In Colin S. Grays’ book “Another Bloody Century” (published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, and highly recommended) he quotes British military theorist Major-General J.F.C. Fuller as saying;
“Tools, or weapons, if only the right ones can be discovered, form 99 per cent of victory…Strategy, command, leadership, courage, discipline, supply, organization and all of the moral and physical paraphernalia of war are nothing to a high superiority of weapons – at most they go to form the one per cent which makes the whole possible. In wars, especially in modern wars, wars in which weapons change rapidly, on thing is certain; no army of fifty years ago before any date selected would stand a ‘dog’s chance’ against the army existing at that date…”
As Gray points out “Fuller was, and remains, monumentally wrong.”
Let’s test the proposition. As a mental exercise let us suppose that some Canadian army from the past rather than our current force had fought the war in Afghanistan.
How would the Canadian Army of 1918 have faired? Think about it, over 300,000 men with rifles, machine guns, mortars, artillery, a certain amount of internal combustion logistic support and a lot of horses. (If nothing else such a force would have an admirably small carbon footprint) With comparatively small logistics needs, and a good tooth to tail ratio, this was force that had proved it could stay in the field for years. In fact the old style weapons carried by the Canadian Corps would have been well suited to the conflict. The long range of the Lee-Enfield rifles carried by our troops would have stood them in good stead in Afghan style fighting. The machine guns, mortars and artillery used by that force would have been more than adequate for the task. We could even add a few squadrons of DH-9As for air support of a similar vintage.
As can be seen the Canadian army of 1918 would have been perfectly well equipped for the current Afghan war. It illustrates the point that it is the quality of the troops that would matter. We are talking about a force which marched farther, fought more, and defeated larger enemy forces in the final months of WWI than any other corps in any other army. These were men who could march and fight and then march again, for days or weeks on end. Based on the historical record we can predict that this would be an army for whom the prospect of casualties would have less concern then our current armed forces could contemplate. This not to say this army would constitute a blunt instrument with which an opponent would be bludgeoned into submission by brute force and a willingness to take casualties. In fact;
“The military effectiveness of the corps has been extensively analyzed. The corps evolved steadily following the 1915 summer campaign. The Canadian Expeditionary Force "worked ceaselessly to convert all of its available political and physical resources into fighting power." One striking feature of the corps' evolution was its ability to exploit all opportunities for learning. This was a corps-wide activity, involving all levels from the commander to the private soldier. His ability to learn from allied successes and mistakes made the corps increasingly successful. Doctrine was tested in limited engagements and, if proven effectual, developed for larger scale battles. Following each engagement, lessons were recorded, analyzed and disseminated to all units. Doctrine and tactics that were ineffective or cost too many lives were discarded and new methods developed. This learning process, combined with technical innovation and competent senior leadership in theatre created one of the most effective allied fighting forces on the Western Front”
Godefroy, A. (April 1, 2006). “Canadian Military Effectiveness in the First World War”
Would this army from the past be capable of defeating the Taliban? The answer seems self-evident. Even if a brigade size force with both the weapons and the qualities of the Canadian corps had been committed to the Afghan conflict it would have been at least as successful in that conflict as the force that we did send.
What is the point of any mental exercise? In this case it serves to point out what a national commitment really is. The force Canada sent overseas in WWI represented a serious national commitment. The forces we sent to Afghanistan did not. They were not a war fighting force. At best they were a gesture to an alliance. Maintaining an alliance is good, thinking you can fight a war on the cheap is not. Canada never made a wartime commitment in Afghanistan. As a mental exercise “what’s the smallest force we can reasonably send to Afghanistan” is interesting, as policy it fails.