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Thoughts from one of Canada's Most Prominent Foreign Correspondents

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Tuesday, March 10th, 2010

On a recent visit to the Canadian base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when the sirens wailed at midday I quickly joined everyone in a crowded briefing room in dropping to the floor to await the approach of Taliban rockets that turn out to be “phantoms.”

Oh, the rockets are real enough. Sometime they land with a jarring whump or crash.

What makes them phantoms is the military’s insistence that journalists never mention them in their reports.

The rockets rarely seem to cause damage, but the attempt says something about Taliban tactics and mobility in Kandahar province. On some days, five rockets have been fired at our base, but the public at home never learns about it.

It’s one of the odd experiences when at war with Canadians. The military can airbrush certain acts of war right out of its daily media releases. I’ve complained to commanders about it for years, as have others, but the gag order on embedded reporters in Kandahar continues.

The reason given is that the military don’t want Taliban guerrillas to learn from media accounts whether or not their fired warheads were on target so they can recalibrate. That’s a legitimate concern, of course, and note that I take care in my own description to give neither date, nor time, nor exact location of the incidents, so as not to provide information to the guerrillas who fired the rockets.

There should be limits to secrecy, however. What concerns me is that a tally of rocket attacks on Canadians never does get out. Not even days or weeks later, after a safe passage of time. It’s as if they never happened, and such censorship, when excessive, distorts our own sense of the war and its changing tempo.

We’re all left in the dark about the true level of combat faced by Canada in Kandahar province.

There are times when it seems from media accounts that nothing happens in Kandahar for days or weeks on end between occasional fatal IED explosions and the sad ramp ceremonies for dead soldiers.

When there are no casualties, there is often no news out of our combat mission. Not even a few paragraphs worth on minor skirmishes. Again, the problem is that at some point enough skirmishes add up to whole campaigns and, without learning of the number ongoing, inquiring reporters and military analysts can’t get a true sense of a war.

The public should be aware that no news does not necessarily mean troops are not in action.

Our soldiers may be facing more rockets, or might be involved in firefights while on patrol where there are Taliban casualties or insurgents captured. As long as these events don’t involve casualties on our side, they won’t get reported.

In talking about this to a senior commander in Kandahar, I said I hoped rules had been relaxed and that he’d now brief the media whenever there was a firefight between our troops and guerrillas or, say, when mortars were launched at one of our forward operating bases (called FOBs).
“Not at all,” he replied, looking startled by the question. “We would not make public such action where there were no casualties.”
“But why not? “I asked. “Surely that’s information which would help us judge the actual level of fighting out there. Whether there’s 10 ‘fights’ a month…or 20….or 40. How else do we gauge the level of this war at the moment?”
“OPSEC…Operation Security,” he replied, using the blanket term employed whenever
media inquiries run into the blast-proof wall of military no comment.

I note this because the Canadian officers are extremely skilled at appearing open towards the media, and compared to a mere decade ago, they’ve come a long way. Still, I do not believe either the U.S. or British military impose anything like the number of OPSEC restrictions that frustrate Canada’s media.

I’ve no doubt these restrictions are imposed well above the Department of Defence, at the very top level of the Canadian government, which has strong incentives to limit coverage of the harsher aspects of war.

For example, the number of wounded and injured Canadians, now numbering in the many hundreds, is only released at one time, at the end of the year, according to a recent study in the Hill Times of Ottawa. This also leaves us with little indication of the tempo of the war over time, and means we’re less often reminded of the suffering that is a part of our mission there.

In stark contrast, the Pentagon promptly posts summaries of its casualties, killed and wounded, “throughout each month, by date and time, on a file that can be downloaded form a website.”

Another stark contrast is the Canadian and British approach to reporting the fate of detainees. The U.K. now gives an updated and detailed account of the number of Afghan detainees captured by its troops and turned over to Afghan security forces, a report which also lists any detainees who died of wounds while in British medical care.

Canada, however, has steadfastly refused to release a complete account of the number and state of detainees it has turned over throughout the conflict, a refusal which has only fueled speculation and political debate about the fate of these Afghan prisoners.

In this case, the Harper government again defended such secrecy as essential to national security.

Such intense secrecy, especially when our must trusted NATO allies choose a far more transparent course, should give Canadians pause.

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Tuesday, January 27th, 2010

The humanitarian crisis in Haiti has understandably overshadowed the dramatic Taliban assault last week into the centre of Kabul, as well as its political aftermath.

