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Canada Gets On With The Job In Afghanistan, As America Mulls Options

October 30, 2009

Last Monday was a rough day for American forces in Afghanistan: eleven soldiers and three drug enforcement personnel killed in two separate helicopter crashes. October, in fact, has been a rough month for the United States, with reporting 56 military fatalities in Afghanistan. This is the highest monthly total of the entire war, and 2009 has already proven substantially deadlier for the US contingent than any previous year. Meanwhile Canadian forces have suffered only a single October fatality, Lieutenant Justin Garrett Boyes of Princess Patricia’s Light Canadian Infantry. Lt. Boyes was not actually with the Princess Pats when he was killed, but was serving on a Police Operation Mentor and Liaison Team (POMLT – if acronyms could kill, we’d have nailed the Taliban months ago). He was on patrol with Afghan police in the Panjwaii District, around 20 km southwest of the city of Kandahar, when he got caught by one of the Taliban’s infernal roadside bombs.

The rise in American casualties may owe something to a strengthening insurgency, but also has a lot to do with the American “surge” earlier this year. As tens of thousands of fresh American troops flooded into Afghanistan, pushing into remote areas that had previously been more or less left to the Taliban, it was almost inevitable that they would meet savage resistance. Meanwhile, their arrival has taken some of the pressure off British troops in Helmand, and Canadians in Kandahar.

The grim casuality figures must be weighing on the minds of White House officials as they decide whether or not to grant the request of US General Stanley McChrystal, commander of both US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, for tens of thousands of additional American troops. Whether you believe that Barack Obama and his team have been dithering over their general’s request or sensibly weighing their options, the decision has been a long time coming. Perhaps they’re waiting for the outcome of the second round of the presidential election, to be held on November 7.

There are two misconceptions, in my opinion, making the rounds about this momentous American decision. Misconception number one is that the White House faces a straightforward choice between two starkly different options, a “counter-insurgency” strategy that involves sending in hordes of troops to rebuild the whole country and a “counter-terrorism” strategy that involves hunting al-Qaeda members with drones and special forces while ignoring everything else that happens in Afghanistan. But this apparent dichotomy, like so many others, is really a whole spectrum of options. There is a sliding scale that runs all the way from bargain basement counter-terrorism to the deluxe model of counter-insurgency. In principle, if not in the minds of media commentators or even the actual decision-makers, the Americans just need to decide where on that scale they would like to be.

Misconception number two is that other NATO countries involved in the Afghan mission are somehow trapped in a state of passivity, standing meekly at the back of the room while they wait for the “leader of the free world” to make up his exalted mind. Even if this is true of European countries, which I rather doubt, Canada has been acting. Our project of concentrating on a half-dozen “model villages” near the city of Kandahar, and leaving American troops to patrol the remote areas of the province, is a reasonably successful example of the counter-insurgency model on a small scale.  With a smaller area of focus, Canadian troops are better able to maintain a presence in the model villages, to exclude the Taliban and other hostile elements, and accordingly to create a secure environment in which reconstruction can gradually take place.

Helping six villages near Kandahar won’t exactly transform Afghanistan, but at least Canada’s current strategy represents a tangible contribution. It’s a big improvement over the previous routine of moving into Taliban-held areas, winning battles or skirmishes, and then having to simply withdraw and allow the Taliban to move back in. Whatever the Americans do in the coming weeks, we should stick to our model villages until our declared withdrawal date of 2011, giving at least some Afghans the stability they need in order to reconstruct their communities according to their own priorities. And then we should leave, slightly bloodied but far the wiser – and able to say we’ve done something meaningful to help one of Earth’s most remarkable, indomitable cultures start to get back on its feet.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2009 2:17 pm

    Great post. Somewhat unrelated, but I don’t know if you watched the John Stewart show’s mockery the other night of the overly populous usage by Fox News pundits of the word ‘dither’ (relating it to Obama’s actions with Afghanistan) but it was comic gold.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      October 31, 2009 9:33 am

      For better or for worse, I don’t get to see very much of Jon Stewart here in Beijing! However, Fox News’ strident complaints about almost everything Barack Obama does are generally fertile ground for satire. There’s an obvious downside to putting off the crucial decisions for too long, and I don’t blame Fox News and other critics for choosing to highlight it… but they seem to have taken a reasonable point and pushed it to hysterical extremes, as usual.

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