Gen. Rick Hillier on his biggest strategic error, the Taliban, and Canada's future in Afghanistan

A conversation with Kate Fillion

Gen. Rick HillierGen. Rick Hillier was chief of defence staff from February 2005 to July 2008. As he explains in A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, the Canadian Forces have long been underfunded, under-trained, underappreciated and overextended. The most visible and outspoken CDS in recent history, Hillier sought to reverse those trends while fighting a war in Afghanistan—and, as it turned out, Ottawa.

Q:In A Soldier First, you write that most Canadians do not know what the rationale behind the Afghanistan mission is. What’s the biggest misperception?

A: That everything is dark and gloomy. What Canadians hear about the mission is that Canadian soldiers have been killed, and they hear about improvised explosive devices and corruption in the government. There are some very bright spots, from the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, to the development of the Afghan national army, to the fact that two-thirds of the country now essentially runs as normal. Canadians hear not a single thing about any of that.

Q: Whose fault is that?

A: I start with average Canadians. They should demand that kind of information from their government when they’ve got their sons and daughters participating in a war. Secondly, the Afghanistan task force has a strategic communications policy, but I wonder where the communications is being done because hundreds of thousands of Canadians don’t know what’s happening. Thirdly, our media have not done a very good job. Very few journalists have actually been outside the wire, because their editors are very concerned about the risks and their insurance policies almost always prohibit them from going out.

Q: Why did we first send troops to Afghanistan, in your opinion?

A: We were going somewhere in 2003, just as a way to relieve the pressure of saying no to the Americans on Iraq, and it ended up being Afghanistan. But I think now we view the world through a more strategic lens: we have to bring stability to places where there’s chaos, to help those areas develop.

Q: Does Canada have a coherent strategic plan for what’s going to happen post-July 2011, when our troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan?

A: That’s very difficult to say. I think Canadians have heard very little about it and are therefore reasonably asking, “What is the plan and what is our strategy there?” When I was chief of defence staff, our view of what we were doing was to try to help Afghans determine, with some assistance, just what it was they wanted as a country and how they wanted to live their lives. We were very, very clear on that. As President [Hamid] Karzai told me the first time I met him, “The number one threat to Afghanistan is our lack of capacity to govern ourselves, to provide jobs for the people and provide for their basic needs, and to provide for their security. The sooner we can be helped to provide those capacities, the sooner we can get going on our own.”

Q: How can you help Afghans do all that after 2011 without troops?

A: You cannot, so the troops, if they’re not Canadian, will have to come from somewhere else. Make no doubt about it: the security mission and therefore the need for forces will not be finished in southern Afghanistan in 2011. You can come up with all kinds of schemes to hide away in a camp and train people for the Afghan army or police, but they lack credibility. If you try to help train and develop the Afghan army or police in southern Afghanistan, you are going to be in combat.

Q: Should our troops stay in Afghanistan after July 2011?

A: Whether they should stay or not will be a decision the government of Canada will make. What I would actually like to see is a strategic discussion, not just about what we do in Afghanistan but about Canada’s place in the world. But in this constant minority government, always in election campaign mode, with a very vitriolic Parliament, it’s impossible to have that sort of strategic discussion. Do I think that if Canadian troops stayed on the ground we could help foster a more stable Afghanistan that would in turn be a stabilizing force in Southwest Asia and help reduce terrorists’ ability to hide? Yes I do.

Q: Do you agree with de Gaulle, that “genius sometimes consists of knowing when to stop”?

A: I teach that as one of my leadership points. But also, you don’t achieve anything by stopping at the first sign of difficulty. If we’d stopped after Dieppe in World War II, where would we be right now as a nation? If we’d stopped before Vimy Ridge, we wouldn’t have been a nation at all. So yes, you’ve got to know when to say “stop” as a leader, you sure do, but you’ve also got to know when to push for the final thing that’s going to give you the full benefit.

Q: You write that when you were chief of defence staff, some of the toughest battles were fought not in Kandahar but against the bureaucracy in Ottawa.

A: I liken it to a boa constrictor. We were at war in Afghanistan, with young men and women laying their lives on the line on a daily basis, and we were trying to move at lightning speed to give them the capabilities to reduce risks and ensure they were set up for success. What we did not see, from the vast majority of the bureaucracy back in Ottawa, was the same sense of urgency. Everything became difficult, really moved slowly, projects were often parcelled into very little bits and pieces. We had to fight a war in Ottawa to get things done, from getting the tanks upgraded to getting helicopters. We should’ve had those things from the time the need was identified, in weeks if not days. It took months, and in several cases years.