But the suicide attack by a mere 12 guerrillas has set off an intense search by NATO generals and diplomats for clues as to its deeper significance in terms of the wider war. Speculation is particularly intense because it all comes on the eve of this week’s London Conference on Afghanistan, where discussions about ways to end the war with a negotiated power-sharing agreement will be high on the agenda.

Some see the four-hour-long gun battles that raged inside the government and diplomatic zone of the capital as a deeply alarming sign that insurgents can strike anywhere in the country.

The gloomiest speculation is that it may have been a sort of miniaturized rehearsal for a future Taliban version of a “Tet Offensive” (the famous 1967 guerrilla offensive into urban South Vietnam that failed militarily but succeeded in shaking American public confidence in an early victory).

Others, however, feel the event exposed clues worth following that may point to an eventual peace settlement with the Taliban. For there was something strikingly different in this attack—the lack of the Taliban’s traditional ruthless brutality toward civilians.

The attackers, armed with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, could have achieved maximum shock value by inflicting high civilian casualties as they raced through the city centre. They didn’t. Although fighting was fierce, only five civilians were killed, and on several occasions guerillas waved civilians clear of danger. The attacks were concentrated on government buildings and personnel.

This seems in line with recent directives from Mullah Muhammed Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader, banning attacks on civilians. Although far from universally adhered to, the ban appears to be an attempt to reverse the Taliban negative image among most Afghans in order to gain the kind of public grassroots support any insurgency needs to succeed.

NATO soldiers are concerned a Taliban hearts-and-minds campaign, if successful, could make their job of counterinsurgency tougher. On the other hand, some generals and diplomats are seizing on the unusual show of restraint as a positive sign that a more subtle Taliban may be slowly developing a path to peace talks. Mullah Omar’s attempts to put a more humane face on the movement also puts more distance between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, a necessary step if western nations are to encourage talks.

Just days after the Kabul attack NATO Commander, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal went further than any soldier before in suggesting the Karzai government should “extend olive branches to the Insurgents.”

“As a soldier, my personal feeling is that there’s been enough fighting…a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome. And it’s the right outcome,” the General added.

There’s a strong school of thought that the Taliban will never negotiate so long as they feel they’re winning against an incurably weak Karzai government. But here again the Kabul attacks surprised. For Afghan security forces performed far better than anyone expected.

Granted we’re talking about only a dozen attackers, but still the army and police responded with force and some efficiency, and handled the attack without any NATO assistance. It was a significantly better response, many noted, than the action of Indian security forces in Mumbai during suicide attacks there last year.

This rare sign of Afghan Army efficiency coincides with growing NATO confidence that, in part because of significantly higher pay scales, the army and police are both finally showing decent promise after years of failure and disappointment. Desertion rates are down and a flood of recruits is boosting the spirits of those already in uniform.

This must alarm the Taliban leadership and give serious pause. If an Afghan army begins to show real muscle, then time may not be on the insurgents’ side after all. That would argue for peace talks sooner rather than later.

In an astonishing build up, NATO has revised its schedule and will now boost the army from the current 100,000 to 170,000 by October, a 30 percent increase over what was planned only last fall. Additions to the police, hopefully reforming as it grows, will bring combined Afghan security forces to 305,000.

According to a draft communiqué for the London Conference leaked to Reuters, this will be enough for a handover under which Afghan troops could take “security primacy” in some provinces by early 2011, with foreign forces in a supporting role.

The Taliban must fear a stronger military will inevitably strengthen the Afghan government. And President Karzai has also been patching up some bitter differences with his allies. He won kudos last week when he postponed the next Afghan election, scheduled for May 22, to September 18, a move western embassies had been urging to give all parties more time to ensure that this time there’ll no repeat of widespread fraud.

It’s certainly not often that a rebel attack into a city’s heart leads to a flutter of optimism, but, due to a few new factors at play at the moment, this one did. At least the London Conference has something more than bleak despair to work with. It will be interesting to see what political gain might yet result from the attack.

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Thursday, December 17th, 2009

There is so much about the Afghan war to be troubled about—whether one supports the international mission or opposes it—that the actual cost has always seemed a second-row issue.

Total spending on Afghanistan rarely emerged as a headline concern in the United States during the recent debate leading up to President Obama’s announcement of a 30,000 troop surge, perhaps because even figures running into 100-plus billions seem dwarfed in the now projected $1.4 trillion federal deficit.

But that’s about to change. The President was reportedly jolted into looking for an exit date when his review of Afghanistan suggested war costs are unsustainable at this rate.

We’re already talking more than $377 million a day for the US alone (in constant 2009 dollars, that compares to $622 million per day for World War II).

