Monday, November 3, 2008

Canada@War: Echoes of History

Yesterday The Washington Post ran a lengthy story about Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers have been serving bravely their since 2001 (and losing 97 soldiers) and there are currently 2500 Canadian troops serving in tough country near Kandahar.

They article highlights that while they undertake combat missions (unlike some nations contributing troops) Canadian doctrine insists on an absolute minimum Canadian casualties. This requires intensive planning, overwhelming force, and a slow pace of operations. The article describes one operation:
The soldiers' target, a Taliban bomb-supply compound, was only a little more than two miles away. But it took the contingent of 200-plus troops about three hours to march from the cemetery to the insurgent stronghold. That is the way the war is being fought in southern Afghanistan: inch by inch....

The first shot rang out a little before first light as dozens of Canadian soldiers crept to the edge of a wide irrigation ditch. Someone shot a wild dog that was attacking a group of soldiers approaching the main compound. Two helicopters swooped overhead. A contingent of Canadian tanks rumbled loudly over the fields in the distance. An Afghan interpreter shouted into a megaphone that anyone in the compound should come out unarmed. The show of force was met with silence....

The firefight was over in minutes. The Taliban fighters faded into the countryside as the Canadians poured into the compound...

After their return to the base, Lt. Col. Roger Barrett, the Canadian battle group commander, appeared pleased with the results. He wore a confident smile as he surveyed the troops lounging in the sun and guzzling Gatorade after the operation. It had taken about 230 ground troops and 150 troops in the battle group's mechanized division to strike the Taliban compound. Megaman had escaped capture, but there wasn't a single Canadian casualty.

"Lots and lots of effort went into this," Barrett said. "It's a game of inches, but we're winning it."
Canadian Way of War

One small engagement required about 15% of the Canadian contingent's manpower as well as tank and helicopter units. Casualty aversion is a feature of virtually every Western military and a reliance on overwhelming force is the stereotype of American strategy.

But in Canada this approach has old roots. I happened to listen to John Keegan's Six Armies at Normandy over the summer. Canada is one of the nations that participated. However, earlier in the war, a Canadian division had assaulted the well-defended French port Dieppe (as a sort of trial run for a massive amphibious assault) and was repelled with very heavy casualties. Any military and political would have been horrified by these losses. But in Canada this was particularly problematic. Because Canada was an uneasy confederation, conscription was not feasible - but heavy casualties complicated recruitment.

Taking lessons learned from Dieppe, the Canadian military assembled a truly massive flotilla to provide artillery support to the 14,000 Canadian troops landing at Juno Beach. Although the defenders fought fiercely, the Canadian assault was successful and the strategy worked.

Hopefully, history will repeat itself in Kandahar.


holdfast said...

Part of the excessive aversion to casualties in Afstan is the result of losing a lot of troops in unnecessary ways in the last few years, especially as a result of IEDs used against ground convoys that lacked proper armor and equipment (and in some cases should have been carried out by helicopter), as well as a couple of spectacular friendly fire incidents courtesy of the USAF. Thus casualties have become a huge political club, used to beat the Conservatives and to force an end to the Canadian presence in Afstan. Commanders know that the continuation of their mission depends on the ability to minimize casualties, even when the end cost is to make execution of the mission almost totally ineffective. Most elements of the Canadian media ONLY cover the casualties and ignore the rest of the story, so a month without a fatality is also a big F U to the Taliban-loving CBC.

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