Rick Hillier is still grinning, even if just barely. After more than three years at the head of Canada’s armed forces and at the centre of relentless media attention and political controversy over the war in Afghanistan, Chief of the Defence Staff General Rick Hillier, Canada’s sometimes embattled top soldier, remains determined and steadfastly optimistic.
Hillier is optimistic not only about the mission in Afghanistan, where he says there is progress every day, even if it is slow and incomplete, but also about the future of the Canadian Forces, which he says is finally becoming an organization that its members want to be a part of.
Handpicked to become chief of defence staff by former Prime Minister Paul Martin and his Defence Minister Bill Graham, Hillier burst into the public spotlight in early 2005 with his outspoken views, boisterous charisma and strongly enunciated vision for a new Canadian Forces.
“I have no lessons for survival, because I’ve wallowed through that one myself,” says Hillier, smiling. “I’ve worked too many hours, smoked too many cigars and done everything just about wrong for survival, personally.”
Now, after more than three years on the job, he has been through a lot and the stress is starting to show a little. While famed for his gregarious good humour and affable charisma, during recent public speeches and interviews he has appeared slightly downbeat, not quite curt, but perhaps a little weary. “(I) knew (my term as CDS) was going to be intense,” he says. “My intent was intense and short, but so far I’ve fallen short on the short and so, yeah, it is intense.”
Born in 1955 at Campbellton, Nfld., Hillier joined the military after graduation from Memorial University in 1975. An armoured officer, he served in the 8th Canadian Hussars and Royal Canadian Dragoons before moving on to higher staff positions, including chief of the land staff.
Nothing, however, could have adequately prepared him for the stress and scrutiny of his last three years. He has now served under three ministers of national defence, two prime ministers and endured countless small, but potentially career-ending bureaucratic and media flare ups. And he’s done it all with a trademark grin. “I have no lessons for survival, because I’ve wallowed through that one myself,” says Hillier, smiling, during an interview with Legion Magazine. “I’ve worked too many hours, smoked too many cigars and done everything just about wrong for survival, personally.”
But survived he has, though not without a few scars. Beyond the innumerable small controversies lies a greater source of stress: no fewer than 84 Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen have died since Hillier took office on Feb. 4, 2005. While that number includes soldiers who died in Canada and across the globe, the vast majority of the deaths occurred in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on a mission Hillier championed and has overseen since it began in 2006.
While he believes there is slow and steady progress in Afghanistan, he says there is “not enough development visible” and that while the Taliban have been diminished, they are still a lethal fighting force.
Despite this, he is confident that the bulk of the fighting is over, and that in the near future, after February 2009, Canada will be able to devote a larger proportion of its forces to training Afghan soldiers and police, mainly using the Operational Mentor Liaison Teams (OMLTs) which are Canadian soldiers embedded inside Afghan army and police units.
Meanwhile, Hillier acknowledges that the task of stabilizing Kandahar province and routing the Taliban has been a difficult mission, particularly in what he calls the “iron triangle,” the area west-southwest of Kandahar city roughly centred on Zhari, Panjwai and Pashmul, birthplace of the Taliban, where the majority of fighting has occurred.
While for the past two years the CF had tried to tackle this ground largely alone—and consequently was engaged in a futile game of battling to drive insurgents off a piece of land only to have to withdraw and cede it back to them—in the next few months, according to Hillier, there will be a whole new reality on the ground. “The fact is we didn’t have the troops to be in places all the time. So we could surge in, but then we had to go elsewhere to conduct an operation and the Taliban therefore could come back in and felt free to do so, and in fact still do…right now it’s a whack-a-mole game as they say.”
But heading into this spring, a number of things have changed in favour of the NATO mission. The first and most obvious are the approximately 3,000 United States Marines streaming into Kandahar province to work alongside the CF, in “synchronized operations,” as Hillier calls it.
