Canada in Afghanistan Part I

Eight years and counting

Our perspectives on Afghanistan are largely shaped by the usually violent images seen on television and the seemingly non-stop barrage of bad news emanating from NATO participants and Afghan experts alike.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Canadians are subsequently against our ongoing military presence in Afghanistan (55% in December 2009 according to Angus Reid, and 60% in April 2010 according to Ekos).

NATO’s military strategy in Afghanistan has, according to US National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell, seen the resurgent Taliban take control of 10 percent to 11 percent of the country while Hamid Karzai’s government controls 30 percent to 31 percent. The majority of Afghanistan’s population and territory remains under local tribal control.[i]

More worrying is that, according to the International Council on Security and Development, the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago. Combine these stats with the powerful images of soldiers returning home in coffins and of continuing insurgent activity in Kabul, and it comes then as no surprise that around the world governments and concerned citizens are debating the merits of continued military engagement in Afghanistan.

The last year has seen an increasingly aggressive and assertive Taliban, as well as the growth of several other insurgent groups across the country. Conversely, the government of Hamid Karzai is weak, fractured and considered by some illegitimate after fraudulent activity marred last August’s presidential elections. Not exactly a recipe for success.

With Canada slated to withdraw from Afghanistan in December 2011, and with the American government enacting its long-awaited surge of troops into the country, 2010 will define the world’s engagement in Afghanistan and will likely define which direction the country embarks upon in a post-occupation era. Many see the surge as the next step in providing the country with sufficient security to enable the continued development of domestic security forces, and ultimately, the (re)creation of a quazi-democratic sovereign nation able to withstand the threat of Taliban encroachment.

Is this optimistic scenario plausible? Given the aforementioned spread of the Taliban’s presence from its stronghold in Kandahar to a presence in three-quarters of the country, it will be difficult.  But with 30,000 new American troops, the total NATO contingent in the country will be over 100,000 – just a shade below what the Soviets had and lost with, and a fifth of what the Americans had stationed in Vietnam.

However as those latter two historical experiences suggest, foreign troop numbers alone won’t ensure success.

And evidently, as each day passes, the merits of either staying or going home become further entangled in a web of security, strategic and humanitarian interests and priorities.

Our desire to remain is founded on fears that the region would quickly return to its terrorist-hosting ways and contribute to vast instability both throughout the region and beyond. Human rights would disappear leaving women and children to bear the highest costs of our escape.

But in the absence of a clear measure of just what the costs of disengagement are, the lack of progress and the low priority many anoint to this cause have made many question whether it is a war we should be fighting, let alone whether we can win.

Our willingness to bear the costs of Afghan freedom is in no small part influenced by the allusions to perhaps not-so-dissimilar defeats suffered by Soviet and British troops in what is known to some as the ‘Graveyard of Empires.’

In his late 2009 report to the US Government on the situation in Afghanistan, ISAF Commander General Stanley McChrystal writes, “Although considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation in deteriorating. We face not only a resilient and growing insurgency; there is also a crisis of confidence amongst Afghans – in both their government and the international community – that undermines our credibility and emboldens the insurgents.”[ii]

Several factors will make the next eighteen months more crucial than ever for the future of Afghanistan. The increased effectiveness of the Taliban-led insurgency in 2009, the continued fracture of confidence in the Hamid Karzai-led Afghan government, in particular the fallout of fraudulent election results and the eventual drop out of challenger Dr. Abdullah Abdullah,  and continued instability in neighbouring Pakistan auger poorly for Afghanistan in 2010.

Yet at the same time, there are signs of optimism emerging from the Heart of Asia.

Opium production has decreased for two consecutive years, with farmers choosing (where safety and security allow) food production as an alternative. Evidently related, the price of wheat currently exceeds the market price for opium.

The number of national army and domestic police services has risen significantly in 2009, with the Afghan National Army now boasting near 100,000 troops and the Afghan National Police over 80,000.  And while still a faraway dream from the country’s Defense Minister’s goal of having a minimum of 400,000 domestic security forces by 2015, it’s a move in the right direction nonetheless and one that bodes increasingly well for the country’s stability if the domestic troop increase is met with a commitment by NATO forces for continued training of these troops.

Accompanied by the recent commencement of the U.S. troop surge, NATO forces are once again gaining the upper-hand in battles against the Taliban-led insurgency.

Moreover, the recent London Conference on Afghanistan established the possibility of engaging grassroots-level Taliban fighters, most motivated by money not ideology, and prying them away from the insurgency with economic incentives. As Chris Alexander, former UN Deputy Representative to the Secretary General for Afghanistan 2003-2009) noted at a recent lecture on the topic of Afghanistan’s future, “There is no such thing as a moderate Taliban, which means that power-sharing is not an option. However, reconciling Taliban foot soldiers with more attractive economic incentives certainly is.”

These successes, as well as the more superficial ones involving infrastructure and education, are certainly important. But they’re still much too fragile to inspire overwhelming confidence in the development of a stable and secure Afghanistan. For so long as the Taliban remains an able fighting force, Afghanistan will fail to know peace.

The next twelve to eighteen months will thus go a long way in determining whether and when Afghanistan will see a return to stability. Return perhaps being too strong of a word given the country’s traumatic thirty years of war and strife.

Success against the Taliban over the next year, accompanied by the continued improvement in Afghan institutions and security capacity, will promote a mid-term stay for international troops and the eventual gradual transition to domestic security forces. This outcome would be in-line with Canadian government directives that Canadian military activities will cease in late 2011.

However, a negative outcome over the course of 2010, defined as the continued presence and influence of the Taliban and other insurgent groups, could likely see the fragile confidence and willingness of coalition partners break, leading most to pull their forces in order to quell the unpopularity of a winless war so far from home. Obama’s two-feet forward, one-foot out approach to the surge speaks to how fragile the current commitment is.

But what would a 2011 withdrawal actually mean if the insurgency is still strong? Are we willing to pullout if the gains of 8 years of sacrifice might be washed away?

According to the Rand Corp, it may be necessary to spend upwards of 17 years on the ground in order to truly quell the insurgency and build the economic and institutional capacity to ensure it cannot return. NGOs on the ground speak of 30 to 40 years of engagement.

Are we prepared to do so? And are we prepared to sacrifice the lives of our men and women serving in the Armed Forces if we say yes?

These are important questions. For the answers and our subsequent commitment will have a significant impact on the security of our country and that of our neighbours, let alone what it will mean for Afghanistan.




One Comment on “Canada in Afghanistan Part I”

  1. […] Part 1: Afghanistan today – Eight Years and Counting Part II: The Myth of the Moral Crusade Part III: What do Afghans want? Part IV: Beyond 2011 […]

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