A Peaceful Election in Iraq, and War Clouds in Afghanistan
Last weekend Iraq held local elections, which were a major event precisely because they proceeded uneventfully. Turnout was apparently a bit low, but there was virtually no election day violence and no one seems inclined to take up arms over the results. Allies of the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, did rather well, whereas more radical Shia parties did rather badly. Sunni parties, which boycotted the last election, seem to have won their fair share of the vote. This is a nearly ideal outcome from the point of view of the United States, and it might not work out too badly for the Iraqis. Peaceful elections certainly mark a significant change from the situation three or four years ago, when the country seemed to be on the brink of civil war.
One major reason for the change of fortunes in Iraq was the “surge” in American troop strength that took place in 2007. More recently David Petraeus, the surgin’ general himself, has been promoted to a level where he has ultimate responsibility for Afghanistan, and schemes to transfer combat troops from Iraq to Afghanistan are well advanced. Stephen Harper will certainly hear more about America’s plans for Afghanistan during his talks with President Obama on February 19, but the overall thrust of US policy is already clear. The Americans want to send in more troops, and they want to scale back their goals to emphasise stability in Afghanistan as opposed to more idealistic notions of promoting democracy. Inevitably, they also want more help from their NATO allies.
There are several pertinent questions about all this from the Canadian perspective, but perhaps the most important one is straightforward: will sending in more troops really be sufficient to achieve even the modest goal of creating stability? NATO forces are up against serious military difficulties in Afghanistan, including a persistent problem with supply lines: trucks coming in from Pakistan via the Khyber Pass are vulnerable, and America may soon have to abandon a military base in Kyrgyzstan that is currently being used to fly in supplies.
Another concern is America’s deteriorating relationship with the government of Hamid Karzai. US Vice-President Joe Biden, for example, apparently stormed out of a meeting with Karzai last year after not getting satisfactory answers to questions about drugs and corruption. Biden is something of an anti-drug crusader, and therefore perhaps not the person best equipped to deal with the messy realities of Afghanistan, but skepticism about Karzai is apparently widespread within Obama’s administration. Expressing that skepticism too forcefully might either push Karzai into the arms of the Russians or discredit him to the point where the country becomes even more ungovernable than it is now.
Canada’s role, for the moment, should be to urge a restrained and methodical approach and to ask tough questions about America’s plans and their likelihood of success. If Obama wants additional Canadian help in Afghanistan, he should have to earn it by laying out a good political and military case.