One recent military study projects Afghanistan will “run with a burn rate in excess of $9 billion a month by the summer of 2010,” although it is wise to emphasize the “in excess of” in any Pentagon estimate. It’s notoriously difficult to break down the cost of US wars because Congress splits funds across regular appropriations and supplementary or “emergency” requests from the White House which fall outside the normal defence budget.

But when I look at the predictions of super-hawk military experts who tend to play down Pentagon spending, I find the most recent projections by the likes of General Barry McCaffrey (of Gulf War fame) set the two streams of spending at $136 billion this year, or $11.3 billion a month.

Even in this day and age, Afghanistan (set alongside the Iraq burden to be sure) is extraordinarily expensive. The surge will add an estimated $40 billion to the total US military FY2010 budget, bringing it up to $750 billion by next spring.

Small wonder that Obama and his top counterinsurgency generals such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the allied commander in Afghanistan, have started talking about an all-out effort to turn this war around as quickly as possible.

Across NATO military circles, officers now fear the mounting cost of defending Afghanistan from the Taliban, plus helping to rebuild that country, could soon undermine what’s left of support for an already unpopular war, let alone place domestic defence requirements under pressure.

Patience is certainly running out in Britain, which has tallied up $16 billion so far for operations in Afghanistan and has forced new thinking on base closures and other military cutbacks in order to fund the war. In Ottawa, our government estimates the Canadian mission to mid-2011 will have cost $18 billion, or $1,500 per household (a figure that some who have studied the costs, including Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, suggest is an underestimation). The Canadian cost is particularly high, by the way, because we spend considerably more per soldier than the relatively parsimonious British Army, a cost of ongoing irritation in the UK media.
The human cost in lives lost or destroyed naturally weighs most heavily on societies, but this aspect of the war’s pain does get considerable media coverage. The financial burden on the other hand is rarely debated, however tempting it is to consider what all these billions could achieve if directed elsewhere—into, say, health care, higher education, or environmental concerns.

By citing these figures at a time of alarming government budgets, I’m not suggesting the enormous cost of Afghanistan clinches the argument for those who want out soon, or never wanted to be there in the first place. For the debate—or at least the one we should be having—is complex in the extreme. Defenders of the mission insist that a far higher cost will face the world should Afghanistan crumble into all-out chaos, perhaps dragging nuclear-armed Pakistan down with it.
We do need, however, to try and get some kind of grasp on these runaway costs that are still surprising defence experts, even after eight years of the Afghan war. Just what will be affordable and what, frankly, may not be in two or three years, given increasingly debt-burdened western governments?

There are distant glimmers of economic hope for Afghanistan, but as the fifth poorest nation on earth, with an average per capita income of $800 a year and national revenues of just $890 million, it’s going to be on major international life support for years, perhaps decades, ahead.

A number of experienced Canadian military officers I talk to are worried by how little advance detailed study seems to have gone into the financial side of burden to be faced by NATO members other than the United States. Washington suggests that tripling the size of Afghan’s own security forces over the next four years (including a jump to 240,000 in the army) will cost still another $65 billion, on top of all the other military and development- related costs.

No one today seems to have a firm sense of where this level of spending is going to peak. Private defence contractors are salivating at the thought of giant security-related contracts to come, but taxpayers across NATO are going to face still larger portions of the overall cheque. The Obama administration understandably demands NATO nations pay more than they do now to help share the load, and those demands in foreign capitals will grow more insistent over the next few years.

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Monday, November 9th, 2009

NATO members who yearn mightily for the time they can start packing up to leave Afghanistan in “a few years” are now being shaken to realize one of the most critical exit signs is not glowing as brightly as hoped. Actually, it’s flickering rather badly.

One gets a distinct impression from military sources that the biggest disappointment this year is not that the Taliban is stronger at this stage of the war; it’s that the Afghan National Army (ANA) is far weaker than planned.

This is ominous. For until this international mission can create a viable Afghan Army to take over most of the counterinsurgency war on its own, there is no clear way in the foreseeable future for NATO to draw down its involvement.

The full realization of major failures in this area is late in coming. Whenever the media or visiting VIPs inquired into the state of the ANA, they were shown bright graphs of recruitment and training, and usually introduced to some well-rehearsed platoons working with allied mentors during limited patrols. The harder you probe for the real state of ANA strength, however, the more illusory it seems.

The “Order of Battle” of the ANA this month consists of 91,000 troops in 117 formations. Far fewer soldiers, however, serve in the roughly 800-man kandaks (battalions) that can take part in the counterinsurgency effort. Even fewer are deployed in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest.

