Canada's Continuing Commitment to NATO and ISAF



I wrote this analysis for a course I took called '9/11 and the War on Terror.' This policy memo served as our term paper, in lieu of a traditional final exam. Our assignment was to examine an aspect of the war in Afghanistan. I chose this topic because of my Canadian roots and my interest in NATO. Learn how early friendly fire incidents and experiencing the highest proportional rate of fatalities amongst active ISAF partners provided Canada’s policy makers with adequate justification for actually expressing the public’s will in regards to reducing military engagement. However, an analysis of public opinion, voting trends, and implemented policy clearly demonstrate Canada’s commitment to NATO and ISAF, even amidst the Afghan disengagement.



Executive Summary

The first Canadian casualties in the Afghanistan war were inflicted as a result of friendly fire. A U.S. F-16 fighter pilot bombed a staging area for a Canadian training exercise in a location known as the Tarnak Farms.[1] This incident happened just over six months into the Afghan war. By examining the background of this friendly fire incident, insight to the continued Canadian commitment can be gleaned. Furthermore, Canada has experienced the highest proportional rate of fatalities amongst active ISAF partners in Afghanistan.[2] Canadian policymakers proceeded to utilize this information when they reduced troop levels at a time when the U.S. was planning a troop surge.[3] This reality altered and shifted Canada’s role with ISAF in Afghanistan. Canada then began disengagement in Afghanistan and reverting to a support role in the ISAF mission.

Public opinion polls taken in Canada after the 9/11 attacks concerning U.S. – Canadian relations and of the war in Afghanistan under the Stephen Harper government will illustrate the opinion landscape. From there, government policies will be examined for mention or justification vis-à-vis public opinion. Historically, Canada and the U.S. have shared the world’s largest economic relationship. They also share the world’s largest border. Canada’s empathy for the 9/11 terrorist attack against the U.S. will also be represented in public opinion polls. So it seems as if Canada must continue to support their southern neighbors in endeavors of war as a way to bolster other more beneficial channels. The relationship Canada has with the U.S. appears to be one based upon ideological obligation, rather than one of true support. So it appears that friendly fire incidents, while not the U.S.’s intentions, and a higher rate of soldier deaths provide Canada’s policy makers with adequate justification for actually expressing the public’s will in regards to reducing military engagement. Similarly, voting patterns for the national government are indicative of the waning support for the war in Afghanistan. The elections in Canada in 2008 and 2006 will provide data as to how Canada voted in a post 9/11 political theater during the lead-up to the U.S. surge. The analysis and evaluation of public opinion, voting trends, and implemented policy clearly demonstrate Canada’s commitment to NATO and ISAF, even amidst the Afghan disengagement.

Canada’s Role in Afghanistan

            Canada is a founding signatory of the North Atlantic Treaty. As such, Canada is one of the most senior partners in the alliance, often taking on roles of leadership. After the September 11th attack against the U.S. in 2001, by virtue of their NATO membership, Canada was thrust into the Afghan War. In response to the attack, the U.S. invoked Article 5 of the NATO treaty which effectively made the attack on the U.S. an attack against all of NATO’s members. This is the first, and only, time this common defense article has been invoked. The response was assembled, but how the joint military force would manifest had yet to be established. It was not until late 2001 that the UN passed Security Council Resolution 1386, which “authorize[d], as envisaged in Annex 1 to the Bonn Agreement, the establishment for 6 months of an International Security Assistance Force.”[4] As the UN mentioned, the outline for the ISAF force was described in the Bonn Agreement and was charged with, “assist[ing] in the maintenance of security for Kabul and its surrounding areas” with the understanding that “such a force could, as appropriate, be progressively expanded to other urban centres and other areas.”[5]

