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iconCANADIAN ROLE Updated February 3 2010

Section Contents:  Canada's Contributions To Peace Operations In Afghanistan | Political and Legal Basis for Canadian Involvement | Whole-of-Government Approach | Military Presence | Civilian Assistance (Governmental) | Civilian Assistance (Non-Governmental) | Debates About Canada's Role

Canada's Contributions To Peace Operations In Afghanistan

This section tracks Canada's governmental and non-governmental contributions to peace and development in Afghanistan. It examines the political and legal basis for Canada's (governmental) involvement, provides details on past and current programming, and documents some of the recent debates about Canada's role in Afghanistan.

Political and Legal Basis for Canadian Involvement

According to official sources, Canada is in Afghanistan to help Afghans rebuild their country as a stable, democratic and self-sufficient society. Canada and over 60 other nations and international organizations provide their assistance at the request of the democratically-elected Afghan government. Canadian military forces act as part of a NATO-led, UN sanctioned mission (for more details, see Mandates page).

From the perspective of domestic Canadian legislation, the most important element of the legal basis for the country's involvement in Afghanistan is the parliamentary motion passed by the House of Commons on March 13, 2008. Its main elements are as follows:

1) Canada should continue a military presence in Kandahar beyond February 2009, to July 2011, in a manner fully consistent with the UN mandate on Afghanistan, and that the military mission shall consist of:

      - training the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can expeditiously take  

        increasing responsibility for security in Kandahar and Afghanistan as a whole;

      - providing security for reconstruction and development efforts in Kandahar; and

      - the continuation of Canada's responsibility for the Kandahar Provincial

        Reconstruction Team;

2) Canada's contribution to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan should be revamped and increased to strike a better balance between the country's military and develpment efforts. Furthermore, Canadian civilian assistance should focus on its traditional strengths, i.e. sectors such as reform of judicial and correctional systems.

3) Canada should assert a stronger and more disciplined diplomatic position regarding Afghanistan and the regional players.

The extension of Canada's military presence in Afghanistan was approved on condition that NATO secure a battle group of approximately 1,000 to rotate into Kandahar and that the Canadian government secure medium helicopter lift capacity and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle.


Whole-of-Government Approach

For a number of years, Canada has been applying an inter-departmental approach to issues of strategic interest such as the stabilization of certain fragile states (esp. Sudan, Haiti and Afghanistan). This so-called 'whole-of-government' approach generally brings together diplomatic, defence, development, trade and investment strategies in a way that ensures policy coherence and maximizes impact.

From 2005 to early 2008, interdepartmental coordination was led by an associate deputy minister of foreign affairs working with representatives from the Departments of National Defence (DND), Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), Correctional Service Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). CIDA had its own Afghanistan Task Force, and some other departments had parallel units responsible for activities in Afghanistan. Experience showed that separate departmental task forces were not the answer to inadequate coordination of Canadian activities.

The government concluded that its coordinating efforts would have stronger effect, and achieve greater cross-government coherence, if they were led by the Prime Miniser, supported by a cabinet committee and staffed by a single full-time task force. The establishment of such a "Cabinet Committee on Afghanistan" as well as an "Afghanistan Task Force" within the Privy Council Office was announced in February 2008. In addition, the Canadian House of Commons established a "Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan" which meets regularly with ministers and other senior officials to get detailed information on Canada's engagement in Afghanistan and make frequent recommendations on the conduct and progress of those efforts.

On 10 June 2008, the Canadian government announced its new approach in Afghanistan. It stated that for the next three years (2008-2011) its objective was to advance six focused priorities. The first four priorities focus primarily on Kandahar Province:

Maintain a more secure environment and establish law and order by building the capacity of the Afghan National Army and Police, and supporting complementary efforts in the areas of justice and corrections.

