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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dion of Kandahar

Our almost-Prime Minister:

Former Liberal leader Stephane Dion questioned Wednesday why Canadian Armed Forces need to train Afghan military to fight the Taliban, when the Afghans were strong enough to defeat the forces of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

His question was among an array of misgivings about Canada's role in Afghanistan that opposition MPs voiced to top officials from four government departments who testified at the House of Commons special committee on Canada's mission in Afghanistan.


"After all, we are speaking about people that have been able to win against the Soviet Union," he said. "If they were willing to win against the Taliban they would not need so much training ... How come those people who won against the Soviet Union need training?"

This is what the party of C.D. Howe has come to. From managing a vast war-time economy, to failing to understand what a modern military actually does. Well Stephane, let me explain things slowly, for your benefit. The force which defeated - in part - the Soviet army twenty years ago was a guerrilla force using guerrilla tactics. The fancy name is asymmetrical warfare.

When a large, hierarchical military force occupies a given territory it can be challenged by a similarly structured force, or by a guerilla force. Conventional armies will seek to defeat each other in mostly open warfare, as the Allied forces defeated the Nazis in the Second World War. Such armies are fielded by modern nation states, with the political, administrative and economic wherewithal to field such forces. Societies that lack such strengths, and cannot therefore field conventional armies, will sometimes resort to guerrilla forces and tactics to oppose conventional forces. Rather than meeting the occupying force, or in the case or rebellion a government's forces, in open battle, they seek to weaken the conventional force.

While fighters using guerrilla tactics can be quite skilled - though most are not - they typically do not wear uniforms, their command structure is highly decentralized and they seek to harass and disrupt the enemy force. This disruption can take the form of raids on supply lines, assassinations of enemy officers, attacks on land or aerial patrols, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and hit and run attacks on enemy installations. The goal of a guerrilla force is less to keep and hold ground, as a conventional force would, but to prevent their enemy from doing so. In military terms, they are a negative not a positive. They seek to prevent rather than establish. 

Guerrilla forces can be used as part of a popular movement to throw out an invading force, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or they can be co-ordinated with a conventional force (as during the Peninsular War and the Middle Eastern Campaigns of the First World War). While forces using guerrilla tactics have been successful at removing occupying forces, by making it too costly for the occupiers to remain, and even at overthrowing established governments (as the Castro brothers did in Cuba in 1950s), they are poorly equipped to act as a conventional military force.

A conventional force exists to defend generally established geographic boundaries, and an established government. It will have a clear chain of command reporting to a head of government, or for ceremonial purposes the head of state (as Her Majesty is Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian forces). It will be the responsibility of such a force to defend the country's borders against foreign aggressors (or initiate aggression, depending on the circumstances), and keep the government in power against open rebellion. As a last resort, a conventional military will be used to enforce basic law and order, when local police forces have been overwhelmed, or are in danger of becoming so.

A conventional army is what we are training - or at least attempting to train - in Afghanistan. Turning a loosely controlled group of guerrillas into a disciplined army is no small feat. It might be impossible given the circumstances in Afghanistan, which is why the national army in that country is devoting so much time and money to recruiting new men.

It doesn't take much time to teach even a child to use and maintain an AK-47. It does take rather a lot of time to turn green young men into soldiers. That Stephane Dion, a former leader of the Liberal Party, cannot grasp something so basic about our mission in Afghanistan is a dereliction of his duty as a public official. That Stephane Dion cannot tell the difference between what makes a professional solider in a conventional military, and a goat-herder with an AK-47, speaks volumes about his lack of respect and understanding for our army. There is a lot more to being a soldier than pulling a trigger.


Posted by Richard Anderson on December 1, 2010 | Permalink


I think you missed the entire point. The force which defeated the Soviets WAS the Taliban. They were supported by, and equipped by the US. They were inspired by Bin Laden. We're fighting the same people the Soviets fought.

You and Dion both seem to have missed that detail.

Posted by: dp | 2010-12-01 8:14:43 AM

The Taliban was part of the force that defeated the Soviets. There were also the elements that later became the Northern Alliance, which was in opposition to the Taliban from the mid-1990s onward.

Dion is asking why are we training the Afghans, people who defeated the Soviet Union. Well it was guerrilla army that defeated the Soviet Union. To create a proper nation state you need a conventional force. That was the point Dion missed.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-12-01 8:26:54 AM

When Stephane Dion (miracle of miracles!) actually gets something right, you should praise him.

Why are tax collectors putting a gun to my head to make me pay to train a foreign army? I don't even trust our local police not to break into my house and steal my goodies or beat me up when walking down the street. Why do you think that tax-funded trainers (usually people who can't get a job giving people a service they actually want) can somehow miraculously do good in Afghanistan?

