March 12, 2006


War: Canadian-style: Bringing the war home (MITCH POTTER, 3/12/06, Toronto Star)

Some of these Canadian soldiers have been to Bosnia, some to Croatia, some also to Kosovo, and many have seen the far more stable face of Afghanistan from the capital, Kabul, where Canadian Forces have contributed handsomely to NATO peacemaking efforts almost since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001.

But none has seen the modern stone-age family quite the way it presents itself in these distant and deeply tribal mountains north of Kandahar.

Here, mud-walled homes stand in clustered communities that lack virtually everything one associates with modernity. They have no electricity, no teachers, no doctors, no roads worthy of the name, no means with which to rise from the ashes of a quarter century of conflict.

What these villages do have are mosques, with calls to prayer five times a day the only sound that carries apart from the crowing of roosters. And, interspersed among spindly wheat sprouts, one can see the green beginnings of what will become a new poppy harvest — the obvious harbinger of opium-processing drug lords whose interest in reversing any Afghan recovery matches that of remnant Taliban insurgents.

Drugs and medieval religious dogma, an unholy alliance that is filtered further still through the almost inscrutable subtleties of Pashtun tribal rivalries, is what the Canadians find themselves up against.

What these particular Canadian soldiers bring with them, however, is something more substantial than most Canadians realize — actual combat capability. A capability that, despite the Cold War-era teachings of the Canadian military, includes more than a little knowledge of modern counter-insurgency techniques.

It would be unfair to quote them by name, for they hardly deserve the top-down retributions of the Canadian Forces' bloated middle management. But know this: Many of Canada's front-line combat soldiers, who number barely 3,500 in total, view as wholly inadequate the training they receive at home.

"The teaching model is still based on the assumption that when we go to war, that war will be conventional, as in the Godless Russian hordes lined up in tanks coming at us from one direction," a veteran non-commissioned officer at Kandahar Airfield told the Toronto Star.

"It is not the fault of the instructors. That was the environment they came up in. But at the same time, that's not what war is anymore. The reality today is counter-insurgency. The top Canadian brass realize this and so do the front-of-line soldiers. But in between, there is a layer of the army locked in hidebound thinking, basically resistant to change.

"So a lot of us deployed in Afghanistan today have basically had to throw out the book and educate ourselves. It's really not that difficult, because so many armies around the world have been training in counter-insurgency techniques for so long now that there is a substantial library of knowledge available. And we're studying it on our own."

In other words, Canadian soldiers in training are buying and reading books and going online in search of post-Cold War military doctrine, particularly the strategies of dealing with an insurgent or guerrilla-style enemy (who hits and runs, rather than standing and fighting).

Some combat soldiers here say the decayed state of military education in Canada is merely a by-product of overall neglect for the forces as a whole by successive Canadian governments. And that, they say, speaks to Canada's enduring cultural love affair with the notion that our soldiers are simply peacekeepers, nothing more and nothing less.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2006 7:42 AM
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