Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Canada’s soured Afghan mission

November 24, 2009

If you want an idea of just how much the Afghan experience has soured for Canada, look no further than a furore over allegations that officials may have committed war crimes by handing over prisoners to local authorities in 2006 and 2007.

The accusations flying through Parliament — not to mention a cartoon portraying the Prime Minister as a torturer — cannot have been what Ottawa expected when it committed 2,500 troops to Kandahar in 2005 on a mission that has turned out to be much bloodier, longer and expensive that anyone had calculated. At best, Canada’s dreams for Afghanistan are on hold: the Taliban is still strong, corruption is rampant and there is little sign of the major development that Ottawa hoped for.

Canada also stationed troops in Kandahar to underline that the old-style vision of its soldiers as peacekeepers was out. “We’re not the public service of Canada … we are the Canadian forces, and our job is to be able to kill people,” said Rick Hillier, then chief of the defense staff, describing the Taliban as “detestable murderers and scumbags” in 2005.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a similarly uncompromising line in 2006 when he went to Afghanistan and announced “there will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way”.

Fast forward three years and the government has long since stopped trying to sell the merits of a mission that has lost 133 soldiers so far and, according to Parliament’s budgetary officer, will have cost over C$18 billion by the time it ends. For all the talk of not cutting and running, Ottawa says the troops will be home by end-2011 and dismisses talk of an extension.

Indeed, you’d barely know Canada was involved in its biggest conflict since Korea. Virtually the only time the mission makes the headlines is when a soldier is killed and this, as foreign diplomats note, is a rather odd way to persuade people to support the war. A few years ago officials held regular briefings, but those have long since stopped. Ottawa is now content to issue regular progress reports which reveal precious little progress.

The government learned too late that there is no way to make killing people look pretty (especially in an era of instant communications), that counter-insurgencies are particularly vicious, and that it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for a far-off conflict when people at home don’t feel threatened by the enemy you’re fighting and see little signs of progress

“I can understand why it would be difficult to perceive any sense of success,” said Brigadier Jon Vance, who until recently led Canada’s Afghan contingent. “In the Second World War . . . the (battles) were often linear. You could measure progress by how far across the map you moved on a day, how much of the enemy army did you destroy. You could celebrate crossing the Rhine, landing on a beach, liberating a town. It’s very difficult to do that (here).”

Canada became involved in Afghanistan almost by accident, committing soldiers in 2002 . In 2005 the then Liberal government committed to a mission in Kandahar, but only for a year. The Liberals were replaced in 2006 by the Conservatives — strong backers of the military — who twice pushed through Parliamentary votes extending the mission.

Failure, as they say, is an orphan. In 2007, former top Liberal defense official Eugene Lang co-authored a book saying it had been Hillier who pushed for the Kandahar assignment. Last month Hillier denied this, saying he would have been happy to stay in Kabul. He made the comments as he promoted his own autobiography, in which he savaged NATO as a faction-ridden rotten corpse that had botched the Afghan adventure.

The finger-pointing and backbiting increased dramatically last Wednesday, when diplomat Richard Colvin testified to a Parliamentary committee. Despite widespread reports of prisoner mistreatment in Afghan jails, Ottawa has always insisted it had no firm evidence that the detainees it transferred were being abused. After all, handing over prisoners in the knowledge they could be tortured is a war crime.


But Colvin, based in Afghanistan for much of 2006 and 2007, said he had sent 17 memos warning of the danger of torture. Even though Canada’s Conservative government is notoriously attack-minded, many were startled by the ferocity of its attempts to demolish Colvin’s reputation on the grounds that his evidence was weak and he had been duped by the Taliban. Media commentators rounded on the Conservatives while cartoonists accused Canada of turning a blind eye to abuse. One even portrayed Harper as a torturer preparing to give Colvin electric shocks.

Needless to say, the mission is becoming less and less of a good news story. No one talks much about the chances of it succeeding. Harper, who was in India when Colvin testified last week, had his first chance to appear in Parliament on Monday to answer questions about detainees. He chose instead to meet the Canadian lacrosse team.

The story looks set to continue for a few weeks as the Parliamentary committee hears from others involved in the case.  One thing is clear — Canada has learned some painful lessons and it will be a long time before Ottawa again sends thousands of troops to fight abroad.

((Canadian soldiers conduct a patrol in southern Afghanistan; Reuters photo by Finbarr O’Reilly. Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin testifies in Parliament; Reuters photo by Chris Wattie))


Canada didn’t go to Afghanistan in 2002 to avoid Iraq, which wasn’t invaded until 2003.

It sent a battalion in February of 2002 to guard Kandahar airfield to show solidarity with the US. After five months it was withdrawn and a few staff officers stayed in country until two battalions served in Kabul with ISAF for ~ six months each. The major selling point of this 2nd mission was that it allowed Ottawa to avoid Iraq.