But beyond that, as Hillier points out, are a few more subtle but possibly equally decisive developments. Not only are the famed Nepalese Gurkhas now operating alongside the Canadian battalion in the south as a regional reserve battalion, there is an American theatre reserve battalion also slated for operations in the south. “The potential of four battalions or more working together in Kandahar for good parts of this next campaign season from March to November changes the dynamic completely,” says Hillier. “Because the Taliban can’t just withdraw to Maywand district or to Spin Boldak or to the northern Arghandab because there’s going to be a battalion there also. So all of a sudden they’re left without a place to go and we have a more sustainable presence over the next six to eight months in a huge way and that allows the police to get in and do something and it allows their confidence to grow and it allows us to make more progress with the Afghan army because we’ve got more training teams there.”
Beyond the next six to eight months—the next “fighting season” as many like to call it—the debate in Canada has moved on to 2009, and what happens to the Canadian mission after the current three-year commitment is finished. While Parliament voted in March to extend the mission, in principle, until 2011, much of the operational details were yet to be worked out.
While the focus in Ottawa this spring was largely centred on whether the combat mission would continue or be replaced by a less aggressive, less dangerous role centred on training Afghan forces, Hillier attempted to refocus the debate by calling on Parliament to provide the CF with a mission that is “militarily viable.”
“Right now, in the training piece, we’ve got about 250 of our soldiers engaged,” says Hillier, referring to the Canadians now in the OMLT program. “As soon as we get another battalion, or get more troops, or get more police, we will get more trainers from our contingent, and that’ll mean less (Canadians) in the fight. But we’ve got to keep that reactive capability, and we’ve got to keep going after their leaders.”
There will be fewer Canadians in the fight because, in theory, the Afghans will be doing much more of the fighting themselves, albeit with Canadian assistance in the form of OMLTs. However, the reactive capability Hillier refers to means a combat force of Canadian soldiers in reserve, and going after Taliban leadership will require a continued commitment of Canadian special operations forces. And beyond this, even the distinction between training and combat is far from clear, as Hillier notes.
“When we put the OMLTs in, they’re out with those Afghan battalions and that means they’re going to be in firefights themselves. So what I was simply saying was, ‘let’s not try to run the detailed mechanics of a mission on the ground in Afghanistan from here in Ottawa when we don’t know what the situation is going to be on a daily basis.’ If you do that you’re going to run huge risks and put men and women at risk. And so give us the mission and make sure it’s a militarily viable mission from the view of the commanders and then let us get on with it.”
Hillier’s contention is that continued military operations in Kandahar province are almost certainly going to require combat of some sort and that a political order to avoid combat while remaining operational in Kandahar would imperil the mission’s success and endanger the lives of Canadian soldiers. No doubt he has a point.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, the CF is in a different struggle. After being repeatedly reduced in size and restricted in equipment purchases in the period following the end of the Cold War, it is now in the position of growing slightly faster than it can manage. “We went down so low in numbers; I actually think we went below critical mass,” explains Hillier. “In a country this big, with this number of bases and stations, with this number of tasks in Canada, this number of tasks in North America with Norad and this number of missions outside…we were below critical mass.”
And while the forces are growing rapidly, the main problem Hillier faces is training the recruits fast enough. In addition, he says there are so many procurement programs going on that they too are moving a little too fast to handle. “We’ve got more equipment programs ongoing right now than we can actually manage at one time,” he explains, “and as a result we are prioritizing and sliding some to the right. For example, we would have liked to have been at fixed wing Search and Rescue two years ago, but it just wasn’t possible with all that we’re doing, but now in the not distant future we’ll get back to that one and get that one moving….”
“…‘let’s not try to run the detailed mechanics of a mission on the ground in Afghanistan from here in Ottawa when we don’t know what the situation is going to be on a daily basis.’ If you do that you’re going to run huge risks and put men and women at risk. And so give us the mission and make sure it’s a militarily viable mission from the view of the commanders and then let us get on with it.”
In the end though, Hillier seems satisfied that his project to transform the Canadian Forces has largely succeeded and doesn’t seem too worried about any remaining obstacles. Indeed, the vision he offered when he took office—a restructured CF, new equipment, a new focus on operations and CF unity—has largely come to pass and while some work remains, the sense you get from him is that the CF has finally turned the corner. “People are working hard,” he says. “They’ve always worked hard. But the context right now is so different from where it was even five—10 years ago. The context is so different that we’re actually building a CF that most people in uniform have wanted to be a part of since they joined.”
