Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What to do on Afghanistan

That’s the question anyway, I have no idea if I’ll be able to answer it. I’ve been mulling over my thoughts on the matter for awhile now, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to figuring it out.

Putting aside all politics, which is pretty well impossible to do, and putting aside a number of other considerations too, which is also impossible, in a perfect world I think we should stay. I believe the international community needs to be in Afghanistan, and that includes Canada.

It was the right decision to go in, the former Taliban regime harboured the Al Quaeda terrorists behind the 9/11 attacks. And we can’t just leave once the Taliban were overthrown, we need to help bring peace and stability to the country, and help ensure they can keep it that way themselves. While I want the focus to be rebuilding and aid, I recognize that’s impossible without the pacification of the Taliban, so I recognize continued combat operations are and will continue to be necessary.

So, in a perfect world, I’d say for sure, Canada should stay over there, and our military should keep doing its important work. However, as we all know, it’s not a perfect world. Here are some of my concerns:

For one, just logistically, the fact is Canada is a small country, with a small military. I worry about how long we can keep cycling through troops before they start to get fatigued and burnt-out. I haven’t heard that concern addressed by the Manley panel.

I also think it’s time for some of the other members of the NATO alliance to step up to the plate, if this truly is an alliance. And I don’t mean a token 1000 troops, that’s not going to make a major difference in Kandahar, and it certainly won’t take much burden off of our troops, or allow us to move them elsewhere. Canada stepped-up and asked for Kandahar, we wanted the tough assignment. It wasn’t government dithering, that’s a myth. The government and the military knew this was a tough assignment, and that someone had to do it. And we have. But we didn’t sign-up for an indefinite deployment in the toughest part of the country. At the very least, we should be rotating through with the other countries that are there. I’m looking at you Germany, the guys that won’t let your soldiers out after dark.

Lately I’ve been more and more worried about just what in the heck kind of government we’re working to support in Afghanistan anyway. Last week during her speech, Pamela Wallin said we can’t impose our culture and value on the Afghans. And I agree, to a point. But covering the ass of a governor accused of torture? Standing by while a journalist is unfairly sentenced to death? You start to wonder just how different the new boss is from the old boss. Yes, we can’t impose our values. But we also can’t aid and abet torture and murder. We can’t be co-conspirators. Just leave and yes, it’s likely to get worse. But if we’re going to stay, we need to find a middle ground between imposing our values and aiding and abetting.

I’d feel a lot better about staying if I felt we were making real progress, and had a real strategy in place. Some of the problems were identified by the Manley group, like better coordination between the countries in the mission, the need for a UN 3rd party rep to smack some heads, and getting smarter about aid. But it’s not enough to identify the problems, actions needs to be taken. Moreover, I’d feel better about staying if we weren’t ignoring a major strategic problem: the porous Pakistani border. Pakistan provides a safe haven for the Taliban continue to cause havoc in Afghanistan and hamper the needed aid and reconstruction work. The Pakistani government has proven unable or unwilling (probably both) to do anything about it. And even if their government wanted our help, accepting it would be politically impossible for them. So, with this issue unaddressed, Pakistan becomes more and more like the Laos to our Vietnam. And there doesn’t seem to be any serious desire to address this elephant in the room. Probably about the best we can do at the moment is more heavily patrol the border region but that would take a lot of troops, which would mean the U.S., and they’re busy a little further west at the moment.


The domestic politics around this issue haven’t exactly risen to the occasion, nor provided anything resembling leadership or a way forward. The NDP seems to want an immediate withdrawal, transitioning to some kind of UN-led non-military mission. That’s not going to work;more emphasis on aid, yes, but there can’t be aid without stability. The Conservatives want an open-ended mission with no exit strategy, that’s not acceptable to me either. Their constant politicization of the war, the simplistic rhetoric and demoniztion of dissent, and their unwillingness to address strategic concerns is also unacceptable, and in my opinion has done more to hamper support for the mission than the casualty count has. And then there are my Liberals, trying to thread the needle of a caucus with strong views on both sides.

