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Photo YA3I0188 by Sylvia Pecota

On patrol in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan.

Outside the Wire – Some Leadership Challenges in Afghanistan

by Colonel Bernd Horn

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The three-vehicle convoy pulled away from the Task Force Afghanistan headquarters building, seemingly invisible to the normal hustle and bustle of people and vehicles scurrying about the inner confines of the Kandahar Airfield. However, those in the vehicles were keyed up – they were going outside the wire. Only a short time before, the convoy commander had given orders to his section and passengers on the immediate action drills in the case of contact, as well as the location of the ammunition and extra weapons. There was no mistaking the charged atmosphere or the seriousness of what was about to transpire – to these troops it was clear that they were at war.

The convoy, consisting of a 17-ton LAV III armoured personnel carrier, an electronic counter-measures G-Wagon jeep and a Bison Armoured Vehicle General Purpose (AVGP) vehicle, emerged through the heavily guarded gate and moved into a loosely guarded Afghan National Army (ANA) controlled area. As the vehicles passed a giant berm on the side of the road, everyone cocked their weapons, loading a round into the chamber. Unprepared seconds out here – literally – could mean the difference between life and death. 

As the vehicles roared down the dirt road, the vicious dust kicked up by the lead vehicles lashed at exposed skin. The vehicle commander could be heard over the intercom preparing his soldiers for the next leg. “Okay, when we turn onto the main highway, you gotta stay alert,” he coached. “Watch your arcs, keep a sharp eye behind us.” The convoy eased through the ANA checkpoint and entered the notorious Highway 4 that led to Kandahar City. Once again they would have to run the gauntlet of ‘IED Alley.’

As the vehicles turned onto the paved highway, a large group of locals watched them from a dirt parking lot across the road. Some were standing in solitude, while others clustered in small groups. Others sat in cars. None seemed to be there for any tangible purpose. None seemed at all threatening. At least one individual was talking on a cell phone. On the surface, it certainly had the appearance of nothing more than a local gathering spot. But then again, outside the wire, nothing was what it appeared to be.

As soon as the tires gripped the asphalt, the vehicles shot off at speed. The military vehicles, led by the enormous LAV III, thundered down the middle of the road, forcing oncoming traffic to drive on the opposite shoulder. Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) necessitated the aggressive driving style. Driving too close to the edge of the road increased the lethal effect of a roadside IED – and distance mattered. A few feet could make a dramatic difference. 

As the sentries focused on the surrounding environment, they were bombarded by a panoply of contrasts. The countryside was barren, desolate and harsh, yet it held a strange beauty. Similarly, the sentiments of the local population reflected a startling array of contrasts, in stance and in bearing. The old men either gave the convoy scant attention or ignored it outright, as if it did not even exist. They seemed to embody a stoicism, one radiating a resiliency and patience that carried a nuance that this too would pass. The children, as always, added a carefree exuberance and would run in bunches towards the road and wave. Conversely, the young and middle-aged men would glare – their hostility and resentment barely concealable. 

The soldiers’ scrutiny, however, washed over the local population. As the convoy hurtled down the road, the hyper-alert soldiers scanned the entire countryside, as well as the roadside, for potential threats. Their task was enormous. The ground was hilly, rugged and dotted by mud-walled villages and huts that could hide hundreds of attackers. Throughout the fields, peasants were gathered in plots of land that appeared far too barren to sustain any form of growth, and yet they picked away at the earth. Elsewhere, shepherds watched over flocks of sheep, some individuals tended camels, while almost everywhere, people just stood and watched or walked along the road. The ability of the troops to spot a potential belligerent while moving at speed was extremely difficult. 

Soliders on guard

Photo YA3I0004 by Sylvia Pecota

Ever vigilant. A security party maintains a sharp eye during a halt in Kandahar Province, southern Afghanistan.

Roadside surveillance proved equally challenging. Debris and garbage littered the entire route. Scrap metal, old car hulks, piles of bricks and rubble or dirt, as well as garbage of every sort, any or all could be hiding a deadly IED. In addition, cars could be seen parked on the side of the highway. Some were in the process of repair, while others were simply abandoned. And then, there was the traffic. Cars and trucks of all sizes and states of repair travelled in both directions. In such a saturated state of constant motion, it was virtually impossible to differentiate friend from foe. In sum, the threat environment was extreme, and yet, non-existent. What was a threat and what was the simple reality of existence in a destitute third world nation?