            According to the Canadian Minister of Defence, the first Canadian personnel to arrive in Afghanistan was, “approximately 40 JTF2 (Joint Task Force) Operators on the ground in Afghanistan, in or around Kandahar.”[6] As the force build up in Afghanistan continued into 2002, Canada was fully compliant with ISAF military directives and they fought alongside their American and ISAF counter-parts. NATO assumed command of ISAF on August 11th, 2003.[7] After the change in command, Canadian forces began their contribution to NATO, Operation Athena. Based in the capital, Kabul, and later expanding to Kandahar Province, Operation Athena focused on peace building exercises and civilian population interaction.[8]

Fratricide and Troop Casualty Rates

            During a Canadian only training exercise in April of 2002, Canadian forces would be dealt their single largest troop loss since the Korean War. The absolutely tragic nature of the Canadian loss was multiplied by the fact that it was “an American F-16 fighter jet [that] dropped a laser-guided 225-kilogram bomb” on the Tarnak farms training area. The devastating result was a total of 4 deaths and 8 injuries, marking the first loss of Canadian forces in the Afghan War. There was a major outcry from the Canadian public and outrage from government officials.  Once more details about the tragic friendly fire incident were revealed, the anger grew. There was even public criticism from the Canadian military that was directed at the U.S. forces. General Ray Henault, Canadian Chief of Staff, immediately stated that, “Without a doubt, there was a misidentification of the Canadians and what they were doing on the ground and that was obviously the cause of this accident.”[9] In response, President George W. Bush offered a public apology for the tragedy and commended and thanked the Canadian forces for their continued support.

            As the investigation of the incident by U.S. officials continued on, there was extensive media coverage of the developments. There were multiple sources of cause célèbre that resulted from this incident. The damning evidence regarding the sortie resulted in the U.S. pilot and his wingman being brought up on an Article 32 Inquiry for the incident. The resolution from the U.S. Air Force angered the Canadian public. Not only did the U.S. Air Force decide to not court martial the two pilots, but the wingman’s charges were dismissed and the pilot responsible for dropping the bomb was eventually just charged with, and found guilty of, a single count of dereliction of duty.[10] This event primed the Canadian public’s perception of the Afghan War and provided a macabre tone from the onset.

                        The initial intensity of conflict for the majority of Canadian forces in Afghanistan was relatively low. The counter insurgency style of warfare and the road patrols set the terms for the type of attacks that would be directed at Canadian forces. The wide majority of Canadian casualties and fatalities are the result of improvised explosive devices (IED’s). Quite often overlooked in the entire Afghan conflict is the fact that Canadian forces experience a higher rate of loss per capita than any of the other coalition partners.[11] However this statistic is not lost on the Canadian public. The big benchmark for Canadian forces fatalities hit in December of 2008 when the 100th soldier died. Eventually the entire cost of Canada’s involvement would rise to 158, with the most recent death coming in October 2011.[12]

Public Opinion in Canada

            Canadians have classically held a favorable view of the American population, even if their view of the U.S. government has not been so favorable. In late 2001, Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario conducted a series of opinion polls regarding Canada -U.S. relations. Their data showed that in the wake of 9/11, 80% of Canadians had a favorable view of the U.S. and that the 9/11 attacks made over 96% of Canadians personally upset.[13] Interestingly, the poll when on to inquire about role Canada should play in response to the attacks by either fully supporting the U.S. in the war on terror or addressing the root causes of terrorism. The result was split, with 44% for full support verses 48% for addressing the cause.[14]

After four years of military engagement, the Canadian public’s support for the Afghan war had become the minority (47%) sentiment.[15] In July 2006 when Ipsos conducted the survey, Canada had only lost 19 soldiers in Afghanistan, but 11 of them came in the previous 4 months. Compounding the toll was the loss of a Canadian diplomat in a suicide bombing in Kandahar. Diplomatic cables considered this a damaging blow to Canada calling the attack “a bit of a wake-up call for the Canadian public.”[16] The fatalities rapidly doubled and the support for the war began a continued decline. This trend was especially evident in December of 2008 when Canada suffered its 100th soldier killed. Since 2006 when the support for the war was the minority opinion to December 2008, the trend showed an average doubling of fatalities annually.

