Thursday, January 31, 2008

Pamela Wallin on Afghanistan

Tuesday evening I attended an event at the University of Toronto, sponsored by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, where Pamela Wallin, a member of the famed Manley panel, spoke on...well, Afghanistan, of course.

I can’t say I agreed with her politics. Indeed, I disagreed with much of it, and the way she tried to frame the issues and the debate. But I also agreed with much if it, and nevertheless it was a very interesting presentation. It was informative to hear firsthand from one of the commission members and their impressions of their visit to Afghanistan, what led to them to some of their conclusions, and some anecdotes of her experiences there.

I took notes during the presentation and I’ve going to mainly share those now. I may have some editorial comments, but I’m going to save outlining my conclusions, and my own view on the future of the Afghan mission, for a later post.

For now, here’s some of her comments (mainly without my own thoughts, except where noted):

*She said this has been one of the most extraordinary experiences of her life.

*We are embarking on a conversation about the mission and the war in this country, and she would argue belatedly so.

*In making the point that even she and the supposed experts of the commission didn’t really know much, Wallin said that she hadn’t known that Afghans are the people, and Afghanis are the currency. They’d been getting it wrong (calling Afghanis the people) until, six weeks into their work, someone corrected them.

*She said there’s a lack of basic understanding, even in her social circle, of how we came to be in Afghanistan, so she went over the history, 9/11, Taliban and Bin Laden, etc. We asked to go to Kandahar, we were not forced to go to Kandahar and we did not go against our will, “despite all the stories to the contrary,” she said.

*The committee members told Harper his mandated goals won’t cut it, so he said fine, do what you want to do, and she says they never heard from Harper again, so she gives him credit for making it actually independent.

*She thinks appointing an ex-Liberal cabinet minister was “a brilliant thing to do” because if he’d appointed a Conservative head it would have been dismissed as a whitewash.

*During their visit to Afghanistan they travelled with heavy security. “We were prime targets....if the Taliban could have taken us out that would have been a real coup.”

*They met with NATO generals, the soldiers, woman’s groups, government officials, and opposition politicians. She said she found the government criticism very similar to Ottawa.

*As you fly over the vast mountain range of Afghanistan she said you come to understand why they’ve never found Osama Bin Laden…you couldn’t find him and 400 of his closest friends unless you’ve lived there all your lives.

*Different regions in Afghanistan have different circumstances, much like Canada. For women, while it’s much more restrictive in the urban areas, in the rural areas they’re farm wives and it’s not near as severe.

*Whenever the committee members talked to Afghans, when they found out they were Canadians, the first thing they’d say was we’re sorry your young men and women are dying for us, They shouldn’t be, we should be but we can’t do it ourselves yet so we need your help, but as soon as we can send you home and do it ourselves we will.

*We’re not a foreign occupying force, she said. This is a NATO and UN mission, the Afghans want us there, they don’t want the Taliban to come back.

*They want us to train them, and that’s a large part of what we’re doing there. But training is fighting, there’s no place to go shoot practice rounds. We train them while they fight with us, and them we start to move into the background as they take over.

*You can’t do the good things Canadians do without security, or you’d just have dead air workers. The military is there to provide the security so that aid can happen.

*She described one aid project where the purpose is to give war widows a chicken. It lays eggs and the kids have something to eat. She said these women are so amazing, if it lays one egg the kid has something to eat, if it lays two eggs she sells the second, and if it lays three she sets up a stand. Also important, she said, are micro loans for women to do things like setting up those stands, or little shops. They also help the woman gain respect in the family.

*There’s a moral imperative for us to be in Afghanistan, she said. We said we wanted to come and help these people, and we can’t leave when the going gets tough. “If you flinch every time there’s a body bag on the screen then you’re feeling the insecurities these countries have” that we won’t stick it out long term…”I think if we are who we say we are, and if we care about the women and the children and the next generation...then we do need to make this commitment.”

*The committee decided it was reasonable to ask for some help from our NATO allies, 1000 is a really small number when you think about it and our allies should be able to step up to the plate on that.

*Need to make sure aid dollars are working in tandem with military dollars…roads need to get paved so Afghans an get to market, and if a road is paved insurgents can’t plant an IED under it.

*We also need some of those European folks with choppers in their countries not doing anything to send them to Afghanistan.

* She’s been gratified by public response to report, says support for mission has increased, and the more informed people are of the mission the more supportive they become.

*She doesn’t understand how people can say they support the troops but are opposed to the mission, because the troops are the mission; they’re the ones taking girls to school. We as a country need to decide if we want to be participants on the world stage or just observers, because there aren’t many countries where there’s peace to be kept these days.

*We’re not going to make Afghanistan a western-style democracy overnight, but we can give them the ability to defend themselves. Human rights and womens’ commissions are nice, but there’s a time and a place.

(At this point it moved into Q&A, but let me pause for a moment because I can’t go on without saying a big WTF on that last point. There’s a time for human rights? Yeah, there is Pam, and it’s right now. We can’t impose our values, yes, but if we replace an evil regime with one that’s just really bad, what’s the frickin’ point? Also, I’m shocked that at an event sponsored by journalists, and her being a former journalist herself, she didn’t mention the Afghan journalist sentenced to death for not towing the government line. But on to the Q&A.)

