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At Last, Some Serious Discussion Of Canada’s Mission in Afghanistan Through 2011

April 11, 2010
canadians in afghanistan.

Canadian troops deployed to International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Regional Command South gather in Kandahar, Afghanistan. CC-licensed Flickr photo thanks to "isafmedia."

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 Starmakes 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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2010 7:31 am

    I agree that we can’t abandon security in Afghanistan, but security without a strong governance and development focus doesn’t work. Although our report of our Afghanistan round table dialogue (it’s on our Foreign Policy Camp website is a bit tedious to read, it provides a number of other options.

    I think I would opt for a much stronger international coalition providing longer-term security support matched with an equally intensive effort to improve governance, increase education to women and girls, develop an independent and accountable media and a strong judiciary. I say I think because I still don’t feel like I know enough to wade into a discussion of prescriptions. I haven’t worked in the country since late 2005 and most of the forums I attend and information I receive on Afghanistan provides scant information on what Afghanis want.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 17, 2010 12:09 pm

      I agree that we can’t abandon security in Afghanistan, but security without a strong governance and development focus doesn’t work.

      Doesn’t work as a means of accomplishing what? If you mean that security itself will inevitably break down in the absence of good governance and development, I’m honestly not so sure. If you mean that focusing on security will not automatically lead to economic growth and social change in Afghanistan, I would certainly agree, but this leads to the question of how far (and even whether) Canada’s objectives should go beyond security to embrace a wider agenda. I would suggest that all we really need the Afghan government to do is keep drug production down and al-Qaeda elements out. Anything beyond this is basically altruism, and should be seen as such. I’m not condemning altruism – quite the contrary – but in my opinion we should distinguish clearly between aspects of the Afghan mission that are undertaken in defence of our own interests and ones that are undertaken to help the Afghan people themselves.

      I think I would opt for a much stronger international coalition providing longer-term security support matched with an equally intensive effort to improve governance, increase education to women and girls, develop an independent and accountable media and a strong judiciary.

      Does a stronger international coalition just mean more foreign troops? If so, the question is where they’re going to come from. America seems stretched to the limit, and most of our European allies have been distinctly unenthusiastic about expending much blood and treasure in Afghanistan.

      I’m sure a lot of Afghans would welcome improved female education and the other items on your list, but it’s hard to guess what levels of priority they would attach to them. The best approach might be to make Canadian resources and expertise available for projects that Afghan leaders, at various levels of government, consider important. This would really just boil down to a form of foreign aid, inside a strong security envelope. Ensuring the integrity of the envelope is a central but separate problem.

  2. April 13, 2010 9:04 am

    Thanks for your post. I couldn’t agree more – a real conversation about Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan is long overdue. I don’t agree however with your statement that security comes before development, nor do I think Canada should ever abandon a good governance approach in any engagement. I believe our version of Afghanistan negates its own history. Look at the Loya Jirga’s of the 1950’s – there were more women in those Loya Jirga’s than we can boast in most western democratic countries. Before the Russian’s invaded, Afghanistan was not the entrenched tribal society as is often portrayed. There was a vibrant cultural life, metropolitan cities, healthy universities and a political and literary class (although I’m sure life in the country side was not like most agrarian societies in central and South Asia).
    I don’t believe that Canada should be importing some western form of democracy as a precondition of our aid and military support, but we should be supporting the desires of the Afghan people who do not want to be ruled by a small group of men caught in their own medieval version of governance. The Afghan people have a pretty good sense of what they want – jobs, clean water, education, economic opportunity, cultural expression, equality for women, religious freedom. Perhaps its time to listen to some of the Afghan intellects and journalists – people like Ashram Ghani – who have been warning us about Karzai for years. How many Afghans have to tell us that you don’t create a government by hand selecting former war lords. Unfortunately, the foreign engagement has not effectively understood what good governance could or should be in Afghanistan. Unfortunately the US blindly set the terms for our current situation by trying to build a central government by buying off criminals to serve in it. Then the ISAF mission enabled bombings of communities where civilians were killed. I think we do little good when our focus is merely on security and ignore development and good governance as if they are something that will evolve in some linear fashion once the Taliban are disarmed. Afghanistan is a quagmire of complexity and while I’d like Canadians to stop putting their lives on the line there, I can’t help but be very concerned by what the legacy will be when we depart. The Taliban are dangerous, Al Queda is in the region and just next door, in Pakistan we have an unstable political situation in a country that is nuclear capable.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      April 13, 2010 10:50 am

      I can’t help but notice that the three “legacy” problems you mentioned – the Taliban, al-Qaeda and instability in Pakistan – are all basically security issues. Whether you think Canada should be shepherding Afghanistan along a path to liberal democracy or basically letting the Afghans sort out governance for themselves (and I imagine your position would be somewhere in between), it’s difficult to imagine that civil society and economic activity can be maintained (let alone developed further) without a firm commitment to security. In other words, you can have security without development, but the reverse is essentially impossible – so whatever else we do in Afghanistan, we need to avoid undermining security. As far as I can see, this leaves only three options:

      1. Accept that Canadian and/or allied troops will need to be the guarantors of Afghan security for years more, possibly decades more, while Afghanistan slowly builds up a civilian-controlled, centralised military on the Western model. Requires patience and a strategy for keeping Afghanistan from simply lapsing into permanent dependency.

      2. Somehow accelerate the whole process so that we and our allies can all leave much sooner.

      3. Withdraw soon and hope that the military forces that currently exist in Afghanistan (meaning the Afghan National Army, as it stands at the time of withdrawal, plus the warlords and their followers) can and will hold off the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Requires that we don’t undermine or alienate the warlords too badly.

      I’d be curious to know which of these options you’d prefer, or whether you think there are other possibilities. I would favour a combination of (2) and (3) – build up the Afghan National Army as much as possible in the short term, stay friendly with Karzai and the warlords who are part of his circle, and then get out (in a military sense) and hope. We can’t hold the barricades forever, and we shouldn’t expect our allies to do this either. I would also suggest that option (2) on its own, which sounds great in principle, is rather unrealistic.

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