Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A dangerous sales job on Afghan war

VICTORIA - It's dangerous when governments do a sales job on the idea of going to war.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has just dropped into Afghanistan on a visit that seemed largely aimed at making Canadians feel better about that troubled mission.
He toured a small Canadian-funded school where youths are learning to be tinsmiths and announced a $10-million aid program to make sure Afghani police officers actually got paid. Those the kinds of "untold success" that Canadians aren't hearing about, MacKay said.
Cabinet ministers have to sell government policy. That's part of their job, perhaps even in times of war.
But it's troubling. Politicians looking to build support end up downplaying problems and over-emphasizing successes. That's a moderate problem if they're selling the merits of a dubious tax proposal.
It's a much more serious when the public is being sold on sending Canadian troops to die and kill on our behalf.
One risk is that we get slogans - like the foolish argument that "Canadians don't cut and run" - instead of real, considered policy.
Another is that politicians mislead us about the difficulty, length and cost of the struggle ahead. Simply because this war, or any other, may be justifiable does not mean it should be pursued at any cost.
There are success stories. The Taliban has been unable to extend its influence significantly. Afghanistan is safer for some citizens. Women have less reason to fear attack if they go to school or exercise what we consider basic rights. The country is less of a haven for global terrorists.
But the small, incremental improvements mean little in terms of the challenge.
While our politicians sell the mission's success; virtually every independent observer warns of big problems.
As MacKay was preparing to fly into Kandahar, an article in the respected journal Foreign Affairs offered a warning. U.S. expert Barnett Rubin, who visited Afghanistan four times last year, said the country is "at risk of collapsing into chaos."
NATO's military and aid efforts, despite small successes, have not achieved any measurable progress toward real stability and security, Rubin says.
The article - available at - warns that as a result the country remains on the brink of disaster. The wholesale re-emergence of the Taliban and the collapse of the current government are both real possibilities.
Only a much greater military effort and much more aid will save Afghanistan, Rubin argues.
It is the story Canadians have not been getting from their government.
Afghanistan is desperately, unimaginably poor - poorer than any country outside the blighted nations of sub-Saharan Africa.
That in turn means the government has no money to provide services. Its revenues, aside from foreign aid, are about $400 million Canadian. That's about 1.5 per cent of the B.C. government's revenues, to meet the needs of a population of almost 30 million. About $15 per person to provide roads, schools, police, defence and everything else.
Foreign aid helps. Canada has committed $100 million this year, about 10 per cent of our total aid budget. Another $3.50 per person for services.
But the reality is that the Afghan government can't deliver the services needed to ensure that it is seen as a legitimate authority.
Consider policing. MacKay's $10-million grant recognizes that officers have often not received even the meagre official pay of less than $2 a day. Because of that, they have been easily bribed to ignore drug trafficking, thefts and murders.
For many Afghanis the Taliban's harsh system of Islamic law appears a preferred alternative to the current corruption and crime. At least they were protected. As a result, parallel Taliban governments are re-emerging.
There are reasons for Canada to have a role in Afghanistan. The people there need help and a re-emergent Taliban would decrease global security.
But this is a military mission that could take a decade and billions in aid. Based on current evidence, the results would still be uncertain.
The evidence is that the way ahead is much longer, tougher, more expensive and more deadly than the government has so far told Canadians.
Footnote: Canada is committed to a military Afghan military mission until 2009. But debate should be starting now on what needs to be done to ensure there is real progress before that date. The benchmarks need to be measurable and the resources needed - in military support and aid, from Canada and other NATO nations - need to be clearly set out. Then we can decide whether to press on.

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