A new turn in our Afghan strategy

The U.S. special representative in Afghanistan would like a Canadian on his team


A new turn in our Afghan strategyThere is progress being made on Afghanistan, if you define “progress” narrowly enough. It has become harder to deny what a mess the country has become, so fewer people are trying to deny it. Progress.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Aug. 30 report to Barack Obama makes an important conceptual breakthrough. “Progress is hindered by the dual threat of a resilient insurgency and a crisis of confidence in the [Afghan] government and the international coalition,” the theatre’s top military commander wrote. “To win their support, we must protect the people from both of these threats.” For McChrystal, a careful writer, to frame his enemy and his own side as parallel threats is an astonishing admission.

It follows that it will do no good for “the international coalition” to clean up its act if the Afghan government doesn’t follow suit. “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government,” McChrystal writes.

The summer election in Afghanistan was supposed to turn the page on corruption, abuse and malign action. It did the opposite. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who had served as number two to the country’s highest-ranking United Nations official, Kai Eide, was fired for speaking out about Hamid Karzai’s attempt to steal the election. Galbraith declined to go quietly. “For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

The highest-ranking Western soldier in Afghanistan says the precondition for military success is a serious Afghan government. The highest-ranking Western civilian there is trying to hide the election’s failure to produce a serious government. What now?

David Kilcullen, a prominent military adviser who said a year ago that this war was still “winnable, but only just,” now suggests it is probably not winnable. Without a runoff between Karzai and his main opponent, or an emergency national council to produce a coalition with broad support among the elite, the Karzai regime’s legitimacy will be hopelessly tarnished. NATO’s only choice then, Kilcullen writes, will be to “draw down troops and prepare to mitigate the inevitable humanitarian disaster that will come when the Kabul government falls to the Taliban—which, in the absence of reform, it eventually and deservedly will.”

Of course, Canada is in this up to its neck, even if Canadians are weary with the whole mess. And it’s because we’re in so deep that the Harper government finds itself preparing to implement a significant and unexpected change to its Afghan strategy.

Earlier this year there was an extended debate over whether Canada should appoint a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question arose because Obama had named one. Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat and fixer, had a mandate that would cover the two countries on either side of the Hindu Kush, and his reports would reach the new President’s ear directly. Several countries scrambled to name their own Afghanistan-Pakistan emissaries. Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom were among them. In the Commons, Liberal Bob Rae goaded the Harper government for months to follow suit. For months the government dismissed Rae and the whole idea. We have an ambassador in Kabul and a high commissioner in Islamabad, and what was Rae’s problem? “This government has confidence in our foreign affairs professionals if the opposition does not,” Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent said one afternoon in March.

Then something changed. Instead of the Liberals asking for an interlocutor for Holbrooke, Holbrooke asked.

Maclean’s has learned that the Harper government is on the verge of appointing a member of the Canadian government who will work as part of Holbrooke’s Washington team. “Canada is currently considering potential candidates for an assignment in Mr. Holbrooke’s office,” Jamie Christoff, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman, wrote in an email.

“This contribution is being considered as we are partnering even more closely with the U.S. to deliver on crucial governance, reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan.”

Through an intermediary, Holbrooke confirmed that he wants a Canadian in his office. He already has a British government representative, Jane Marriott, a career diplomat who served as speech writer to a former U.K. defence secretary. Holbrooke made his request directly to Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s foreign minister. “When I was down there [in Washington] a couple of months ago he suggested that we supply an individual to work with him,” Cannon told my colleague John Geddes this week.

If nothing else, the request from Holbrooke is further evidence that Canada remains a crucial interlocutor among Western allies on the Afghanistan file. Which helps explain why, at Kai Eide’s request, Canada hosted a little-noticed meeting at our consulate general in New York City on Sept. 25. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there, Cannon says, along with Holbrooke and senior British, Italian and Australian dignitaries.

For Canada, as for every country involved in Afghanistan, the question is how to get out of something we are in so deeply. The Commons has voted for a military pullout in 2011. What does that mean? A foreign diplomat arriving in Ottawa this month was told by Canadian officials it means that “every Canadian soldier will leave Afghanistan in 2011, except perhaps for the military attaché at the embassy.”

There is no reason to expect that will change. But there was no reason to expect the Harper government would name an Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy either. And then the Americans asked.


