Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Signs point to end to Afghan mission

Until last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has talked as if a Conservative government would automatically extend the military mission in Afghanistan when the current commitment ends in February 2009. Canadians don't cut and run, maintained Harper, and we'll be there until the job - whatever that might be - is done.
But last week, Harper changed his position. The troops will only stay if Canadians support military action against Afghan insurgents, he said. "I don't want to send people into a mission if the opposition at home is going to undercut the dangerous work that they're doing in the field," he said. So unless Canadians say that they support a continuation of the current mission, our front-line combat role will end in about 20 months. (Harper might have meant opposition political parties, but their positions are shaped by the public's views.)
Most opinion polls suggest that Harper should tell NATO now that Canada won't be fighting after 2009. We might be willing to offer humanitarian aid, but Canadians don't want to see our troops to continue to take a combat role. A national Decima Research poll conducted at the beginning of June found two out of three Canadians want the troops out of the fighting when this commitment ends. The main reason appears to be that the public has decided lives are being lost for no reason; 75 per cent of those surveyed did not believe our effort will produce real change in Afghanistan. Canadians aren't a huge part of the NATO commitment - 2,500 out of some 31,000 troops. But we've taken on a tough combat role, one shunned by many of the other participating nations.
So what do we tell Harper about extending the mission? There's no doubt that Canada's efforts have made a positive difference in the lives of some Afghanis. Women point to freedoms that would never have been imaginable under the Taliban. And the mission's goals - supporting the government, preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan as a safe haven, helping improve the lives of citizens - are all laudable.
But that's not enough to justify sacrificing more lives. There has to be not just a noble cause, but also a realistic chance of success. Increasingly, that appears unlikely.
The NATO forces have stepped in to the middle of a civil war. The Taliban are the bad guys - violent, repressive, tyrannical and supporters of terrorism outside Afghanistan's borders.
But the government has a shaky claim to legitimacy. The police and army are at best inefficient and poorly equipped. At worst they are corrupt and criminal. The gap between our ideal of bringing democracy to Afghanistan and the reality of life on the ground are enormous.
And the country remains so desperately poor - comparable to the most struggling countries in Africa - that it is difficult to see how, even with significant aid, it can provide the basic services and institutions needed. At the same time, it appears there is no end to the military struggle in sight. The Taliban is waging a classic insurgency campaign. It attacks when conditions are in its favour and fades away when the NATO forces are strong, only to return once attention shifts elsewhere. The three most recent Canadian deaths came in an area our forces thought they had won control. There is no quick victory over that kind of enemy.
And any hope of success relies on winning the support of the civilian population and demonstrating that the government and the foreign forces can ensure their security.
That's increasingly difficult. Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week complained that NATO forces' reliance on air strikes and artillery to fight the guerrillas is resulting in too many civilian deaths. The best estimate is that NATO forces have killed 203 civilians so far this year; the Taliban 178. It doesn't matter whether the Taliban are using innocents as shields; they are still dead.
Harper says the future of the military mission is up to Canadians. Given the terrible costs and the slim chance of success, the choice is clear. NATO should be told now that while Canada might help with aid, training and other support, our military role won't continue. Footnote: Why did Harper change his position? The war has become a larger political issue, particularly in Quebec; the death toll is rising; and there is no good news to offset the concerns. The Conservatives risk facing an election in which their support for the war is a significant issue.


Anonymous said...

Harper has finally figured it out.The public in large numbers don't want the troops in that sad country for any longer a period of time. In fact a great number want them gone now. he wants to be able to enter the next election hoping for a majority and will argue the democratic process ete etc. Don't be fooled by this NeoCon

Anonymous said...

The progress in women's rights (and rights in general) is simply propaganda. See the US State Dept report excerpted at:


Anonymous said...

Pull the troops now, not feb 2007, not 2009, not 2011. Afghanistan is not a threat to the national security of Canadians, our presence is doing nothing but help the taliban recruit people who oppose it. We are there for bush, and they hate us for that. We have disgraced the Canadian image as peace keepers by letting the states drag us down the rabbit hole of war. Canada must become an independent nation once again before we end up like england and the states.