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The Afghanistan Commitment

Canadian artillery fires at night north of Kandahar city. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Canadian artillery fires at night north of Kandahar city.

It is decision time for Canada’s political and military leaders. And it is no easy question they have to answer. Indeed, it is a decision that could cost many lives. The question is this: what role will Canada next take on in NATO’s effort to stabilize Afghanistan?

With the end of Canada’s three-year commitment to its leading role in Kandahar province coming up in early 2009, Ottawa has in recent months been buzzing with debate about what should happen next.

While there are many options—everything from continuing the current combat role to complete withdrawal—the most often mentioned new role is one focused on the softer side of the mission, particularly the delivery of aid, reconstruction and the training of Afghan forces.

Canadian soldiers on patrol in the mountains. [PHOTO: ADAM DAY]

Canadian soldiers on patrol in the mountains.

However, the worsening security situation in the country casts some doubt on the viability of this softer role, as development and reconstruction cannot occur without some degree of peace.

In any case, a simple continuation of Canada’s current role is unlikely, not only for political reasons but also because the Canadian Forces would be hard-pressed to continue the current operational tempo, which sees approximately 2,500 soldiers deployed, with 2,500 preparing to deploy and 2,500 more recovering from their recent deployment.

In order to make a solid choice about what should be done about the problem of Afghanistan, it is necessary to get some understanding of what is happening currently inside the country.

So, as a part of the debate about the mission, the Senate of Canada’s Standing Committee on National Security and Defence, chaired by Senator Colin Kenny, has recently been hearing from a wide-array of experts and witnesses on the situation in Afghanistan. The committee routinely hears expert testimony on a range of national security issues as a way to gather research and information for its periodic reports.

On Dec. 3, 2007, the committee heard from two representatives of the Senlis Council, an international security and development think-tank founded in 2002 that maintains field offices in, among other places, Kabul and Kandahar. The Senlis Council is known primarily for its regular reports on Afghanistan, which combine ground-level reporting with policy and strategic concerns.

Senlis Council President and Lead Field Researcher Norine MacDonald, a Canadian, has been living and working in southern Afghanistan for three years. Her testimony to the committee focused mainly on a report published by Senlis in November titled Stumbling into Chaos: Afghanistan on the Brink.

As MacDonald noted, the Senlis report was largely based on interviews with Afghans living in villages and refugee camps around the city of Kandahar. “The conclusions we have reached in our report are that the Taliban insurgency now controls vast swaths of unchallenged territory in southern Afghanistan, including rural areas, border areas, some district centres, and important road arteries,” said MacDonald. “We calculated what percentage of the Afghanistan land mass that was, and we concluded that 54 per cent of Afghanistan has a permanent Taliban presence and 38 per cent has a substantial presence.

“They are the de facto governing authority in significant portions of territory in the south and are starting to control parts of the local economy and key infrastructure such as roads and energy supply.

“The disturbing conclusion is that despite the vast injections of international capital flowing into the country and the significant military efforts, including those of our troops, and our universal desire to succeed, the state is once again in danger of dividing, with the south falling into the hands of the Taliban.”

Clearly not one to mince words, MacDonald told the assembled senators of the evidence Senlis has collected that points to increasing Taliban influence in the south. “There are Taliban radio stations and, I am sad to say, there are Taliban passports circulating,” she said, as she passed around a document, reportedly a Taliban passport printed in Pakistan, which entitled the holder to safe passage through southern Afghanistan.

“Because we are on the ground,” explained MacDonald, “we know the situation there very well. The Canadian military is doing a remarkable job in increasingly difficult circumstances. However, due to an insufficiency of the total number of NATO troops on the ground, (they) are not able to take and hold territory in southern Afghanistan.

“The inadequate response of several NATO member states to the surging Taliban resistance is, in our view, tantamount to an abandonment of the Karzai government and southern Afghanistan.

“We recommend a doubling of the troop levels from those countries that are not making a proper contribution and a removal of all limitations or caveats on troop movements.