Provide jobs, education, and essential services, like water

Provide humanitarian assistance to people in need

Enhance the management and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border

Nationally, Canada will help

Build Afghan institutions that are central to its Kandahar priorities and support democratic processes such as elections

Contribute to Afghan-led political reconciliation efforts aimed at weakening the insurgency and fostering a sustainable peace

Military Presence

The Department of National Defence (DND) website outlines six objectives for Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan:

Extend government authority to the south of Afghanistan

Establish the security necessary to promote development;

Help strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government;

Conduct operations to support the Afghan National Army;

Assist in addressing the humanitarian needs of Afghans;

Assist in the delivery of programs to support economic recovery;

The Canadian Forces (CF) have been involved in Afghanistan since participating in the initial US-led Coalition that ousted the Taliban regime. Since then, Canada has provided significant support to both the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). The country has consistently been among the top 10 contributors of troops and support, and often among the top five troop contributing countries. Since October 2001 it has deployed over 18,000 soldiers, sailors, and air force personnel in support of OEF and ISAF.

According to DND, by March 2008, the total cost of all Canadian military operations in Afghanistan was $7.7 billion in full costs (aggregate total of all expenses incurred in conducting the operation) and $3.5 billion in incremental costs (calculated by subtracting certain costs such as salaries and equipment depreciation and attrition). The actual figure is highly debated.  


Canada's current contribution to ISAF: Operation ATHENA

Operation ATHENA stands for the Canadian contribution to ISAF. All Canadian units participating in this operation are part of Joint Task Force Afghanistan (JTF-Afg), which currently totals about 2,500 soldiers. It is headquartered at Kandahar Airfield and consists of the following units:

a Battle Group operating as part of the Multinational Brigade in ISAF Regional Command (South)

the National Support Element (NSE)

an Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT)

a Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle unit

a Health Services Support Company

the Provincial Reconstruction Team (at Camp Nathan Smith)

the Theatre Support Element (in the Persian Gulf region)

The largest component of JTF-Afg is the Battle Group, mainly from the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI). Its duties include patrolling the area of responsibility of Regional Command (South), suppressing hostile activity, and escorting road convoys.

The Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams (OMLT) advise, mentor and assist the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) in their capacity-building efforts. According to DND's website, it is not possible at this time to set out a schedule for completion of the development process of Afghanistan's national security forces (ANSF). In order to deepen its mentoring role with the ANSF, JTF-Afg is using Combined Quick Reaction Forces, which are made up of ANA and ANP units, Canadian infantry and mission-specific assets and enablers.

Note: This Operation was formerly under Operation Enduring Freedom, the US-led coalition. On 31 July 2006 it transferred to ISAF command.

Canada's current contribution to OEF: Operation ARCHER

Operation ARCHER is Canada’s contribution to OEF. The primary activity under this operation is the deployment of 12 senior CF members in Kabul with the Combined Security Transition Command - Afghanistan (CSTC-A), a US-led multinational organization that provides mentors and trainers to help Afghanistan's Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior build up the country's security sector.

Strategic Advisory Team - Afghanistan: Operation ARGUS

Operation ARGUS is the team of strategic military planners the Canadian Forces maintains in Kabul to assist the Government of Afghanistan. Since September 2005 the CF have, on a bi-lateral basis, provided such mixed military-civilian teams of 14-15 military strategic planners and one CIDA representative. The primary role of this Strategic Advisory Team - Afghanistan (SAT-A) is to work with Afghan counterparts in specific ministries and Afghan National Army chiefs of staff towards the design of the strategic plans necessary to guide the state-building effort in Afghanistan. The SAT also works closely with Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan.

Civilian Assistance (Governmental)

Canada's efforts in Afghanistan are guided by the Afghanistan Compact and the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS). Its pledge of $1.3 billion from 2001-2011 for development and reconstruction ranks it among the top donors. As of 2007, Canada had allocated a total of $741 million to civilian programs in Afghanistan, making it the single largest recipient of Canadian bilateral aid. Canada works through a combination of partnerships with other agencies, bilateral aid directly to the government, and funding of multilateral institutions such as UN agencies and the World Bank.  

Its civilian assistance program emphasizes three areas:

Sustainable livelihoods and community development

Here the objective is to help Afghans, particularly the rural poor, develop sustainable and productive livelihoods to increase income levels, food self-sufficiency, and reduce dependence on poppy cultivation. Projects include the (re)construction of infrastructure such as clinics, roads, schools, electricity, or drinking water; mine action; and support for the provision of basic services. One of the most successful programs in this area is the National Solidarity Program (for details see Development & Relief Efforts), to which Canada has contributed more than $131 million from 2003-2008. Furthermore, Canada contributes to food distribution programs and to assistance programs that are increasing legal livelihood options to reduce dependence on illicit poppy cultivation.

