Canada in Afghanistan: Strategic Perspectives

Canada in Afghanistan: Strategic Perspectives


Canada in Afghanistan: Strategic Perspectives

8. August 2008
Von Colonel M.D. Capstick, OMM, MSM, CD, Canadian Forces, Retired
Colonel M.D. (Mike) Capstick, OMM, MSM, CD
(Canadian Forces, Retired)

“…the powerful exact what they can, and the
weak grant what they must.”
Thucydides: The Melian Dialogue


There are few places in the world where this cynical version of political realism applies more than Afghanistan. Invaded by outsiders, seized by religious extremists, forgotten by the international community and victimised by criminals and warlords, the people of Afghanistan have suffered “…what they must” for far too long.
Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the world’s attention has been on Afghanistan. This is not to say that the attention has always been positive, focused or concerted. Even in Canada, despite the size of our investment, the almost continual military commitment and, most importantly, the blood of our soldiers and a diplomat, public attention on Afghanistan has been inconsistent at best. Media coverage of the Canadian contribution continues to focus on combat operations in Kandahar, the details of military equipment and suicide bombers. There has been very little analysis of our “All of Government” or 3D (Defence, Diplomacy and Development) effort. This concept is based on the idea that no single element of national power is, on its own, sufficient to deal with all of the complexities of failed and failing states and, therefore, a co-ordinated and concentrated “whole of government” effort is necessary to secure the strategic effects desired by the international community, Canada and, most importantly, the people impacted by state failure.
To illustrate how this concept should work, this paper will discuss how the military is supporting the Afghanistan Compact and Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy. Although this paper concentrates on the CF contribution, it recognizes the subordinate, supporting role that the military plays in those areas that are within the competence of Foreign Affairs, the Canadian International Development Agency and the other Federal Departments and agencies that are involved in the Afghan mission.
What Canada is really trying to do is to help the weak of Afghanistan develop the strength that they need to deny the strong the ability to “exact what they can.” This paper will, in short, describe the CF focus on this vital objective, one that is clearly informed by the long-standing Canadian values of “Peace, Order and Good Government.”

Afghanistan’s Future
Almost three decades of insurgency, invasion, resistance, civil war, and ultimately, the American led attack on the Taliban, have left Afghanistan shattered. Despite this legacy of violence, the progress between 2001 and 2005 was impressive. The Bonn Agreement (1) was, in essence, a political roadmap that has allowed Afghans to take control of their own future. Even with the pressure of an ongoing insurgency, Afghanistan has promulgated a constitution, held two very successful elections, opened the Parliament and restored a sense of normalcy in most of the country. In the past two years, however, progress has not been as substantial and major problems persist – insurgency, opium, criminality and, most importantly, grinding and endemic poverty. Determined to overcome these obstacles the Government of Afghanistan, in partnership with the international community, is ready to take the next steps.

The “next steps” are mapped out in two crucial documents, The Afghanistan Compact and Afghanistan’s National Development Strategy (ANDS) (2), both presented and approved at the London Conference in 2006.

Both the Compact and ANDS are built around three “pillars.” The first is security. This includes the international military contribution, defeating the insurgency, reform of the National Army (ANA) and police (ANP), and the disbandment of illegal armed groups. The second is governance, rule of law and human rights. It encompasses reform of the machinery of government, re-vitalisation of the civil service, justice reform, the fight against corruption and the poppy economy, and making the institutions of the state work for the people. The third pillar, economic and social development, is the real heart of the matter. It is under this pillar that the bulk of the reconstruction effort falls and it is, in essence, the real objective of the ANDS. The result of extensive consultation and a very concerted effort by both the international community and, most importantly, all elements of the government, the Compact and ANDS received an extraordinary degree of consensus at the London Conference as well as rare endorsement by a unanimous resolution of the UN Security Council. Together, these documents map the future of Afghanistan and, if properly implemented, they will establish the conditions necessary for Afghans to achieve their vision of a peaceful, just, democratic, stable and prosperous Islamic state.

Canada and the Afghanistan Compact


The three pillars of the Afghanistan Compact suggests that there is a neat division of labour among the three lead Canadian government departments and agencies in Afghanistan in respect to their engagement. This is true in broad terms; Defence and the CF lead on security issues, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) leads on governance, rule of law and human rights and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) is the focal point on the economic and social development front. Other departments and organisations also contribute. For example, the RCMP has officers in the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) and in the United Nations Assistance Mission Afghanistan (UNAMA) headquarters, as does Corrections Canada. Despite this apparent clarity, the reality is rather more complex on the ground and no Canadian government agency can operate strictly in one pillar or another. Although not necessarily obvious, the CF plays a role in each of the three pillars as part of the cohesive “whole of government” approach that Canada is trying to apply as a means of achieving the best effects on the ground. In turn, Foreign Affairs and CIDA both have significant influence on, and are active in, the security sector. For example, the ambassador and head of aid played key roles in the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Re-integration Programme (DDR), a function of the security pillar.

