The Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy brought together last September the three federal party leaders to defend their foreign policy visions for the country. The first question of the debate was on Canada’s military involvement in fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This highlights the importance of the role Canada has to play internationally to stop threats to international peace and security. As the world appears to be becoming a more dangerous place with ideological extremism spreading throughout the poorest regions of the globe, Canada must be ready to operate in these complex environments as future conflicts are likely to occur within weak and fragile states.

To do so, the hard-won lessons learned during the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan can help better prepare Canada for the challenges of the twenty-first century. The chapter “Living among the Population in Southern Afghanistan: A Canadian Approach to Counter-insurgency” captures first-hand experiences of the counter-insurgency tactics used by the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) during its engagement in Kandahar Province from 2005 to 2011. During the first years of the intervention, the hard fought battles to maintain ground proved unable to tackle the insurgency. The influx of additional American troops to Kandahar in 2009 was the turning point that gave the Canadian-led Task Force Kandahar (TFK) the means to realize its ambitions. It created an unprecedented opportunity to adopt a new counterinsurgency strategy centred on the protection of the population. First introduced in the village of Deh-e-Bag in June 2009, the implementation of the key village approach rapidly demonstrated its capacity to address the root causes of the insurgency. With the American surge that arrived in Spring 2010, the key village approach expanded and was used to plan stability operations in the villages of Dand and Panjwayi districts.

The critical lessons on counter-insurgency stemming from the Afghanistan experience included:

  1. Commit sufficient troops. A significant impediment to winning the war in Afghanistan was the lack of sufficient resources to implement the counter-insurgency strategy. Considering the number of villages to protect, living among the population to separate them from the insurgents was, in retrospect, impossible to achieve without the commitment of NATO countries to provide enough troops to accomplish this goal. Counter-insurgency is a complex endeavour that requires enough troops to accomplish its objectives and the commitment of resources must be sustained for a long period of time.
  2. Adopt a decentralized approach. Decentralizing the approach to the district level helped provide an acute understanding of the security environment in which operations took place. It also helped to better prioritize the operations by taking into account the needs of the districts. In turn, this ensured long-term stability in the district because the troops would be able to consolidate the gains made in villages before moving on to other contested areas.
  3. Partner with local security forces. This has proven to be the most effective way to conduct operations. Because the local security forces share the same cultural background as the population, it is easier for them to build trust and confidence with the local population. They also have a deeper knowledge of the security and cultural environment they operate in, which help them conduct effective counter-insurgency operations. Capacity building is particularly important because the transfer of authority to the local security forces should always be the intended goal in these operations. Therefore, all efforts devoted to enhance the local forces’ capability will better prepare them for when the coalition force leaves.
  4. Listen to the population. This was a key lesson that showed the most significant results. An international coalition can come in with all the best intentions in the world; however, it is the local leaders that have the necessary influence to institute change in their communities. It is only by maintaining a relationship based on trust and cooperation with the local leaders that the coalition can hope to make sustainable progress, such as protecting the rights of women. Just like in any other nation, it is important to preach patience, because changing mentalities takes time.

During its years in Afghanistan, the CAF built itself a reputation among its allies to be very effective at counter-insurgency. The key for their success was their ability to create bonds with the population by listening to their concerns and learning to negotiate with them. By taking into account the locals’ views, rather than imposing their will, the Canadians worked closely with the Afghans and helped them make long-term decisions about their security.

CA Among Nations-Book LaunchCaroline Leprince is an associate fellow at the Raoul-Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the Université du Québec à Montréal. The author is solely responsible for the analysis reached herein. She is also the author of “Living Among the Population in Southern Afghanistan: A Canadian Approach to Counter-Insurgency,” chapter 5 in Canada Among Nations 2015.


Many key stakeholders of the Canadian intervention in Afghanistan were interviewed for this contribution including the current Chief of Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance, the former Representative of Canada in Kandahar, Mr. Tim Martin, the Afghan Commander of Kandahar 1stBrigade, Brigadier-General Ahmed Habibi, the U.S. Director of Counterinsurgency Center, Lieutenant-Colonel John Paganini, among others. Their vibrant testimonies help shed light on this important moment of Canadian history.

This is a series of cross-posts originally published on NPSIA Blog


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