While Hillier has his critics, most anyone with an interest in the Canadian military recognizes the massive impact he’s had. “I think he’s been the first chief of defence in (a long time) to be a public figure, to make the military prominent in the public’s mind, to deal with government in ways that gets the military the things it needs, to impress his vision on the forces as well,” says Jack Granatstein, a Canadian historian and author of, among many other works, The Generals, a look at Canadian generalship during World War II.
“Without naming names,” continued Granatstein, “we probably had too many generals in the past who saluted and said ‘yes sir’ and didn’t always protect the interests of the forces and that is probably not very good for the military. On the other hand you can go the other way. You can push the politicians to do things the public will not support and ultimately the prime minister and the ministers run things and you the chief of defence staff can be sacked at a moment’s notice. I think Hillier has pushed the bounds a bit, but I think he’s managed to do it with great skill.”
Inevitably, of course, Hillier will step down from his position, and while the chief of defence staff has no definite term, three-and-a-half years is the rough recent average. His predecessor Ray Hénault served three years and seven months, while his predecessor Maurice Baril served for almost the same period of time. As for Hillier, he has been tight-lipped about his plans. And while rumours do sometimes swirl that his tenure is coming to an end, he joked during a speech in February that this would be his last year as chief of the defence staff—he said he was going to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, to put the military “General” in general manager.
Click to view The General’s Afghan Campaign Plan.
The Worst Part About the Best Job in the World
When Hillier tells you he has “the best job in the world,” he says it so convincingly that you believe he believes it. But when he tells you about the worst part of his job his voice changes, he lowers his eyes and you get the unmistakable impression that he is telling you something very real.
“There are all kinds of things that don’t go the way you want, and that kind of stuff, but I would just say to you, absolutely true, when you’re dealing with life and death for men and women, all those normal bureaucratic things that don’t go the way you want, where it’s two steps forward one step back or occasionally a step forward two steps back, all those things just take a new, lesser meaning.
“The part that’s negative is when you get the phone call in the middle of the morning, middle of the night—and I used to joke to my guys, but it wasn’t much of a joke, that nobody phones me at three in the morning to tell me I’ve won the lottery—when that phone rings at three in the morning I’m now to the point where I sit up, take my time, get ready, because I know what’s on the other end. That’s the only reason people are calling, because we’ve lost somebody. And that part is the part of it that I don’t wish on any chief of defence staff.
“(I) take (my) responsibility very seriously; which means that I do ensure that I meet with families and talk to them and make sure they have our support and they get that directly as possible. But having said that, let me tell you, I’ve met those families on the worst days of their lives. I can’t understand what they’re going through, because I’ve not been through it. I can empathize, but it’s difficult to sympathize because I’ve not had the same experience. You go there and try to talk to each of the families, and I’ve not met them all, because for several I’ve been somewhere around the world and couldn’t get back here, and you tell them how proud you are of their son or their daughter, in the case of Nichola Goddard, and how proud you are that they were a soldier, and that they were part of us, and they served us so well, and that our job now is to make sure their footprint in the sand is never erased. And you go there to try to inspire them to get through those tough days, the worst days of their lives, and every single time you leave inspired by them: by their strength, their dignity, their courage and their own pride in their child, their daughter, their husband, their father.”
The CDS on The Royal Canadian Legion
“I will always cherish the fact that I became Chief of the Defence Staff and Honorary Dominion Vice-President of the Legion during the Year of the Veteran (2005). I well know the great effort The Royal Canadian Legion has made to ensure that the ‘footprints in the sand’ made by our veterans will never be erased, and what it is doing to consider the needs of our younger generation of veterans. We are all inspired by the Legion’s support.”
Special Operations: Canada’s Men in Black
As the battle for Kandahar province moves away from conventional force-on-force confrontation, the fight is increasingly becoming the kind of thing special operations forces were designed to do. While Joint Task Force 2—Canada’s top-end counter-terrorist force—has been in Afghanistan since 2002, Hillier confirmed that the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) is now conducting operations in Afghanistan as well. While details of the operations are secret, Hillier makes it clear that Canada’s special operations forces are actively hunting Taliban leadership across Kandahar province.