The slumping approval for the war in Afghanistan would continue. In July of 2009, the majority of the Canadian public (52%) favored the projected 2011 withdrawal date for Canadian military operations.[17] A scandal emerged in late 2009 concerning the treatment of Afghan prisoners. Canadian troops were not accused of mistreatment, but rather the questions surrounded who they were transferring prisoners to, the Afghan authorities. This was confirmed when Richard Colvin stated that “according to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured.”[18]

The Political Response

            The current Prime Minister of Canada is Stephen Harper. He came into power in 2006 when the Conservative Party won 124 seats in Canada’s Parliament.[19] Since then, he has won two more elections; in 2008 winning 143 seats[20] and again in 2011 when the Conservative Party won 166 seats, enough to hold a majority in Parliament.[21] In terms of election issues, defense policy, which includes issues like war, terrorism, and foreign policy, is not usually a major campaign issue. In the past three elections, Canadians have ranked defense policy considerations near the bottom of the issues that influence their votes. Never rising above single digit consideration, polls showed that Canadians identified defense issues as a major priority only 9% of the time in 2006, and then rapidly decreasing in 2008 to only 2.6% and was only at .4% in 2011.[22]

Harper’s foreign policy has been more aggressive than those of past Prime Ministers, most notably in how his policies support and mimic the U.S.’s actions. The Harper government has taken more hardline stances at the UN, is a more vocal supporter of Israel, and has departed from Canada’s image as the “Global Boy Scout.”[23] Canada has also seen a nearly unparalleled military mobilization under the Harper government, most notably with the continued involvement in the multi-national Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, despite the rising costs. Yet the overall view of the Harper government is still favorable in Canada, due to the performance in social and economic interests. Harper wants to elevate the status of Canada as a player on the national stage, but has to maneuver between domestic politics and international commitments.

The Canadian troop commitment to ISAF was set to expire in February 2009. In late 2007, Harper “called for an independent panel to study the questions and recommend a way forward.”[24] The conclusion of the Manley report suggested that there needs to be a mission extension as well as increased support given to the Canadian forces in Kandahar.[25] Harper accepted the “broad” terms and said “that his government accepts the recommendations.”[26] Following the release of the report, Harper’s government issued a bill to incorporate the Manley recommendations into the Afghan role. The motion passed, as it reflected the public’s opinion of the war and set a timeline for disengagement, “calling for Canadian troops to leave Afghanistan by December 2011.”[27]As the Canadian Foreign Minister pointed out, this crucial vote provided “Harper a strong mandate heading into the upcoming NATO meeting in Bucharest.”[28]He was able to secure the extra NATO support and in turn was able to extend Canada’s commitment to NATO, thus fulfilling the requirements of the recently passed motion. In the lead up to the impending fall 2008 federal election, Harper was able to use the campaign promise that “We're planning our withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan in 2011; at that point, the mission... as we've known it, we intend to end it.”[29]So when the Conservative Party won the 2008 election, Canada was then set to proceed with their plan of disengagement. Likewise in the U.S., Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. These exercises of democracy set the stage for the two NATO ISAF partners.

The American focus on Iraq had left Afghanistan neglected and the situation demanded a solution to get it back on track. Diplomatic cables show that U.S. policy makers were actively considering military options for Afghanistan in early and were shopping around for NATO support. The U.S. had asked Canada about Afghan involvement post-2011, so they could make their plans accordingly. However, a Canadian cable stated that because of “the hardening of popular attitudes over the mission end in 2011” in conjunction with the “growing unwillingness to contemplate a Canadian role in Afghanistan post-2011” that public policy making has been constrained, preventing the discussion of any commitment to combat or support roles in Afghanistan, at that point.[30]

In December of 2009, Barack Obama called for 30,000 more troops to be sent to Afghanistan. The troop surge was essentially a redoubling of counter insurgency efforts in Afghanistan. After the official announcement of the surge, Canada sent a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State. The cable emphasized remarks made by Canadian Chief of Defence Staff General Natynczyk regarding the 2011 deadlines. The cable reiterated that,