After eight years of allied training and mentoring, only 53,000 Afghans are in kandaks rated by NATO capable of “operating independently,” and even this figure is highly suspect. Few units have been able to rise above a normal desertion rate of 9 percent and a very high turnover among troops to be able to function adequately. Many units are 30 percent under strength as most soldiers refuse to re-enlist.

Only now, however, is the sense of frustration with the Afghan Army (forget the police!) starting to show in public. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave vent to his own growing anger in the House of Commons last month after a miserable showing by some ANA units during recent fighting in Helmand province. The PM told the House that heavily engaged British units asked repeatedly for ANA reinforcements, but the few units sent proved virtually useless:

“Although those units arrived, they were below strength and not yet fully ready for the task. In a province that faces 30 percent of the violence in the country, we need more and better Afghan participation—and we need it now.”

Brown has insisted he won’t send reinforcements to Afghanistan until he sees proof the ANA has improved. He has also discussed his disappointment with President Obama, and the Americans are equally upset. In fact, worry over the weakness of the ANA is playing a considerable part in White House debate over whether or not to launch a surge of up to 44,000 new US troops.

So far, media attention has centred on the mere numbers debate, rather missing the point that much of General Stanley McChrystal’s report zeros in on NATO/ISAF’s failure to properly prepare the Afghan Army. He wants much more from all NATO countries, including “tighter, reconstructed training programs” to deliver “some ‘clear’capability while closely partnered with coalition forces.”

Its well known in military circles that McChrystal believes only a complete overhaul of the way NATO/ISAF operates will allow him to boost the ANA by another 40,000 up to 134,000 within a year, and 240,000 further down the road. Some in the Obama Administration think this is a pipe dream, given the mess the ANA is in. There’s general agreement, however, that urgent measures are need to improve the ANA

It’s not just that most of the ANA is not involved in the counterinsurgency, rather it’s that the Afgan military structure is hopelessly rigid because Afghan kandaks can rarely be deployed outside the province they trained in. NATO’s bizarre and much criticized command structure, which assigned individual nations to train kandaks as best they could, has resulted in a balkanized force that makes no military sense, especially in terms of counterinsurgency war, which is what current fighting comes down to.

ANA troops, in those kandaks, have been trained by a wide variety of foreign mentors—French, Italian, Dutch, Canadian, Polish, Mongolian, to name a few—and generally are prepared to only fight alongside the national contingent that trains them.

In a remarkably revealing essay in a recent issue of the journal of the Royal Canadian Military Institute (RCMI), a former mentor of Afghan soldiers in Kandahar, Capt. G.B. Rolston, writes that the few good Afghan units in the south are overworked and suffer the greatest casualties because “we don’t allow them [the Afghans] to move their units around.”

“It’s hard enough to bridge the cultural divides between Afghans and the West without also bringing in any potential element of friction between a battalion commander from one NATO country and a senior mentor from another. All well and good, but now you’ve tied that Afghan kandak and all its personnel to the province that country is operating in.”

Nor do many NATO countries trust the Afghan units they’ve trained enough to let them move away without close supervision. The level of frustration is so great some NATO units seem ready, according to Capt. Rolston, to grade units as ready for combat just to get rid of them and hurry up their own departure home:

“An unfortunate side effect of this has been a series of attempts to certify ANA units as fully capable combat-wise, so that their mentor support can be drawn down and reassigned or withdrawn. Unfortunately, those never really seem to translate into real independence in combat setting.”

Canada is credited with mentoring its kandaks well enough, but progress is grindingly slow. It’s supposed to have four out of five running “near autonomous operations” by this time next year, but so far has only one up to even this limited status.

Meanwhile, a major Rand Corporation study of the ANA, while conceding progress, noted the force is still largely illiterate, often unable to read maps, and rife with tension among its many often traditionally hostile ethnic groups that make up Afghanistan.

“Tensions run high among the groups,” the report warned, “and their numbers have little first-hand experience associating with people from other groups. Adapting to such an intense cultural change takes time, and many do not make the transition.”

From the beginning, eight years ago, NATO/ISAF took on the monumental task to build a new national army out of the rubble of decades of war, all the while in the midst of an ongoing insurgency.

General McChrystal insists there’s still time to correct failures, but only if the US and NATO allies have the will to commit massive resources, including many more billions of dollars and, also, to work much more closely together as an alliance. Given the mixed results so far, however, such an effort will require allies to find a much higher degree of faith in the mission than they’ve collectively shown in recent years.

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