Tories Focus on Rebuilding Afghanistan

No less than three cabinet ministers turned out this week to announce three so-called "signature projects" in Afghanistan.

Tories Focus on Rebuilding Afghanistan

No less than three cabinet ministers turned out this week to announce three so-called "signature projects" in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister David Emerson, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, and International Development Minister Bev Oda took turns talking up Canada's new plans to immunize Afghan kids against polio, refurbish an important dam, and build or upgrade 50 schools. The chance to focus on a few feel-good projects that would show off Canada's contribution - a proposal from John Manley's panel report on Canada's future role in Afghanistan early this year - was clearly irresistible to the politicians.

But Manley, a former Liberal cabinet heavyweight, also called for more openness about the situation in Afghanistan, and the Conservative government responded by tabling its first formal report on all aspects of Canada's Afghan engagement. The report, released as the sunny signature projects were being unveiled, was considerably darker. "Security in Afghanistan deteriorated through 2007 and early 2008," it bluntly said. "Levels of both insurgent and criminal violence rose in many regions, and more civilians were killed in 2007 than in any years since the fall of the Taliban in 2001."

Worse still, the report warned that the security situation is, at best, unlikely to improve, and might deteriorate in the coming months. It's no wonder Emerson, MacKay and Oda were eager to keep the focus on irrigating crops and teaching children. In fact, a spate of separate reports lately by independent observers highlight record recent violence, abysmally inefficient aid spending, and the need to redouble efforts to upgrade Afghanistan's army and, particularly, its troubled police force.

The most sweeping overview came from the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think tank, which this week released "Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan," a 157-page study for the U.S. Defense Department. It says the continued existence of sanctuaries for Taliban insurgents across the border in Pakistan will "cripple long-term efforts to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan," and called the Afghan National Police "corrupt, incompetent, under-resourced." "Certainly, Afghanistan has not been lost," Seth Jones, the report's author, told Maclean's, "but it hasn't been won either."

Jones takes a long view of Afghanistan as part of a regional strategic puzzle that includes Pakistan and India. But close-to-the-ground analysis of the situation right now in Afghanistan is just as unsettling. The Kabul-based Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO), a monitoring group funded by, among others, the European Commission, reports 406 attacks by the Taliban and other armed opposition groups in May, the highest monthly tally on record. ANSO's reports are meant to provide practical guidance for aid groups trying to work in Afghanistan, and its latest warns of escalating violence. "Although [armed opposition group] attacks are at a record high," ANSO's May 16-31 report says, "information received during this reporting period suggests that worse is still to come."

Like the RAND study, ANSO's focuses on those troubling Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan's border territories. Recent peace talks between Taliban leaders based there and the Pakistan government threaten to make it even easier for Taliban fighters to cross into Afghanistan. "Most provinces bordering Pakistan are already seeing high infiltration rates," ANSO says. Kandahar, the southern Afghan province where Canadian troops are concentrated, is singled out as a trouble spot. "Recent reports," ANSO says, "indicate that increased numbers of [armed opposition groups] are migrating into multiple districts of Kandahar with the intent of carrying out offensive operations against national and international military forces."

And the danger isn't limited to thinly populated, outlying districts. ANSO says improvised explosive device "placement patterns" - including not only IEDs that exploded, but also those that were discovered before they were detonated - shows that a surprisingly high 30 per cent were placed inside the Kandahar city limits. The report also noted a rise in crime that prompted shopkeepers in the city to stage a protest. Drew Gilmour, executive director of Development Works Canada, a company trying to establish a new pomegranate processing factory in Kandahar, confirms the past few weeks have been a bad stretch, but he remains optimistic. "Yes, it's more insecure right now," Gilmour said. "I'm hoping and thinking this is temporary."

This spring's spike in violence comes after 2007 proved to be the most deadly year in Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces bombed the Taliban out of power in late 2001. In March, the UN released statistics that showed deaths in fighting, roadside bombings, suicide attacks and other violence rose to an average of 566 a month in 2007, up from 425 a month in 2006. The country is a fractious patchwork: one recent U.S. government estimate suggests local warlords control up to 60 per cent of Afghanistan, the Afghan government and Western forces 30 per cent, and armed opposition groups, including the Taliban, the remaining 10 per cent.

That chaotic national picture translates into treacherous local terrain. In the first week of June, two Canadians died on separate Kandahar foot patrols, Capt. Richard Leary, 32, by gunfire, and Capt. Jonathan Sutherland Snyder, 26, when he fell at night into a deep open well. In all, 85 Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have been killed in Afghanistan. A suicide attack on June 7 killed three British soldiers, raising the U.K. death toll to 100. Nevertheless, Sir Jock Stirrup, head of the British armed forces, asserted, "Make no mistake, the Taliban influence is waning."

Perhaps. But President Hamid Karzai's Afghan government has not grown in stature to the point where a return to some sort of extremist rule is inconceivable. Corruption in his regime is an open issue. Alastair McKechnie, the World Bank's director for conflict-affected countries, recently said "little headway" had been made in Kabul to stem corruption that undermines the effectiveness of aid spending. Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who is one of the most respected Afghan voices internationally, also spoke out. "Hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into technical assistance," Ghani said, "only to increase corruption and misgovernance."

How best to shore up Karzai's administration is a subject of heated debate. This week, Kabul-based Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a group set up to assess aid efforts, released a scathing report calling for more development money to be funnelled more effectively through the Afghan government. About $15 billion in aid has been spent in Afghanistan since 2001. But only about 20 per cent of that, the group said, reached Afghans who need help. About 20 per cent paid for foreign aid staff, and another 15 to 30 per cent bought security for aid agencies.

Afghanistan's first democratically elected president sits at the centre of the debate about how to turn things around. Karzai was in Paris this week pleading at a donors' conference for $50 billion to finance a five-year development plan. His term ends late next year, although he is expected to stand for re-election. The Western media tends to portray him favourably, and Western governments, including Canada's, support him, but his image is far from unblemished. Jones points to Karzai's failure to crack down on government figures who are believed to be profiting from Afghanistan's booming illicit opium poppy business. "There's the question," Jones says, "of why no major drug traffickers have been prosecuted or, at the very least, removed from office."

Ruinous corruption, wasted aid money, worsening violence - it's a grim picture. Those signature projects, promising healthy kids in new classrooms and clean water from a repaired dam, sound a lot better. The question is whether they are part of a real solution, or merely a reassuring distraction from a harsher reality.

See also: AFGHANISTAN, INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN AGAINST TERRORISM IN; PEACEKEEPING.

Maclean's June 23, 2008