, was entrusted to command thousands of American troops when the U.S. surged into Kandahar last summer.
Canadian soldiers now experience the alien sensation of being on the receiving end of allies’ envious glances, coveting Canadian equipment — top of the line, brand new kit bought for the mission. No more making due with duct tape and borrowing from big brother America.
In short: We’ve come a long way, baby. The Canadian Forces are back. The army, especially, is a far cry from what it was when Canada sent troops to war nearly a decade ago.
As Canada entered the war, experts warned the Canadian military was on the brink of collapse. They predicted that ancient equipment, anemic spending and the bleeding of experienced personnel would produce a exponential and nearly irreversible decline. Canadian troops deployed to Afghanistan wearing bright green camouflage poorly suited Kandahar’s ubiquitous brown dust. Ill-equipped soldiers were forced to drive around in open-air Iltis jeeps that most Canadians wouldn’t feel safe in on a major highway, let alone around a war zone. Strategic airlift capability, long written off as an extravagant expense by previous governments, suddenly became an obvious necessity. America, busy fighting on two fronts, couldn’t always spare us the cargo planes we needed to send our own troops or equipment where we wanted them.
The truth was painfully obvious. Canada’s self-respect, international reputation and foreign-policy independence were casualties of what former top soldier Rick Hillier termed the “decade of darkness.” Deep cutbacks during the Chrétien years had left us unable to live up to our international obligations and, worse, the expectations we held as a country convinced it always punched above its weight.
The cost of these cuts — disarmament by neglect — resulted in an increased risk to our soldiers and decreased operational effectiveness on the ground in Kandahar. The lack of medium-lift Chinook helicopters is a prime example.
Canada had Chinooks once upon a time, but a previous Liberal government sold them to the Dutch, who flew them around Afghanistan (frequently with Canadians on board).
As Taliban bomb makers discovered the effectiveness of the cheap and easy improvised explosive device (IED), helicopters offered a new and unanticipated advantage — reduced exposure to the IED threat.
IEDs have been the primary killer of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, responsible for the majority of our casualties. Helicopters offered a surefire way around the IED threat for certain types of missions through reduced reliance on ground transport and exposure on the roads. They also promised to increase operational effectiveness. While infantry patrols would always need to prowl the Panjwaii looking for the enemy, there was no requirement to send slow, lumbering convoys of food and ammunition over perilous roads when they could zoom over Taliban bomb-layer’s heads.
Canadian troops were forced to rely on the kindness of allies until the Manley Commission’s 2008 report made obtaining helicopters a requirement for Canada extending the Afghan mission.
No psychic or strategist could have predicted the success of IEDs against a modern military, but that’s no excuse for failing to maintain something as vital as helicopters. It was symbolic of the cost of letting our military slide.
As the nightly news filled with images of young Canadians dying in Afghanistan, and stories about our great deeds there became known to the public, Canadians stopped debating whether the investments in tanks, choppers and improved armoured vehicles were worth it. Our soldiers needed them, the government provided them. The public approved. Lives were saved as a result.
After generations of declining public interest in the armed forces, a new era finally dawned for Canada, born on the battlefields of Kandahar. Canadians began to understand the contract of unlimited liability between the solider and the state. Soldiers agree to lay their lives down for this country, but expect the government to give them the best tools to do the business of the nation. The realities of war left the public uninterested in false “guns versus butter” arguments. We were at war, and our soldiers needed to fight. Some of the equipment purchases, sole-sourced as urgent operational necessities, were far from the best possible deal for the taxpayer, but the focus wasn’t on saving money, it was where it belonged: saving lives.
As Canada leaves the combat mission in Afghanistan, the military will drop out of the news cycle. Vital lessons of Afghanistan will easily become distant memories. But this will not render our military any less important or relevant.
The world is a dangerous place. The Arab Spring is spreading both democracy and instability. Humanitarian and natural disasters are a constant feature of our world. Canadians don’t know when their military will be called upon next, or what they will be asked to do — so it must be prepared for anything. Granted, this is expensive. But the same planes that were bought to deliver equipment to soldiers in Afghanistan saved civilian lives in Haiti. Being prepared is half the battle.
We can’t forget that, or accept arguments suggesting that the Canadian Forces no longer need the public’s support or continuing modernization. Even in these times of budgetary pressure, the one thing that we truly cannot afford is to forget the lessons learned in Kandahar.
Nickel and diming ourselves into another decade of darkness will exact too high a price: the blood of Canadian soldiers in future conflicts. Putting the military on the back burner means death on the battlefield — a cost no Canadian or Canadian government should be willing to pay.
Mercedes Stephenson is a freelance journalist specializing in defence and security issues.