This is really a time for statesmen, but we haven’t seen much examples of statesmanship in Ottawa lately. The Liberals seems to be the swing votes at the moment and for now both sides are playing nice. The NDP wants the Liberals to adopt their position, I’m not sure if there’s any room for compromise on their end, I haven’t seen any indications anyway. And Harper has dialed down the rhetoric a tad too, and is set to meet with Dion today. How far the Cons may be willing to move is questionable too. And I don’t doubt any movement by the Liberals will quickly be exploited by both sides for political gain, no matter how nice they make.

Before I dispense with politics, let me say this. Whatever course the Liberals decide to make, we need to get behind it as a team. No freelancing, no public dissent, but one clear, united message communicated to the press and to Canadians. Leave any disagreements in the caucus room.

What compromise?

I don’t know what a potential compromise might look like. On one hand, it might be easy to say, sure, let’s extend the combat mission two more years, to 2011, as long as we get more allied support, and logistical and strategic issues are addressed. And benchmarks and targets established. I feel though like that’s as good as an indefinite extension, and wouldn’t truly be a real end date. Didn’t we think two years ago, when we extended to 2009, that that would be it? Are we going to keep doing this every two years?

I think it’s time for us to end our combat mission in Kandahar, and for another NATO or UN country to rotate in. We’ve fulfilled our commitment in the hot spot. This was never meant to be an open-ended deployment. If we’re not going to bring our troops home, as a compromise I’d support rotating them to a quieter part of the country, where they could focus more on reconstruction. But I won’t support an open-ended continued combat role in Kandahar, and I have no faith in any kind of exit date/strategy the Conservatives might propose.

And support for any continued Canadian presence should be contingent on a stronger and more organized aid effort, action to address the Pakistan border issue, a humane and fair detainee policy open to parliamentary overview, more transparent and open communication by the government and the military with parliamentarians and with Canadians, action to address the opium poppy issue, and effort to instill more democratic ideals among the Afghan people and government.

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CT said...

Hi Jeff,

You might find you agree with (at least some of) the Green position, which is to remain in Afghanistan but re-balance the mission. One of the key things we need to do is to push for the creation of a Poppies For Medicine (P4M) program, and we can't do that as long as our mission is so tightly aligned with Washington and NATO.

Chris Tindal
Candidate, Toronto Centre By-Election
Green Party of Canada

JimBobby said...

Whooee! Good boogin', JeffMan.I gotta take issue with one point. "Yes, we can’t impose our values."

As I understand it, the overall purpose of the mission is to help create a democratic state that respects human rights and operates under the rule of law.

None of those things are traditional to Afghanistan's culture or values. Our entire mission is intended to replace a brutal feudal system with a kinder, gentler, democratic system. Afghanistan has never had a democracy. Corruption and bribery have been a mainstay of governance. Human rights are a foreign concept in a land where Sharia law and medieval justice has been meted out with stones and swords.

Everything about the mission is aimed at imposing a new culture and new values on Afghanistan.


Greg said...

I also think it’s time for some of the other members of the NATO alliance to step up to the plate, if this truly is an alliance. And I don’t mean a token 1000 troops, that’s not going to make a major difference in Kandahar, and it certainly won’t take much burden off of our troops, or allow us to move them elsewhere

This is what troubles me the most about our position on Afghanistan. Our allies argument (and it seems Rick Hillier's position too) is that Canada chose Kandahar and is now responsible for that province forever. Does that sound reasonable to anyone? What ever happened to the principle of rotation?

Anonymous said...

Our entire mission is intended to replace a brutal feudal system with a kinder, gentler, democratic system.

I'm not even sure about that. The whole reason we went there was to remove a "brutal feudal system" that wanted to kill Americans and their allies. For our own safety, a "brutal feudal system" that didn't hate us would be an improvement.

