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Top military leader speaks in Estevan

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Retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie was the guest speaker at the Estevan Chamber of Commerce's annual general meeting on March 19. Leslie reflected on his decorated career, including his time in Afghanistan.

Few members of the Canadian Army have combined family pedigree, personal experience, proficiency and passion quite like retired Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie.

Leslie had a variety of experiences, both domestically and internationally, in a decorated career that spanned 35 years. But he is best known for his service in Afghanistan.

He was the first Canadian general to arrive in Afghanistan in 2003. He served as deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force, the assistant chief of Land Staff, and was the chief of Land Staff at the height of the conflict.

Leslie reflected on his career in the army, the end of the Afghan mission and other topics in a speech at the Estevan Chamber of Commerce's annual general meeting on March 19. His speech was laced with history, humour, introspection and even a little self-criticism.

He utilized a pair of case studies – one positive and one negative – to stress the importance of forcing function, leadership and cooperation.

The positive study stems from changes that occurred in the army that allowed it to function better in Afghanistan.

When the Afghan mission started, Leslie said the army was tribal, highly resistant to change, static, and peace-keeping-centric, which didn't suit the situation they were entering.

The turning point came when Canadian forces moved into the volatile Kandahar region.

"We were relatively unprepared for the transition from Kabul, which was advanced peacekeeping ... into the killing fields of Kandahar," said Leslie. "We were ill-equipped, we weren't terribly well trained for what we were about to face, and we had a really difficult time of understanding that mélange of cultural dynamics."

A lot of soldiers moved quickly up the ranks, particularly women. They proved more adaptive to some of the nuances of the region than men. Other high-ranking soldiers were moved aside because they couldn't adapt fast enough.

New ideas and doctrines were implemented in weeks, instead of decades like in peace time. New equipment was purchased.

"The neat thing was, unlike in normal days, when most people tend to growl at defence expenditures, the almost universal cry across the land was 'Give them what they need!'" said Leslie.

Unlike other countries, Canadian troops volunteered to go to Afghanistan, so soldiers had to try out to be deployed to the war-torn country. Other nations eventually adopted similar models.

Fatalities in Kandahar drew the attention of the public and the politicians, and generated sympathy and support from Canadians.

"It was a really tough fight," said Leslie. "It was unexpectedly difficult, and unexpectedly bloody. The good news is that your citizens, your sons and daughters, responded to the challenge, adopted the forcing function, and the way in which they conducted themselves."

In 2010, Leslie was named the chief of transformation for the Canadian Forces; he led 300 people who were selected to help change the forces. It led to his negative case study.

"What was missing was that cooperative spirit," said Leslie. "The problem underlying the attempts to change the Canadian Forces is there wasn't a universal or broadly accepted reason to change."

The army had changed because it had to, but others at the table weren't as eager. Leslie tried to explain that without changes, pending equipment would be delayed or cancelled, and budgets would be cut.

"Just because you think you're right, doesn't mean the rest of the world is going to see it that way," said Leslie.

Leslie lamented that he couldn't find the language to convince others about pending challenges, not only for the forces as a whole, but for soldiers returning home from Afghanistan. He shoulders the blame.

"The Armed Forces is right now going through a particularly grim time, and it need not have been so, nor does it need to be so," said Leslie.

Numerous Afghan veterans have committed suicide in recent weeks. Leslie said the solution comes down to willpower, acceptance and money. Soldiers need to be able to access professional health facilities and counsellors, and they need financial security.

His recent experiences have motivated Leslie to run for the Liberals in the next federal election.

***

The end of the Afghan mission is a bittersweet moment, he said, but it was time to withdraw from the country. It carried a great human cost, as 158 Canadian Forces members, and several other Canadians, died in the conflict.

"It's too soon to judge what the success of the mission might well end up being," said Leslie. "Very often you need a sense of distance, and a little bit of time, before you can fully appreciate the impact that you had."

When Leslie arrived in Afghanistan, there were few schools; now there are 4,300. Medical clinics have opened in 41 provinces. There are more paved roads. Irrigation and electrical infrastructure have improved. The Afghan army is much larger and stronger.

But the violence is growing, he said, and the level of corruption is staggering.

***

Leslie called the Canadian Forces a "family business." Not only were his grandfathers decorated, high-ranking veterans from the First World War, but they became federal cabinet ministers after the war's conclusion.

His father was a brigadier general during the Korean War. His mother was in the Air Force. They didn't actively pressure him to join the forces, but there was constant exposure to the military lifestyle that swayed his decision.

"My father died when I was quite young, when I was 19, but I joined just before he died, and I know he was very proud of the fact that I carried on in his profession," said Leslie.

He met a lot of incredible people through the Canadian Forces, and he went to places and had adventures that he wouldn't have experienced otherwise.

"It can be dangerous and complicated at times, but it makes you appreciate, more so than ever before, what a great country we have, because very often places that I and thousands like me would go, weren't very pleasant," he said.

His son joined the army, but suffered an injury in a parachute accident and was discharged. His oldest daughter is an artillery captain who fought for a year in Afghanistan.

Leslie's younger daughter is an actor and a ballerina, and Leslie said he is as proud of her career choice as his two children who joined the forces.

He also paid tribute to Estevan's chamber and to the community as a whole. He marveled at the energy, the buzz and the busy streets of Estevan, and while there are challenges facing the growing community, he said it is a better situation than many communities in Ontario and Quebec, which face high unemployment rates, and few available jobs.


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