The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar

By Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang. Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007.

By James Applegate (reviewer)

The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar promises to give a "damning insider's account" of Canada's march to war in Afghanistan, with details from "backroom meetings and previously restricted correspondence." The book further claims to explain why the mission in Kandahar has unexpectedly turned out to be so bloody.

Overall, Unexpected War does just that.

Accessible and lively, the book sheds light on the top politicians, bureaucrats and military officials in the Chrétien, Martin and Harper governments.

Full of twists and suspense, Unexpected War keeps the reader turning page after page, except for breaks to bang one's head against the wall, screaming, "So that's how they do it in Ottawa."

Unexpected War benefits from two authors with complementary foreign policy backgrounds. Consultant and writer Eugene Lang served as chief of staff to two Liberal ministers of national defence from 2002 to 2006, an ideal place to collect juicy political tidbits; Professor Janice Gross Stein is the director of the Munk Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto, where she has honed her skills as one of the country's top foreign policy analysts.

Overall, Stein and Lang argue that Ottawa has made critical decisions on Afghanistan based on short-term political concerns, such as pleasing the USA, rather than pursuing any clearly-articulated long-term foreign policy. Thus, Canada emerges as an insecure young starlet, desperately trying to please a powerful movie producer.

In the high anxiety environment after 9/11, for example, the Chrétien government's first concern was to reassure the US, keeping the borders open and exports flowing south. Then, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) invoked its common security provisions, Canada volunteered for its first missions to Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

Chanting the mantra "early in, early out," Ottawa wanted short-term missions with "cosmetic value," demonstrating a commitment to the War on Terror, without being unduly risky.

The war on Iraq resulted in our second mission to Afghanistan.

In a meeting on January 9, 2003, former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld flattered Canadian defence officials, encouraging Canada to lead the international forces in Kabul. Rumsfeld's real goal? To free up American soldiers for Iraq. And so, the "Afghanistan solution" was born.

"There was no question, every time we talked about Afghan mission, it gave us cover for not going to Iraq," said Bill Graham, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister at the time.

The current mission to Kandahar followed Canada's refusal to join the US Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) program in February 2005. Officials in Ottawa, particularly in the Department of National Defence, were panicking after Canada said "no" to the US once again.

But this anxiety was unnecessary. When Graham, then the Defence Minister, informed former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz of the refusal, Wolfowitz said he could appreciate the Canadian position.

"Wolfowitz basically told me, `We don't give a damn,'" Graham said.

US President George W. Bush later communicated the same lack of concern to former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Officials at DND remained unconvinced. Canada should take steps to prove its ongoing loyalty, such as another mission to Afghanistan, they thought. While Prime Minister Martin originally favoured peacekeeping missions for the Canadian Forces to places like Darfur or Haiti, he eventually came around to General Rick Hillier's articulate pitch for Afghanistan.

Stein and Lang's second major theme is that the current war in Kandahar was "unexpected," as the key decision-makers believed they were planning a stabilization and reconstruction mission. No one predicted the Taliban insurgency with intense combat and numerous casualties.

"Nobody who planned the mission anticipated this. Nobody used the word war to describe the mission...." then Defence Minister Bill Graham recalled later. "We were probably drinking too much of our own bathwater."

As the book tells it, the "unexpected war" story may well be true. But it is thin at best; it would be laughable if Canadian soldiers and others were not dying. At the time, the Dutch and the Russians were more realistic about the "hornets' nest" of southern Afghanistan. Ironically, three years earlier, DND had warned Ottawa that the second, relatively stable mission to Kabul was dangerous and could deteriorate into the dreaded quagmire.

As a whole, Unexpected War functions as a cautionary tale on foreign interventions, prompting the following questions: Should a handful of people have the power to order our country to war, unless we are in immediate danger of being attacked? Can we really win Afghan hearts and minds when the bureaucracy has done such a wretched job of delivering aid to desperately poor villagers? Finally, what are realistic goals for the Canadian mission, given an endless supply of Taliban recruits from Pakistan?

In concluding Unexpected War, Stein and Lang propose three broad options for the Canadian military in Afghanistan.

First, the Canadian Forces could leave Afghanistan in 2009, having fulfilled their NATO commitment.

Second, the military could continue their combat role in Kandahar, but do more quick reconstruction projects to win over hearts and minds.

Third, the mission could shift its focus to development, keeping one reconstruction team in Kandahar and creating a second one elsewhere.

Beyond this, the authors wonder if negotiations with the "soft" Taliban might help end the war.

This conclusion, however, is strangely unsatisfying. After writing a whole book criticizing Ottawa's poor decision-making processes, the authors do not rigorously analyze the pros and cons of their three options and choose one as best. With the nation debating Canada's future in Afghanistan, one might well ask, "Why not?"

Reviewed by James Applegate, a Vancouver writer specializing in defence and foreign policy issues.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2008, page 27. Some rights reserved.

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