Brig. General Jonathan Vance @ Queen’s U

Offical Portrait I had a great opportunity to hear Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance speak yesterday via the School of Policy Studies (the folks who inhabit the bottom four floors of Robert Sutherland).  Given the nature of campus activism among under-graduates and media flamers in regards to the often touchy topic of Afghanistan and Canada, the talk was advertised on a limited basis to keep the haters out (you know the kind of folks I mean…one can be critical of the mission, but at least be civil about it) and the more open, balanced and level-headed in.  It’s quite special to get such a chance as I believe they keep their speaking circuit to a minimum.

Like most Generals, Vance is well-read, well-educated, well-spoken and very rationale and pragmatic when it comes to discussing the situation in Kandahar.  He provided an brief outline of the events of previous strategies employed from 2006-2009 and spoke about General McCrystal’s (apparently General Petraeus’ protégé) new approach to the situation.

He discussed the immense complexities of the conflict, the fragmented and under-strength efforts of past ISAF/Alliance initiatives and where Canada wants to be/accomplish by 2011.

Some interesting items that I took away.

  • ISAF made friends with the wrong folks in 2006.  Friends with people the local population wasn’t friends with.  The war waged was counter-terrorism, not counter-insurgency.
  • The Taliban is a player, but not nearly as large a player as one might think.  The stage is opaque with a myriad of actors, gangs, corrupt officials, tribalism and narcotics among others.   
  • 85% of the population of Kandahar province is centered very close to Kandahar City.  As the core of counter-insurgency is to protect the people, this is where ISAF/Alliance efforts must concentrate on holding Kandahar and it’s suburbs.
  • This leads to the Canada’s deliverable by 2011 – A stabilizing Kandahar city and surrounding suburbs (I wish I had a map of their goal).
  • This stabilizing area consists of the city proper and surrounding suburbs/villages.  Villages are targeted for heavy infrastructure investments beginning with large, visible signature projects like water canals and wells.
  • Low home front support for the mission is a product of media failure to properly convey a detailed overview of the Canada’s 2011 goal.
  • The Canadian battle-group is the best equipped, most agile force in Afghanistan and is the only organization to have US forces under direct command.

I like the last point.  I follow our folks in Afghanistan and while I’m aware of McCrystal’s much vaunted urban strategy, there has been nothing regarding what Canada is planning to accomplish by 2011.  Vance outlined it in less than 10 minutes.  A simple map.  A simple strategy, and based on his opinions, it is apparently working.

I built up enough courage and asked a question about the stabilizing (model) villages being invested in regards to types of infrastructure being constructed, how they were being built.  I sort of have a latent interest in post-conflict urban planning.  Actually, luxury interest is a more appropriate term as it is an interest that is quite far from the task at hand (ie. Canadian planning, finishing my report, and getting a job).

I got a “good question” response :-p

Apparently the Canadian military is the only organization willing to tackle mosque repair and reconstruction.

Proper water facilities is of main concern, as is adequate roads and transportation networks.  One thing I found interesting was the addition of solar-powered lamp posts in the markets to extend their business hours.  Micro-loans to women for poultry farms is another. 

I still have concerns regarding the sustainability of the strategy.  I still believe that Greg Mortenson’s (Three Cups of Tea fame) efforts represent the golden standard of development in conflict stricken areas. Mr. Mortenson can travel and operate in areas no other western organization (government, military, NGO) can based solely on his 20+ solid years of building relationships in the region.  He is completely trusted.

Canada rotates new guys in every 10 months or so resulting in a substantial number of new faces that have to be introduced.  I’m skeptical about building a meaningful relationship in that area of the world in 10 months.  Even if a unit is rotated back into country, they will have been absent for about a year…and they won’t be keeping in contact via Facebook.

I’m curious about how they maintain relationships within the transient nature of deployment.

Best question goes to a fellow who drilled Vance about what ISAF/Alliance is doing on a regional basis (think Pakistan, Iran, India) and the notion that Pakistan, for example, is not too inclined to take the fight into Waziristan because of the perception that ISAF won’t stick around.

Really good presentation, although there was an element of government spinning at work. 

*General Vance was commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan from February to November 2009.

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