At Last, Some Serious Discussion Of Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan Through 2011
Better late than never, I suppose. As spring advances in this year of our lord 2010, Canadian politicians and journalists are finally talking about how Canada’s relationship with Afghanistan might develop after the point in 2011 when our combat mission in that distant central Asian country is set to end. Veteran diplomat Robert Fowler and Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson clearly think that our troops should withdraw, and Canadian public opinion seems to favour this option. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it quite clear that she would like to see continuing Canadian military involvement, and was duly slapped down by Stephen Harper, although Defence Minister Peter MacKay now says that Canadians will stick around to train the Afghan police.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, in the Toronto Star, makes a case for staying and reminds us all that stopping combat operations in 2011 (which is what was promised back in 2008) need not entail shutting down other military activities. This is an opportune time for Canadians to consider the issue and make their voices heard.
The question of what we are actually hoping to achieve in Afghanistan must lie at the heart of any sensible discussion, and it’s little short of a national disgrace that this question was not clearly and decisively answered years ago. This state of affairs says something about the lack of gritty realism in Canadian foreign policy, the foolish sense that vague good intentions and a willingness to “step up to the plate” are a sufficient basis for marching off to war in a foreign country that I honestly suspect many of our MPs would still have difficulty finding on an unlabelled map.
However, I think one can at least say that the commonly stated reasons for involvement in Afghanistan fall into three broad categories: limiting the ability of terrorists and drug dealers to use Afghanistan as a base, promoting development in Afghanistan itself, and impressing the United States and other allies. I would add, though I’ve rarely seen this argument made by others, that involvement in Afghanistan is providing our Canadian forces with valuable experience in combat, counterinsurgency and soldiering in general.
I suspect we are well into the area of diminishing returns with respect to both impressing allies and gaining experience. The pragmatic goal of suppressing terrorists and drug lords, however, still makes sense to the extent that we are prepared to regard these elements as a genuine threat to Canada and its allies. Promoting development is a bit more complicated. Concrete steps like building roads and distributing equipment to farmers can be seen as simple altruism, although initiatives of this kind can easily go a bit wrong without careful planning and local knowledge. Efforts to foster intangibles such as democracy and “good governance” are even more problematic, inasmuch as they often entail imposing what are basically alien ideas. In general I think we should stick to roads and farming equipment, and leave our Afghan friends to sort out their own political arrangements. We should also be skeptical of arguments that democracy and security will necessarily advance together, no matter how seductive and psychologically comfortable they might seem. The 20th century Italian leader who came closest to eliminating the Sicilian mafia was Mussolini.
There is plenty of room for reasonable Canadians to disagree as to whether these objectives are important enough to justify a high level of continued involvement in Afghanistan after the end of our combat mission in 2011. Personally, I can take or leave involvement, since (as I’ve argued before on this blog) I think the costs and benefits to Canada are both relatively small. If we do maintain a large presence, however, I will want to see our people – we’ll have to get used to not saying “our troops” – focus on security and stabilisation first, and development second. Development in the absence of security is inherently fragile, and it’s wasteful to build things that are simply going to be knocked down. MacKay’s talk of training the Afghan police certainly fits with these priorities.
There is an additional factor that I have not yet mentioned, namely the need for cooperation from the Afghan government if Canadian involvement is going to continue. President Hamid Karzai has long been a focus of discontent in Western capitals, and recently the murmurs have been growing much louder. This issue deserves much more space than I can give it here, and for now I think I’ll just point out that the kind of Afghan president most Western leaders seem to long for – an earnest, soft-spoken democrat with egalitarian sensibilities and a willingness to sit humbly through high-minded lectures about what must be done – is exactly the kind whose head would be likeliest to end up on a stake shortly after Western forces withdraw.