“(Canada’s special operations forces) are a major factor. We’re a significant player in going after and helping disrupt Taliban coherence, which means that you keep their commanders under pressure. In the operations we conduct, we’re not trying to go and attack every single Taliban fighter, because many of them are folks that are placed in a corner themselves, that have no recourse except to pick up a weapon because they either have no money and they need some money to be able to feed their family or they’re placed in a position where they’re forced to do it because if they don’t they’ll be at more risk than they are from us when they do. And so we don’t go after every Taliban fighter.
“What we want to do is take out the commanders who are engaged in orchestrating, facilitating, paying, leading, planning and driving folks to attack us or attack the Afghans or attack the innocent. And our special forces are focused very much on that. And that sets conditions for success in Kandahar but equally important from our perspective it helps reduce hugely the threat to our men and women.
“I said (during a recent speech) that we had removed from the battlefield six commanders who were responsible for the deaths of 21 Canadian soldiers, well that’s changed. We’ve removed seven commanders who have been responsible for the deaths of 27 soldiers and that in itself means those commanders—who are capable people—are not out there planning and setting up and enabling attacks against us, let alone attacks against Afghans or aid agencies.”
Hillier’s Four Lessons of Counter-Insurgency Warfare
Counter-Insurgency warfare is notoriously tricky, full of counter-intuitive strategies and odd paradoxes. Any commander who wants to win has to wrap his mind around the old lessons—you can win all the battles but still lose the war, but the insurgents can win just by refusing to lose, and while there is no military solution to a counter-insurgency, all you really have under your command are military forces, etc.—while trying to come to grips with all the complexity of his unique situation. So after more than two years of overseeing counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, this is what the CDS has learned.
- “You’ve got to establish yourself as in support of the population of the area who are actually just trying to live a normal life. And you know, whether democracy as we know it, and a standard of living like we have in Canada is ever possible in Afghanistan, well, I doubt it. But my goodness all the people there want is to be able to live a life, not be hungry, not be threatened and have their children or themselves killed when they go out somewhere, to have the chance to look at a future that may be a little bit brighter, maybe have some medical care, and certainly have some education for their children…. So, you have to be clearly in support of the people and what they’re trying to achieve, and that’s got to be obvious in every action that you do, that’s part one.
- “You don’t win a counter-insurgency campaign with the military operation. What you do is keep the insurgents, in this case the Taliban, you keep them from stopping the progress or slowing the progress, although sometimes they will slow it but you keep them from stopping it, until you can actually build that country around them. And the cross-over point is hard to see, but in my view it’s subjective. So, right now, if a big explosion occurs in Kabul, people still look around to see if the Afghan government is still standing, still there. Because, you know, the confidence is still fragile. At some point in time, Afghanistan will become like many other countries, it will still have violent problems, but when they occur, nobody will be concerned that this is going to cause a series of events and lead to the fall of the government, because they will have confidence that the government is going to be able to handle this. And that’s the part you’ve got to cross over.
- “When building the institutions in Afghanistan, in a counter-insurgency, you’ve got to build it with the Afghan face on it. It’s not what we want as the solution. It’s what they want as the solution. And so how their units will look, and how their police will function, and where they want a bridge or a well—it’s not always overwhelmingly obvious to us—we’ve got to constantly realize that it’s their country, and they’re going to be there 50 years from now and we’re not and so therefore we’ve got to make sure it’s not only the Afghan face, because people say that all the time, but that behind the Afghan face is an Afghan mind and an Afghan body, who actually helps make, and then makes, those decisions with a thorough understanding of their country and population and system.
- “From our perspective a counter-insurgency requires professional soldiers and sailors and airmen and airwomen of a degree that I don’t think history has ever demanded. It requires leadership at the very lowest level. Young men and women we rely upon to do things that are quite phenomenal, out on a dirty, dusty dangerous trail, way beyond any of the other units, with local Afghans…. The professional serviceman or servicewoman that’s required for that is absolutely incredible, and I think one of the things (Afghanistan) has re-validated for us, is that we’ve got… professionals in uniform.”
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