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Defence Conference Discusses Leaving Afghanistan

This year’s list of attendees was as prestigious as ever for the annual Conference of Defence Associations (CDA) event held March 3-4 at the Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa.

While, no doubt, the headliner was General David Petraeus, the commander of the United States Central Command and the man widely credited with salvaging some kind of victory in Iraq for the U.S., there were many Canadian luminaries as well. Chief of the Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk was on hand, as were the chiefs of the army, navy and air force.

The CDA is an umbrella group of defence associations of which the Legion is the largest member. The theme of the seminar was Protecting Canada’s National Interests In An Uncertain World, and its opening address was given by Dr. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University in the U.S.

Cohen, a longtime academic who held a government post in George W. Bush’s administration, set the table, so to speak, for the whole event with his speech on Warfare And Security In An Uncertain World.

Before getting onto the interesting parts of Cohen’s address it should be noted for purposes of Canadian pride that the scholar from America began by telling the large crowd of an exchange between himself and then-Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier.

“’Don’t thank us for being in Afghanistan,’” Eliot remembers Hillier telling him. “’It’s not a favour, and that’s a condescending kind of remark.’”

“Being a diplomat,” Cohen continued, “I wilted, but I took the point.”

Cohen began his argument in earnest by describing in basic terms how the conflicts of the 20th century differ from modern conflict, with his central point being that “I’m worried that states have lost their monopoly on the effective use of force.”

He said, “(The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the United Nations, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, these entities all wage war. Perhaps in the future the European Union will as well. Perhaps Google will.”

His point is that the age of mass armies and state warfare have somewhat given way to a swarm of combatants, all fighting for their own interests—something closer to chaos. “We live in a world in which military power is going to be hard to evaluate, not only our opponent’s capabilities, but also our own,” he said. “The changes taking over warfare are quite profound, and they’re linked in a systematic way.”

The new reality of non-state conflict brings about, according to Cohen, the need to redefine warfare itself. Terms like “counter-insurgency,” “peacekeeping” or “conventional war” are now insufficient. The new term is “hybrid conflict, which no longer fits the distinction between regular and irregular, conventional and unconventional.

“These wars can take a long, long time,” he added. “Think in terms of the Hundred Years’ War.”

After his overview, Cohen ended on a few pessimistic, if interesting notes. “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons—and barring a revolution or a massive attack by the United States—they will, it will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that will be very dire.”

Cohen also went on to mention the coming demographic crisis in Asia, notably China, where there are a lot more males than females, meaning that possibly millions of young men will have no chance of mating. “They’ll be annoyed at anything and everything and prepared to quite possibly do some dangerous things,” said Cohen, before adding: “Testosterone is probably the most dangerous substance known to humanity.”

Cohen was followed by a brief address by the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, who argued for the continued relevance of sea power.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion of the day was called Learning From Afghanistan: Capabilities Across The Spectrum, which featured an all-star cast of panellists including: Chris Alexander, former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan and former United Nations deputy special representative in Afghanistan; Dr. David Kilcullen, the man often recognized as one of David Petraeus’ closest advisors and the author of The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars In The Midst Of A Big One; and finally there was Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance, the recent commander of Canada’s Afghan task force.

Alexander spoke first, and led with some very interesting insights about the conflict in Afghanistan.

“There was a period of four or five years in which the U.S. and its allies did not give sufficient attention to understanding the Taliban, the [other militants], the Pakistanis, etc. Some of this is because of Iraq, but there was also, quite frankly, some wilful wishing away of phenomena that later came back to bite us, and is still biting us,” said Alexander.

“There is at the heart of this insurgency a deep dysfunctionality between Kabul and Islamabad.

“Each state sees the other as an existential threat.“

Alexander said there are actually more Pushtuns (the ethnic-tribal grouping which forms the core of the Taliban, and whose tribal lands span the borders of the two countries) in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. “It’s more like an invasion, interference from across the border, than an insurgency,” he concluded.

Next up was Kilcullen via video conference from Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Kilcullen is an Australian by birth who has worked on Afghanistan since 2001. “We started off saying we wanted unity of command. By the time we’d thought it through in detail, we realized that trying to do that could be counter-productive. And so we moved to the idea of unity of effort, to try to have an integrated effect. That has also proven to be a bit of a pipe dream. And so I’ve come to the view that what is important is a shared diagnosis. The best you can do is to have everybody agree on what the basic problem is. And until very recently, I don’t think we had that.