After losing the position (which rotated amongst NATO nations)for it’s battalion in Kabul in 2005 Canada went to Kandahar to continue to avoid Iraq, to fight in a small war that was Hillier’s ticket to expanding the reputation and resources of the Canadian Forces, and to use the mission as leverage in trans border economic disputes with the US.

The major Canadian government’s problem is that it got a “medium” war the Canadian Forces couldn’t handle. Most of the public very quickly figured out that the mission had nothing to do with Canadian security and a lot to do with maintaining governmental and corporate bureaucracies in Ottawa and Brussels.

Now we have a situation in which the honor and competence of the army,which most people assumed, from the almost 100% positive spin put on the mission by major media outlets, were first rate is in question.

Posted by M Shannon | Report as abusive

I’ll explain why the $18 billion amount given by the budget office (the budget officer wasn’t hiding figures…he received little cooperation from the government)is low and when considering we are talking about at most two combat battalions worth of troops the cost is staggering.

It didn’t take into account spending by any department other than defence.

It didn’t account for major equipment purchases that would not have been made without the campaign: helicopters, tanks, drones and MRAP type vehicles etc.

It didn’t account for the cost of replacing damaged vehicles.

It didn’t account for long term health care or pensions or for the creation of hundreds of mental health jobs in Canada to look after soldiers.

It didn’t account for interest payments on money borrowed to fight the war.

$100 billion is probably closer to the mark.

Posted by M Shannon | Report as abusive

According to “The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar” by Eugene Lang and Janice Stein, it is quite clear that the Canadian military knew in 2002 that the Americans were likely to invade Iraq. The Canadian top brass in fact drew up a plan recommending deployment to Iraq rather than Afghanistan. The Liberals had no intention of getting involved in Iraq and chose Afghanistan instead. Indeed, then Liberal Defence Minister John McCallum told Donald Rumsfeld that (a) Canada would send troops to Afghanistan and (b) this mean they wouldn’t be able to contribute to Iraq. According to the book, Rumsfeld was quite happy with this.
Here are three paragraphs that didn’t make it into my initial post:

The issue of alleged abuse had already tripped up the government in 2007, when officials first denied there was a problem and were then forced to hastily renegotiate a 2005 agreement between Canada and Afghan on offender transfers to introduce safeguards against torture. The initial deal had been signed by Hiller when the Liberals were in power.
Eugene Lang, who was still chief aide to Bill Graham at the time, conceded in an interview with CBC over the weekend that the first agreement had not been good enough.
“We didn’t think we’d be taking a lot of detainees, partly because we didn’t think we’d be in Kandahar for more than one year,” he said. “We … grossly underestimated the ferocity of the insurgency in Kandahar at that time so we ended up fighting a war that frankly we didn’t really expect, and as a result, probably taking a lot more detainees than we ever expected.”

Posted by David Ljunggren | Report as abusive

The conduct of the Liberals on Afghanistan is becoming a joke of gigantic proportions, just when Canadians thought they may be on to something, other than political gamesmanship like we had with wafergate, Olympic logos, door knobs, course of the Torch relay, stimulus spending etc.
David Mulroney, the number one man in Afghanistan at the time, has volunteered to fly down to testify immediately, before the parliamentary committee, and we have the Liberals going to set up road blocks so he can’t be heard by the committee, and prevent Canadians from hearing him now. Liberals for their shameful short term political gain, want the accusations to float in the air as long as possible, before some credible evidence is brought forward, by a well qualified source like David Mulroney. Liberals set out a smoke screen, that they want all documents released before Mulroney testifies, knowing full well only some documents can be released because of security concerns, and some are classified, but this will only serve the Liberal game plan, because then they can make accusations of coverup – they are treating Canadians like turnips. This is all about political games and not a search for the truth and I am surprised members of the media are now being duped by the tactics being employed. ists/mindelle_jacobs/2009/11/24/11900496 -sun.html s/peter_worthington/2009/11/24/11900501- sun.html

Posted by Peter B | Report as abusive

“After all, handing over prisoners in the knowledge they could be tortured is a war crime.”

Said who? No UN charter regulations say so. No Canadian law say so. No Geneva Convention say so. It is only established that a military force is not allowed to torture its own war prisoners of the enemy.

No you don’t want to torture nor hand over prisoners to others to torture. That’s a sound and moral act.

What Canadian Forces did was to hand over some prisoners to the Afghan government under a transfer agreement which clearly specifies ‘no torture’. The Afghan government signed this agreement and it is up to them to honor it.

If they don’t they should answer for it. It is not the job of the Canadian gov or Forces to run or oversee a sovereign foreign government.

Here we have a diplomat who made an accusation without evidence. He made a single sentence to a non-legal body and and the whole opposition political and media heads jumped up and down like being burn on a frying pan. Quite childish.

Posted by cnon | Report as abusive

Why isn’t this story getting more attention outside of Canada? There are allegations of torture and coverup that have been coming out every day in the Candian media for 3 weeks.

Posted by M Smiff | Report as abusive

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see