Why don't the idiots who actually believe in this stuff start some kind of voluntary CANADIAN MILITARY FOREIGN AID FUND to pay for all this and just leave me alone?

Paul Geddes

Posted by: Paul Geddes | 2010-12-01 10:27:32 AM

The Mujaheddin (Muslim Jihadists), heavily supplied by the US, defeated the Soviets and then elements of the same evolved into the Taliban. Dion may be thick but I think he probably senses the impossibility of establishing a civilized Western style nation state in the Islamic wasteland of Afghanistan. There is far less distinction between Karzai and the Taliban than Karzai and the NATO nation builders.

More than a century of colonial rule produced the world's largest functioning democracy in India but not in its spin-off state, Pakistan, and what is the major difference?

Involvement in Afghanistan is a politically correct mission in that it can't articulate the real problem - Islam and its retardation of governance beyond feuding warlords. Any appetite for two centuries of colonial rule?

Posted by: John Chittick | 2010-12-01 10:39:51 AM

John Chittick, Hear! Hear!

Posted by: Alain | 2010-12-01 12:10:36 PM

I would also add that the Afghanistan situation is complicated by the fact that two of our supposed main allies in this venture, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are actively playing both sides. Pakistan's ISI security agency runs a virtual parallel government that coddles the Taliban instead of fighting it. If we don't take steps to overcome this duplicity, all the training in the world won't help the Afghans.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-12-01 1:59:12 PM

Perhaps Field Marshal Dion would like to make, like of the Napolean's generals, and fight the good fight by not fighting at all. That mindset is no different than the notion that one can tax and spend their way to prosperity. What we have in Dion's tattered and fevered mind is that he is, for some inexplicable reason, a great statesman and he has the solution to this conflict. Bravo! Dion will do for Afghanistan what he did for Canada's environmental policy. And we all know how well-received that was.

Posted by: AB Patriot | 2010-12-01 3:07:45 PM

It seems rather utopian to envisage a conventional military in an area where there is no concept of a national identity. It is about tribal identity and tribal conflicts and warfare. The same applies to the Arab world where we expect to import the concept of national identity and democracy. These people have a very very long way to go before we can realistically expect to be able to reach our objective.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-12-01 6:15:19 PM

If NATO cannot clearly defeat the taliban, it cannot, repeat cannot, train the Afghans to do so. The defeat of the taliban would take one heck of a lot more force and risk than NATO will deliver and take. Thus, NATO is essentially defeated in Afghanistan. The training of the Afghans is a way out for NATO without looking as though its tail is between its legs.

Posted by: Agha Ali Arkhan | 2010-12-01 9:47:04 PM

The Afghans bled the Soviets with the help of the US in the form of cash and weapons funneled through Pakistan. The game changer was the Stinger man-portable anti-aircraft missile, introduced to the Afghan militias by the US. The Afghans shot down five billion dollars worth of Soviet aircraft with them, negating the Soviet air advantage.

The Soviets deployed a badly led, poorly motivated, clumsy and cruel, road-bound army. In other words, good guerrilla bait. The mountainous terrain favors guerrillas.

The US never funded Bin Laden, who was awash in Saudi cash and who played no significant role in the fight against the Soviets. The US never funded the Taliban, who are funded by the Saudis and played no significant role in the defeat of the Soviets. The Taliban took over Afghanistan, with the support of Pakistan, after the Soviets were defeated and had left.

The Afghans need training to be soldiers, but even I admit we're pushing a rope. Most Afghans are hopelessly backward jackasses with little prospect of improvement.

The problem in fighting the Taliban is that it's like fighting the Mafia in Sicily. It is a very fine grained fight that can be won only through the development of the kind of modern society which will never take root in Afghanistan's barren soil.

Posted by: Tantor | 2010-12-02 7:41:50 AM

Afghanistan is called the "graveyard of empires" for good reason. Even if we were to win, just what have we won ?. It's a bottomless pit and they will always hate the infidels. Leave them alone and let them settle their own problems. Eventually it will come to that anyway.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-12-02 7:37:44 PM

I'd go one step beyond leaving them alone. I'd isolate them, and stop allowing them to immigrate to Canada. Every Afghan immigrant I know is a gangster.

Posted by: dp | 2010-12-03 3:21:18 PM

Afghan crime lords coming to Canada? We can blame that obese eunuch Jason Kenney for that stroke of genius. He has utterly failed to police his own ministry, preferring instead to go to all sorts of 'welcome the immigration minister' events sponsored by various multicultural (terrorist) organizations. The only reason Kenney shows up is so he can stuff his gullet at the buffet.

Posted by: AB Patriot | 2010-12-05 10:45:40 AM

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