*** This is the very institution that "...stand on guard for thee" so when its credibility is at stake, it deserves all the help it can get - that's an order! MS ***
OTTAWA–Withdrawing from a fast-moving war presents a security challenge, a financial burden and a logistical nightmare for any army.
But the head of Canada's military fears it could also undermine the credibility his soldiers have gained over a decade in Afghanistan when some 2,800 personnel start pulling out of Kandahar next year, according to documents obtained by the Toronto Star.
In orders issued to Canadian Forces commanders, Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk outlined four "strategic ends" the military must meet while withdrawing from the country in December 2011.
They include keeping troops secure while operations wind down, ensuring full Canadian control of the withdrawal, and protecting the country's priority projects such as building up the Afghan security forces and reconstructing a dam.
But top of mind is the "maintenance of Canada's reputation" and honouring the sacrifices of the country's soldiers, sailors and air crews, Natynczyk says in the Aug. 7, 2009 directive, obtained under the Access to Information Act.
"Our credibility as an institution is reliant upon the public and international perceptions of how we carry out this demanding and difficult task," he wrote to his senior commanders.
"Of particular concern is setting the conditions for the handover of our (area of operations) to a NATO-designated relieving force in a manner that reinforces success."
Right up until July 2011, the Canadian Forces will maintain security, counterinsurgency and training operations, Natynczyk wrote. Between July and December 2011, withdrawal becomes the military's only priority. Military planners are still figuring out the costs, staffing and operational requirements involved in the pullout.
A classic withdrawal from a conflict is "one of the most difficult operations in war to plan and to execute," said retired colonel Michel Drapeau, the former commander of a Canadian Forces logistics branch.
"You want to maintain contact with the enemy, you want to hide your movement, you want to maintain contact with the enemy as you are downscaling and backing up and trying to save as much equipment, as many people as you can."
But Canada's pullout will be easier because of the heavy presence of U.S. and other allied forces at Kandahar Airfield and across southern Afghanistan.
Still, the question of what equipment to leave behind, and which personnel will be the last to leave is difficult to plan.
The larger question of how to maintain Canada's influence with the United States or at the 28-member NATO headquarters in Brussels after operations finish is more difficult to answer.
Canadians are already being moved out of some strategic command roles in Kandahar in advance of the pullout, and the country's voice certainly appeared to carry less weight at last week's London conference on Afghanistan, said retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie, who commanded Canadian forces in the Balkans.
But Canada has no reason to be ashamed of leaving the war early, he said. The country was among the first to join the Americans in 2002 in Kandahar after the initial invasion and fought alone in the key province between 2006 and 2008.
"I don't think there's going to be anyone running around Kandahar airfield making fun of us as we leave, that's for sure," MacKenzie said.