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Friday, May 19, 2017

Afghanistan, the sequel. Why would Canada return to a war it would rather forget?


By: Andrew Potter, Special to National Post |
Amber Bracken/PostmediaSoldiers disembark from their plane as they return home from Afghanistan at the Edmonton International Airport in Edmonton, Alta. on Friday, Oct. 11, 2013
The last time Canadians paid any serious attention to Afghanistan was just over three years ago. It was March 2014 when we ended our training mission in Kabul with a quiet flag-lowering ceremony in Kabul.

It wasn’t exactly the Fall of Saigon, but there was a definite sense of Mission Unaccomplished to the proceedings. For all our efforts, first in support of Operation Enduring Freedom to rout out al Qaeda, then as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force that had committed to bring stability, security, good governance and democracy to Afghanistan, the job was far from complete. But many of our close allies, such as the Dutch, had already headed for the exit, and with President Obama determined to end the war on his watch, the Americans were drawing down as well.

Afghanistan was our most ambitious foreign adventure since the Korean War, but it’s an adventure most Canadians, including their government, seem keen to forget. The American journalist Dexter Filkins wasn’t wrong when he called it The Forever War though, which is why the United States is readying a “mini-surge” of potentially 5,000 troops back into Afghanistan. Once again, they will be asking NATO countries to help out. And as Postmedia’s David Pugliese reported last week, Canada will be asked to chip in.
Cpl Keith Wazny / DNDA Ramp Ceremony was held at Kandahar Airfield on 21 July 2010 for Sapper Brian J. Collier, who was killed by an Improvised Explosive Device
If we agree, we’ll be sending troops back to a country we left after 12-year military presence that cost the lives of 158 soldiers as well as those of a diplomat, two aid workers and a journalist. We’ll also be returning to a country where we left behind a great deal of unfinished business.

It’s no surprise Americans are looking to beef up their troop levels in Afghanistan: the place is on the verge of collapse.

The Afghan government in Kabul controls less than 60 per cent of the country, and that number is going in the wrong direction. In the parts of the country that it does control, the government is widely seen as deeply corrupt and barely functional. The Afghan security forces that are doing the bulk of the heavy fighting against the Taliban are suffering jaw-dropping (and unsustainable) casualty rates. In one shocking incident in late April, 140 Afghan troops were killed in a single Taliban attack on a base in the north of the country.

The peace agreement with the Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his “triumphant” return to Kabul earlier this month is a sign of how bad things are going for the government. Meanwhile, ISIL’s franchise in the region is clinging to a foothold with about 800 fighters regularly engaged in terror attacks and assassinations, mostly against Shia targets.

The Americans might have blowed things up real good when they dropped the MOAB onto an ISIL cave complex near the eastern border with Pakistan, but many analysts expect that its most significant effect will be to draw more jihadis to the cause. Right on cue, five ISIL jihadists attacked a television station in Jalalabad this week, killing four journalists and two police officers.

In short, there’s a lot of bad news, and the best predictions are things will get worse.

In the face of all this, the mini-surge of troops will have a pretty modest mission. Strengthen the government and train and assist the Afghan National Security Forces, while trying to stabilize the deteriorating security situation. The aim would be give Afghan president Ashraf Ghani’s government just enough credibility while bombing the Taliban hard enough to force some sort of peace deal.

The problem with this is that it was former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s strategy for virtually his entire term in office, and it is the same strategy former President Obama pursued with his surge in 2010. Its failure was and always will be overdetermined because, to begin with, you can’t kill enough Taliban to force them to the table. If anything, what this does is play along with the Taliban’s parallel strategy, which is to kill enough western troops and Afghan civilians that we leave and then the Afghan government sues for peace. To ask which side has been more successful is to answer the question.

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The deep problem here is Pakistan. It isn’t just that Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas have served as the home base for the Taliban since they were chased out of Afghanistan in 2001. The Pakistan military has basically run the Taliban insurgency since then, using it as a proxy force to ensure the ongoing destabilization of Afghanistan. This suits Pakistan’s purposes fine, but it means that there can be no solution to the problem in Afghanistan without a solution to Pakistan. An additional 5,000 troops helping train Afghan soldiers to be Taliban fodder isn’t going to change that.

So where does Canada fit in? Our mission in Afghanistan was beset by confusion on many fronts: Why we were there, how we ended up in Kandahar, and what our ambitions were. Depending on who you ask — politicians, diplomats, soldiers, general public — you’ll get different answers.

