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Lessons from Baghdad

Christopher Sands

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, unlike his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, is known as someone with good manners (he was an Eagle Scout, after all) and the quiet manner of a consummate Washington insider (he was a CIA agent, National Security Council staffer and eventually director of the CIA).

It surprised a lot of people then, when he gave a Jan. 16 interview to the Los Angeles Times in which he criticized the level of training of non-U.S. NATO forces deployed in southern Afghanistan— a contingent that includes more than 2,500 Canadians taking part in the United Nations-sanctioned and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Canada’s commitment to the ISAF in Afghanistan is scheduled to end on Feb. 1, 2009—just 12 days after the next U.S. president is sworn in. That’s before any cabinet secretaries will be in place, including Gates’ successor, who will face a serious challenge when it comes to replacing the Canadians. Unlike some NATO countries, Canada has been willing to send troops to engage in combat operations, and not just for guard duty in relatively safe parts of the country.

Public criticism is a poor reward for any ally willing to put its young soldiers in harm’s way—what was Gates thinking?

It turns out that Gates—who has since apologized, calling Canadian De-fence Minister Peter MacKay personally to reassure him that Canada’s sacrifices were much appreciated—was reflecting a growing consensus among Washington military strategists.

The new U.S. counter-insurgency strategy developed by General David Petraeus began showing remarkable results in Iraq in 2007, and it won broad respect among U.S. military planners. Before long, there was a clamour to bring this approach to Afghanistan and the Pakistan border region, where al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri are reputedly hiding.

While the June, 2006, U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Manual is a public document, reading it will provide you with only a limited sense of how to implement the strategy, which has been a trial-and-error process in Iraq. It begins with the development of trust with local people who are ready to defend themselves. Building on this motivation, U.S. forces help arm and organize local civilian defense units. These operate independently of U.S. forces at first, but receive tactical support and backup from the Americans when requested against their shared enemy, al-Qaeda.

The next phase is to embed the best of these locals with U.S. forces, where they apprentice and bond with American soldiers, further building trust that leads to better intelligence for U.S. forces. Graduates of the embedding process are organized into more formal defensive brigades that remain local, fighting for their homes and families.

The final step is the professionalization of these units through additional training and joint operations with U.S. forces in their own area, after which they can be incorporated into the national army chain of command. From these, a select few are recruited for training as Iraqi special-forces troops.

As the presence of local defensive units denies al-Qaeda access to population centers, the local allies of U.S. forces provide intelligence on gatherings or camps where al-Qaeda forces may be hiding or planning. U.S. and coalition forces then use heavy air and ground assaults against them. Giving local forces the ability to call in the heavy hammer of U.S. firepower boosts their confidence, and their belief that the war can be won.

The trouble is, most of the NATO allies with troops in Afghanistan are unfamiliar with the new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, and have no experience with some of the innovative tactics that employ the latest technology to support soldiers in close contact with civilians. This was the crux of Secretary Gates’ Jan. 16 complaint. Even the British, who were in Iraq with the Americans, left before the counter-insurgency strategy was applied in their zone.

The United States needs to launch a major effort to train allies, particularly those with troops in the field alongside its own, in its new counter-insurgency approach. Veteran U.S. troops rotating off tours in Iraq with fresh, personal experiences with counter-insurgency would be the ideal instructors since they can offer more than the manual’s basic guidance, getting at the heart of the strategy: forging close bonds with local allies whose knowledge of the people and terrain is critical to winning local hearts and minds.

The U.S. can offer the training, but it would be wise to do so through NATO. Not only is NATO reinventing itself today in Afghanistan, it has a proven track record in providing practical training on a large scale even when it involves the tactical use of sensitive new technologies. This is consistent with the recently released report from the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, which also endorsed the value of NATO.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper responded on Monday that he would accept the recommendations of the Manley Commission, and champion the need for a greater contribution to Afghanistan among other NATO allies. The Prime Minister is in a unique position to do more than browbeat his NATO peers. Working with the United States, Harper could become an advocate for a major effort within NATO to transmit the lessons of American counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq to NATO forces. Canada could offer to host this training, making it easier for U.S. trainers to see their families often.

By extending the Canadian mission in Afghanistan until 2011, Harper would show his good faith to Washington and avoid putting the next U.S. president into a serious jam just days into his—or her—first term. Harper would also have considerable moral authority within NATO for having re-upped for significant, dangerous duty in Kandahar.

Counter-insurgency training (as well as new helicopters, a resource specifically identified by Mr. Manley’s panel) could help reduce future Canadian casualties, and make the extension of the Canadian commitment more palatable in Canada. But more importantly, Harper’s leadership on the issue of counter-insurgency training might persuade reluctant NATO allies to step forward for the difficult mission in Afghanistan, convincing them that there is a winning strategy for addressing the violence.

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