Canada Kavita Bapat NATO and Canada

Canada-NATO Relations, the Future of Afghanistan and its Implications on the Transatlantic Alliance

By: Kavita Bapat

In July Canada began the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after nearly a decade of engagement in the war torn country. In the early days of the Afghan conflict Canada contributed troops to Joint Task Force 2 with the aim of routing out remaining Taliban and al Qaeda forces. In 2003 Canada expanded its deployment to Afghanistan, working to secure Kabul and assist with infrastructure development as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)[1]. Canada’s role in Afghanistan changed dramatically in 2006 when the Canadian government agreed to commit the Canadian forces to the volatile southern province of Kandahar. Since that time Canadian forces have taken part in combat-heavy counterinsurgency operations as well as reconstruction, development, governance building, and humanitarian relief efforts. Having entered its fourth phases of engagement, Canada is set to withdraw all combat troops by year’s end, as security responsibilities are gradually transitioned to the Afghan government. In order to aid in this transition, Canada will remain in Afghanistan in a training capacity, helping to build the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) so that these entities may provide justice and stability in Afghanistan.[2] To this end, members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Forces are working with NATO allies to train members of the ANA and ANP through the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. The Canadian government has also made significant investments in equipment and infrastructure, committing roughly $99 million over a three year period to help develop Afghanistan’s security forces.[3]

Strengthening the ANA and ANP is a key priority for both Canadaand NATO as such efforts are necessary for the government of Afghanistanto assume responsibility for governance and security following the planned withdrawal of all NATO troops in 2014. Although progress has been made in terms of encouraging security sector reform and government capacity building it is clear that considerable challenges remain in Afghanistan.[4] In regards to building Afghanistan’s security forces, Canada faces challenges such as corruption, drug abuse and illiteracy among Afghan security forces as well as relatively high attrition rates. Other challenges stem from a lack of sophisticated military equipment including artillery as well as both reconnaissance and combat aircrafts which diminishes Afghanistan’s defence capabilities[5]. For its part, the Canadian government has been reluctant to donate these resources citing budgetary restrictions and previous incidents in which such equipment fell into the hands of insurgents. In light of these challenges, Canadian troops working alongside Afghan security forces have expressed concern regarding whetherAfghanistan’s security sector will be competent enough to defend the country once NATO forces depart the country. The challenges facingAfghanistan’s security are, however, simply a piece of the puzzle.

Serious concerns have also been raised against the Karzai government’s ability and intention to provide effective governance in Afghanistan. It is widely understood that Afghanistan’s correctional and judicial systems are insufficient and that corruption permeates government at the national, provincial and local levels.[6] In order to improve governance in Afghanistan, Canada has committed nearly $210 million over a three year period to help the Afghan government deliver basic services such as education and infrastructure. Canada has also embarked on two major projects in Kandahar designed to bolster provincial administration and core ministries of the Afghan government.[7]  Chief among Canada’s priorities is aid to the Afghan government to improve humanitarian for refugees, internally displaced persons and other disadvantaged segments of the population. At the institutional level, the Government of Canada is focused on increasing technical expertise in Afghan institutions and departments along with improvements in training, mentoring, equipment, and program support.[8] These initiatives are hugely important given that the only way to ensure that the Taliban does not take root inAfghanistan is to build public confidence in the Afghan government by providing justice and basic services, particularly in the south where support for insurgent groups is strongest.

Although most would agree that Canada’s contributions to Afghanistanhave weakened insurgent groups, facilitated development, and provided some measure security, the aforementioned challenges have led many to question whether Canada’s work – and that of its ISAF allies – will be enough to ensure peace and stability in Afghanistanmoving forward.[9] Assessing Canada’s impact on Southern Afghanistan, Roland Paris, founding director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa, states; “Canada’s legacy in Kandahar is mixed. If the goal was to defeat the Taliban, the answer is clearly no. If it was to make Kandahar province more secure, the jury is still out, because it remains to be seen whether recent operations in and around Kandahar City can produce lasting security gains[10].” While Canada’s signature development initiatives in Afghanistan, such as the Dahla Dam irrigation project, have seemingly aided the country it remains to be seen whether these efforts will have a lasting impact on living conditions in Kandahar[11].

Canada will continue to work with the Afghan government and security forces to overcome these obstacles. However despite this resolve, the lasting affects of Canada’s role in Afghanistan may largely be determined by developments that take place in Pakistan. At present, Pakistanis in a state on the brink of chaos. Pakistan has long been criticized for its dominant military complex, dysfunctional bureaucracy, corrupt and run-down judiciary, and overbearing police force. Much like Afghanistan– although not to quite the same extent – Pakistan lacks sufficient social services such as education and health care for its rapidly growing population of nearly 200 million.[12] Pakistan also faces serious challenges related to poverty and unemployment especially among youth between the ages of 13 and 25 who make up 60% of the total populace.[13] In the absence of economic opportunity, this demographic has proven to be a ripe source of recruitment for Islamic extremist groups operating throughout the country.

Complicating the situation further, the Government of Pakistan has been plagued by a succession of political crises and is unable to effectively govern its population and territory. In recent years, the Pakistani intelligence agency (ISI) has come under fire for allegedly supporting terrorist activity in Afghanistan. Though the ISI and Pakistani military seem to be showing greater willingness to take action against militant groups, it is widely acknowledged that both institutions have maintained ties with militants as part of their strategy towards India. This has made it difficult for the United Statesto cooperate with Pakistanon counter insurgency efforts in the lawless tribal areas of North-West Pakistan; a safe haven that insurgent groups actively used to organize and launch attacks against targets in Afghanistan. Taken together, these factors have made Pakistana breeding ground for terrorism and religious extremism. Mounting concern about governance issues in Pakistan and the involvement of role of ISI in perpetuating insurgent activity in Afghanistan  led US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to claim that deteriorating security in a nuclear Pakistan “poses a mortal threat” to the world[14].

Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict has long been recognized by academics and policy makers alike. However, in past years the international community has been somewhat hesitant to put pressure on Pakistanfor two key reasons. The first has to do with geography, as Pakistan’s closeness to Afghanistanmakes it the only land route feasible for the provision of logistics to NATO’s ISAF in Afghanistan[15]. Without an alternate supply route, NATO and the international community more generally has been limited in its ability to pressure Pakistan into domestic reform efforts and abolish its terrorist sanctuaries near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Secondly Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons has placed constraints on the ability of any one international actor to influence Pakistan’s security establishment[16].

Many have concluded that sustained peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved if Pakistan’s political elite are able to address the many domestic challenges which encourage instability and if they are willing to take a harder stance against al Qaeda and other terrorist groups who continue to threaten Afghan development and security. The safe havens for Taliban and mujahideen leaders in Pakistan are a continued threat that must be abolished. If insurgent activity in these tribal areas was permanently shut down, regional violence would greatly decrease and the possibility of reconciliation with remaining militants would be increased. Accomplishing these goals will require extensive economic development as well as security sector and political reform over the next decade. At a more fundamental level, creating lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan will require the cultivation of a regional dynamic based on cooperation rather than competition. The road to lasting peace and security in Afghanistan runs throughPakistanas the fate of these two countries are intertwined by nature of their related economic interests, national security concerns, and overlapping ethnic composition. Viewing the ongoing Afghan conflict as part of a larger regional dynamic makes it clear that Canada, NATO and the international community as a whole have an interest in Pakistani governance and domestic security. More precisely, it is clear that Canada and its allies have an interest inPakistan’s military and intelligence establishment and the ways in which these actors perpetuate violence inAfghanistanand threaten larger regional instability. What is less clear, however, is the specific role that Canada and NATO could play in this addressing these challenges. At this point, pressuring the Pakistani government and military to take a more active role in addressing these pressing issues is predominantly an American responsibility. The United States has traditionally held a great deal of leverage against Pakistan due in part to the sizable amount of American military aid that Pakistan receives each year. More recently however, American-Pakistani relations appear to have soured and attempts to rein in the Pakistani government and military by withholding aid have yet to produce any clear results.

What this all means is that despite the efforts that Canada has made toAfghanistan both in terms of military and financial contributions, the results of these decade long engagements will likely be determined by factors that are largely outside Canada’s direct control. This is significant not only given the sunk costs associated with this mission, but also given what mission ‘failure’ or ‘success’ could mean for Canada’s future in NATO. As NATO nears its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will be faced with a number of important questions many of which will be intimately linked to Afghanistan’s future. If, for example, the Taliban is able to regain significant influence in Afghanistan or the country spirals into a state of civil conflict, what impact might this have on NATO’s future use of expeditionary force? Given the great financial burdens and lack of public support that has been demonstrated for long-term missions of this nature, the future of Afghanistan could carry major implications for NATO’s peacebuilding initiatives moving forward. Furthermore, if conflict is reignited in Afghanistan what effect might this have on NATO member solidarity? Many notable member states showed a great reluctance to contribute to the Afghan mission, imposing limitations and conditions on their troop commitments and rules of engagement. If the Afghan mission is ultimately deemed a failure, questions will be raised regarding NATO’s ability to muster the capabilities needed to tackle military operations of this magnitude. Finally, what could the future of Afghanistan mean for NATO efforts in anti-terrorism? NATO has prioritized terrorism as a principal international security threat and Canada has actively supported NATO’s efforts on this front. If terrorist groups such as al Qaeda return toAfghanistan in droves and present themselves once again as a threat to global security, NATO may be forced to reevaluate its approach to preventing the conditions that promote terrorism. NATO’s demise has been predicted on numerous occasions and many of these challenges have been put forward in the past. However, as Canada withdraws its troops fromAfghanistan and its NATO allies prepare to follow suit, these questions will once again arise and their weight will be determined not only by what takes place inAfghanistan but what happens takes place in Pakistan in the years to come.

[1] Dr. Priti Singh, Report on the International Conference on Afghanistan Crisis and Reconstruction: Domestic, Regional and International Dimensions. New Delhi, India: School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2008. (accessed July 26, 2011)

[2]Government of Canada. Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada, 2011. (accessed July 26, 2011).



[5]Matthew Fisher, 15, June 2011. Optimism despite problems as Canadian mentors wrap up Afghan mission. The Montreal Gazette. (date accessed: July 26, 2011)


[7]Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Canada in Afghanistan. Ottawa, ON: Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, 2011. (accessed July 26, 2011).



[10]Matthew Fisher, 15, June 2011. Optimism despite problems as Canadian mentors wrap up Afghan mission. The Montreal Gazette. (date accessed: July 26, 2011)

[11]Government of Canada. Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan. Ottawa, ON: Government of Canada, 2011. (accessed July 26, 2011).



[14] Chidanand Rajghatta, 23, April 2009. Pakistan a mortal threat to the world: Hillary. The Times of India. accessed: July 26, 2011)

[15]Sumit Ganguly, 27, May 2011. Pakistan’s Not So Sleight of Hand. The Epoch Times. (date accessed: July 26, 2011)



Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the NATO Council of Canada.


  • NATO Association of Canada

    The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.

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NATO Association of Canada
The NATO Association of Canada (NAOC) strives to educate and engage Canadians about NATO and its goals of peace, prosperity and security. The NAOC ensures Canada has an informed citizenry able to participate in discussions about its role on the world stage.