As the Canadian Forces complete combat operations in Kandahar this summer and turn responsibility over to the U.S. military, this is a good time to reflect on the Canadian experience with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- Canada's largest post-Cold War military undertaking since its operations in the former Yugoslavia. While many commentators and analysts focus on the impact of Canadian policy on security, governance, and development in Afghanistan and the military lessons learned for the Canadian Forces, the purpose here is to provide a brief overview of the transatlantic dimension of Canada's Afghanistan policy.
In Afghanistan NATO served as a multilateral instrument that enabled Canada, and by extension other member countries, to co-ordinate policies and deploy forces in a challenging multinational military environment. In addition to the force-enabling role of the Alliance, Canadian policy-makers sought, through NATO, to manage bilateral relations with the U.S. -- an enduring function of NATO in Canadian foreign policy. The transatlantic dimension of Canada's engagement in Afghanistan was also marked by tension surrounding what were perceived as restrictive rules of engagement, or "national caveats," on the part of certain national contingents in ISAF.
Today we take for granted that ISAF is a NATO-led multinational force.
However, before the 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group Headquarters took
command of the Kabul Multinational Brigade in August, 2003 ISAF fell under the
command of volunteer "lead nations" that assumed the burden of
financing and manning the force nationally on an ad hoc basis. The United
Kingdom mounted the force and led it for the first six months, handed
responsibility over to the Turks, who in turn transferred authority to
the 1 (German/Netherlands) Corps. Although the joint German-Dutch
corps is designated as a NATO High Readiness Force Headquarters, it was not
until ISAF was fully under the aegis of NATO in August, 2003 that national
contingents of ISAF were able to focus on exercising day-to-day command of
the force free of the many strategic planning and leadership burdens imposed on
earlier lead nations.
Similarly, the "Stage 3" expansion of the ISAF area of responsibility into the southern and southeastern provinces under NATO auspices occurred at a key juncture for Canada. Ottawa agreed to deploy a battle group and a provincial reconstruction team to Kandahar just as command was transferring from the US-led Combined Forces Command Afghanistan (CFC-A) to ISAF. NATO acted as the framework through which the issue of expanding the force's geographic area of responsibility could be addressed in a long-term fashion and its stabilization mandate reconciled with the counter-terrorist combat role of the CFC-A. Cost, political opposition, and short-termism hitherto prevented lead nations from initiating an expansion of ISAF.
For Canada, the transfer of authority from CFC-A to NATO-ISAF was important because the latter was a more comfortable arrangement through which to channel bilateral relations with the U.S. than the "coalitions of the moment" that were the preferred modus operandi of the Bush administration and the inspiration for the CFC-A. Although Canadian officials often downplay the politically sensitive issue of how U.S.-Canada relations influence their policy choices, both the Kabul and Kandahar deployments were opportunities to demonstrate a commitment to the U.S.-led campaign against international terrorism in a manner that was perceived as more consistent with stated Canadian values and interests. In the case of the 2003 Kabul deployment, the Iraq factor loomed large in Canadian government decision-making. Through its ISAF decision, which came the month prior to the onset of hostilities in Iraq, the Jean Chretien government highlighted its commitment to international security by electing to participate in an international force viewed as consistent with his government's preferences for UN Security Council approved multilateralism. At the time pressure was mounting on Ottawa to support what officials perceived as the Bush administration's unilateral and pre-emptive use of force against Iraq. (The use of ISAF as a diplomatic tool to signal opposition to the Iraq War whilst continuing to demonstrate support for counter-terrorist operations was also true of Germany and Spain -- both member countries that contributed significant numbers of personnel to ISAF.)
The Stage 3 expansion of the ISAF presented Chretien's successor, Paul Martin, with an opportunity to ameliorate Canada-U.S. relations. Ottawa's review of its Afghanistan policy in the spring of 2005 came on the heels of a decision, taken in February, 2005, to turn down American offers to participate in the National Missile Defense program. Spearheading the expansion of the ISAF footprint into one of the most perilous regions of Afghanistan with a sizable national contingent and a commitment to play a leadership role in Regional Command South during that deployment allowed Ottawa officials to highlight Canada's military contribution -- and couch the commitment in the language of transatlanticism -- at a time when the U.S. Defense Department was looking to reduce U.S. force levels in Afghanistan.
The burden-sharing problems Canadian officials encountered in Afghanistan dampened enthusiasm for the Alliance despite the positive diplomatic and force-multiplying effects NATO had on ISAF. Ottawa officials express disappointment with restrictions imposed on member countries' contingents that prevented the redeployment of forces to the insurgent strongholds in the southern provinces. On several occasions Ottawa joined like-minded member countries in lobbying efforts and public statements urging the lifting of national caveats. As these entreaties proved unsuccessful, it became increasingly difficult over time for officials in Ottawa to invoke alliance unity and solidarity to justify the Canadian presence in Afghanistan. Toward the end of Canada's Kandahar deployment the minister of defence was publicly suggesting that Alliance officials should look to other member countries for ISAF contributions before they "come knocking on our door." After five years of trying to broaden NATO participation in southern Afghanistan, Canada now finds itself turning its area of responsibility in Kandahar over to a predominantly American contingent.
Kristian A. Kennedy, MSc London School of Economics and Political Science, worked as a parliamentary monitor in the House of Commons of Canada Standing Committee on National Defence. His writings on international affairs have appeared in several publications.