*There was a question on the porous border with Pakistan. She says it’s a major issue and something needs to be dome about the borders. It’s not realistic to send a few battalions to patrol it, we don’t understand the terrain. The Pakistanis have made clear they don’t want foreign troops in their territory. The border is disputed, with overlapping claims. The Taliban can give a border official $10 to look the other way, and that’s a lot of money for the poor, we need to lift them up and pay them better so bribes aren’t attractive. Probably the best we can do for now is patrol on the Afghan side, and the only country with the manpower is the U.S. After the presidential elections she thinks they’ll be moving in much more resources, no matter who wins, because the Iraq surge is working and Afghanistan is seen as the good war. But it’s going to ne a long haul, and no one knows what will happen in the Pakistani elections. Perhaps other Arab countries could help.

*An Ottawa term is Three Ds: Defence, Diplomacy, Development. Its important Canadians hear more about the last two, and for that to happen we need to hear from the ambassadors and the aid workers. She says the PM has “embraced” this message and “taken it to heart.” She also said the way we do development in Afghanistan is hogtied by bureaucracy. While she supports the need for accountability for spending, subjected a program like chickens for war widows isn’t realistic…what’s the test, the eggs were good? We need to be more realistic in our approach, and adapt to the circumstanced when appropriate. She also said Canada needs to make its development statement more loudly. We need a signature project, something like a hospital, something to put the Canadian flag on, that literally and figuratively shows our effort. Afghans know we’re there, but when asked to point to something they can only point to the soldiers, because that’s what they see. It would be nice if they had something like a school or hospital to point to. We shouldn’t be afraid to wave our flag.

*She was asked if there’s 40,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, why should our presence hinge on just 1000 more. She said this would allow Canadian troops to be rotated within the Kandahar area. The committee wanted a number that was reasonable and achievable. “We’ve got some countries there with caveats as long as your arm…the Germans don’t go out after dark.”

*There’s chaos at the top in the ISAF structure, that’s why they want a UN 3rd party representative, someone with the clout to go in and knock some heads. Everyone has their own training programs doing things in their own way, there’s no coordination.

*It’s hugely important to get more involvement from Arab countries, since this is in their backyard. Take the United Arab Emirates, they’re not going to send troops but they could help build infrastructure and help monetarily. “I think we have to guilt them a little bit on that score.”

*She was asked can we negotiate with the Taliban, could there ever be a cease fire so we could focus on development? She replied there are a wide spectrum of Taliban, from the fanatics to the guy that took $10 to feed his family. At the lower levels negotiation goes on every day and some former Taliban are even in the government. But it isn’t likely to be as clear-cut as two sides sitting down at a peace table.

*The Manley committee has laid out a path and a strategy that, while it won’t be easy, makes it possible for the two major parties (Liberals and Conservatives) to fund common ground. They’re not saying we should stay forever and at all costs. They’ve but some deadlines on this, and it we don’t get all our asks we should service we’re leaving. It wouldn’t be fleeing and running, but would be handing over the security to NATO, they’d have to figure it out and someone else would have to step up to the plate. But he thinks this is our best shot for making it happen. And she thinks Canadians will be there, willingly, for a long time to come.

My thoughts

I’m going to contain my thoughts to Wallin’s speech; as mentioned I’m going to leave my wider thoughts on the way forward in Afghanistan to a later post.

Her thoughts and impressions were interesting and illuminating, as I said, although I can’t agree with some of them. She’s much more of a hawk than I thought she’d be.

Responding to her thoughts, I don’t think we’re having the national conversation she said she thinks we’re finally having. It seems to me the debate is still more political than substantive amongst those paying attention, and the latest polls still show most Canadians favouring an end to the combat mission in 2009.

I agree with much of what she had to say about development, and the signature project thing sounds like a good idea. But I don’t see 1000 troops making much of a difference at all, it really seems to me like a token gesture to try to provide some cover for a combat mission extension, and since it seems like we knew those troops are coming anyway it was just setting-up cover to let Harper do what he wanted to do anyway.

I found her comments that you can’t say you support the troops unless you support the combat mission to be absolutely ridiculous, and an irresponsible and unnecessary polarization of the debate.

I agree with her about getting the Arab countries more involved, but why the heck couldn’t they send troops? Money is nice, but why couldn’t Egypt or Saudi Arabia send some soldiers over to help out?

And finally, the idea that Harper has “embraced” and “taken to heart” the Manley recommendations around more open communications and talking about the diplomacy and development is laughable, and I’m surprised she could deliver it with a straight face. There has been no evident change by this government on that front.

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Anonymous said...

Was there time for a lot of questions? Because that comment of "Supporting our troop, means supporting our mission" is easily proved falsed, and I would be surprised that nobody called her on it.

A BCer in Toronto said...

There was about 45 minutes for q&a. I was surprised very few were hostile, it was a very friendly/supportive audience. One guy went after her a but for meeting with to many chiefs in Afghanistan and not enough common folk, another went after her for saying the mission is helping fight terrorism. No fireworks though.