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In Conversation With Andrew Leslie



Soldiers bring strange memories home from war.

Any traveller knows the feeling, the inclination to grab some piece of a place so you have something to show you were there.

Soldiers do the same thing, only they tend to cherish odder stuff than carpets or T-shirts (though they like those, too). “These were still hot when we picked them up,” said Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, nodding at a couple of despicably jagged pieces of shrapnel sitting sort of hidden off to one side of his office’s conference table at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa.

Leslie is the Chief of the Land Staff, head of the whole army, subordinate in the Canadian Forces only to Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk, and he has spent his fair share of time contending with Taliban rockets in Afghanistan. “The big one was picked up just outside Camp Julien (in Kabul),” said Leslie, looking at the shrapnel, before continuing in his calmly amicable way. “And the smaller one was picked up just outside FOB (Forward Observation Base) Masum Ghar.”

Leslie, 51, was appointed commander of the army in June 2006. And if there was ever a soldier ordained to rise into the heights of power, it was probably him.

One of his grandfathers was the legendary general Andrew McNaughton, army commander in the Second World War and veteran of Vimy Ridge in the First World War. His other grandfather was Brooke Claxton, another Vimy Ridge veteran who went on to be minister of national defence. Leslie’s dad was brigadier-general ‘Teddy’ McNaughton, a veteran of the Second World War and Korean War, former commander of 1 Royal Canadian Horse Artillery. It was in Korea that Leslie’s dad changed their family name—to Leslie—in order to comply with the terms of an inheritance.

Meanwhile, pedigree aside, it’s not like the man himself doesn’t have merit, far from it. Just watching him talk, with his totally familiar demeanour, as if being the commander of an army of close to 30,000 was the most natural and unstressful situation in the world, makes it clear why he rose so high, so fast.

Leslie got his start in the artillery in 1977, with an Ottawa reserve unit called the 30th Field Artillery Regt. He transferred to 1st Regt., RCHA in 1981. He’s been to school in England, done troop commander courses in the British army, commando courses in the French army and studied at Harvard.

Operationally, Leslie has served in Germany and Cyprus, commanded a sector of peacekeepers in Croatia in 1995 (for which he received a Meritorious Service Medal for his conduct under fire), before finally serving as the commander of Task Force Kabul in 2003.

Leslie is in an interesting position regarding the mission in Afghanistan. Due to the way the CF has been restructured, operational decisions about Afghanistan rest with Canadian Expeditionary Force Command (CEFCOM) and their subordinate theatre commanders and so, to some extent, Leslie is sitting on the sidelines of the war in Kandahar. “What control do I have over what happens in Afghanistan? Absolutely none because the mission…is run by CEFCOM.”

However, even as he says this, there’s a twinkle in his eye, because he does control certain things. “In terms of the tactics that the soldiers use when they’re overseas, that’s a function of their training. And I and my command team in the army are responsible for training, equipping, deploying, and recovering all those army folk who go overseas to do this. So yes, in terms of low-level tactics, we set the conditions here in Canada for what their about to do overseas.”

And this is no small piece of the puzzle. While CEFCOM and the theatre commanders may tell the soldiers what to do, everything they are capable of doing comes from Leslie. “(Afghanistan) has made the army more focused. Much more focused. It’s reinvigorated and re-energized our basic combat skills. It’s made us better appreciate the complexities, of the types of missions we’re not only doing in Afghanistan but elsewhere. It has acted as an instrument with which to change the Canadian army from arguably the remnants of a Cold War construct into something which is more focused on the centre of the spectrum—not necessarily peacekeeping, not necessarily Cold War fighting.”

Without a doubt, the Afghan mission has had a profound impact on the CF. Whereas at one point live-fire training was a notable milestone for the garrisoned force of peacekeepers, now company—or even battalion-level ground combat—is not all that uncommon in Afghanistan. But, it’s been a long stretch too, and the inscrutable complexity of the place means it surely hasn’t been easy.

Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie talks to  soldiers during one of his trips to Kandahar province. [PHOTO: COMBAT CAMERA/DND]

Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie talks to soldiers during one of his trips to Kandahar province.

“Quite frankly, we got there in 2002, we’re leaving in 2011. When my dad went overseas to fight in the Second World War he was gone six years….

