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Afghanistan: The Rockets Of Springtime Rain Down On Tim Hortons

May 24, 2010

First there was last Tuesday’s suicide car bombing in Kabul, the most lethal attack against Western forces in the city since six Italian soldiers were killed in September 2009. Among Tuesday’s 18 fatalities were six NATO soldiers, including three American colonels and Col. Geoff Parker of the Royal Canadian Regiment. The next day, insurgents staged an attack on Bagram air base, the largest US base in Afghanistan, and managed to kill one “American contract worker” – quite possibility a euphemistic reference to a mercenary. On Saturday night they took the battle to Kandahar airfield. Although American and Canadian personnel were wounded in the attack, there were apparently no Western fatalities. However, the Globe and Mail made it sound like the Taliban had aimed their munitions directly at the Canadian psyche:

This weekend’s twin-pronged attack on Kandahar Air Field involved half a dozen small, Soviet-era missiles blasting the sprawling base, including one that wounded a dozen near Tim Hortons, which overlooks an outdoor hockey rink where off-duty soldiers socialize.

Tim Hortons and a hockey rink? All right, Mullah Omar. Bombing convoys in Kabul is one thing, but now you’ve crossed a line. From now on it’s War with a capital W.

Or perhaps it’s just springtime. Warfare in Afghanistan traditionally intensifies during the warmer months and simmers down over the winter, and the economics of the insurgency have added a new twist to the pattern. Some insurgent groups are heavily reliant on the opium trade, and accordingly are preoccupied with the poppy harvest for a couple of weeks each spring. This year’s harvest ended in early May, and fighting in some districts escalated immediately. It seems unlikely that the Taliban will be able to maintain the operational tempo they have established this month, at least with respect to high-profile attacks like the car-bombing in Kabul and the assaults on Bagram and Kandahar, but lower-level activities take their toll as well. Just today, Larry Rudd of the Royal Canadian Dragoons became the 146th Canadian military fatality in Afghanistan:

The Brantford, Ont., native, whose squadron was in the first weeks of its seven month tour in Afghanistan, died early Monday afternoon when the armoured vehicle he was travelling in struck a makeshift landmine during a combat resupply of other Canadian troops in Panjwaii District – southwest of Kandahar City.

That would be the same Panjwaii District that NATO troops supposedly seized from the Taliban back in 2006, in the massive and bloody Canadian-led offensive known as Operation Medusa. If our soldiers are still taking casualties there, perhaps in hindsight it should have been called Operation Sisyphus.

This problem of re-infiltration, of Western and Afghan government forces noisily and emphatically capturing hostile territory only for insurgents to slink back in like hungry, patient jackals, has been a recurring theme of the war in Afghanistan. Remember Operation Moshtarak earlier this year, which aimed to take control of the rural areas of Nad-e-Ali and Marjah in central Helmand Province? Patrick Cockburn, in an article full of cold truths about how wars are reported these days, noted at the time that “[t]he US strategy is to expel, kill or capture the Taliban, prevent their return, and then provide aid and services to a grateful populace”. The expelling part didn’t go too badly, but otherwise the outcome of the operation was disappointing. Here’s the Globe and Mail again:

So, the long-promised U.S.-led offensive to clear the Taliban from their heartland province of Kandahar has been postponed while generals absorb the sobering lessons from a similar effort in neighbouring Helmand. There the Taliban quickly returned and the Karzai government has been exposed as incapable of providing either security or services even after a bloody U.S. Marines offensive cleared the Marja area of insurgents earlier this spring.

This is not to say, of course, that our efforts in Afghanistan have been futile. Although covert Taliban activity continues in areas that were supposedly seized in the course of Operations Medusa and Moshtarak, we have every reason to regard covert Taliban activity as an improvement over overt Taliban control. However, the prevalence of re-infiltration highlights the fuzzy and incremental nature of “victory” in this particular conflict. Total defeat of the insurgency is about as likely, in the foreseeable future, as total elimination of crime, poverty or disease. The way to deal with this situation is to either set a deadline for withdrawal, essentially undertaking to achieve as much as possible within a particular time frame, or decide to withdraw when insurgent activity has been beaten down to an acceptable level. Canada, of course, has opted for the former alternative.

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