The remainder of this section will describe how the CF supports each of the pillars of ANDS. This discussion will be through a CF lens and it must be borne in mind that each of the other committed departments and agencies has a vital role to play in the efforts of the others.

The CF has been engaged in Afghanistan since the deployment of a combat unit to Kandahar in late 2001 as part of the American led coalition (Operation Enduring Freedom/OEF). Although the number of troops has varied, the CF has made major contributions to both, mutually supporting multi-national forces in the country. (3) From 1 March until 1 November 2006, Canada assumed lead nation status in Regional Command (South). This region includes some of the most unstable provinces in the country, including Kandahar, Uruzugan, Helmand, Nimroz and Kunduz. The commitment included the lead of the multi-national brigade headquarters that exercises command over Canadian, British, American, Dutch, Romanian, Australian and Dutch units in the region. The Canadian commitment of around 2500 troops currently includes an infantry battle group in Kandahar Province, the Kandahar PRT and an Observer Mentor – Liaison Team (OMLT) embedded with Afghan National Army units in the province. This commitment was initially part of OEF and, as a result, became conflated in some quarters with the more unpopular aspects of US foreign policy. The Canadian mission (and Regional Command South) came under the command of ISAF at the end of July 2006 and the Canadian led command structure was instrumental in establishing the conditions for the successful transition from US to NATO command.

In addition to the troops in RC(S) and Kandahar, the CF has a strong presence in Kabul. Canadian staff officers serve in both ISAF and the coalition headquarters and a 15 soldier training team works with ANA units to prepare them for deployment to the provinces. In addition, a small military-civilian team of planners (Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan/SAT-A) works directly with Afghan government agencies to assist in the development of the strategic plans necessary to achieve the objectives of the Compact.

The CF and the Security Pillar

It is clear that security is the non-negotiable pre-requisite for the success of the Compact. In the absence of security, economic and social development is almost impossible. In addition, the insurgency presents a direct threat to the development of good governance structures and practices. As a result, the security pillar will continue to be the main focus of CF effort in Afghanistan for some time to come. Despite this emphasis, the Canadian Forces Campaign Plan for Afghanistan has three lines of operation that mirror the ANDS pillars. (4)

The battle group in Kandahar is organised and equipped to assist the provincial governor and the Afghan national army and police in their efforts to establish the legitimate government’s “monopoly on the use of lethal force” in the province. The PRT, with military members, police and corrections officers, diplomats and CIDA development specialists, is also heavily engaged in the security pillar. It “…reinforces the authority of the Afghan government in and around Kandahar” and helps local authorities stabilise and rebuild the region. Its tasks are to monitor security, to promote the policies and priorities of the national government with local authorities, and to facilitate reform in the security sector.” (5) An analysis of this mandate reveals that the PRT concept is illustrative of the reciprocity between security, governance and development.

With the exception of the Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan (SAT-A), in Kabul almost every other CF member in the Kabul area is engaged with the security pillar. Canadian staff officers and troops at ISAF and various Coalitions headquarters are fully integrated in those organisations. The ANA training team and the OMLT are also clearly fully committed in this pillar as their work is ‘hands-on’ tactical training of Afghan soldiers at the small unit level.

CF Support to Governance, the Rule of Law and Human Rights

In this ANDS pillar the most obvious examples of CF support are found in the PRT and SAT-A. The PRT is, by its mandate, intended to “…reinforce the authority of the Afghan government.” (6) Although its focus has been on security because of the prevailing situation in the province, it has provided significant support to the Provincial Governor, the ANA, and ANP and, by virtue of its development work, the line-ministries of the central government. This level of support will continue to grow as the intent is to co-locate part of the PRT headquarters in the governor’s office.

SAT-A has a direct role in the governance pillar as it has planning teams in direct support of a number of Afghan ministries including the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (the main Afghan government agent for reconstruction outside of Kabul). The team has assisted in the development of the MRRD strategic plan. This includes the strategy for the establishment of the comprehensive governance structure for development that extends from the village to the national level. In all cases, the team has formed working partnerships with international organisations such as the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. Those bodies bring expertise in governance to the table while SAT-A provides the skills to integrate their input and assist Afghan managers in the formulation of a coherent strategy. This work is a clear demonstration of the potential of military staff ‘skills transfer’ to the civil sector in a post-conflict society that has had little time to develop viable public institutions and a culture of good governance.

