The limits of Canadian military strategy

Our top soldier in Kandahar on why Canada’s campaigns are planned by Americans

News that U.S. President Barack Obama has this week appointed a new general to run the war in Afghanistan leaves me wondering how Canada’s top officer in Kandahar, Brigadier-General Jon Vance, sees this latest change in American command.

My guess is that Vance, who took over Canada’s Task Force Kandahar on Feb. 19, must view the evolution of Obama administration strategy for Afghanistan with a realist’s grasp of how Canada, and other lesser members of the NATO coalition, must accept that their jobs will inevitably change as the American approach evolves.

The key strategic decisions about how the campaign in Afghanistan will be waged are out of our control—for reasons Vance explained in detail in a fascinating essay he wrote a few years ago.

His paper, published in 2005 in a Canadian military textbook called The Operational Art: Context and Concepts, has the provocative title “Tactics without Strategy, or Why the Canadian Forces Do Not Campaign.” In it, Vance spells out why Canada doesn’t really direct how the troops it contributes to coalitions are actually used in terms of any broad military plan.

But Vance is not just moaning about U.S. domination. His paper is technical. It analyzes three levels of warfare. At the top is the strategic level, the ultimate military and political reasons for fighting. At the bottom is the tactical level, the way military units engage in battle. In between is the operational level, defined in Canadian Forces doctrine as “the design, organization, integration, and conduct of theatre strategies, campaigns, major operations and battles.”

Vance’s key point is that Canada doesn’t get to make decisions at the operational level, hence his observation that Canadian Forces don’t really campaign. Or, rather, they contribute to campaigns run on the operational level by others, usually the Americans.

This rings true. I think back to the fall of 2005 and early months of 2006, when Canadian troops in Afghanistan were moving from the relative safety of Kabul to what turned out to be the hard fighting of Kandahar.

At the time, Canadian politicians and generals alike were downplaying the likelihood of serious, sustained combat. By June, however, what was obviously a long-planned U.S. combat offensive against the Taliban, Operation Mountain Thrust, was launched, with 500 to 1,000 Canadians participating in coalition force of 10,000. It seemed Canadian leaders had not understood the U.S. operational plan, at least not early enough for this understanding to frame the way they explained the dangers of Kandahar to the Canadian public through the media.

With the sort of bluntness that sounds right coming from a military commander, Vance declares that “nations like Canada do not direct their tactical forces at the operational level to achieve national strategic ends.”

In fact, he contends, merely being seen to contribute those forces is often the government’s main goal. “This is an entirely reasonable approach,” he says, “given that Canadian strategic objectives are less concerned with Canadian tactical outcomes, and more concerned with the political advantages of being seen to participate.”

Again, this sounds dead on. Successive Liberal and Conservative governments have emphasized the fact of Canada’s contribution and sacrifice, rather than a final objective, which has often seemed hard for them to define. The planned 2011 withdrawal date for pulling Canadian troops out of Afghanistan makes sense only if it’s accepted that Canada’s obligation was to participate, rather than achieve some specific outcome. Otherwise, how could any government possibly know years in advance that 2011 will be the right time to leave?

Vance does not claim his analysis is entirely original. He cites several military historians who have also seen Canada as following a pattern of committing troops “absent a well-defined national self interest at stake other than to be seen to be involved.”

Where does this leave us, as we try to figure out what we want to accomplish in Afghanistan? “The bottom line,” Vance tells us, “is that Canadian actions at the tactical level are routinely tallied as assets in-theatre, as opposed to outcomes achieved.”

His is a trenchant and thorough explanation of why Canadians shouldn’t expect much clarity from our military and political leaders about, say, counter-insurgency aims. That’s mostly up to the Americans. As Vance notes: “the U.S. does indeed have the benefit of being the perennial operational-level ‘lead’ for campaign design and execution.”

Which brings us back to Obama’s new man in Afghanistan. The president has tapped Lieutenant-General Stanley McChrystal to replace Lieutenant-General David McKiernan. In his previous assignments, forces under McChrystal have been credited with tracking down and nabbing Saddam Hussein and with finding and killing Al Qaeda’s Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The New York Times says he’s been good at protecting civilian populations, while using intelligence and unconventional warfare to target the bad guys. Sounds promising.

And, keeping in mind what Vance wrote, Canadians should care a lot about the American who will be in charge of the Afghanistan war. Like it or not, how our troops end up being deployed depends largely on that U.S. operational leadership.

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