Canadians in Afghanistan for the Long Haul
It's not as if the news out of Afghanistan has ever been reassuring. From the deaths of four Canadian soldiers by friendly fire in April 2002, to the suicide attacker who took the life of Cpl. Jamie Murphy, 26, of Conception Harbour, Nfld., in January 2004, to the axe assault early this month that wounded Capt. Trevor Greene - Canada's post-9/11 Afghan missions have provided one jolt of violent news after another. Can there really be a Canadian left who imagines this was ever an old-style PEACEKEEPING mission? The impoverished country at the turbulent crossroads of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent has more than lived up to its ancient reputation for testing the will of foreigners who put their boots down in its dust. It should have come as no real shock that public opinion, measured in two polls, showed a marked lack of enthusiasm for Canada's ongoing commitment to one of the more unforgiving places on earth.
And yet the poll findings did seem to unsettle politicians and military officers. Stephen HARPER's new government had to deal not only with a recent string of attacks and accidents suffered by Canada's contingent - now 2,300 soldiers strong, leading the international mission in the dangerous southern region around Kandahar - but also with some hard numbers. A Strategic Counsel poll found that 62 per cent of Canadians oppose sending troops to Afghanistan; Ipsos-Reid discovered a nation divided, with 52 per cent feeling that Canadian troops are performing a vital mission, but 48 per cent saying the troops should be brought home as soon as possible. Harper staunchly reaffirmed the government's resolve not to "cut and run" from Afghanistan, lashing out at opposition calls for a debate on the situation when the House resumes sitting next month. But he offered no details on how long Canadian forces might remain in Afghanistan, or what signs of progress would mean our job there is done.
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor isn't answering those questions either. In an interview with Maclean's, he interpreted Harper's position as an open-ended rejection of any debate or vote by MPs on troops in Afghanistan - even if a further deployment is contemplated after the current commitment ends in February 2007. O'Connor said any future phase of Canada's armed presence in Afghanistan would be regarded as an extension of the previous Liberal government's decision to send troops over, a position fully supported by the Conservatives. "I think the Prime Minister has been pretty clear that we're not going to have a debate or vote on Afghanistan," he said. "That's his position, and I'm right in line with his position. This is a continuing commitment."
O'Connor's assertion that MPs need never again deliberate on Canada's involvement in Afghanistan is bound to be controversial. The NDP and the Bloc Québécois are calling for MPs to reconsider Canada's position. And the Liberals - while insisting they remain solidly behind an international obligation they signed Canada up for - are hardly likely to accept the notion that Parliament has no more say in the matter ever. After all, Canada's entanglement in Afghanistan appears to have no end in sight, and the cost of staying is impossible to predict. Harper felt compelled last week to assert the authority of the elected government, not the military brass, to decide when the Canadian Forces will ultimately leave Afghanistan, after Gen. Rick Hillier, the outspoken chief of defence staff, remarked that a 10-year stay might be in order.
It's not just the top soldier who is urging Canadians to brace for the long haul. Senior diplomats voice much the same view. "Sustaining our engagement for the long-term, rather than a strategy of early-in and early-out, is a sine qua non for maximizing the chances that these states will not relapse into violence," James Wright, a Foreign Affairs assistant deputy minister and the department's top policy mandarin, said in a key speech late last year, citing Afghanistan and Haiti as a prime examples of fragile states that demand enduring commitments.
But how long is long-term? And with exactly what result in mind? DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE policy says that before sending troops into any failing country, the government should have a clear "exit strategy" or define the "end-state" conditions that would add up to mission accomplished. Yet O'Connor said he has not been briefed on any such planning in the case of Afghanistan, although he said officials might have done some thinking along those lines. "You'd have to be clairvoyant to imagine how long these things are going to go on," he said. "As a government, at this moment, we are looking at Afghanistan from the point of view of what we have to deal with in the immediate future. We don't have any conception at the moment in terms of length of time."
So this picture emerges: Canada's top general and foreign policy official propose a long-term commitment to Afghanistan, while the defence minister says he has no idea what that might amount to. What is clear is the daunting scale of the effort to date. With 2,300 troops there, including a battle group that last week sent several hundred soldiers into the volatile mountains north of Kandahar, Canada would be left able to muster only small numbers should trouble break out elsewhere in the world. Earlier this month, the Conservatives confirmed that Canada will maintain its Afghanistan aid funding at $100 million in 2006-07, bringing Ottawa's total development contribution to over $650 million since 2001. That makes Afghanistan, which previously got a trickle of Canadian support, by far the largest recipient of bilateral aid. In every respect, the country has gone from being a negligible piece of Canada's engagement with the world to the dominant one.
The need for a sustained presence in Afghanistan became clear only gradually after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Canada quickly joined the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban government, which provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda. Art Eggleton, defence minister in the Liberal government at the time, suggested in late 2001 that Canada's role in Afghanistan might be short, as little as two months. "We're not looking at the kind of long mission that Bosnia has become," he said, referring to the drawn-out Canadian commitment to the former Yugoslavia.