Within the context of this ambiguous, uncertain and lethal environment, the convoy ploughed onward. “Okay, heads-up,” shouted the vehicle commander into the intercom. “This is where we got hit the other night.” He was referring to the failed ambush two nights prior, where a similar convoy was attacked by an IED, which, fortunately, was detonated too early by the insurgents, and it missed the vehicles. However, in that case, the insurgents followed up with a volley of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and machine gun fire, all just missing the vehicles as well. 

As the convoy passed the spot, not a sound was made, yet the collective sigh of relief was tangible. The convoy then passed through a defilade, two hilly outcrops that dominated the road and provided would-be assailants with concealment and cover. Close by were a number of villages that could easily absorb fleeing gunmen in a maze of anonymity. However, a brief glimmer of hope radiated from the otherwise drab and dreary surroundings. In the doorway of a mud hut, a woman completely covered in a berka stood and waved enthusiastically at the passing convoy. Veterans who had conducted foot patrols in Kabul in previous missions had often recounted stories of passing women, who, without stopping, turning their heads, or bringing any form of attention to themselves, would say thank you to the soldiers as they passed. This simple gesture brought a momentary smile to the faces of some members of the convoy. It was a small reinforcement that the operation was an important element in improving the lives of others. 

Ahead, the threat-rich environment lay unabated. Slow ‘jingle trucks’1 laboured up the road, while another large ten-ton truck sat on the roadside as its occupants apparently attempted to strap down a loosening load. The countryside was again flush with villages, houses and activity. As the convoy pressed to the left to swiftly pass the slow moving vehicles, the world became surreal. A large orange fireball erupted without warning and ballooned high into the air, engulfing almost all the road. The explosion was strangely muted, punctuated only by a barely audible ‘krrummpp.’ The fireball was quickly followed by thick black smoke and blast concussion. A vehicle suicide bomber in a Toyota sedan, laden with former Soviet bloc artillery ammunition rigged to a triggering device, saw his opportunity and as the LAV III made its move to pass the slow moving vehicles, he accelerated out from behind the truck. Once he was close to the middle of the passing armoured vehicle, the suicide bomber detonated his deadly cargo. 

The drivers of the G-Wagon and the Bison, located within 30 to 60 metres of the point of impact, reacted instinctively as they became engulfed in the smoke and debris. Both vehicles swerved to the left around the blast, and then proceeded straight through the dense smoke. Once clear of the ambush site, a cordon was quickly established. It took less than a minute to assess the situation. The suicide bomber’s vehicle lay in two distinct but very small pieces of twisted metal that were strewn across the road. The LAV had taken the blast virtually point-blank, but the driver had been able to manoeuvre his vehicle safely out of the ambush site. All waited anxiously for the SITREP (situation report) to determine if there were any casualties. Miraculously, only one was evident, but it was serious. 

The LAV III had done its job well. Although it sustained heavy damage, it protected its crew. The serious injury was sustained by the crew commander, specifically, to the arm that had been exposed outside the turret closest to the actual blast. 

As the security cordon was established, the Bison crew went to the assistance of the casualty. Its members disembarked, they quickly loaded the wounded soldier into the back, where immediate first aid was applied, and the injured soldier was then rushed back to the airfield. Many were wide-eyed, this being the first time they had actually witnessed the carnage of war, a maimed colleague lying before them bleeding, hideously wounded and moaning in agony. All reacted as they had been trained to do. If there had been any doubt in anyone’s mind whether they were engaged in a conflict, it was quickly dispelled. In fact, this was only one of a number of serious incidents involving combat, deaths and casualties that occurred within a period of three days.

This incident, in small part, exemplifies some of the complexities our troops serving in Afghanistan must contend with on a daily basis. Every day, they must steel up the courage to face a complex, chaotic, ambiguous and lethal environment. As many of those who have served in Afghanistan will attest – when one ventures outside the wire, one never knows for sure if they will be returning. Clearly, the conflict that is being prosecuted in Afghanistan at present raises a large number of leadership challenges and issues at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. The following discussion is not intended to be comprehensive. Rather, it is an opening salvo to initiate dialogue and begin the intellectual process of attempting to assist our deployed troops in every possible way.


