Canada’s Lessons in Afghanistan Not Recorded and Not Learned: Part 1

Canada’s Lessons in Afghanistan Not Recorded and Not Learned: Part 1
Beautician’s courses were supported by such initiatives as the Vocational Training for Afghan Women project (2009). With the help of such projects, Afghan women were able to identify possibly niches in the job market and training opportunities to help them meet labour market demands.© Aga Khan Foundation: Sandra Calligaro

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko’s assessment of American lessons learned in Afghanistan is similar to that of Canada, except that our findings are not based on systematic and independent review. Canada lacks appropriate monitoring and evaluation of its ongoing efforts in Afghanistan, and public knowledge of the success or failure of these efforts is minimal. Journalists, academics, and the general university student population contradict claims made by our government of regular evaluation of Canada’s international assistance programs. Reports are simply not available and must be published on the Global Affairs Canada (GAC) website for further study.

My own analysis of Canada’s lessons is based on my experience of 15 years working either in Canada’s Afghanistan program in Kabul or as a researcher tracking Canada’s reconstruction and stabilization interventions in Afghanistan, to the extent possible, in the absence of easy access to information.

In 2003, a team of just three Canadians, with no representation from the Canadian government’s intelligence unit, stepped into a complex and virtually unknown conflict scenario to start up Canadian operations in Afghanistan.

Opening an embassy with such a tiny staff complement in a country with insurmountable political, security, social, and economic problems reflected a lack of understanding of the extent of the complexities needing attention. No strategic guidelines for programming and operations were articulated. The 3Ds strategy (combining development, defense, and diplomacy) existed only in theory. That this lack of understanding continued beyond the initial years has been confirmed by the summative evaluation of Canada’s Afghanistan development program released in 2015.

In 2001, Canada readily subscribed to the international community’s stated objective of stabilizing Afghanistan through establishing a legitimate state, with the capacity to perform the core functions of governance, to extend its authority across the country, and to secure the support of its people. The state also required the ability to mobilize revenue and deliver the basic services: security, freedom from violence, and access to food, water, basic healthcare, education, and income opportunities.

Provision of such services would help the state to win the hearts and minds of the people and enlist their backing in preventing a resurgence of violence and militancy. A violence-free Afghanistan would contribute to the maintenance of internal, regional, and international peace and security.

Canada’s stabilization agenda was to be guided by a whole-of-government approach — addressing defense and security, social and economic development, and diplomacy and policy dialogue needs — with capacity building of Afghan state institutions at the centre.

The diplomacy element of Canada’s 3Ds went amiss at the very start. In 2001, a flawed peace-building process was launched in Bonn by the international community. Flawed because a reconciliation process with the Taliban — now a high priority for the international community — was not on the table in Bonn.

Bonn also failed to plan a coordinated program for developing the capacity of the Afghan defense and security forces. Such training was prioritized much later by NATO — far too late — when the exit of foreign troops was being planned and the Taliban insurgency had rebounded. Today, no evidence exists to support the claim that the training and assistance mission has effectively strengthened the Afghan defense and security forces.

In an effort to promote security by winning the support (“hearts and minds”) of local communities, Canada introduced the community support–based civil–military co-operation or CIMIC program. CIMIC comprised quick and visible, mostly small infrastructure projects of well digging, road repairs, equipment supplies, construction of culverts, fencing of school compounds, and so on.

Unfortunately, CIMIC programs failed to contribute to legitimacy building or earn the desired popular support for the government of Afghanistan because the government played no role in CIMIC planning and implementation. Canadian soldiers, not the Afghan government, were on the front lines. Nor is there any concrete evidence of any sustainable long-term benefits from the projects showered on the local communities by CIMIC. These hoped-for quick-impact projects or QUIPs turned into NIPs — no impact projects — very quickly.

Similarly, early warnings about the growing failures of the much-needed security sector reform program went unheeded. This program aimed to reduce the violence associated with illegal local militia groups and ex-combatants, the proliferation of small arms and ammunition, and the police itself. While these reform programs were costly, they failed to contribute to security.

They faltered primarily due to un-strategic compromises made by the Afghan government (and members of the international community) with local strong men, who continued to nurture their private militia. Demobilization of these illegal armed groups never materialized.

Many of the other issues crippling the security sector reform process — design flaws, lack of proper management oversight, and audits — were within donors’ control but were ignored. The issue of demobilized soldiers not being equipped with skills and attitudes to reintegrate properly with the society was raised by the aid community but ignored until a UN-commissioned evaluation confirmed that reintegration had been a failure.

Ignored also were any concerns about the weapons retrieval process expressed by the teams responsible for collecting arms and ammunition. Even the basics were missing: 1) a registry to record the nature and quantity of the weapons collected and 2) a secure storage facility for them. The obvious failure of these security sector reforms fed the insurgency and heightened internal conflict. Corruption, with police salaries syphoned off at higher levels, was detected early. But again donors failed to take early action.

As international actors rotated out of Afghanistan and moved in different directions in their careers, memories of the failings of these early days faded and the lessons that could have been applied in planning future phases were lost.

This 2-part blog is an edited version of a presentation for a CIPS event, Conversation with the US Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), hosted by the Fragile States Research Network (FSRN) at the University of Ottawa on 19 September 2018. Read Part 2 here.

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