Harper hasn’t reversed himself on Afghanistan

by John Geddes

Interest in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s remark that the Taliban cannot be defeated by foreign forces in Afghanistan is generating plenty of comment in Canada and abroad.

Harper’s answer to a question from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was trenchantly phrased. “We are not ever going ot defeat the insurgency,” he said. “My reading of Afghanistan’s history is that they’ve probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.”

It’s a solid quote. Yet this is not , as far as I know, a departure from his past statements, and certainly not the dreaded political “flip-flop.”

From my own experience of asking him about getting out of Afghanistan, I would point to the way he was framing the issue in an interview as far back as late 2007. Harper talked then, quite impatiently, about the need to withdraw as soon as possible, which I took to mean as soon as the Afghan army was up to the task of keeping the insurgents at bay.

He certainly didn’t talk in terms of coalition forces securing some sort of decisive victory over the Taliban before pulling out. Here’s what I wrote in a Dec. 28, 2007, Macleans.ca piece we headlined “Not-so-happy New Year”:

On Afghanistan, the dominant defence and foreign policy file, Harper again looks ahead to tough choices. Rather than talking up the military mission in Kandahar as an inspiring undertaking, he used the year-end sit-down to vent frustration at slow progress in building a self-sufficient Afghan government. “You know, the United Nations and our allies will have been in Afghanistan 10 years in 2011. For God’s sakes, Germany was basically fully restored within four years; Germany joined NATO ten years after it was conquered.”

He does not seem to be willing to accept anything like an open-ended commitment in central Asia. “To say that Afghanistan would need decades and decades just to do the basic security work, I think is pushing credibility,” Harper said. “Not just pushing the patience of the Canadian public and the military, pushing the credibility of the effort. A sovereign government must, at some point, say, ‘We can actually deal with this on a day-to-day basis. We can be responsible.’”

So I would say Harper has been quite consistent that our overarching goal in Afghanistan has to be building up the capacity of the regime in Kabul, not crushing the insurgents once and for all.

In this, he seems sensible. On the other hand, as I pointed out in my previous posting, Harper sounds too much like he’s waiting for Washington to suggest how exactly to accomplish the task, rather than pushing ideas hatched in Ottawa.

And given Canada’s substantial, and often bitter, experience in Afghanistan over the past seven years, I think our government should by now be able to muster a more creative and confident stance. What do our diplomats and military officers think needs to change to turn things around?




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Harper hasn’t reversed himself on Afghanistan

  1. This isn’t a flip flop. But his remarks do beg the next question or two: “when did you first come to this conclusion? Were you just playing politics when you poured scorn on the opposition parties assertions that this war couldn’t be won? And more imortantly, in light of yr opinion on the winnability of this war – which had you expressed them early on the public would have long ago insisted the troops come home -why haven’t you put the max effort possible into rebuilding Afganis capacity to defend themselves.”

  2. What do our diplomats and military officers think needs to change to turn things around?

    Since our military leaders are just a quasi-embedded extension of the US military command, I think it’s better to go to the source for answers. I presume this is why Harper will wait to see what Obama does.

  3. “What do our diplomats and military officers think needs to change to turn things around?”
    Is this unintended irony?
    That info is unlikely to be welcome in the PMO of this govt. And even if it got in, it’s highly unlikely that it would ever get out again!

  4. Nice attempt at Harper rehab, but who has said Harper has flip-flopped? The only thing that’s remarkable here is that he being remarkably direct.

    What Harper’s vicious reaction to dissenters in the last few years says about what he has really thought all along would be worth noting and speaks for itself.

  5. Great – so Potter and the American networks get the inside scoop, but when it comes to addressing the canadian people and the elected officials of our parliament, its subterfuge and scorn. Seems to me at the time of the Manley commission he only left trap-doors open but never said the war was unwinnable, that the taliban were nothing but defeatable. Harper’s election trail musings have never been installed as ‘policy’ but just as ‘acceptable fact’… seems to me, is he not capable of admitting error, but he also prefers us sheep to believe that his focus doesn’t change, its just us that change.
    Both of you are duplicitous.

    • Harper’s a slipperier customer then that. He didn’t say the war was unwinnable [now] rather that the insurgency will never end. Of couse he didn’t use those words at an earlier time. I belieive he preferred phrases like: “Taliban Jack” and all but accusing Dion of sedition, treason- whatever. This guy torches bridges as he crosses them then accuses everybody else of hoping he’ll fall and drown – well, he may have that part right anyway.

  6. Well said PM : he said what he has been saying for a long time! Listen or Read : he says and I quote IF that’s right folks IF foreign troops remain they may never win against the insurgents as it is up to Afghans. DUH! folks – word parsers that take speeches out of context are tiresome.

    • Ok Wayne, i’m slow today. What does yr “if” signify?

      • Why not just listen or read the interview where he says = IF foreign troops remain they MAY never defeat the insurgency as ONLY the Afghans can. – so where’s the story here folks = there isn’t one !

        • Wayne’s just continuing with chapter 32 of the Tory talking points — revisionist history and its applicable maladies.

        • Oh i thought the story was that this statement WAS news to Canadians, all except you apparently!

          • Only if you take it out of context of the whole interview as I watched the whole interview. Now you can parse out one sentence and then make it a headline and then say news news news! get your latest story here but that don’t make it one although it does encourage harper haters posting on web forums and maybe sells a paper or two but outside of that is just jetsam and flotsom.

  7. For God’s sakes, Germany was basically fully restored within four years; Germany joined NATO ten years after it was conquered.

    A facile contrast.

  8. This may be the first time I’ve agreed with something Harper has said!

    I heard an interview with a military analyst a few years ago who stated this
    blinding flash of the (should be) obvious “it’s the losing side that
    determines when a war is over”. At that instant it became obvious to me that
    there can and will never be any “winning” of the “war” in Afghanistan (&
    other places) in any traditional military sense.

    The only “winning” as I see it, will be through political, social,
    attitudinal, & behavioural changes & actions that sufficiently marginalize
    or eliminate the need for the “insurgency”. What these changes are is a
    fundamentally tricky problem that unfortunately I don’t have the answer to.
    I’m sure hoping that there are people who can work towards solutions. Maybe
    Obama’s election could help.

    Now whether Harper’s political motivations for his remarks signal a move
    towards this type of solution remains to be seen. Past behaviour says that
    it’s unlikely (and that’s me being polite). I’d love to be proven wrong.

    Oh, and as to the military. I imagine that there is still a need for an
    appropriate response to insurgent “bullying”. With the right terms of
    reference our brave & courageous soldiers would be set up for success &
    would know that their actions are actually leading to a solution. We owe
    them that and more.

  9. Defeat Victory is not an option!”

    How times change.

  10. “My reading of Afghanistan’s history is that they’ve probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.”

    That “reading” of Afghan history is facile enough to be pointless, but if we accept it for the sake of argument, I could just as easily say that Afghanistan has also usually had a foreign army of some kind occupying its territory. That would be us, in this case. And somehow we’re going to make a graceful exit so that the Afghans can carry on drubbing an “insurgency” which has been going on “forever.”

    If Harper hasn’t “reversed” himself on Afghanistan, that’s probably because he’s confined himself to vague, facile analysis on the one hand, and militarist rhetoric on the other. Presumably some nonpartisan pundits might point that out rather than leaping to the aid of the government in power by searching for continuities.

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