Photo YA3I0079 by Sylvia Pecota

Winning hearts and minds. Canadian soldiers interact with Afghan civilians. 

Tactical Level Challenges

At the tactical level, a number of leadership challenges exist in Afghanistan. Front line commanders will have to sustain morale, continually motivate their soldiers, and maintain the fighting spirit in a complex and lethal environment. As with most conflicts, and, specifically, in fourth generation warfare (4GW),2 the ‘action’ is more often than not spread out amongst long periods of boredom, the execution of tedious, repetitive tasks, and loneliness. Furthermore, the threat environment, as well as the cultural and language barriers, prevents troops from interacting with the local community on an open, daily basis. As a result, aside from actual operations, the soldiers remain congregated in a very enclosed and confined encampment. 

To exacerbate these actualities, when action occurs, it is most often in the form of a fleeting attack – an IED, a suicide bomber, or a quick ambush. The attack occurs, creates havoc, and leaves death, destruction, and casualties in its wake – often without anyone actually seeing the enemy or firing a shot in anger. The initiative often appears to lie almost entirely with the antagonists. They decide where, when, how, and whom to attack. As such, the coalition response is equally often purely reactive. The inability to hit back can cause soldiers to feel impotent. It can build frustration, fear, and a sense of futility, if not hopelessness. As such, the leadership challenge to maintain the aim and mission focus, as well as the overall initiative in the campaign, is immense, and it is critically important. 

Coupled with the need to sustain morale is the leader’s role in ensuring that soldiers continue to practise a healthy outlook with respect to the local population. It has long been recognized that culture is to insurgency what terrain is to conventional mechanized warfare. However, as has already been indicated, in the current environment it is sometimes difficult to breach the cultural barrier. Moreover, it is not unusual for soldiers who are attacked to feel angry and betrayed. They deeply believe that they are serving in Afghanistan to create a better society for its people. Yet, they are continually attacked by seemingly invisible antagonists, who appear to operate effortlessly in the very Afghan society that the soldiers are trying to improve and protect. 

The nature of the conflict fuels a spiral of antagonism. In essence, it is a vicious circle. As coalition forces continue to be targeted by IEDs and suicide bombers, they have no choice but to take the necessary actions to protect themselves. However, there is a price tag associated with these actions. As convoys drive aggressively down the centre of the road, they force local Afghan traffic to scurry for the shoulders. As they physically bump traffic out of the way, or threaten vehicles that follow too close by pointing weapons, or create collateral damage due to attacks against them and/or defensive or offensive operations, they risk alienating Afghan nationals. Thus, with every action taken against the population at large, regardless of justification or cause, a cost is incurred. Coalition actions could potentially push Afghans to support the Taliban, or, at least, cause them to turn a blind eye towards Taliban activities. Yet, to do nothing, and to continue to be hit without taking some action, feeds soldier disillusionment and generates the potential to lose public support for the conflict if it appears that the country’s troops are put at risk without the ability to take the necessary steps to defend themselves. Moreover, if a safe and secure environment is not created for the local population, there is almost no hope of creating support for the new national government.

In the end, it is a delicate balancing act. Some form of action must be taken, as the initiative cannot be left to reside with the insurgents. Afghan nationals, our soldiers themselves, and, particularly, the Canadian public, must all be made to feel that progress is being made on the ‘front lines.’ All want, and need, to see progress that justifies the sacrifice and expenditure in national blood and treasure. 

This reality carries another key leadership challenge – that of making the integrated battle space work. Successful counter-insurgencies are as much about political and economic issues and initiatives as they are about military action. Security is fundamental, and is, indisputably, a key to success. However, military action to ensure security is an uphill battle without the corollary political and economic progress. This means that tactical leaders and their subordinates must learn to communicate, cooperate, and work with non-military personnel, such as representatives from Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and other government departments, as well as non-governmental departments (NGOs), on a daily basis. 

This can sometimes be a greater challenge than it appears. These agencies have different agendas, alien organizational cultures, and different operational philosophies. They are not all normally accustomed to military directness of manner, nor to command structures. In addition, ironically, they are most often not as flexible, and tend to be more bureaucratic and risk-aversive than the armed forces. Approval mechanisms, communications, and organizational methodologies all vary, and dealing with them requires both patience and tolerance. The integrated approach, unquestionably, can create some leadership challenges that must be addressed. All military and civilian personnel must be educated quickly to the reality that success depends on an effective, cooperative military-civilian integrated approach to the counter-insurgency effort. 