“We are facing an enemy that can continuously regroup from Pakistan and benefit from an almost endless flow of potential recruits.”

Because of this, said MacDonald, Senlis “has recommended a move into Pakistan alongside the Pakistan army to deal with the Taliban and al-Qaida bases.”

While many analysts and commentators would likely agree with MacDonald that troop numbers are insufficient for the task of stabilizing southern Afghanistan, and that furthermore the key to the problem lies in Pakistan, few are willing to endorse officially widening the NATO mission to include military incursions into that country.

One week later, on Dec. 10, the committee heard the official Canadian Forces response to MacDonald’s proposal, when Brigadier-General P.J. Atkinson gave his testimony. He is director general of operations at the strategic joint staff at the Department of National Defence. “Pakistan is a sovereign state,” he said. “It could be like us doing military operations across the U.S. border next door. Obviously the commander of joint task force in Afghanistan has regular meetings in co-ordination with the Pakistani troops on the other side of the border. It is a critical piece. You have heard the Chief of the Defence Staff and others say that the solution in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan. There is no secret there at all. We want to push our Afghan development zone right up to the border. That is why we have troops working on the borders in the Spin Boldak area. It is a critically important area.

“Part of the Afghans’ evolution and getting better is to be able to control their own border. It will take time to get there, but that is obviously a state they want to get in so that they can demonstrate and protect their own sovereignty.”

The official strategy, as outlined by Atkinson, is to stop infiltration at the border and work with the Pakistanis to eliminate the threat on the other side.

In a report released last year, this same senate committee drew attention to the problem of Pakistan and, among its suggestions, noted that shutting down the border would be a good tactical move.

Stopping the infiltration, however, will be next to impossible, at least according to Dr. Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan based at the RAND Corporation, an American think-tank who testified to the committee on Dec. 10. “I do not believe that is a practical solution,” said Jones, of the plan to shut down the border. “Just to give you the U.S. experience on the Mexican border—the U.S. cannot stop Mexicans from coming across the border, even with a wall.

“The idea of building in one of the most mountainous parts of the world is, I think, simply not practical, especially when there is a desire to get from one side to the other and there are governments that are willing to support that. In that sense, you just cannot stop it. If there is support on the other side, you will never be able to stop people who want to come across the border.”

Beyond this point, Jones largely concurred with MacDonald, that the military-security situation in Afghanistan is bleak and growing bleaker. “There is no question that there has been deterioration in the security environment over the last several years across at least half of Afghanistan. I think the data is clear about this,” said Jones.

“The overall number of insurgent-initiated attacks increased 400 per cent from 2002 to 2006. The number of deaths also increased 800 per cent over this period. The increase in violence was particularly acute between 2005 and 2006. The number of suicide attacks quadrupled, remotely detonated bombings doubled and armed attacks tripled.

“The 2007 data is not complete but the trends seem like the numbers will be greater in nearly all of these categories. For example, the number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan in 2007 will probably be the largest in the history of the country.”

Both MacDonald and Jones recounted to the committee how, as a concrete example of the worsening security situation, neither of them could drive on roads that only a short time ago were safe for travel.

Jones believes there are several factors causing this rise in activity and instability, the first of which is related to governance. “I think one can safely argue there has been a relative collapse of governance in Afghanistan,” said Jones.

“The key problem is that what local Afghans at the village level think. You have to remember that in Afghanistan, and this has been true over the last 30 years of violence since the 1979 (Russian) invasion, all politics in Afghanistan is local. It does not matter what happens in Kabul and Kandahar. Rather it matters what happens in the rural areas of the country because that is where you win or lose any counter-insurgency effort. Villages in these areas are not being sufficiently protected by Afghan national security forces.”

Backing up Jones’ perceptions of life on the ground in Afghanistan was Almas Bawar Zakhilwal, an Afghan who works as the Canada country manager for the Senlis Council: “As an Afghan, I will say that if we want to succeed in Afghanistan, especially in southern Afghanistan, we will need more aid for those people.