“In accordance with a March 2008 parliamentary motion, no Canadian Forces - apart from a military attaché in Kabul - or military equipment will remain in Afghanistan after December 31, 2011.”[31]
The surge would request an enormous burden on the other war wearied allies of ISAF. 8 long years had already been invested and now an open-ended commitment was being asked for. After hearing the announcement, it was clear that the Canadian public was still in favor of disengagement. Ipsos conducted a survey in late December 2009 that showed 66% of Canadians disagreed with the troop surge.[32]  The Harper government was intent on reflecting the Canadian public’s wishes. This sent a clear message to the U.S. that Canada was not maneuvering politically.

Secretary General Rasmussen & Prime Minister Harper
            On 12 January 2010, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen visited Canada to meet with Prime Minister Harper. On the docket was a discussion regarding the announcement of the U.S. surge and the Canadian reaffirmation of the 2011 deadline for combat operations in Afghanistan. A diplomatic cable highlighted Harper’s intentions to bolster support for the Afghanistan mission, but also bringing the public willingly into the decision making process. Harper remained firm on the 2011 time frame, highlighting the fact that “the mounting death toll [is] the most damaging factor” in regards to “domestic vulnerabilities he faces with respect to retaining support for the Afghanistan mission.”[33]

Secretary General Rasmussen also pitched the idea of “a training role in Afghanistan after Canada's combat mission ends in 2011,” to which Harper “promised that the government would look at the possibility, while noting the difficulties in providing effective training outside Afghanistan.”[34] By holding to the 2011 date, Harper was able to satisfy the Canadian public’s wishes and meet their obligations to NATO. In return, Secretary General Rasmussen “avoided criticism of Canada's decision and refrained from calling for a reversal of the decision” when talking to the media.[35] The results of the meeting were indicative of the delicate balancing act Harper was performing, but was nevertheless succeeding at. Canada is successfully navigating the demands of their citizens and fulfilling their commitment to ISAF and NATO.

End Notes

[1] (CBC News Online, 2005)
[2] (The Vancouver Sun, 2008)
[3] (Aid, 2012, p. 96)
[4] (UN Security Council, 2001)
[5] (Bonn Agreement, 2001)
[6] (CBC News, 2011)
[7] (NATO ISAF, 2011)
[8] (CBC News, 2011)
[9] Ibid.
[10] (CBC News Online, 2004)
[11] (Macdonald, 2012)
[12] (CBC News, 2011)
[13] (Queen's University, 2007)
[14] Ibid.
[15] (Ipsos, 2006) ” As Canadian War Casualties Mount, Support For Afghanistan Mission Sinks”
[16] (Embassy Ottawa, 2006)
[17] (Ipsos, 2009) “Support for Mission in Afghanistan Holds Steady (48%) But Come 2011 Majority (52%) Says It’s Time for Canada to Pull Out”
[18] (CBC News, 2011)
[19] (Munroe, 2006)
[20] (Munroe, 2008)
[21] (Monroe, 2011)
[22] (Queen's University, 2012) Averaging poll data for the issues of War, Foreign Policy, and Military
[23] (Harper, 2012)
[24] (CBC News, 2011)
[25] (CTV News, 2008)
[26] Ibid.
[27] (CBC News, 2008)
[28] Ibid.
[29] (Carter, 2008)
[30] (Embassy Ottawa, 2009) “Canadians Against Future Afghan Role”
[31] (Embassy Ottawa, 2009) “No Room For Doubt: All Canadian Troops Out Of Afghanistan By December 2011”
[32] (Ipsos, 2009) “As United States Prepares to Deploy 30,000 More Troops into Foray in Afghanistan, Majority of Canadians (66%) Disagrees that the Build-Up Will Create Military Victory Over Taliban”
[33] (Embassy Ottawa, 2010) “Canadian Pm And Nato S-g Discuss Afghanistan, The Strategic Concept, And The Arctic”
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid


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