Wednesday, April 16, 2008

goodbye Rick Hillier

This weblog has been very quiet, for several months. The pressures of work have not allowed me to follow up several issues on which I have wanted to comment--the protests in Tibet, the elections in Zimbabwe, and the character of the World Bank and IMF, to name three. However, I have been roused out of my silence by the news yesterday that General Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff since February 2005, is retiring.

Rick Hillier has been portrayed in the press as a straight-talking soldier concerned above all with the troops under his command, who has waged a struggle for the hearts and minds of Canadians to support the military while it undertakes its twice-extended mission in Khandahar. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Hillier's beliefs, but I do have reason to question them.

When Hillier became Chief of Defence Staff, Canada had 600 soldiers stationed in Kabul with NATO's International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF. These soldiers were undertaking a fairly 'classic' Canadian international military operation: peacekeeping in the comparative safety of Kabul. Peacekeeping was what Canada's military, globally, was known for up until the appointment of Hillier. With that appointment, though, things changed.

As Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang convincingly demonstrate in their excellent The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar, it was Hillier who, in the wake of the Chretien government's opposition to the Iraq war and the Martin government's withdrawal from the United States' missile defence program, recognized an opportunity to placate the United States while at the same time fundamentally transforming Canada's military. That opportunity was the 'mission' in Kandahar, an infinitely more demanding assignment than Canada had undertaken in Kabul. The Martin government's agreement to send Canadian soldiers to Kandahar was basically Hillier's doing; those in the government had little idea about Afghanistan or Kandahar. They agreed because the 'mission' eased pressure on the United States military, both in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, and in so doing pleased those who had been unhappy with several foreign policy decisions that directly affected the United States.

It also did something else, however: Kandahar was and is a war zone. It is not a place where peacekeepers try to keep warring parties apart and maintain order. It is a place where order must be imposed through the use of force, because local warlords oppose the intervention in Afghanistan. As a result, Canadian forces have been heavily engaged, for the first time since the Korean War, in offensive military operations against opponents that the media dubs 'the Taliban' but whom, as Graeme Smith of The Globe and Mail has so ably demonstrated, are not the remnants of the former government of Afghanistan as rather an assortment of those opposed to Western military involvement in Kandahar. At best, the Pashtuns fighting the Canadians might be termed 'neo-Taliban'.

The point, then, is that Hillier has transformed the Canadian military from a peacekeeping force into a war-fighting machine. This has, no doubt, greatly increased the cohesion of the military themselves, and has also increased the recognition of the military amongst ordinary Canadians. It has, however, also led to the deaths of 82 Canadian soldiers and a significant reinforcement of opposition in Kandahar to the Canadian presence (many of whom are mistaken for American soldiers), which now totals 2500 soldiers. Most importantly, however, while the 'mission' has to terminate in 2011, Canada--and NATO--has no strategy in place to deal with the possibility that the country will remain largely hostile for the foreseeable future. This is a conflict that cannot be won militarily, as the history of Afghanistan shows, and will be difficult to win politically, given widespread views that the government of Hamid Karzai is not a national government but, at best, a weak Kabul government. Hillier has led Canada into what is, in essence, a no-win scenario; and for this, his tenure as Chief of Defence Staff will probably, over time, be viewed much more negatively than is currently the case.

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