In reality, the US (and the West) didn't go in to Afghanistan to create a democracy, they went in to remove an enemy.

That being said, reforming Afghanistan into a liberal, representative democracy is a worthy goal. But its going to take decades, not months, to accomplish that, and in the end it might not even be possible.

Steve V said...

Can anyone provide some information on the "1000 troop" demand? Is there some military analysis that argues this number is enough to counter the insurgency? I'm really curious how Manley came up with this number, because it implies a better situation with these troops. NATO already doubled the troop presence in 2006, and the insurgency has since expanded, so it is legitimate to question the rationale of a small influx of troops.

Jeff said...

Chris, gust gave it a quick scan but it sounds interesting, I'll have to read further when I have more time.

Jim, I think there's a difference between imposing our values and influencing helping build democratic values. We can't dictate. But we can help build institutions, and instill democratic values. It's a matter of approach I suppose, problem is I don't think were taking either approach at the moment, or at least we're not doing a very good job of it.

Steve, I haven't read the entire Manley report, but at her speech Wallin was asked a similar question, and she basically said they asked for a number they thought they could get. It almost seemed like more of a symbolic thing, like see, they're helping...she didn't explain how it would make much difference strategically, on the ground.

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kenlister1 said...

this post describes well the problems with the mission and the vote on it.
You have not described in any detail the distance in road paved, hospitals built, or schools built to improve the lives via humanitarian aid. If you cannot find the answers to this, perhaps it is because the PMO has not given out any details on what is going on on the ground.
You also have not given any factual information on the number of soldiers captured or killed. Again, this might be because the PMO has hidden it.
How can you form an educated opinion without this sort of information?
You see, Dippers and Bloc feel comforatble calling for a withdrawl regardless of the facts they do not have listed above. And the CONS feel righteous calling to continue the fight until the taliban is defeated without knowing answers to my questions above.
And here you are trying to make a decision based on facts, as we liberals try to always do, and clearly, there are no facts to base an opinion on...only righteous uninformed opinions.

kenlister1 said...

P.S. If you dont respond to my post, Al-Qaeda wins, so support our soldiers instead of the Taliban.

Jeff said...

If you dont respond to my post, Al-Qaeda wins, so support our soldiers instead of the Taliban

Well I'm a Liberal, so that logically already means I'm a Taliban sympathizer, doesn't it?

But seriously folks.The current death toll in Afghanistan isn't hidden, it's 78. DND has a list of names on its Web site: http://www.forces.gc.ca/site/focus/fallen/index_e.asp.

You're right though that aid and reconstruction stats are much harder to come by, and that's in no small part deliberate Conservative policy.

While I would like those stats, I think we can agree not enough reconstruction is happening. That's a large part of the problem.

As for factoring the casualty count into a decision, frankly, it doesn't factor into mine. While we should strive to keep it as low as possible, and if it moves higher that projected we should re-examine our strategy to find out why and take corrective action, the fact is this is a combat mission, and we are going to take casualties. Either we should be there, or we shouldn't be there.

kenlister1 said...

good reply. i was not clear in my sarcasm it seems.
i meant taliban deaths and injuries and civilians injured are no where to be found, and that info could help someone suggest we are killing so many of them that surely we are winning the war and it is just and we must stay forever. or maybe we are killing so few, we should just leave?
either way, no facts makes it hard for me as a liberal, or you as a liberal to give an educated opinion.
i think we should just take an opinion like the 3 other parties. just pick one extreme without having any facts to back us up (since there are none to be found).
Wouldnt we be a better country if the libs just yelled like the other 3 parties and take an extreme stance that would sound good for the liberal party, instead of trying to weigh the facts to make the decision best for the country?

Also, how much of CIDA's aid has gone into Kandahar, and how much in other provinces? Show me where the money is going please so i can decide if we should continue humanitarian aid.