Another fundamental element of this integrated approach for tactical leadership will be to improve the working relationship with the host nation forces. After all, counter-insurgency operations are local actions, and they are dependent upon police enforcement and effective governance.3 These preconditions can create an imposing challenge. First, the difference in language and culture can create a barrier. Adding to this serious problem is the matter of reliability. Are the host nation army or police personnel loyal to the government and/or to the Coalition? In essence, can they be trusted? Furthermore, their frequently inadequate training and equipment make their effectiveness questionable, particularly if their loyalty is suspect. Moreover, their innate tribalism is alien, if not offensive, to Canadians. 

Notwithstanding all those negative aspects, the large amount of work that needs to be done to professionalize the Afghanistan security apparatus will require the effective cooperation of all parties over a long period of time. Undeniably, the involvement of host nation forces is key to overall success of any counter-insurgency campaign. As such, developing close, interactive, and useful relationships with all players in the new security environment will be an important initiative tactical leaders must pursue in order to ensure the success of the 3D (defence, diplomacy and development) approach, which is central to the overall success of the mission. 

Yet another leadership challenge for tactical commanders will be to ensure all their personnel maintain the proper combat mentality. This has many facets. First, personnel must be capable of operating in an ambiguous, chaotic, volatile and rapidly changing battle space. In addition, they must be able to think in non-traditional, non-Western ways, and to think in terms of the enemy’s perspective. Leaders and their followers must also be able to transition through the entire spectrum of conflict seamlessly – in essence, they must be able to fight the ‘three block war.’ Simply put, military personnel must be able to transition from humanitarian operations, peace support, or stability tasks to high intensity mid-level combat, potentially all during the same day, and all in the same area of operations.4 

Another element is an understanding of the ‘levers’ that can influence and achieve military, economic, and political objectives. In 4GW, kinetic combat power is not always the most effective tool or weapon. Leaders must ensure that their personnel understand that money, medicine, fuel, food, access to education, employment opportunities, public works projects, respect, and, particularly, information are all important enablers to achieving the mission. These non-kinetic, non-military tools are force multipliers that can change the threat picture dramatically, as well as the effectiveness of the insurgents. 

A final aspect of maintaining the proper combat mentality is cultivating an understanding of the magnitude of the mission, as well as the soldier’s responsibility in making the operation a success. Repeatedly, commanders on the ground lament that not everyone in theatre, or at home, has fully grasped the scope of the conflict. This is not a peace support operation – rather it is a lethal battle zone. A number of simple anecdotes speak to the continuing ‘do-gooder’ Canadian attitude, and to our nationally trusting nature. For example, when an Afghan national was caught at Kandahar airfield taking pictures, a Canadian service-person present tried to make a case for giving him back the camera, since it was worth a lot of money. It totally escaped this individual that the perpetrator was spying, for whatever motive, with the end result of passing on information to the enemy. In a more serious incident, a Canadian civil military cooperation (CIMIC) patrol failed to notice that their hosts had carefully removed their children from the meeting area. Once this was done, the CIMIC patrol was attacked. They later stated they did not see it coming. Yet, had they not been so trusting, they may have noticed the change in setting – uneasiness of the elders, a shift of the crowd, either in position or in composition (for example, the removal of children and/or women). On the other end of the spectrum is the retention of a garrison mentality. In response to a shift turn-over, an American soldier, who had been on duty since 0200 hours refused to leave his post until he was relieved by another section weapon. He appeared to understand the importance and enormity of the responsibility. The Canadian present was not concerned – he simply stated: “I’m to stand down – my shift is up.” In contrast, this individual seemed to retain a peacetime garrison mentality that belied a comprehension of the full weight of responsibility and the consequences of the guard duty.

A proper attitude and mindset is critical to reducing casualties and achieving mission success. It ensures that leaders and soldiers conduct operations in an effective and focused manner, reducing risk where possible, but without compromising the mission. In the end, it helps guide everything they do – all their actions towards a goal, towards achieving a specific end that assists in executing the campaign plan. The end, most often, will not be military in nature, but, rather, a political end that assists in creating a secure environment, building trust, or nurturing support for the new national government. As such, leaders at the tactical level are critical to that success. To them lies the Herculean task of balancing the enunciated challenges and completing the business at hand. 

