Tim Martin’s diplomatic career spans 30 years. In addition to RoCK, he has served as Canadian Representative in Palestine, Ambassador to Argentina and Ambassador to Colombia. Tim recently published his debut novel, Moral Hazards, set in the Somalia peacekeeping crisis of the 1990’s and he is working on a sequel about conflict minerals. Tim has received three medals for his service to Canada and the Treasury Board Award of Excellence in the Public Service for assistance to Palestinian children effected by conflict.
In every generation Canada puts itself to the test at the epicenter of a geopolitical crisis. Afghanistan was that geopolitical crisis for my generation of diplomats and aid workers. I was the fourth Representative of Canada in Kandahar (RoCK) and led Canada’s civilian team there in 2011. It was the final year of Canada’s mission in Kandahar. This personal commentary is about how it worked and what I learned.
The RoCK (Representative of Canada in Kandahar) was a new kind of diplomatic position in the Government of Canada designed to lead our civilian stabilization and development work in the Province of Kandahar. With Head of Mission rank, it operated in a peer relationship to the general in charge of Task Force Kandahar and directed the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT) which operated out of Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar city. The civilian team was also responsible for dialogue with the Provincial Government. The RoCKs who proceeded me were Elissa Golberg, Ken Lewis and Ben Rowswell.
Canadians can be proud of the way our government delivered stabilization, aid and governance projects in the hostile conditions of Kandahar. Canadian public servants stepped up to serve their country in a war zone and in circumstances that were unprecedented, austere and dangerous. It’s to the credit of the professionalism and ethics of the public service that many women and men did sign up, leave their homes and serve. Finding and training great people with the necessary skills who were prepared for the sacrifices and risks was a challenge, but not a barrier, to deploying a fully staffed civilian operation.
A decade later, with the Taliban in Kabul and Afghans suffering a humanitarian catastrophe, I won’t minimize the painful failure of NATO and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It’s a result of errors at the level of intelligence, strategy and over-optimism about what was achievable. It’s also a defining geopolitical and historical reality. Nevertheless, it would be a pointless mistake not to look back and learn from experience.
How the Civilian Mission Worked
At its peak, more that 120 civilians from across the federal government were deployed in Afghanistan alongside 2880 Canadian Forces Members. We had four main lines of civilian business.
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) provided development, sectorial and project management experts in the areas of health and humanitarian affairs, agriculture, education and economic growth. Since the objective was to enable the Afghan government to govern, everything we did was done with responsible handover in mind.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police led a team of Canadian policemen and women from police services across Canada. It was some 20 officers at its peak with a mandate of training and mentoring the Afghan National Police (ANP). This included training in subjects from literacy to investigation techniques. A purpose-built Police Training Centre was established in the KPRT and this was subsequently handed over to the Afghans. Afghan police were Taliban targets for assassination. For this reason, a training centre inside the wire of Camp Nathan Smith was of huge value to the students and instructors alike. Canada made a concerted and effective effort to include Afghan policewomen in our training programs.
Correctional Services Canada provided four experienced officers who came from active duty in Canadian prisons. Their work was to bring the central prison in Kandahar, Sarpoza, up to international standards. This meant improvements in security, as well as living conditions and vocational training for prisoners. It also meant training in areas of management, administration, prisoner handling and attitude shift on the Afghan side. Sarpoza operated in an extreme threat environment. It faced internal threats from insurgent prisoners and constant external threats from the Taliban seeking to break out its fighters.
The Department of Foreign Affairs conducted the classic diplomatic work of political analysis and dialogue which was crucial for understanding and engaging the political dynamics of Kandahar. Foreign Affairs also funded and implemented infrastructure projects for governance, justice and security. Critical among them was creating safe living and working spaces for officials; a fundamental requirement when they are assassination targets of a determined insurgency. Canadian diplomats were additionally responsible for monitoring the conditions and wellbeing of those detainees captured by Canadian Forces then transferred to the Afghan authorities and held in Sarpoza prison or the detention centre of the National Directorate of Security. This was Canada’s practical expression of our commitment to the Geneva Convention and prevention of torture. In terms of improving human rights, it’s hard to think of anything more important than implementing international standards for prisons in situations of armed conflict.
Finally, Foreign Affairs, together with CIDA, handled strategic communications and media relations.
Both CIDA and DFAIT deployed civilian stabilization officers with diplomatic and development skills to support the effort in the district centres which was where the rubber met the road in terms of Afghan citizen contact with their government.