Democratic development and effective governance

In this area, Canada's objective is to strengthen democratic development and effective governance from the grass roots up to the national level, and to build public institutions worthy of the trust and confidence of all Afghan citizens. Key forms of support include

helping Afghans participate in grass roots democracy through the election of members to thousands of local councils that give communities a voice in their country's development;

supporting a host of programs that are helping the most vulnerable groups gain access to legal services;

and supporting mechanisms for building the Afghan government's planning capacity, fiduciary controls, fiscal discipline, accountability, and transparency.

Canadian police are working in Kabul and Kandahar at the Police Refom Unit under CSTC-A and the Afghan Ministry of the Interior. They have assisted in providing logistical and training support to ANP units, upgraded police stations and monitored the standards used by Police Mentoring Teams working with ANP units in various parts of the country. Some of the Canadian police officers have been deployed under the European Union Police Mission (EUPOL).

Enhancing the role of women and girls in society

In this area, assistance programs aim to empower women and girls by ensuring that they have a greater voice in society and better access to services, financing, education, and sustainable livelihoods. A focal point for Canada's assistance is MISFA (for details see Development & Relief Effort). Moreover, programming also includes initiatives to improve maternal and infant health, the promotion of women's rights, increased access to education, the labor market, and political life.

Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team (KPRT)

Many programs supported by Canada are country-wide. However, the main geographic focus of Canadian assistance in Afghanistan is in Kandahar Province, where its ISAF contingent is based. As of May 2008, 25 of the 50 civilian personnel deployed in Afghanistan by Canada are based in Kandahar, directed by the "Representative of Canada in Kandahar" (ROCK), Mr. Ken Lewis. Lewis was sworn into his new role on January 10, 2009, taking over from Elissa Golberg who had held the role for the past 11 months.  The number of civilian personnel is projected to increase to 100 by 2010.

Almost all civilian personnel in Kandahar are working in Canada's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar City, which is supporting projects throughout the province. These civilians (from DFAIT, CIDA, RCMP and other police, Corrections Services, USAID, US State Department) work alongside about 250 soldiers who provide protection and support for project implementation. The PRT supports key national Afghan projects such as the NSP and carries out a broad range of enabling roles such as police training and strengthening of all areas of local governance capacity, justice and humanitarian assistance. With the killing of diplomat Glyn Berry in January 2006, the civilian members of the PRT were withdrawn, leaving CIDA's six million dollars in aid assistance unused for a short period. Civilians were re-deployed by May 2006. The PRT does not operate from Kandahar Air Field (KAF) like the rest of Canada's Task Force, but is based at Camp Nathan Smith within Kandahar City itself. 

Civilian Assistance (Non-Governmental)

Several Canadian NGOs conduct operations in Afghanistan. However, many of these organizations see themselves as neutral and not as part of the Canadian government's efforts to rebuild Afghanistan. There is no formal coordinating body specifically for Canadian NGOs working in Afghanistan, though two NGO umbrella organizations, "Peacebuild - The Canadian Peacebuilding Network" and the "Canadian Council for International Cooperation", have helped establish the Afghanistan Reference Group (ARG), which is working to bring some NGOs together on policy issues. Since mid-2007, this group of NGOs has met with the Manley Panel (see below), issued press releases and given media interviews on Canada's Afghan policy, engaged Members of Parliament, held roundtable discussions and engaged CIDA and DFAIT in a regular policy dialogue. Most recently, three members of ARG participated in the Civil Society And Private Sector Forum in Paris on May 24, 2008, in preparation for the International Afghanistan Support Conference on June 12.  

