Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meaningful Metrics of Commitment?

I have been engaged in a twitter conversation with Phil Lagassé (No surprise) and folks at the Canadian International Council (first time) about the role Canada played in Afghanistan.  The question, of course, was "it" worth "it"?  And the focus was on why Kandahar.  I have talked about this before and will again, but I want to focus on the last tweet I got yesterday about Canada having more casualties per # of soldiers in Afghanistan than the US or UK.

I happen to have a handy set of figures from October 2010.*

KIA Size of Contingent Population KIA per Contigent Rank, KIA/Cont KIA/Pop Rank, KIA/Pop
Denmark 37 750 5,500,510 4.93% 2 0.000007 1
UK 337 9500 61,113,205 3.55% 3 0.000006 2
Canada 152 2830 33,487,208 5.37% 1 0.000005 3
US 1247 47000 307,212,123 2.65% 5 0.000004 4
Norway 9 500 4,660,539 1.80% 6 0.000002 5
Netherlands 24 1940 16,715,999 1.24% 10 0.000001 6
Australia 21 1550 21,262,641 1.35% 8 0.000001 7
Romania 17 945 22,215,421 1.80% 7 0.000001 8
France 49 3750 64,420,073 1.31% 9 0.000001 9
Spain 30 1070 40,525,002 2.80% 4 0.000001 10
Italy 33 3150 58,126,212 1.05% 12 0.000001 11
Germany 45 4415 82,329,758 1.02% 13 0.000001 12
Poland 21 1955 38,482,919 1.07% 11 0.000001 13
Sweden 4 410 9,059,651 0.98% 14 0.000000 14
New Zealand 1 220 4,213,418 0.45% 15 0.000000 15
Turkey 2 1755 76,805,524 0.11% 16 0.000000 16

*  I created this table a year ago.  Some numbers have changed--particularly size of contingent (US pre-surge, CA/Netherlands not yet out) but also the US taking some significant hits over the past year, Canada's number of KIA increased by five before it left and so on.

First, Canada barely led in that particular metric just ahead of Denmark.  If one uses casualties per home population, then Canada is actually third behind Denmark and the UK and just ahead of the US. 

Second, this is an indicator that has some intuitive value, but has some flaws as well.  There are more differences between the US and UK on one side and Canada on the other than just per capita KIA.  Because the other two deployments are much larger than the Canadian one, the lower per contingent (but much higher aggregate) numbers might be because the UK and the US have a smaller percentage of their contingent engaged in infantry and convoy operations--where Canada has paid a high price.  The US and UK have had more folks in helos, in planes, and in supporting such assets, so the relatively small differences might be because these countries had a smaller percentage of troops in harm's way, especially before the Canadians deployed additional non-infantry assets after the Manley report and mandate extension of 2008.

Third, what this table does demonstrate is that the big four (UK, US, Denmark, Canada) have been paying a higher price.  That comes with the combination of difficult territory (Helmand and Kandahar (and Eastern Afghanistan for the US) and a willingness to take more risks rather than restrict the troops behind caveats and other limitations imposed on commanders on the ground.

So, the twitter conversation missed the real point of comparison--not between Canada and the US/UK, but between the US/UK/Canada/Denmark group and the rest.  This then speaks to the larger point of Canada choosing Kandahar over some semi-random isolated spot in Regional Command West (the Italian-led sector).*
* I still think the Canadians of the Hillier era and beyond would have been largely incompatible with the highly restricted Italians as their bosses.  I have not been told this was a conscious part of the decision-making process, but I cannot help but think that working under the Italians would have been damn near unthinkable for Hillier and the rest of the current crop of Canadian commanders.

Canadian leaders, civilian and military, were looking to change how Canada operated in the world.  Rather than 40 little missions with 40 little maple leaf flags on UN maps, there was a conscious choice to have Canada focus its efforts to make a difference and to have more influence over what it was doing and perhaps beyond.  Going to Chaghcharan where a small Lithuanian unit has filled the gap the Canadians refused to fill would have fit the old strategy of just being present but not much more than that.  But doing more than that involved risks--of casualties, of $$ being expended, of bad things possibly happening (detainee scandals, collateral damage, friendly fire, working with the brother of Karzai, whatever), and of mission failure.  

But for me, it keeps coming down to two things:
  • Just showing up is not a responsible policy.  How can one espouse a policy called responsibility to protect (whether that applies to Afghanistan or not, although I lean to the idea that it does) if one just is showing up?  Willing to do enough so that one's marked down for "attending" but not really participating is a C or C+ effort that does not get one noticed one way or another.  But yet would still cost millions of dollars despite not providing a valued alliance with much added value.  
  • Making a difference requires doing something is hard, not easy.  Kandahar was hard.  Harder than Canadian leaders might have expected (I am beginning to think this was less about intel failure and more about wishful thinking).
Focusing on casualties is understandable as they are a simple comparative measure of commitment, but the numbers can be deceptive.  At the end of the day, measuring lives is incredibly hard.  Was 157 Canadian lives worth it?  Depends on what "it" is, but if you want to measure the "it" in terms of the lives not lost in Afghanistan during 2006-2011 due to the provision of security (even shaky or limited) by the Canadians and the health care (deaths during childbirth, for example) facilitated by the Canadian presence, as long as Afghan lives are not discounted too much, the balance sheet is quite positive.  Canada did make a big difference in terms of lives alone.  In terms of influence gained due to the sacrifice of 157 Canadian lives, well, that is an argument that Phil Lagassé and I will be having for quite some time to come.

No comments: