Stepping back and looking forward on Afghanistan -

Stepping back and looking forward on Afghanistan


This morning’s news on Afghanistan should spur the Canadian government to plan and communicate much more clearly about exactly what it plans to do in the troubled country for many years to come. It’s as good a moment as any to take stock.

Let’s not get bogged down, at least for now, in the sporadic debate over the 2011 date for pulling our troops out of Kandahar, the commitment the Harper government and the opposition Liberals agree to last year. Assuming that withdrawal deadline isn’t changed, Canada still needs to much more clearly define its how it sees its role in Afghanistan. Two developments frame that decision:

1) preparations have begun for a Nov. 7 run-off vote to try to settle Afghanistan’s fraud-tainted late-summer presidential election, and;

2) pressure from Washington are mounting for NATO members and other countries to step up their Afghan contributions, as President Obama considers sending many more U.S. troops.

Of course nobody knows how the run-off will turn out or exactly what Obama will decide to do. But what’s clear is that Afghan politics will remain fraught with controversy for the foreseeable future and the U.S.-led military effort is likely to get bigger and more dangerous.

That combination of political instability and military sacrifice is bound to put even more of a strain on what’s left of popular support, in Canada and the U.S. and Europe, for spending billions and risking many lives in such an uncertain cause.

From a narrowly Canadian point of view, Ottawa needs to map out a realistic, long-term plan for trying to help. Once we take the focus off fighting, what next? If we’re to exit Kandahar, will we next concentrate on, say, building institutional capacity in the capital of Kabul? Or will we shift to a different sort of aid effort, one that somehow doesn’t require a lot of troops protecting development in dangerous places? How exactly can we keep training Afghan soldiers and police, as the government says we will, if we insist on keeping our own troops out of harm’s way?

Whatever roles we take on will require systematic planning that assumes a very long-term commitment in Afghanistan. Otherwise, why bother? But this sort of thinking ahead often hasn’t been happening the way it should. A telling example: David Ljunggren of Reuters reports that top Canadian officers admit they failed to implement enough basic training in Afghan languages, an often overlooked but fundamental requirement for succeeding on that ground at just about anything we might attempt.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the head of Canada’s army, ruefully admits the hard job of language training didn’t seem worth it for a mission that wasn’t supposed to go on and on and on. “I always thought we’d be there (just) two more years,” Leslie told Reuters, “ two more years, two more years, and guess what?”

Lesson learned, one hopes. From decisions on basic direction, like what next after 2011, to those on execution, like how do we train enough soldiers and foreign service workers to speak Pashtun, the Canadian government needs to start taking—and publicly explaining—a long view that assumes Afghanistan will remain a massive and central challenge for a long, long time.

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Stepping back and looking forward on Afghanistan

  1. I had a nasty feelng at the beginning of this campaign that inadequate language skills and deficient understanding of the cultural norms would not get much attention. What this really says is that we've been making it up [ reacting ] as we've gone along. It's been driven more by political considerations than some rational plan. It was ever thus.Get into a war, lose sight of your original objectives or start adding layers to them, until no one is really sure what you were there for at all.

  2. If we had a coherent reason for being in Afghanistan in the first place the direction to take would be obvious. The sad fact is Canada's plan isn't even to react to what happens in Afghanistan, it's to react to whatever is happening in Washington. The mission was corrupt from inception, and should be shut down completely.

  3. In fairness, the Lt.-General has a point. Remember when they started the purpose was supposedly to take out the terrorist training camps, and remove the support of the Taliban gov't so they couldn't start up again. It was supposed to be a quick in-and-out (heh), with clear military objectives, and sticking around to redevelop was not part of the plan (and in fact had been specifically disavowed by many of the politicians involved). So why spend the resources on teaching the language and culture for what was going to be short.

  4. I think our staying in Afghanistan is incumbent on the people of Afghanistan wanting us to stay, is incumbent upon credible government, is incumbent upon NATO's commitment in real terms, and perhaps on Pakistan's commitment to set its house in order in those provinces near the border.

    I phrased this in this way because there are a number of factors that need to happen in parallel. Like Barrel staves that individually determine the height of water the barrel contains, similarly, success in Afghanistan requires all of those aspects to create measurable success.

    I am reminded that Canada stayed in Cyprus for as long as it took to see peace. But that was in another generation that didn't expect "instant" success.

  5. Whether it's 10 days or 10 years, learn the language!

  6. Wasn't this one UN sanctioned?

  7. Macleans really ought to give you a space here, if only to balance Steyn [ you'll need to be real heavy ]
    Where does he get all those wonderful toys?[ links ]

  8. You guys really do need some editing skills.

  9. yes – and this had been evident from the outset. It was particularly obvious by the nature of Rick Hillier's comments to the media.

    …and no it was not sanctioned by the U.N. until more than 2 months after the initial illegal invasion by the U.S. and Britain.

  10. we stayed in Cyprus only because both sides requested our presence. In the case of Afghanistan…no one ever asked us to set foot there.

  11. Many can barely speak English.

  12. Absolutely right!

  13. So, what does it mean "the people of Afghanistan wanting us to stay". After all, the vast majority are probably challenged to find Canada on a map let alone decide whether they like us or not enough to continue to welcome us. I doubt there is any meaningful way to determine what "they", in the democratic sense, want, nor would the powers that be care. The recent election is enough to warn anyone about the veracity of polls of any sort. So, "the people" is really code to mean, well, those who matter in some way, whoever they are (and there's a very real $$ influence there). I think our staying in Afghanistan is incumbent on what Washington is prepared to live with (which has a lot to do with what is in Canada's 'interest') – it has very little to do with what Afghanistan or Pakistan (or even the majority of Canadians) want. As for NATO, it's a lame horse that is beyond veterinary care.

  14. I had a nasty feeling it would the difficulty in digging septic fields into the hard rock, that would be their undoing.

    The objective is, as it ever was, to abate the training of terrorists, and to send a signal to other countries that harbouring such activity would not be tolerated.

  15. No, the odjective has become blurred by the overlayering of each new rationilization for our being there. Now it's democracy; then it's educating girls; all laudable ideals yes. I don't blame the military, but when did we sign on to nation building exactly? When has it ever worked – except where we raised the place to the ground, as in Germany and Japan? Even here we had something to build on.

  16. I think you mean razed, and rebuilding has worked in plenty of places, but takes time. Look at Serbia and Croatia.

  17. Thanks…razed it is.

  18. Serbia and Croatia are European states …hardly Afganistan. My point.