A sample of Canadian NGOs currently (February 2008) operating in Afghanistan includes:

Canadian Red Cross

Throughout the country

Supports the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Red Crescent Society

Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan

Throughout the country

Empowerment of women

Rights & Democracy

Various parts

Provides funding for partner organizations promoting respect for human rights

CARE Canada

12 provinces (including Paktika, Khost, Gardez, Paktia, Logar)

Humanitarian and development assistance

World Vision Canada

Herat, Ghor, Badghis

Humanitarian and development assistance



Development assistance

Aga Khan Foundation Canada

Herat, Kabul, Bamyan, Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Samangan, Baghlan, Parwan

Development assistance, esp. private sector

Oxfam Canada & Oxfam Quebec

Badakhshan and Daikundi

Humanitarian assistance

Peace Dividend Trust

Throughout the country

Analysis of procurement practices and impact on local economy



Widows' project, implemented in partnership with CARE

War Child Canada

Herat, Kabul

Child protection

Development & Peace

Herat, Ghor, Kabul, Parwan, Kapisa

Supporting CRS and Afghan Women's Resource Centre



Debates About Canada's Role

The domestic debate about Canada's role in Afghanistan has been highly politicized and dominated by discussions on the country's military engagement. One of the most important reasons for the politicized, adversarial nature of the debate - esp. among parliamentarians - is that Canada's current government does not have a majority of seats in the House of Common. Controversial issues like the mission in Afghanistan therefore present an opportunity for the opposition to vote against confidence motions, bring down the minority government, and send Canadians to the polls.

To avoid such an outcome and neutralize the political debate before the most recent extension of the mandate for Canadian troops in Afghanistan, the government appointed an "Independent Panel on the Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan". Within about three months (October 2007 - January 2008), this five-person committee carried out a series of consultations with Canadian and international experts, including individuals from the political, diplomatic, development and security sectors, in order to develop recommendations on Canada's future role in Afghanistan. In addition these meetings, the panel invited the wider public to submit briefs for its consideration. Taken together, the 219 submissions reflect the divergent perspectives among Canadian and international stakeholders.

Once the Independent Panel had released its report and the parliamentary motion on Canada's mission in Afghanistan had been adopted, the debate became less heated. As the Afghan government and the international community met in Bucharest (NATO summit, April 2008) and Paris (International Afghanistan Support Conference, June 2008) to take major decisions on future efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, the focus of most discussions shifted towards the modalities of implementing the new parliamentary mandate.

Aid Efforts

Development and humanitarian aid are pillars of the international strategy to stabilize Afghanistan, as emphasized by former ISAF Commander Lt. General David Richards' comments that the military has done all it can and aid needs to flow to southern Afghanistan. Indeed, many sources point to the lack of effectively implemented development aid and enduring poverty as driving forces of the insurgency in the south.  In response to this Canada's government, throughout the fall of 2006 and in early 2007, made several announcements of new spending on development assistance for Afghanistan and in particular the Kandahar region. 

However, in April 2006, the Conservative government dismissed the idea of providing more funds through the Afghan government, calling it corrupt and lacking capability. The Afghan government has called for more funds to be directed through it so as to increase its legitimacy and improve Afghan ownership of the development process.

A Senate Standing Committee on National Defence report, Taking a Hard Look at a Hard Mission, has claimed that the committee can find no substantial evidence of CIDA's efforts in southern Afghanistan.  In response to this Development Minister Josee Vernier made a  trip to Afghanistan on 22 October 2006, promoting CIDA's efforts and making claims about Cdn$29.5 million on spending on several projects. The Senate Committee's argument can also be countered by the fact that CIDA's money is often distributed through other multilateral organizations, making it hard to trace exactly how the money is spent, though not necessarily implying that it is wasted.  CIDA provides a Project Browser on its website showing where and how money has been spent, but measuring the impact of these projects against the long-term stability of Afghanistan is not possible in the short term. 

Nevertheless, the voices claiming that development and aid efforts have been insufficient have been increasing.  In October 2006 the Senlis Council, a Europe-based think tank, released a report, Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan, based on extensive field research stating that the failure to address development and poverty is fueling the insurgency.  This report was followed in May 2007 with the release of the new report, "Canada in Afghanistan: Charting A New Course to Complete the Mission."  Senlis indicated that poverty remained a concern, that the counternarcotics strategy of eradication was making the situation much more challenging, and that CIDA has had little to no impact on the ground.  The report called for the creation of a Special Envoy to replace CIDA and implement emergency assistance and development programs in Kandahar.

