Students learn about Canada’s missteps in Afghanistan

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Noted former peacekeepers Ambassador Stephen Hallihan and Brig.-Gen. Serge Labbé spoke to UW political science students about Canada’s role in the Afghan conflict March 19. 

Speaking to PSCI 282, foreign policy, the former advisors and combatants to the 12-year conflict noted numerous mistakes that had been made by the Canadian government just days after withdrawal from what Hallihan called “the highest profile conflict [for Canada] since the Korean War.” 

Hallihan told students that early problems with Canada’s role in the war resulted from differing visions between the government, the Department of National Defence, and Canadian Forces on the ground. Lack of communication between these “silos of information” created an environment where key stakeholders weren’t working together and were not focused on a common goal throughout the first five years of the war.

“If you had a group of ministers and deputy ministers in the room in 2006 and early 2007 and asked them what their vision was for their program in Afghanistan, you would have gotten a range of different things,” Hallihan said. “There were no clearly elaborated or shared strategic objectives.”

Labbé agreed with the assessment, calling Canada’s lack of leadership and human capacity a “bungling through the first few years.”

Hallihan said that while combatants in the field worked well together, tensions in deputy minister’s offices in Ottawa made the communication and planning difficult.

“It’s all about personalities. It’s all about ego,” Labbé said. 

Hallihan said the drifting mission objectives and the lack of support from the Canadian public eventually caused the government to strike the Manley Panel in 2007, lending more focus and institutional sharing to the mission.

Doug Turner, a student who attended the two-hour lecture, said it was reassuring to hear the high-ranking officials speak candidly about their experiences during the war and the problems faced both at home and abroad.

It gave us all a feeling that ‘hmm, there are people out there who are trying to fix these problems,’” he said.

Turner said the class structure has been unique in that it has focused on the viewpoints of real world practitioners and situations, instead of just academics.

Although both speakers focused on the missteps Canada made at the beginning of the war, Labbé said the mission could be considered neither a success nor a failure, and pointed out the good being done.

“I see huge successes by the international community. We’ve accomplished a great deal,” he said. “We’ve started to engage in nation-building, in setting up the conditions for elections, in reconstruction — there have been some incredible successes.”

He pointed to advances in rural development, public health, and education over the course of Canada’s time in Afghanistan, as examples of the good work being done by the international community.

The withdrawal of Canadian Forces from Afghanistan took place March 12, but neither Hallihan or Labbé believe the lessons learned from the mistakes made during the conflict will go to waste. Labbé said clear leadership and communication will be what’s needed in future struggles.

“Honestly, there is going to be a next time around, possibly in the near future, and I think we are going to have to start from scratch,” Hallihan said. 

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