Wrecked car

DND photo 15Jan06 VBIED 009 by Sergeant G.G. Kean,
JTFA Imaging

The aftermath of a suicide bomber.

Operational Level Challenges 

But the leadership challenges do not stop there. If the leaders at the tactical level are to be successful, they need guidance and support from the operational level. It is at the operational level that strategic aims, or the ends to be achieved, are attained as the result of the skilful tactical employment of forces in accordance with a carefully designed and thought-out campaign plan. Operational level leaders understand that the campaign plan will extend, both temporally and spatially, well beyond what is experienced at the tactical level. These commanders must build in tolerance for ambiguity and concentrate everything on the operational end-state. Fundamentally, the campaign plan provides the operational constructs (read ‘ways’) that, in turn, are, reduced to tactical actions (read ‘means’) to achieve the required objectives. As such, one of the greatest challenges for the operational leader is to ensure that the actions of his or her subordinate leaders contribute to the resolution of the conflict. Conducting patrols, raids, or sweep operations without tying them to the larger plan, political context, or to a specific goal to be achieved, becomes, in the end, a hollow effort. In the end, the preference of many commanders for kinetic solutions is not always well suited for fourth generation warfare. 

As such, the challenge for the operational leader begins with ensuring a comprehensive understanding by all personnel of the nature of 4GW, or, more specifically, the nature of the insurgency that currently grips Afghanistan. Typically, the resolution of political and economic issues is far more critical to a successful outcome than purely military action. No amount of patrolling or sweeps through the mountains alone can solve the problem of providing useful employment for the unemployed, disenfranchised young men of the country, who represent a limitless pool of potential insurgents. 

Therefore, an effective integrated approach is a key challenge that must be mastered. How does a leader ensure a diverse, multi-national force is welded into a coherent organization, all with a clear conception of the operational end state desired? This challenge must then be extended to civilian counterparts, who must be integrated into the team and then into the decision-making process in an accepting way, and on an equal basis. What is often lost is the fact that invisible cultural barriers – such as divergent attitudes, beliefs, and values, as well as methodologies and organizational practices – restrict true cooperation. Often, we do not know what we do not know, and we assume our perception of a state of affairs is accurate and mutual, when, in fact, ground truth may be an entirely different reality. As such, an enormous challenge for operational commanders is to create a conducive environment in which planning, decision-making, and the conduct of activities is done in an integrated manner that allows for the necessary advancement of political and economic initiatives and reforms in a safe and secure environment.

This is always easier said than done. Nonetheless, securing the ‘hearts and minds’ of the population is a slow and difficult process. Building trust and credibility always takes time. It takes hard work over a long period to accomplish, and yet, a single careless action can destroy all that has been achieved. However, success depends upon an integrated approach, and the operational level commander is key to providing the requisite support to other government departments (OGD), and to civilian agencies in order to make it happen. In the end, the host nation population will base their support for the new government upon the perception of improvement to their standard of living – that is, with respect to employment, the availability of food, water, electricity, and education, and to responsive and responsible government. 

Instrumental to success for the operational commander will be the challenge of separating the insurgents from the population. This may not always be a simple task. First, coalition forces must demonstrate themselves capable of providing a secure environment, and yet, it is virtually impossible to stop all acts of violence, particularly by small groups of committed fanatics who operate among the people in a very closed and alien culture. Second, in the case of Afghanistan, coalition troops represent a force committed to eradicating poppy fields, which, unfortunately, is a viable and profitable crop in the otherwise-barren and hostile Afghani environment. Third, coalition forces, particularly as a result of the defensive actions they have been compelled to adopt, often appear as a force of occupation, or, at a minimum, as callous towards the average Afghani’s needs. 

Thus, the challenge will be one of generating an atmosphere where people feel they have a stake in the system, and thus become committed to making it work. A huge element in providing a safe and secure environment – the other part of the equation, reference to which has already been made – is fuelling both economic growth and a strong, capable national government. Aid dollars and assistance from OGDs, both Canadian and global, are of great importance, but they will never be enough. Economic incentive and growth can only be sustained if they exist within a strong, credible host-nation political infrastructure. But, how does one incorporate poorly trained, poorly equipped, and, at times, suspect host-nation police and/or armed forces? How does one operate within an environment where tribalism is accepted and corruption is still practised? How does one build cooperation and trust among the myriad players, with their diverse cultural, organizational and philosophical backgrounds, who are all essential to a successful outcome to the conflict?