And Canada wasn't alone in imagining Afghanistan would be a sprint rather than a marathon. James Dobbins, a former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Centre of the Rand Corp., a non-profit research organization, says American military planners also expected a short stay. After quickly routing the Taliban, their idea was to rapidly build up Afghan security capacity to cope with isolated al-Qaeda remnants. "It was a very simplistic, naive and optimistic view," Dobbins says, "based on wishful thinking and not on serious study of what was required to rebuild other broken states."
Illusions about wrapping things up quickly have long since turned into grim realism. While the U.S. has many more troops in Iraq, by some measures Afghanistan is proving even more dangerous. Nearly 100 American soldiers died in Afghanistan in 2005, the deadliest year since the 2001 invasion, for a fatality rate of 1.6 per 1,000 soldiers, compared with 0.9 per 1,000 in Iraq, according to the Century Foundation. Canadian troops were stationed mainly in the relatively safe region around the capital Kabul last year, but the move south to Kandahar in 2006 was fully expected to expose them to more attacks - and already has. (Ten Canadian soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan - three in attacks, three in accidents, and four in the friendly fire incident - along with diplomat Glyn Berry, who was killed by a suicide bomber on Jan. 15.)
Taking on the Kandahar challenge positions Canadians close to the lawless zone along the Pakistan border, a haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. As well, the move south came as the end of the Afghan winter ushered in an upswing in attacks. In fact, O'Connor said the recent appearance of a rapidly deteriorating security situation is mostly a matter of the spring weather. "There are campaign seasons for the insurgents," he said. "But overall, the country is improving."
Signs of progress in Afghanistan tend to be lost amid reports of fighting and general lawlessness. In 2004 the country elected its president, Hamid Karzai, and last fall voted for representatives in its new parliament. These were undeniably major landmarks. Still, the ability of the government to effectively rule the land is unproven. Much of Afghanistan is dominated by regional warlords. The opium poppy industry has rebounded since the fall of the Taliban, and by some estimates the illicit drug sector now makes up a staggering 60 per cent of the economy. Income per person stands at well below even sub-Saharan Africa. Complicating the situation are the deep ethnic divides among the country's 30 million people.
Yet those who know Afghanistan well are far from despondent about its prospects. Grant Kippen, a Canadian who was stationed in Kabul for much of the past three years, first with the Washington-based National Democratic Institute helping Afghans learn how to run elections, and then with the UN settling disputes surrounding last fall's vote, is optimistic. He says foreign forces like Canada's are broadly welcome: "It's important to understand that we're not talking about a majority of the population feeling that it's under occupation. The population really supports us being there." Unlike Iraq, where the danger has limited the mobility of foreigners, Kippen says he was able to travel around Afghanistan in a Toyota van - at least until he faced death threats over his decision as UN elections complaint commissioner to disqualify certain warlords from seeking office.
Kippen says defeating the Islamist extremists who move back and forth across the southern border with Pakistan might not really be the key to long-term stability. Instead, he points to the more mundane challenge of establishing the credibility of the Karzai government. "To me the biggest threat right now to the government is the whole issue of corruption and nepotism," he says. "Those are the factors that brought about the Taliban. The risk is that people won't look to the central government the way we want them to."
Among those who must accept the government's legitimacy, Kippen says Afghanistan's tribal and regional strongmen are indispensible. He's even open to the notion that some might turn out to be constructive players. "Many warlords are in the new parliament," he says. "Yes, some of these people have less than honourable reputations. The question is, what are they going to do in the future?"
He is not alone in hoping that Afghanistan's fighting chieftains will decide their best option is to carve out roles for themselves in Karzai's government. Hillier, who commanded troops in Afghanistan before his appointment last year, expressed enormous respect for the warlords - even making allowances for those who profit from the poppy business. "I saw the finest leaders that I've ever had the opportunity to meet," Hillier said in an interview with Maclean's. "They beat the Russians pretty fairly and squarely, at the end of the day they were responsible for thumping the Taliban and throwing them out, along with a significant number of al-Qaeda folks." As for those who revived the drug trade after defeating the Taliban, Hillier said they did so often "from insecurity, because they didn't know what their position was going to be in a future Afghanistan."
Feeling secure about the future of Afghanistan isn't easy for anybody. But O'Connor insists that a queasy public need not fear that Canadian troops there are being drawn into ever-increasing jeopardy. "Our role in Afghanistan is not to conduct combat operations," he said. "The overall role of the military is to provide a security environment for the people. Now, some of that may be rooting out insurgents, but we're not there primarily for combat operations." Far from going on the offensive, O'Connor stressed, Canadian troops are mainly expected to meet with local leaders, interact with ordinary Afghans, help train Afghanistan's forces, and generally enhance safety. The harsh reality, though, is they must try to do all that while constantly watching for the next roadside bomb or suicide attack.
Maclean's March 20, 2006