CF Support to the Economic and Social Development Pillar

Within the security envelope provided by the battle group in Kandahar Province, the PRT is focused on development and reconstruction. This includes support to alternative livelihood programmes, rural rehabilitation and any number of public infrastructure projects. At the same time, ISAF in general, and the PRT in particular, have renewed their emphasis on good governance. For example, the PRT provides direct support to the newly established Provincial Development Councils and their district and village level equivalents. The unit is, by far, the best example of “whole of government” concept at the tactical level as it includes a senior diplomat, CIDA expertise (augmented by both the British Department for Foreign International Development and USAID) and RCMP officers. It is the CIDA component, not the military, which plans and co-ordinates development activities, while the CF provides the basic security envelope and the essential support framework.

In addition to the Kandahar focus in the Economic Development pillar, SAT-A in Kabul is directly involved with a planning team supporting the Afghan led ANDS Working Group. Similar to the effort in MRRD, it is the ANDS Working Group and international experts who provide the substantive and technical content, while SAT-A applies military strategic planning methodology to ensure coherence, synchronisation and sequencing in the same way that it would for a military campaign.

The Future of the Canadian Military Commitment

Canada’s current military commitment in Kandahar Province expires in February 2009. Support in parliament for extending the current mission beyond that point is weak with all three opposition parties calling for withdrawal or a significant “re-balancing” of effort to increase the emphasis on development. In short, the future shape of the Canadian military mission simply cannot be predicted at this time.

That said, it is clear that the mission is evolving to emphasise the training, mentoring and support of the ANA in the province. In the summer of 2006 there were fewer than 500 ANA in Kandahar. In the last few months that number has continued to increase and Canada has increased its Operational Mentor and Liaison Team contribution accordingly. It likely that this trend will continue and that by early 2009 the Canadian combat role could be weighted towards supporting ANA operations with the combat support and service support that will take the Afghans years to develop.


Despite the pessimistic tone of much commentary, Afghanistan has seen some remarkable progress in the past four years. As part of the Bonn Process, the roadmap that established the basic political framework necessary for good governance, Afghans agreed a constitution, held very successful presidential elections in October 2004, and parliamentary elections on the 18th of September 2005. These achievements should not be underestimated. Thirty years of conflict had not only destroyed the basic structures of the state and much of the physical infrastructure, it had also inflicted serious damage to the social fabric of the country. This is the kind of damage that is almost impossible to see but it is probable more significant than the kind of damage that can be photographed and measured. Massive population movements have all but destroyed many of the traditional methods of social regulation and conflict resolution, and constant fighting has left the population with a collective case of psychological disruption. The success of the Bonn Process, in effect, signalled the collective commitment of the Afghan people to democratic processes over the power of the gun.

The Afghan state-building project is complex and complicated. The problems; criminality, corruption, poppy, poverty and weak state institutions cannot be “wished away.” Instead, they can only be resolved by the concerted joint Afghan - International effort that was committed to at the London Conference. State-building is a long and arduous process. Canada is one of 36 nations with military forces on the ground – even more countries are involved in development. Patience, resolve and perseverance are essential if the people of Afghanistan are to see the results of the promises made in the past four years. We should have no illusions. Much remains to be done in Afghanistan and the future of the country is, by no means, assured.

Most military professionals have long recognized that military force alone is insufficient to defeat a determined insurgency and that security without sustained development and good governance will inevitably be transitory. Although Canada’s 3D Strategy explicitly recognizes this reality as does the strategies of several other nations – establishing security and accomplishing the vision of the Afghanistan Compact demands that all of these strategies be unified at the international level in Kabul. 

Colonel Mike Capstick retired from the Canadian Armed Forces (Regular) in late 2006 after 32 years of service. In 1992-93 he commanded the 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in Shilo and in the Nicosia Sector of the United Nations force in Cyprus. In 1997-98 he commanded the Canadian Task Force in the NATO Stabilisation Force in Bosnia – Herzegovina. Colonel Capstick’s final appointment was as Commander of the first deployment of the CF Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan from August 2005 until August 2006. This unique unit, a mixed military – civilian team, provided strategic planning advice and capacity building to development related ministries and agencies of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He was appointed to the Order of Military Merit in the grade of Officer in 2006 and in 2007 was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his leadership of the Strategic Advisory Team – Afghanistan.

(1) United Nations: The Bonn Agreement
(2) Both are available at:
(3) Canada, National Defence Backgrounder, Canadian Forces Operations in Afghanistan, 25 Nov 05
(4) Conversation BGen David Fraser (CA), Comd RC (S) and author, 11 Feb 06.
(5) Canada, National Defence Backgrounder
(6) Canada, National Defence Backgrounder


Afghanistan - Ziviler Aufbau und militärische Friedenssicherung

Die Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung ist seit Anfang 2002 in Afghanistan aktiv und fördert die zivile und demokratische Entwicklung des Landes. Afghanistan ist auch ein Prüfstein dafür, ob der Prozess des „state building“ und des friedlichen Wiederaufbaus in einem zerrütteten Land gelingt.

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