“I have spoken to many of them and asked, ‘What do you need from the international community? What do you need from your government?’ The only answer I get is, ‘This government and the international community have been in power for six years. I have not seen any change in my life. My life is still the same as it was six years ago. I do not have a school in my village or my district; I do not have work. My roads are still bad; my irrigation system is still the same. The Taliban are still present. Even if they are not in power, they are in the villages. What has the international community done for us? Nothing. How can I support them?’

“When we speak of a hearts and minds strategy,” continued Zakhilwal, “we are not asking to provide them with big cars or big houses. We are asking for the basic things of life. In my interviews of people I asked: ‘What three things would you like to ask of the international community or Karzai’s government?’

“The top three things from the thousands of interviews we have done are clean water, food and shelter. How hard is it to give that to those people in order to succeed? I do not think that is hard. Are we willing to do that? Are we trying our best to do that? I think we are not trying.”

Indeed, much of the testimony by Jones and MacDonald focused on the relative paucity of the international effort to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan. “There is a rich history of what is often termed state building,” said Jones. “I would say that even recent history of state building—even in the midst of in some cases quite violent situations or potentially violent ones as we saw in the Balkans—suggests one very clear lesson: You cannot do this cheap.

“The number of forces and the amounts of development and assistance in the Balkans were orders of magnitude higher than what is in Afghanistan. Frankly, it is embarrassing that the amount of resources provided here have been as low as they are. There are two big lessons: This can be done, but it cannot be done on the cheap. Unfortunately, that is what we have tried to do in Afghanistan. I do not believe the history of that sort of strategy is particularly optimistic.”

As for MacDonald, she also believes there are too few troops, but goes further in arguing that the ones who are there should also be focusing on delivering food, a role not traditionally given to the military in a situation like this. “One of the reasons we have recommended the military deliver aid—in particular, food aid—in the short term is as a counter-insurgency strategy, but also to ensure its delivery,” said MacDonald. “Food is like money in southern Afghanistan. We would not deliver a truckload full of $1 million in cash to someone in Canada without proper security measures; and we should not be doing that in Afghanistan either.”

MacDonald’s proposal, however, does have some opposition. Many, including Atkinson, argued instead that the only real solution to the problem is an Afghan solution, and that short-term thinking should be resisted in order to develop Afghan institutions that can persist long after NATO is gone. “It is fine for us to have project management and all the organization and money pouring in, but in order for it to be effective, the Afghans need to see themselves in their future,” said Atkinson. “They need to see Afghans building the roads and bridges, repairing the electrical infrastructure, the television and radio stations, all those things.”

MacDonald, having seen the suffering first-hand, remained undeterred by the arguments against her military model of aid distribution. “I understand the policy and theoretical basis for these objections, but they have no plan to feed these people. These are our Afghan brothers and sisters who are fighting alongside our military to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida for a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan and a safe Canada, and we are abandoning them. Something has to be done.”

With the recent American announcement that they are re-enforcing their Afghan task force with a contingent of nearly 3,000 Marines, it seems that some in power have understood that the effort to stabilize Afghanistan may be in jeopardy. And while there are no clear answers to the issue of Pakistan, or how best to balance Afghanistan’s short- and long-term interests, there is a recognition, in the Canadian Senate and elsewhere, that Afghanistan is at its core an issue of international security.

“It is my view that Afghanistan has immense strategic importance,” argued Jones. “I would caution, as I have followed the Canadian debate, that this issue of downsizing or withdrawing forces from Afghanistan has to be taken extremely seriously. The costs have to be understood because I would argue that September 11, 2001, happened in the United States because al-Qaida had a sanctuary and it had a relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. What would Afghanistan look like in areas of the country where the Taliban continued to make gains and establish territory? It would have extremely dangerous implications, not only on the region but also internationally. It is seriously worth asking whether we are willing to live with that.”

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