It was a long ago — and perhaps long-forgotten — conversation among allies that neatly but indirectly summed up Canada’s experience in the Afghan war.
Buried deep within the trove of documents released as part of The Washington Post’s investigation of America’s longest-running war is an account of a conversation between the now-former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan and the U.S. defence secretary at the time.
“In 2006, Donald Rumsfeld asked me why things were deteriorating in the south,” retired British general Sir David Richards said.
“And I said we don’t have enough resources … and Rummy said, ‘General what do you mean?’ I said: ‘We don’t have enough troops and resources. And we’ve raised expectations.’
“He said, ‘General, I don’t agree. Move on.'”
The conversation still speaks volumes about the myopic way in which the Afghan conflict was planned and conducted by the Bush administration, which believed wholeheartedly in the theory that nasty little wars against guerillas and terrorists did not require large numbers of troops.
The “south” to which Richard referred includes the Kandahar and Helmand provinces where Canadian and British troops were, at the time, locked in a death-struggle with a resurgent Taliban. It was a particularly brutal spring, summer and fall, with dozens of soldiers killed as the Canadian army fought its first major battle with insurgents, known as Operation Medusa.
There are several references to Canada in the 2,000 pages of interviews, notes, transcripts and audio recordings that make up the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) probe into the key mistakes made by Washington during the war. The documents were released after The Washington Post fought a series of court actions over three years under U.S. freedom of information law.
Fighting a war ‘as cheaply as possible’
The records, taken together, paint a searing portrait of the mistakes made by both the Bush and Obama administrations and show how the war lacked a clear strategy.
One of those mistakes — the lack of troops — cost Canadians dearly.
In its early years, the Afghan conflict was war on the cheap and there’s a lot of blame to go around, said a defence expert.
“Pretty much every country sent the smallest size [contingent] they could, hoping it would do the trick. And then they had to reinforce over time, realizing they had not sent enough,” said Steve Saediman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network and a professor at Carleton University. He wrote the book on the conflict: NATO in Afghanistan, Fighting Together, Fighting Alone.
“This was a British problem, a Canadian problem, a Danish problem, a German problem, a Dutch problem, on and on … If you take a look at what each country did, they tried to solve it as cheaply as possible.”
Ian Brodie, who was chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper in the early part of the Conservative government mandate, said that when the need for more troops became clear, Canada pressed hard for reinforcements and was rebuffed at the NATO Leaders Summit in Riga, Latvia in 2006.
“We were disappointed that nothing came out of the NATO summit,” he said. “This helped Prime Minister Harper decide to set up the Manley panel a year later and that did get two things — an end date for the mission and more U.S. troops”
Following the summit. Harper established a blue-ribbon, non-partisan panel that recommended Canada remain in combat until 2011 — as long as NATO delivered reinforcements.
Richards, who went on to become Britain’s chief of defence staff, said in his interview with SIGAR that the Canadian contingent and others had too few troops to hold the areas that had been cleared of the Taliban, and lacked sufficient aid and development cash to stabilize and reconstruct those regions.
“The U.S. had the best resources for post-clearing stabilization, but the rest of us didn’t, especially the Canadians,” Richards said, pointing to a Canadian road building project — known as Route Summit — which ran through the Operation Medusa battlefield.
It took months to build and he recalled being given “over-optimistic plans to flood the area with support” after the battle was finished.
That was before the fiscal reality set in for the Canadians.
“They were embarrassed they couldn’t do more,” said Richards, who noted that local Afghans were watching the project with close interest.
“Panjwai residents wanted to believe what we had promised, but they had been told all along that aid was coming, but it never came, so the Taliban slowly came back in to exploit it.
“It didn’t win hearts and minds because it was all a bit too late.”
Retired Canadian colonel and former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran said that myopic view of Afghanistan was not restricted to Washington — and many in the Canadian military and political establishments were simply following American direction.
‘We were just flopping around’
He said that, after his return home as Canada’s first battle group commander in 2002, he warned that the Taliban enjoyed respect and support among rural Afghans.
Stogran said he was ignored. He said he decided to retire when Canada returned to Kandahar in 2006 with no clear strategic campaign plan, other than to open up NATO’s mission in the southern portion of the country and then leave after a year.
“We were just flopping around,” he said.
Canada lost 158 soldiers to combat, accidents and suicides in Afghanistan. Dozens more veterans have taken their own lives since the end of mission in 2014.
It has been estimated the federal government spent up to $20 billion on military operations, development assistance and aid. But there has never been a full and complete accounting of the war by the federal government or parliamentary watchdogs.
One of Stogran’s successors, retired major-general Denis Thompson, admitted to being a bit mystified by all of the commotion. He said much of what Post has reported has been out there in political and military circles for a long time.
“A lot of the incongruities, misunderstandings and lack of resources were certainly in the public domain,” said Thompson, who was task force commander in 2008-09. “It’s just that someone has put it altogether and put it in a mainstream publication and not buried it in a military journal somewhere.”
Stogran agreed, adding that now that the Americans have begun to ask why their war has lasted almost two decades, Canadians should do the same — because they’re getting even fewer answers.
“I have long believed there should be a public inquiry into how the war was prosecuted in this country,” he said.