“I think we have a good strategy now,” he went on, “finally. I think we have bottomed out in the security arena and we’re going to see a modest improvement in the next year or so. Now we have to counter corruption and bring the rule of law to the Afghan people.”

Also, he concluded, “you do find a certain amount of fear among Afghans at the thought that we’re all leaving in 18 months. It happened that way with Russia, too.”

Vance candidly discussed recent Canadian Forces history in Afghanistan. “The insurgency bloomed faster than we recognized. 2006 to 2009 was a period where we all knew it was an insurgency, and we knew that counter-insurgency principles need to be applied, but it was an under-resourced period of time, such that we had a battalion rattling around Kandahar trying to provide security, but we couldn’t. So we went to the lowest common denominator: don’t lose. We could not set conditions for ‘war winning’ to occur.”

Now though, argued Vance, resources have improved. “The focus has shifted onto Afghanistan and it tightened down onto Kandahar. The coalition is firing on all cylinders and it’s going to re-establish Afghan government control.”

However, Vance did note that the planned 2011 withdrawal of the CF from Kandahar was being viewed, by him at least, as a kind of military failure. “We [the CF] have utterly failed to protect our centre of gravity [the will of the Canadian public], and the proof is in the pudding, we’re leaving.”

While functionally unchanged, the conference took on a new title for Thursday morning, changing from a seminar to an annual general meeting with the theme: Power Projection And the Canadian Forces: Resources And Capabilities.

Natynczyk began his speech by giving a brief overview of recent CF operations in Haiti and at the Olympic games, the latter of which he identified as a success because the CF
maintained a low profile.

On Afghanistan, he said: “After four years of visits and following the campaign, there are reasons for cautious optimism. 2010 will be a tough year, but it’s also the year where we could turn the corner in Afghanistan.

“A year ago there were only two battalions in Kandahar, now there are four and another one is coming. For the first time, NATO has the forces to do what needs to be done in Kandahar.”

After a panel on Media And The Military and a presentation by retired U.S. general James Soligan on NATO’s multiple futures project, there was a panel featuring Canada’s air, sea and land chiefs entitled Canada’s National Interests And Force Projection: Required Capabilities.

First off was maritime chief, Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden. He argued that we’re about to enter a “maritime century…anything that challenges…the law of the sea, threatens Canada’s interests.”

Next up was the army’s Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie and the air force’s Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, both of whom gave overviews of their respective services.

General David Petraeus began his speech with a laughter-inducing “bonjour y’all,” but did get more serious as the speech went on.

“Canada is always among the handful of countries we in the U.S. military most want to soldier with when the going is tough,” he said, before showing off a Canadian flag that once flew at a strongpoint in Kandahar and which now rests behind his desk.

Indeed, it was Afghanistan that dominated Petraeus’ speech.

“The numbers of attacks reached record highs (last year),” he said. “And rising levels of violence undermined the Afghan government.”

In many ways, Petraeus’ speech could be read as making a subtle case for a continuing military presence in Afghanistan beyond 2011. “Preventing transnational extremists from setting up sanctuary in Afghanistan requires more than counter-terrorism forces. We have to build the Afghan National Security Forces, stabilize the government, replace narcotics as a source of income and reintegrate the reconcilable parts of the insurgency.”

That last phrase is a well-crafted euphemism for the idea, currently gaining traction everywhere, that negotiating with moderate Taliban elements is going to be a crucial next step in the effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.

As discussion turned to issues of U.S. and Canadian withdrawal from the country, Petraeus made sure to clarify that the Barrack Obama administration’s position was not to cut-and-leave in 2011, “but that they’d start a conditions-based transfer of campaign authority at that time, where and if possible…the process of transition will be based on assessments of local circumstances, and will then be done by thinning out forces, not handing off.”

Asked whether he would prefer Canada follow such an approach as well, Petraeus smiled and said: “Generally if you’ve reached this point in life you’ve understood that there are some minefields that you go around rather than going through.”


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