Q: You once said, famously, that the Taliban are “detestable murderers and scumbags.” Do you still believe that?

A: Absolutely. I spoke about people who were trying to kill Canadians’ sons and daughters. I would also challenge people to come up with any other description for those who, as part of their policy, want to murder defenceless Afghan men and women.

Q: But isn’t it inevitable that we deal with the Taliban? And maybe even cede them part or all of the country?

A: No. It’s inevitable that some people from the Taliban will become engaged and get involved in the political process, just as happened in Northern Ireland. But I don’t think it’s inevitable that you’d cede a part of the country to the Taliban. Do you say, “This part of Afghanistan is free and equal, but in Kandahar province you’re allowed to whip women because they have fingernail polish on, or their shoes make a clicking noise on the cobblestones”? I fail to see how we, as a nation that’s a leader, could support something like that.

Q: Why has the Taliban made such a comeback in Afghanistan?

A: The intensity of [the U.S.] focus on Afghanistan started to dissipate after the successful campaign against the Taliban in late 2001, early 2002. All of a sudden the U.S. focus, including American forces and intelligence, shifted to Iraq. So [the Taliban] had a bit of a breather, they weren’t being as directly targeted, they had time to rest and regroup. Then in late ’03, insurgents started taking on the large U.S. military machine in Iraq, using IEDs and suicide bombers, and having some success. That gave the Taliban hope, they started to recruit more people and make more attacks, and in turn that brought in more money from the Arab world, so they started rebuilding to move back in [to Afghanistan]. That culminated around 2006. The second aspect is that NATO’s strategy was incremental and therefore not conducive to keeping the Taliban off balance.

Q: So was it a mistake for Canada to reduce its military presence in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2006?

A: Probably the finger should be pointed at me for blame on that one. [As head of the army at the time] I successfully argued that we should reduce because the army was being run pretty hard and we hadn’t really set ourselves up to do that. That was the biggest strategic error, in hindsight, that I believe I made, because as soon as we went into operational pause, the urgency of getting the army up to speed and re-equipped and getting the units full of soldiers all disappeared. And the government got used to not paying the operational costs, which in any mission are going to be plus a billion dollars, so when we went back to it, that shock of the operational cost was big. But I’m not sure we had the ability to effectively have a presence on the ground there.

Q: NATO’s new commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is warning of “mission failure” without an additional 40,000 troops.

A: What he’s broadcast is a very commonsense, pragmatic number, focused on the south because that’s where the threat is. My hat’s off to him. But there is more to it than just troops, which Stan McChrystal understands really well. There are so many different countries providing reconstruction funds, and much of it is not as coherent as it should be to provide the big bang effect. Two, building a government that actually works is a piece of it, for sure, and Afghanistan really has a challenge because most of the folks with any experience building a government are either dead or living in the West, after 35 years of brutality.

Q: What do you think of Biden’s plan to scale back U.S. forces in Afghanistan and focus more on rooting out al-Qaeda there and in Pakistan?

A: Before [9/11], al-Qaeda found a home inside the Taliban-dominated part of Afghanistan to regroup, plan, prepare, train and project from, and that’s what allowed them to be successful in some of their efforts worldwide. If you’re trying to get rid of that petri dish that allowed terrorists to grow, you have to approach the entity rather than just go after the terrorists themselves.

Q: If Obama decides against sending more troops to Afghanistan, will the Canadian mission have been in vain?

A: Not at all. The men and women from our country have been there to help Afghans who needed some help. You talk to every single man or woman who’s been there, and almost to a person you hear that they believe in their mission and continue to support it.

Q: Given widespread fraud in the recent elections, was President Karzai the wrong guy for us to back?

A: I think he was absolutely the right individual to coalesce Afghans and the international community in support of Afghans in 2001. But the Karzai administration appears to have a great deal of difficulty building an effective government structure that can deliver routinely what the Afghan people want and need. Obviously, given the number of contenders he had, and the results on the election side, [he] may not be the right long-term solution.

Q: Speaking of elections, have you definitively ruled out a run for office?

A: Yes, I have.

Q: You’re known for being tough and outspoken, but you mention tears quite often in the book. Are you really a softie?

A: Yeah, I probably am. But I’ll tell you one thing, when you have young men and women in combat operations and they lose their friends, one thing you quickly learn not to be ashamed of is tears.

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