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Bob Rae Says Extend The Afghan Mission, Hamid Karzai Says It’s Time To Make Peace

June 10, 2010
Bob Rae in Israel. Photo taken from Rae's official Flickr site.

Bob Rae in Israel. Photo taken from Rae's official Flickr site.

While I’ve been amusing myself with the adventures of the “Freedom Flotilla”, important things have been happening in a part of the world much more important to Canadian interests at the moment, namely Afghanistan. The five-day visit to that country by members of the parliamentary commission on the Afghan mission is probably as good a place to start as any. The chair of the committee is Conservative MP Kevin Sorenson, but committee member Bob Rae seized the media spotlight in the wake of the visit by suggesting that it might be worth continuing the military aspect of the mission after our theoretical exit date in 2011:

“We have an obligation to see this thing through,” Rae said. “The door is open to serious discussion in Canada — and between Canada and NATO — about what the future looks like.”

It was left to the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson to ask the obvious question:

Just what is this “thing” that must be seen through? A military defeat of the Taliban and its allies? A peaceful, democratic Afghanistan? A regional settlement? A demonstrably rising standard of living? A diminution of the poppy trade?

Simpson is right on target here. The vagueness of the “thing” that must be accomplished has been the problem with NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan all along. Marching off to war without any real objectives beyond (somehow) helping the Afghan people and (somehow) finding and thrashing people who might want to hurt the West was always going to be a recipe for… well, not disaster, exactly, but certainly aimlessness and eventual disillusionment.

If Rae had an answer to the question of what “thing” he was talking about, I haven’t seen it reported. To be fair, Sorenson did provide a broad answer, saying that the Afghan police and military “are going to have to increase capacity if they’re going to be able to secure their own country, and Canada may have a role in that”. Committee member and NDP defence critic Jack Harris, however, had a different and somewhat more vague answer about “humanitarian concerns and institution-building concerns”. This kind of thing won’t, or at least shouldn’t, cut it with the Canadian public. If our soldiers are going to stay, it should be a for a clear, sensible, sharply defined purpose.

Harris also said that “Canadians do not want to see the sacrifice that has been made be for naught”, which opens up a whole other can of savage Afghan worms. Harris seems to be envisioning a tipping point beyond which it will become apparent that progress (however defined) in Afghanistan is not just substantial but actually irreversible, so that we can pull our troops out in the knowledge that their sacrifices won’t have been for naught. A major problem, of course, is that of recognising the tipping point.

Other recent developments in Afghanistan have implications for the future of the mission. More than 20 NATO soldiers have already been killed this week, including Sgt Martin Goudreault of the Edmonton-based 1 Combat Engineer Regiment. The most spectacular incident was probably the downing of a helicopter on Wednesday, which killed four Americans. Just today, a suicide bomber killed at least forty male guests at a wedding in Kandahar – the women were celebrating elsewhere – and the Taliban staged an ineffectual attack on the “peace jirga” that Hamid Karzai staged in Kabul in early June. It’s hard to say whether these latest examples of insurgent activity represent a continuation of the “spring offensive” I wrote about previously, but they certainly constitute a reminder of the Taliban’s determination to fight. Continuing the Afghan mission beyond 2011 will mean continuing to take casualties.

The dominant theme of the peace jirga seems to have been the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban:

“My dear Taliban, you are welcome in your own soil. Do not hurt this country, and don’t destroy or kill yourselves,” Mr. Karzai said. “Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here.”

It is particularly significant that Berhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and Tajik warlord who warned Terry Glavin back in February that rapprochement with the Taliban was fraught with danger for non-Pashtuns in Afghanistan, addressed the jirga and spoke about the need for peace. If even Rabbani is now in a conciliatory mood, then perhaps an agreement with elements of the Taliban is not far off. And if this leads Karzai to insist that the “need for foreigners” has passed, even as visions of an extended mission dance in the heads of Sorenson, Rae and Harris, Canada may be on a collision course with the very people our troops are supposedly in Afghanistan to help. On balance, I hope that Harper sticks to his guns regarding the planned end of the military mission in 2011.

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