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A Peaceful Election in Iraq, and War Clouds in Afghanistan

February 9, 2009

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.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    February 14, 2009 11:28 am

    I would nominate the opium trade as the single most delicate issue facing Canadian and allied forces in Afghanistan. If we go after the drug producers and dealers too aggressively, we’re bound to make some powerful enemies. If we turn a completely blind eye, at least some of the income generated by the drug trade will certainly find its way into the coffers of the enemies we have already, including the Taliban. I like the idea of purchasing at least a good part of the opium crop for medical purposes, but I don’t know how workable this would be in practice. The one thing I’m fairly sure of is that a US-style “war on drugs” approach is unlikely to be helpful. I hope you do get around to writing a post about all this – your insights would be valuable, as always.

    I wish I understood trade and finance well enough to write a worthwhile post about China’s role in the global economy, but I really don’t think that’s the case. However, it does seem to me that “economic world order” is a bit of a misnomer at the moment! Order may someday emerge once stimulus packages have been passed, currencies and trade balances have adjusted themselves, and new norms for international finance have been established, but I’m not holding my breath.

  2. reneethewriter permalink
    February 10, 2009 11:52 am

    Hello Cor and many thanks for this “ahead of the curve” piece – apologies for the cross posting re my most recent post – I’ve been culling weekly reports/review on the Afghan “mission/situation” and finally found time to write them up.

    Of course i appreciate your recommendation to ask the tough questions…and i look forward to your thoughts on the ‘development/opium’ link…something i’m thinking about for a future column

    Also, would very much appreciate hearing your veiws on China and the current “economic world order”R

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