“I know a great deal about Afghanistan. I did a tour there. I’ve been the army commander for closing on three years, and I go back quite often. Every time I actually read about the tribal dynamics or about the frontier region, every time I go to Afghanistan, I’m learning something completely and utterly new—something which changes my perception on how we’re doing it and how we should be doing it.

“Afghanistan is about as complex as it gets. It’s a counter-insurgency—and nested within that you have some predatory terrorist groups whose only interest is in the application of terror; you’ve got drug lords; you’ve got warlords; you’ve got six fascinating neighbours; you have 50 friends and allies, each of whom has a slightly different view on how to get the mission done. There are fascinating interpersonal relations in Kabul between [Afghanistan] President [Hamid] Karzai—who I admire having worked with fairly closely a couple of years ago—and some of his ministers, who are also former warlords, some of whom fought for the Russians or against the Russians, some of whom fought actually with the Taliban or against them. Holy cow. Wow….

“And every time I think I know something that’s complicated and difficult to figure, I meet a senior Afghan official who says, ‘No, that’s not the way it is at all.’ And then a completely new frame of reference kicks in.”

All of this complexity doesn’t just make it difficult to fight a war, it also makes it difficult to explain to Canadians what exactly is going on over there.

“Now, how do you explain that to a Canadian citizen who doesn’t live, breathe, eat and sleep this?” he asks with a smile.

Leslie, however, is very clear to draw a line between explaining, however difficult that is, and selling the war, or justifying it. “We explain that which we’re doing. It’s not my job to justify the Afghan mission, nor is it the job of my army generals. This is not the army’s war,” he said. “We go where we’re sent. We do that which we’re told to do, and we come home when Parliament says so.”

This, of course, brings up another topic of some controversy. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced during the 2008 election campaign that Canada’s mission in Afghanistan would end in 2011, it did leave a lot of military people looking around scratching their heads at the decision. “Soldiers don’t get to decide where we go, nor do we decide how long we’re going to stay. The orders that I’ve received from my chief are the military mission ends in Afghanistan in 2011. And though we’ve done great work there and I have passion for the country, my passion for Canada is more and my passion for the army is stronger: so my response to that is, ‘OK.’ The military mission ends in 2011 and my reply is, ‘OK.’”

So far at least, there is no clear opinion among the rank-and-file as to whether the end date in 2011 is good or bad. Certainly there are those who wish to stay longer, but there are also those who accept withdrawal but find the arbitrary endpoint unsatisfactory, an unfitting end to a heavy struggle.

“There are those who, quite rightly and honourably, are committed to the ground, or the circumstances where they have lost buddies. On the other hand, counter-insurgencies never have a clean ending—ever. There’s no one cataclysmic or triumphant event which has brought a counter-insurgency to an abrupt end. You could argue that Tamerlane, when he swept through there a couple decades after Genghis Khan, almost achieved that. But he did so by piling skulls very high, and we don’t do that in the Canadian army.”

Beyond the argument over the mission’s endpoint lies a somewhat stark statistical reality: the army cannot keep doing this mission at its current numbers, not without stressing soldiers well beyond the breaking point.

Leslie has made a decision, a guideline rather than an order, that soldiers will be limited to three tours in Afghanistan. If they want to go back after that, they’re going to have to produce a very good reason why. “First tour: you’re a soldier, you go…. Second tour: it has to be mutual. We ask you, you ask us. Third tour: convince us why you have to go. Fourth tour (and there have been some): you better have a skill set that’s unique that we can’t find anywhere else in the Canadian Forces. Fifth tour: there better be an incredibly good reason as to why you’re going back and we’re not going to ask you to do that….

“We are ferociously busy. In my 30 years as a soldier, we have never been busier….Let me just explain some math. So we have about 3,000 army soldiers deployed internationally. Most of who are in Afghanistan. So 3,000 are gone… 3,000 are coming home…3,000 are forming into the teams that they need to go overseas and doing basic individual training…3,000 are doing individual training at a more advanced level… 3,000 are doing collective training. You add it all up, that’s 15,000 folk.

“Then on top of that you’ve got the young men and women who are actually training the people who are about to go. Very quickly you’re at close to 30,000. You’ve got 20,000 regulars, we’ve got 8,000 full-time reservists. So we need a bigger army to do that which we’re doing….

“Now, the good news is I’ve been promised that we’re going to be growing by 3,075 regulars over the next couple of years. It would make our job a hell of a lot easier in the army if we had them trained in the battalions and regiments right now. And the growth rate is not as fast as I might hope.”