The operational challenges, however, extend beyond the necessity to galvanize a holistic approach that ties military action to political and economic reform and advancement. The seemingly indiscriminate suicide attacks and the more deliberate ambushes, as mentioned earlier, can easily create an impression that the insurgents hold the initiative. As such, the operational commander needs to develop a plan that severs the belligerents from the population base, thus isolating the adversary from possible support. In addition, the operational commander must disrupt and destroy the enemy’s command, control, communications, and infrastructure. More importantly, the operational commander must ensure that Coalition forces always maintain the initiative, which, in counter-insurgency operations, is a critical factor. If the belligerents are reacting to Coalition forces, they no longer control the battle space. 

As a result, the operational commander must ensure the realization of the campaign plan, which provides the vehicle to achieving the strategic goals. However, this can often be a difficult balancing act. The indiscriminate and asymmetric nature of 4GW necessitates agility in thinking and a rapid and flexible conduct of operations, as well as decentralization and the reliance on initiative at the lowest tactical level. Fourth generation warfare is a small-unit war most of the time. As such, subordinate commanders must be allowed the freedom to conduct operations, based upon circumstances as they arise. A culture of adaptability and agility of thought is key. Yet, as mentioned earlier, the operational commander must also ensure that the employment of tactical forces achieves specific ends, or objectives, in accordance with the operational campaign plan.

Current Canadian Forces (CF) doctrine of mission command, a philosophy that promotes decentralized decision-making, freedom, and speed of action and initiative, is instrumental in achieving this outcome. It entails three enduring tenets: the importance of understanding a superior commander’s intent, a clear responsibility to fulfil that intent,5 and timely decision-making. However, a highly politicized environment and the inherent risk associated with mission command create a significant leadership challenge for commanders.6 The theory is easy. It is practical application “on the ground” in an ambiguous, complex, and lethal environment that creates the challenge. 

Afghan police

DND photo 15Jan06 VBIED 246 by Sergeant G.G. Kean,
JTFA Imaging

Local Afghan police officials work with Canadians to solve the suicide-bombing incident in Kandahar City. 

Strategic Level Challenges 

The necessity for strong leadership at the operational level is seminal. After all, as already mentioned, it is at this level that strategic direction is translated into operational and tactical action. But leadership challenges do not stop there. They also exist at the strategic level. Strategic leaders need to be skilled at translating policy objectives into sensible strategic objectives. In addition, they must work effortlessly with a wide range of non-national organizations, such as other militaries and international organizations like NATO, the UN, and the European Union (EU). 

However, no challenge is more daunting than getting and maintaining national support for involvement overseas, particularly when that involvement is perceived as being dangerous and of questionable value to the national interest. Unfortunately, the problem is exacerbated by an uninformed public that clings to erroneous perceptions of the role and capability of their armed forces, as well as to emotional and naïve assessments of what is in the national interest. As such, a huge leadership challenge, particularly due to the traditional perceptions, if not expectations, of the government that senior military leaders do not enter in public debate, exists as to how to educate Canadians in terms of CF involvement overseas.

Closely associated with the challenge of gaining and maintaining support for the mission is the question of sustaining the war effort, particularly since successful counter-insurgency campaigns require long-term commitment. There are both internal CF and external, societal implications. Internally, operational tempo will exhaust personnel, particularly the support trades and specialists, as well as the combat arms specialists, who find themselves rotating in and out of theatre on a less-than-desired frequency. In addition, the budgetary impact of sustained operations, particularly when scarce valuable equipment is destroyed, could create other tensions and challenges. Continued calls for additional money to support the overseas effort could also alienate taxpayers, especially if the necessary initiatives highlighted above have not been undertaken, or if they are unsuccessful. However, no challenge will be as daunting as maintaining public support if casualties reach an unacceptable level in the public view, since Canadians generally have demonstrated already a rather low threshold of acceptance for the mission.7 Thus, overall, the leadership challenge of maintaining support and sustaining the war effort will be a daunting task for leaders at the strategic level. 

