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Clock winds down on Canada's Afghan mission

Clock winds down on Canada's Afghan missionCanadian soldiers get ready to leave Camp Julien in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 29, 2005. Questions linger as the clock winds down on Canada's military efforts in Afghanistan. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP Photo - Tomas Munita

KABUL - The meeting had barely gotten underway at the U.S.-led Kandahar provincial reconstruction team's base when one of the Canadian diplomats excused himself to take a phone call.

It was May 2005; a reconnaissance team of Canadian military, diplomatic and development people was meeting with the U.S. Army and civilian officials who ran the base, stationed at an old abandoned fruit canning factory in Kandahar city.

The question before them was whether Paul Martin's Liberal government should focus its newfound interest in Afghanistan on the desperately poor southern province of Kandahar — the infamous Taliban heartland — or focus instead on the placid, reasonably developed western area of Herat, along the border with Iran.

At the time, reconstruction teams — a fusion of military muscle and know-how with development planning and dollars — were all the rage in defence and nation-building circles.

The diplomat was gone for just five minutes.

"He announced that the meeting need not continue because the decision selecting Kandahar had been taken and was just conveyed to him," said Nipa Banerjee, who was at the time the head of Canada's aid effort in Afghanistan.

Banerjee — whose role was supposed to be to assess where Canada's aid dollars would do the most good — was thunderstruck.

"On what assessment this decision was based and who — or which department — made the final decision was never made clear," she told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.

Canada's subsequent — and bloody — five years in Kandahar became central to the country's searing Afghanistan experience, which finally concludes this month with the withdrawal of the final 100 soldiers.

Up until 2005, the country's involvement in the ruined nation had largely flown below the public radar, with some notable exceptions.

Canadian special forces troops secretly hit the ground with their U.S. counterparts in late 2001 to chase out the remnants of al-Qaida and their Taliban protectors. Photos of them hauling prisoners off a transport plane put then-defence minister Art Eggleton on the spot.

The deployment of a battle group to Kandahar in the spring of 2002, in particular the friendly-fire deaths of four soldiers in a U.S. bombing, catapulted the war on to the front pages. But when Canadians deployed to Kabul between 2003 and 2005, attention settled down, flaring up only when there were casualties.

The notion that the fix was in for a return to Kandahar has been the subject of debate for years, ever since a former high-ranking Liberal tried to hang the blame for the quagmire on retired general Rick Hillier.

Hillier was accused of arm-twisting Martin into a one-year mission, which eventually spiralled into a full-blown, five-year guerilla war.

But the 2005 meeting, which Banerjee has never discussed publicly until now, sheds new light on the way the Kandahar mission unfolded.

It was one of those rare moments that serves to underscore how ill-prepared the Liberal government was as it stumbled into the most costly and violent conflict to involve Canada since the Korean War.

One of the most important foreign policy decisions of the time — to take over the Kandahar provincial reconstruction base and follow it with a battle group of soldiers — was made even before the reconnaissance team doing the research had time to analyze what would be in the best interests of the country.

Bill Graham, the defence minister at the time, quietly announced the deployment before a House of Commons committee on May 16, 2005. The defence committee spent all of five minutes discussing it before moving on to other topics.

Officials at the former Canadian International Development Agency's Asia desk were "surprised and upset" the decision was taken without an appropriate consultative process, said Banerjee.

Banerjee nonetheless went ahead with her assessment and presented it to CIDA, telling the agency — now part of the Department of Foreign Affairs — that Kandahar would benefit the most from Canadian development dollars.

It was an obvious choice. The grinding poverty of the region cried out for help.

But doubts nagged at Banerjee as she toured the markets and talked with tribal leaders and ordinary people. In hindsight, it wasn't the visible hardship that should have bothered her, but the apparent dearth of international help from non-governmental agencies.

"Despite the lack of serious development inadequacies in the Kandahar province, there were hardly any development programs operating in the province," she said.

"I should have, at the time, questioned why I did not find development programs in the province."

Aid groups that had been working in Kandahar had quietly been pulling up stakes because of the rising violence. The exit became a bit of a stampede in the spring of 2006 when four aid workers were kidnapped and murdered.

Banerjee said she had no idea what the threat assessment for the region said and could only hope at the time that "the U.S. and the Canadian intelligence would provide the appropriate security information."

The Kandahar narrative, as it began to emerge in 2007, was that Canada and the international community as a whole was surprised by the resurgence of the Taliban.

Yet, watershed research by the Canadian Foreign Affairs and Defence Institute shows U.S. intelligence agencies warned the Canadian military in 2005 that a reinvigorated Taliban and al-Qaida were preparing a "surge" in southern Afghanistan to coincide with the arrival of NATO troops.

Brig.-Gen David Fraser, the Canadian general who would lead NATO's southern Afghan command, was briefed in August 2005 along with the first battle group commander, Lt.-Col. Ian Hope. They were "told by U.S. intelligence officers that the Taliban were on the strategic defensive but would reassert themselves" in the coming months.

"U.S. Special Forces believed even then that the Taliban were actually beginning to form shadow governments in the south, the classic mark of insurgency," said the research report, by historians David Bercuson, Jack Granatstein and researcher Nancy Pearson Mackie.

By January 2006, Hope received an even more explicit warning that came directly from the American general in charge of U.S. Central Command, the headquarters that oversaw the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gen. John Abizaid told him to expect a fight.

In fairness, the research paper noted the opinion among the Americans, on whom Canada relied for most of its war-time intelligence, was not unanimous and there was institutional dissent.

The crystal ball of intelligence is never exact, Canada's former military commander said in a 2011 interview with The Canadian Press.

"We're not the only ones to have gone through this kind of discovery because intelligence is never perfect," said retired general Walt Natynczyk, formerly Canada's chief of defence staff.

"Our guys worked very, very hard with intelligence, but the fact is you cannot assess all of the factors, or understand all of the ingredients that go into a counter-insurgency."

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