Despite the promised growth, there are other issues affecting the army’s strength, too. In the years since 9/11, there’s has been a renewed focus among western militaries on the uses of special operations forces. Small units of highly trained, adaptive and independent soldiers have proven very useful in the fight against Islamic militants. However, as Leslie notes, in an army as small as Canada’s, finding the trained men to perform these roles comes at a high cost to the regular forces.

Indeed, in some circles Leslie has become known for his opposition to special operations. But, as he argues, it was a very specific opposition. “At the time Canadian Special Operations Command (CANSOFCOM) was established, there was a vigorous professional debate between a bunch of generals as to how it should be done. I think JTF2 are the genetically blessed and represent the best—most of them come from army—that the army has to offer. And I wish them Godspeed and every success in everything they do.

“The issue had to do with the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR). So there was a vision that CSOR should work with CANSOFCOM as an enabler for them. And I understand that perspective. My point of view was I wanted CSOR in the army so as to bridge the army into more special type activities.

“My main remit is to preserve the army to be used by the Government of Canada for whatever orders might be issued to us. So the army is short of soldiers right now. We’ve lost—lost isn’t the right term—we’ve had transferred out of the army close to 2,000 officers and senior NCOs—priceless folk with incredible experience—to CANSOFCOM or the various operational commands. And they haven’t been replaced. So I’m concerned about that….

“What I didn’t want to have happen is my line, battalion, regiments and brigades denuded to actually send folk to other organizations without having a really good debate on what the impact to the army’s going to be….

“We had this professional debate. The Chief (of Defence Staff) at the time made the call. OK. He listened to what I had to say, he didn’t agree. But it wasn’t that important that I felt that anything else had to be done.”

And in terms of certain rumours that Leslie went after CSOR’s funding, he had a very frank reply. “Let me just tell you a tale of woe. Last year I handed in $50 million which we couldn’t spend,” he said. “So if I’m handing in money, it’s illogical to assume that I go after somebody else’s.”

There are other issues pressing in on Leslie beyond manpower shortages and CANSOFCOM’s troop demands, most particularly the problem of trying to equip troops in Afghanistan with the tools they need to stay alive and do their jobs.

“The troops on the frontline need everything right away and they should get it right away. Tragically, it does take time. For example, night vision goggles. There are a couple thousand sets over there. They are hard used. The breakage rate on the night vision goggles is high. We replace them from stocks in Canada, and then we in turn have to buy new ones. How long does it take to actually let a contract and do the paperwork across town to get new goggles? The answer can be, too bloody long.”

Along with night vision goggles and myriad other equipment, the most conspicuously and tragically absent capability in Kandahar these past few years has been helicopters. With that changing now, slowly, Leslie is happy to tout the procurement successes they’ve had such as the M-777 artillery pieces or the Leopard tanks.

“There have been some success stories,” he said, “but is it going as fast as I might want? Absolutely not.”

Leslie also had some interesting observations on the role of tanks in the Afghan mission. For those who have been over there to see it, there is a peculiar quality to watching these huge, massively powerful machines try to array themselves against an enemy that’s hardly ever visible. Leslie knows this.

“Tanks will not win a counter-insurgency…. There’s never going to be a victory parade in a counter-insurgency that’s going to be led by a tank. They’re there to protect the infantry….

“Those big 70-tonne monsters are the most survivable vehicle that we have in the Canadian inventory…so we didn’t buy the main battle tanks to kill other tanks à la the Cold War.”

Leslie then provides an interesting statistic, a previously unknown piece of information that made his press officer, who was sitting in on the interview, gasp in consternation and while the press officer requested that the actual numbers of tanks be kept secret, it is still a point worth considering.

“We’ve had,” said Leslie, “about [XX-number of] Leopard 1s knocked out of action and [X-number of] Leopard 2s…a total of [XX] out of 40 tanks. Think how many lives they’ve saved because what would’ve happened to those crewmen if they’ve been inside a LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle)? That’s maybe 100 lives.”

As for Leslie, it wouldn’t be a bad wager to assume that one day he’ll be moving over to the chief of defence staff’s corner office—though many contenders from the air force and navy might have something to say about that too. But, in the meantime, Canada’s top soldier will no doubt keep trying to win his battles one at a time.

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