Unfortunately, it is not the only difficult challenge at the strategic level. Equally formidable is the requirement to adopt the 3D approach comprehensively at the national level. Most often, the call of necessity and the force of personalities on the ground in theatre make local arrangements work with varying degrees of success. At the strategic level, bureaucracy, risk aversion, organizational dynamics, and operating procedures, such as the difficulty in finding personnel willing to deploy to dangerous theatres, rotation of staff, divergent philosophies on methods or outcomes, attitudes, stereotypes, miscommunication and/or incompatibility of communications, and so on, create difficulties. However, as already indicated, success remains elusive without an integrated approach. The Department of National Defence is only one of many government departments responsible for executing government policy. However, its physical presence on the ground and in harm’s way necessitates that its strategic leadership tackle the issue of attaining, nurturing, and advancing the buy-in and support of such OGDs as Foreign Affairs Canada, CIDA and other departments and agencies necessary for the success of operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, these organizations must attempt to encourage, if not cultivate, a bureaucratic dynamism within themselves, so that they become as flexible and capable of rapid deployment and action as is the military, ensuring that operations can be planned and executed in a fully integrated manner, from the strategic to the tactical level. 


Photo YA3I0038 by Sylvia Pecota

Attempting to break down barriers. Canadian soldiers developing bonds of trust with local residents.


As stated earlier, this article is in no way meant to represent a comprehensive examination of the leadership challenges that exist in Afghanistan. It is but an initial survey of some of the complex and inter-related issues that face our leaders at the tactical, operational and strategic levels. It should also form the foundation of continued discussion and research.

CMJ Logo

Doctor Bernd Horn, an infantry officer, is currently Director of the Canadian Forces Leadership Institute at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston, Ontario.


  1. Jargon for 5-10 ton commercial stake trucks that are elaborately decorated with artwork, design and small bells – hence ‘jingle’ trucks.
  2. Fourth generation warfare (4GW) refers to a nonlinear, asymmetric approach to war in which agility, decentralization and initiative are instrumental to success. Furthermore, 4GW departs radically from the traditional model in which the conduct of war was the monopoly of states. In 4GW, non-state actors, such as Hamas, al Qaeda and the Taliban, become serious opponents, capable of operations outside their traditional areas of operation. Moreover, their definition of combatants diverges significantly from the traditional laws of armed conflict. According to military strategist William S. Lind, “fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined ... It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.” “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, pp. 22-26.
  3. Important to remember is that political legitimacy is measured in local terms, and not by Western constructs.
  4. The concept of the ‘Three Block War’ was originally articulated by former Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak, who described it as an operational contingency in which soldiers would have to conduct operations spanning humanitarian assistance to peacekeeping and/or mid-intensity combat, all in the same day, and all within three city blocks.
  5. The Commander’s intent is his personal expression of why an operation is being conducted, and also what he hopes to achieve. It is a clear and concise statement of the desired end-state and acceptable risks. Its strength is the fact that it allows subordinates to exercise initiative in the absence of orders, or when unexpected opportunities arise, or when the original concept of operations no longer applies.
  6. This is exacerbated when one considers the ‘CNN effect,’ normally understood to be the omnipresent, 24/7, real-time news coverage that captures virtually any event at any time, and instantaneously beams it to millions of viewers around the world. Its impact has created an enormous challenge for military personnel. This has led to the phenomenon of the ‘strategic corporal.’ where the tactical decisions or errors made by junior members can become strategic issues as they are beamed across the globe in real time, influencing or inciting negative and often violent reactions. 
  7. A poll conducted by Decima Research in April 2006 concluded that 46 percent of Canadians believed the mission in Afghanistan is a bad idea. CTV news, “Afghan Mission in Canada’s Interest: O’Connor,” <http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/articlenews/story/CTVNews/20060410/
    > accessed 28 April 2006.

Soldiers watching

DND photo AR2006-P007 0005 by Sgt Lou Penney, Task Forces Afghanistan Imaging Services

Kolk, Afghanistan, 15 September 2006 – Hull-down in a field of corn and marijuana, a LAV III and its crew watch over Canadian soldiers conducting foot patrol during Operation Medusa, a major NATO-lead operation to clear insurgents out of the Panjwaii District.