Restrictions on the travel of CIDA and DFAIT personnel within Afghanistan are being accused of hampering development efforts.  Money that has been committed to development in Kandahar has been sitting unused as CIDA employees complain of being "nannied" by Ottawa.  In October 2006 Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said that the government is working on lifting travel restrictions to improve the delivery of aid. In January 2007 a group of MPs from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on National Defence travelled to Afghanistan to observe progress in development, but were not allowed to leave Kandahar Air Field or a nearby Afghan Army base for 'security reasons.' 

Military Efforts

Canada's military mission has generated a lot of controversy and debate. The issues that have been raised are:

  1. Lack of clarity on how exactly Canada's efforts in Afghanistan are a vital national interest, especially in terms of Canada's contribution to the U.S. led war on terror, expressed during the April 10, 2006 Parliamentary debate on the Afghan mission.
  2. Concerns that this mission has taken up all the capacity of the Canadian military to engage in peace support operations, leaving no ability to respond to security and humanitarian needs in other regions.
  3. Concerns that Canada's efforts in southern Afghanistan have focused too much on confronting insurgents at the expense of development and diplomatic efforts.  A proportion of 9:1 (military spending to development spending) is often used in arguing this position.

Two articles that address this debate are: "A military at war with peacekeeping" by James Travers and "After a Deadly Week, Canada Debates Role in Afghanistan" by Christopher Mason.

Canada’s end to its combat role in Afghanistan

While Canada intends to continue its involvement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, it has begun to prepare for the withdrawal of its military from the country. On November 5th 2009 Canada’s Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk ordered the beginning of the planning of the Canadian military’s pull out of Afghanistan. This was done in accordance with a March 2008 Parliamentary vote which extended but also set and end date of July 2010 to the Canadian mission.


Plans for Canada’s troop withdrawal have begun to take shape, pending any new plans which the Canadian government has for the military. However, the Canadian government, including Defense Minister Peter Mackay, have suggested that Canadian troops could stay on past the July 2011 date in a non-combat role. This has muddied the waters as to what Canada’s role will be post July 2011. It has also prompted criticisms from former military experts and commanders including Retired Gen. Rick Hillier who said that a non-combat role was impossible.


One of the key issues surrounding Canada’s military pull out of Afghanistan is that of cost. $2 million worth of gear needs to be brought back to Canada and millions of dollars worth of infrastructure have to be brought down. It will take a force of about 500 soldiers one year to accomplish this task. Canada does not have a military air lift capability to accomplish this job on its own. Therefore, arrangements will have to be made to ship 2000 to 3000 sea containers. Transporting equipment will be an expensive endeavor as using Russian or Ukrainian cargo planes will costs the government up to $1.5 million per trip. As Canada begins preparations to pack up and leave the reality of the insurgency makes the task much more difficult.



Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan

While Canada is looking to draw down its combat role in Afghanistan there is not clear definition of what its future role will look like. Canada will continue to maintain its humanitarian and developmental missions. In fact on January 28th Canada announce $25 million toward counter narcotics, policing and the criminal justice system. With regard to its military, while there was talk of a “different” or non combat role, there was the possibility of redeployment to the more peaceful parts of the country. Canadian PM Steven Harper seemed to justify his governments plan by saying that this is part of an overall downgrading of the international community’s expectations of what is achievable in Afghanistan.  


Canada’s combat disengagement from Afghanistan is also part of its overall shrinking of influence in the country. Where once it made up 13 percent of the combat forces where it now only makes up three percent of the 84,000 troops in Afghanistan. Its influence in Kandahar has shrunk from being responsible for a while province to sharing management of a single district. While Canada has not lost the respect of the international community in Afghanistan it simply does not have to financial or military capacity to expand its role in Afghanistan. Thus marginalizing the country`s voice in the Afghanistan debate.


The legacy of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan looks to be tainted by the prisoner abuse scandal that was reveal in November 2009. A government whistleblower revealed that Canadian soldiers handed over to prisoners to Afghan authorities who most likely tortured them. It also seemed that these prisoners were most likely innocent. The whistle blower was Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin who served in Afghanistan for 17 months. In his testimony before a House of Commons committee, Mr. Colvin described the military’s action towards prisoner abuse from 2006 to 2007 as ranging from initial indifference to obstructing his attempts to warn higher ups. The implications of this case are as yet unclear as the Canadian parliament was prorogued on December 30th2009 and will not restart until March 3rd 2010.



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