The Canadian Forces provided essential capabilities. A stabilization company (STAB A) gave us dedicated transportation in the form of tactical vehicles (LAVs and Cougars) for movement in our area of operations (the province of Kandahar is some 54,000 square km). STAB A would accompany us and provide foot patrol and perimeter protection for all our work outside the wire. This was augmented by helicopter transportation which was a Regional Command resource.
SET, or the Strategic Engineering Team oversaw the design and construction of key projects and infrastructure. This was complemented by a contracting and finance unit. Afghan contractors were the most economical option for construction and gave employment benefits to Kandaharis.
In the summer of 2011 Canada completed its work in Kandahar and closed a unique,innovative and effective model of joining civilian capabilities with a large multinational military campaign.
In remarks to the Kingston International Security Conference of 2011, I said, “The Canadian military and civilian effort was remarkable and successful in an extremely difficult context. Canada took on an operational role in a hostile environment with a spirit of innovation, resolve and purpose and made a huge positive change in the lives of the people of Kandahar.”
What I Learned from Kandahar
Looking back, I pull out three learnings that I think we should park in corporate memory to be pulled out the next time Canada steps up to play a leadership role in a crisis like Afghanistan.
Express Canadian Values through Conduct
The issue of the risk of torture of detainees transferred by Canadian Forces to Afghan authorities was a matter of bitter political controversy as the counter-insurgency effort intensified in 2006-2007. Out of this a highly unusual civilian function of detainee monitoring was established. This involved frequent structured meetings in Afghan prisons with Afghans detained by Canadian forces and then transferred to Afghan prisons prior to trial and sentencing in Afghan courts. As we were completing our mission in Kandahar in the run-up to July 2011, I made calls on our Kandahari partners to ask them what they would remember as the Canadian legacy in their province. Some said that they would remember that Canada held the line against the fierce Taliban surprise offensive in 2005 and 2006. Some mentioned the training of police and soldiers. Others spoke about the building of schools and help for Kandahar University or irrigation for farmers. Many were impressed that a faraway country would send and sacrifice their young men and women to help Afghans.
The most unexpected comment that I heard was about our detainee monitoring. We never publicized it actively, although it was included in reports to parliament. But it seemed that everyone in Kandahar was aware. It was discussed on their radio stations. Most people knew someone by first, second or third hand who had been in jail. They were amazed that Canada cared about the rights and dignity of its enemies. Moreover, we gave practical and visible expression to Canadian values through our conduct. For this Canada will be remembered as a country that does the right thing.
Protect Civilian Leaders
Four of the five most important Afghan civilian officials in Kandahar province were assassinated within seven months of the completion of our mission. The Chief of the Kandahar Police, Khan Mohamed Mujahaddin, was killed on April 14, 2011. Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Chairman of the Provincial Council, was killed July 20, 2011. The Mayor of Kandahar City, Ghulam Haider Hamidi was killed July 27, 2011. Faizluddin Agha, District Governor of Panjwa’i, (which was the primary focus of the military effort at the time of our departure), was killed on January 13, 2012.
Our strategic objective was the extension of Afghan civilian governance over the territory of Kandahar province. It was much easier to defeat this objective by assassinating Afghan civilian government officials than to take on NATO soldiers, or the Afghan military. So that’s what the Taliban did. The lesson for the future is to find ways to nurture and protect civilian leaders, and to do it in a low-profile way that does not sever relations with communities and is distinct from military counter-insurgency operations.
Women, Peace and Security as the Centre of Gravity
When you think about the systematic, egregious and cruel discrimination suffered by women and girls in Afghanistan, it’s hard to imagine a worse human rights crisis in the world today. Canada and others tried to equal up education opportunities for girls by building schools, providing economic opportunities and training women police. I don’t want to minimize the obstacles to overcoming the misogynist traditional culture that permeated Kandahar. At the same time, I now feel that a more aggressive approach, and one that was integrated with our overall security and stabilization strategy could have delivered more enduring rights. As I think back, no Afghan women were ever present in the meetings I attended with district councils and the Provincial Council, and certainly did not occupy any positions of influence.
We should have sent stronger signals about bottom line international expectations. The word “woman” does not appear at all in the peace agreement that the US negotiated prior to its withdrawal signed on February 29, 2020 (Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America).
There was advice for our civilian women when they went to NATO’s sprawling multinational Kandahar Airfield (KAF) not to walk alone at night because of safety concerns. Closer to home, our government is trying to end discrimination, sexual misconduct and gender-based violence in the military. The rights and safety of women should move to the centre of gravity in future expeditionary missions we undertake; for the local women where we operate and for the military and civilian women who serve in these operations.