Saturday, February 09, 2008

Afghanistan until 2011? Fat chance.

The Harper Conservatives, having placed a motion before Parliament which would extend the Afghanistan mission in Kandahar, may well turn out to be a back-breaker for the Canadian Forces.

Keep in mind that the current mission is already an extension which was approved by Parliament on 17 May 2006. At that time, the mission in its current format was to end in February 2009. The crystal-ballers at NDHQ and the PMO had convinced themselves that three years would be sufficient time to stabilize the area.

Within weeks of that decision the landscape changed and, instead of being able to establish control, an insurgency in southern Afghanistan created a chaotic situation which required escalation and the inclusion of main battle tanks just to provide force protection for patrols. This winter, instead of the various elements of the insurgency withdrawing until the spring, they maintained enough pressure to suggest that things aren't improving in any significant way. In short, we're not winning in Afghanistan, partly because we have not been able to define what a "win" really is.

A great deal of the problem is Harper himself. This is not a man passionate about Afghanistan at all. The truth is, Harper's passion is himself and how he is portrayed and viewed by others. Afghanistan is merely a conduit for his pursuit of glory. Harper never speaks in real terms about what is being or should be accomplished in Afghanistan; he speaks in platitudes. If it wasn't Afghanistan it would be someplace else. His real interest is in having the Canadian Forces deployed on an expeditionary combat mission in an effort to portray Canada as something much tougher than the diplomatic honest broker which could bring factions together and not be accused of taking a side.

Harper wants to take a side and, despite his recent attempt to divorce himself from the Bill Kristol driven Bush administration, it is the romantic attraction he holds for his conservative American brethren which is motivating him. Harper is looking for personal validation from the conservative movement outside this country. If that movement was fighting armed penguins in Antarctica, Harper would have Canadian troops there claiming that they are attempting to improve life and spread Canadian values. His interest is in being seen as "tough" and being viewed by the US conservative movement as a full member of the "war club" expanding on what he views as a glorious history of Canadian warfare. From Hansard, January 29, 2003.
In my judgment Canada will eventually join with the allied coalition if war on Iraq comes to pass. The government will join, notwithstanding its failure to prepare, its neglect in co-operating with its allies, or its inability to contribute. In the end it will join out of the necessity created by a pattern of uncertainty and indecision. It will not join as a leader but unnoticed at the back of the parade.

This is wrong. It is not fitting with the greatness of our history or with our standing as a nation. We need to be standing through tough times and taking tough decisions.

We in the Canadian Alliance will continue to take tough public positions and urge the necessary military preparations that make the avoidance of war possible. I can only urge and pray that our government will do the same.

Notwithstanding that not joining the Bush initiated war in Iraq was a tough decision in itself. But notice the language. To Harper the most important thing at stake was not the definition of the problem with Iraq, but our position in the parade.

When the Canadian government did not commit to Bush's coalition, particularly after Bush announced that the goal of any invasion was not compliance with UN weapons inspections but regime change, Harper went into full pout and vented in the Wall Street Journal. In that letter he engaged in blatant falsehoods to portray himself as tough, unwavering and willing to accept anything Bush fed him. Apart from opening his diatribe with the hyperbolic statement that Canada was skipping out on a world war, he once again made it clear what his real problem was.

Modern Canada was forged in large part by war -- not because it was easy but because it was right. In the great wars of the last century -- against authoritarianism, fascism, and communism -- Canada did not merely stand with the Americans, more often than not we led the way.
Again, it is the position in the parade which most concerns him. The location and raison d'etre were secondary. Harper was and still is interested in one thing: glory.

The motion to extend the Afghanistan mission to 2011 has the potential, if something doesn't change quickly, to turn into a disaster for the Canadian Forces.

Recently the Conservatives told NDHQ that the cost of the Afghanistan mission would have to come out of the existing defence budget. That has never been the way Canada dealt with combat missions in the past. Such operations have always been funded by cabinet as an exception to DND estimates. What that means is that whatever happens, and we have the past three years as an example, in order to adapt to any extraordinary requirements, normal operations and maintenance will suffer as funding is shifted to meet the requirements of the Afghanistan deployment.

Attrition in the combat arms occupations of the Canadian Forces, particularly the infantry, has always been high. Since Afghanistan however, the attrition rate to voluntary release has risen significantly. The stop-gap method employed by NDHQ has been to re-role recruits from the other services. When that was announced in October 2006, the immediate effect was to rob other elements of the Canadian Forces of vitally needed personnel. And that act too caused increased attrition.

Other units have gone through a roller coaster of personnel changes which affect their operational integrity. As an example, in 2006, the Health Services Support Unit, a detachment of medical personnel from 1 Field Ambulance returned from Afghanistan and the bulk of them proceeded straight to the release centre having opted for voluntary release. That kind of activity has an effect across the Canadian Forces which impacts the ability of other units to be able to perform. In recent months there has been a mad scramble to gather together medical personnel by robbing them from various commands which are already having difficulty finding enough people to keep ships at sea and clinics sufficiently manned.

The promise by former Minister of National Defence, Gordon O'Connor, that rotations for personnel to Afghanistan be limited to one deployment is now consigned to the trash heap. An extension of three more years will most certainly see infantry and armoured units making a second or third rotation. In fact, that is already happening as 2 PPCLI once again prepares for an upcoming deployment. Infantry companies, artillery detachments and field engineering sections are so badly understrength that over 550 of the 2500 troop task force will be made up of army reservists filling empty regular force positions.

Most people are probably unaware of the fact that a six-month rotation to Afghanistan involves a great deal more absence from family than the deployment itself. The training required to get troops ready for such a mission involves anywhere from a year to eighteen months of preparation, most of it in the field and away from garrison and home. As people move into 2nd and 3rd rotations, they can expect to find themselves in a constant train/roto/train pattern with little respite.

Something that seems to escape most people is 2010. The extension of the Afghanistan mission at it's current strength is going to further tax the Canadian Forces when the Vancouver Olympic commitment has to be executed. The Canadian Forces will have a huge security operation requiring large chunks of both regular combat arms personnel and special operations troops. That kind of contingency operation is difficult to mount and man at the best of times, but to do it with troops which have recently rotated out of Afghanistan will serve only to create greater levels of dissatisfaction as troops are pulled away from home and families.

There is a growing level of frustration among elements of the Canadian Forces which are not involved in the direct Afghanistan mission. Many complain that the entire focus of the Canadian Forces and the government is on that mission alone and comes at the expense of operations and training in other areas. The navy had to hold its ground against a defence headquarters which had shifted funds but expected the navy to continue with sovereignty patrols. When the navy pointed out that they had no money to support such normal operations the minister had to go to Treasury Board for additional emergency funding just to keep the navy running.

The Canadian Forces are under extreme pressure now. The continuation of the Afghanistan commitment into 2011 stands to cause a collapse of the CF and render them unable to respond to other unexpected contingencies. And the question still remains: What exactly are we out to accomplish? If the mission is simply Harper looking for a position in the parade, he may well find himself out there with a crippled armed forces of his own making.

Update: This article, surprisingly, from the National Post is worth reading.

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