As Carleton University professor Steve Saideman argues in his book Adapting in the Dust, Canada went to Afghanistan for the simple reason that it has always gone along with NATO missions. It would have been weird for us not to go in some capacity. We went big because wanted to show our bonafides to the Americans after refusing to get involved in Iraq. And we went to Kandahar because we wanted to make a real contribution that would allow us to have strong say in the campaign.

Manpreet Romana / AFP / Getty ImagesIn this photograph taken on July 2, 2009, US Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan's Helmand Province

As Saideman describes it, by these metrics our mission was a complete success: We earned combat cred with the Americans, we were able to keep the U.S. working within the NATO structure, and we punched above our weight in the alliance itself.

The problem with these metrics is they have nothing to do with Afghanistan or the Afghan people. They are entirely about Canada’s interests in alliance-building, continental politics and generally managing the Americans. They are, at best, only accidentally about fighting the war on terrorism, defending global security, fighting the Taliban or helping Afghan girls go to school.

And so Canada’s ultimate political strategy was always going to be at odds with the execution of the mission, which evolved from a counter-terrorism operation in the early going into a “whole of government” nation-building agenda in Kandahar. Our ambitions on this score can be traced through the quarterly reports to parliament that were issued from 2008 until the end of the combat mission in 2011, listing our priorities and ticking off our achievements.

The unfailingly optimistic tone of those reports held up right till the end, our faith in the strategy surviving our abandonment of it. As the last line of the last quarterly report put it: “As Canada begins to transition from Kandahar to a more nationally focused role in Afghanistan, we will continue to support the hopes and dreams of the Afghan people as they endeavour to rebuild a more peaceful and prosperous nation.”
Master Corporal Matthew McGregor/DNDA foot patrol of Canadian and Afghan soldiers near the village of Haji Baba
Or, to put it more colloquially, good bye and good luck.

Let’s be clear about this: Canadians made a number of profound commitments to helping Afghans, promises that many Afghans took seriously. At least they did until Canada’s political calculations changed and we simply downed tools and left. The Taliban weren’t defeated, the nation wasn’t rebuilt, but we’d done what we set out to do.

Maybe it’s this general sense of unfinished business that has led Canadians to pretty much forget that for 12 years, some of the best and brightest soldiers, diplomats, development officers and public servants this country has to offer risked their careers and their lives in, and more importantly, for Afghanistan. At the height of the troop surge in 2010, a senior Canadian civilian official at Camp Nathan Smith gave a rousing pep talk to the members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (and to journalists), telling them, “This is the place, now is the time, and we are the ones” to fix Kandahar. It was melodramatic, but it captured the spirit of the Canadian mission.
Corporal Bill Gomm/DND
Today, our interest in the country is pretty much non-existent, the war is rarely mentioned except in the context of wounded warriors.

And that’s an attitude matched by the government. The simple but symbolic Kandahar Airfield Cenotaph remains wrapped up in a packing crate somewhere in Ottawa. The more substantial military memorial to the mission, to be situated down by the Ottawa River east of the Portage Bridge, was scheduled to be opened for the sesquicentennial celebrations on July 1. It has fallen into Ottawa’s version of bureaucratic hell. When, where and whether it will ever see the light of day is anyone’s guess.

Besides, why have a memorial to a war everyone wants to forget?

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And now we’re being asked to go back. Assuming we’d actually be welcome, what’s in it for Canada? Or more pointedly, what’s in it for Afghans?

Assuming the Americans do ask us to pitch in, and assuming we agree, there’s no way we are going back to our old mission. The heady nation-building ambitions of 2010-2011 are done. We’ll be there as trainers, as part of what the Americans are pitching as an open-ended mission without the artificial deadlines that Obama imposed. Which means we will be there in the service of one of two possible outcomes, neither of which is terribly appealing.

One is that we help the Afghans keep fighting in a more or less perpetual fight against the Taliban.

The other is that we play a part in helping bring about a political solution to the problem. Practically, that means handing over a big chunk of Afghanistan to the Taliban, which in turn means a return to the days of mandatory burkas and beards, Sharia law and the ministry of vice and virtue. No music or movies, no kite flying, no school for girls.

This wouldn’t be the end of the world — we already live with versions of that in other countries. We helped fight North Korea to a stalemate long ago, and have lived ever since with the result. Nothing says that every country’s problem is our problem to solve.

The difficulty we have with Afghanistan is that for a period of time, we made their problems our problems, and we sent the best among us to help solve them. Then we left, and ever since we’ve been trying, and mostly succeeding, at forgetting we were ever there.

If we do return, we might forgive our Afghan hosts if they are so unkind as to remind us.
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Andrew Potter is the former editor-in-chief of the Ottawa Citizen.