A new turn in our Afghan strategy

  1. It's very tempting to blame former president Bush for this, and a case can be made based on how he pulled vital troops from the Afghanistan region for his personal vendetta on Saddam Hussein. Still, I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. Afghanistan defeated the Soviet Union at its power.. heck, some argue that Afghanistan was actually a key turning point in the soviet union's eventual demise because so many resources got wasted there.

    I'm really torn on this issue. I recognize that pulling out is going to make the situation for a vast number of the Afghani people a whole lot worse.. on the other hand, I don't see that staying there is going to make things a whole lot better for them, and will certainly act as a continual leech on our own resources.

    Lesson for future: If we're trying to give democracy a foothold in a nation basically riddled with corruption, I think we need to play hardball whenever we see corruption happening. Hardball as in that delivered from a McMillan Tac-50.

    • What do you mean by "Afghanistan defeated the Soviet Union at its powers…" Define "Afghanistan" for me.

      • Sorry, fingers weren't working along with the brain that day it seems, "Afghanistsan defeated the Soviet Union at the height of its power" was what I meant to say, alluding to how many years the Soviet Union tried to take control of Afghanistan and ultimately failed.

  2. I'm also torn on this issue. You hear experts having opposite opinions regularly.

    But I am suspicious.

    Why so late in the game?

    Why suddenly does Pamela Wallin write a support your troops type article.

    Why is MacKay saying what's he's been saying.

    And, your latest hero – Alexander/Cons – and he won't discuss Afghanistan NOW. As I understand it, Alexander was being wooed by the Libs, but they want out in 2011 yet, he's running for Harper – what promises made there and why can't he talk about it?

  3. I've read the motion over a number of times, and I can find no mention a military pullout of Afghanistan – rather, it only mentions a military pullout of Kandahar. Presumably, this means the will of Parliament (the motion) would be respected by sending combat troops to fight in another part of Afghanistan in 2011.

    Am I missing something?

  4. Our soldiers speak none of the many languages, the country borders on Iran, Turmenistan, China, Uzbeckistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan. The Indians meddle. The Saudis fund. We are not welcome there. The situation has steadily deteriorated since our involvement. Our operation there, vastly expensive to begin with, is wildly over budget. There is no definition of success, no final objective. Karzai, having stolen the election, will fill his cabinet with war lords and thugs, is getting cozier with the Taliban daily – and he was the installed American puppet.

    Staying in Afgahanistan, in any capacity, is folly. Wasting more lives and treasure there is more than plain stupid, it's immoral.

  5. We could leave, abandon the document of R2P, which we carved out and was adopted by the UN. We could blow up Mount Pious, a place where or most moralizing prophets peach in order to judge the Americans, the Israelis,the corporations, and on occasion a few others, It would be nice to get back to normal.

  6. We could leave, abandon the document of R2P( resposibility to protect), which we carved out and was adopted by the UN. We could blow up Mount Pious, a place where our most moralizing prophets preach in order to judge the Americans, the Israelis,the corporations, and on occasion a few others, It would be nice to get back to normal.

  7. When we start wearing turbans in this country is when we should stay involved. Cut our looses and run otherwise we will wast more lives and assets in the future. We will just follow Russia and get our butts kicked out in the long run. You can not expect to install a democracy in a backward country that is only interested in tribal and religious customs. They have our ways they have theirs.

  8. There is a similarity with the German situation in WW2. Arguably, Germany lost the war when it invaded Russia, the same as Napoleon. Defeat was just a matter of time. It took the allies 5 1/2 years. Germany was fighting with land links to its troops with the exception of troops in Norway. The U.S. has been 8 years in Afghanistan, is still in Iraq, both thousands of miles away, linked by sea and air. No land connections. Has the U.S. made the same mistake as Hitler, invading an area where history says it can't win? That it will be defeated, is only a matter of time?__

  9. I think you've spotted it, Wells. The Harper government is cautiously trying to prepare the ground for a change to the 2011 deadline. If they can convince people that we cannot turn down Obama, they will put an extension motion before the House of Commons, doubtless with the idea of splitting the Liberals in mind. Alternatively, they could try to keep the troops there while disengaging from the combat role – they have hinted at this for a long time. But I don't think that will satisfy Hopey. Clarity is required. Ironically, Bush didn't actually require anything of us. Obama might. Funny old world, innit ?

  10. canada never should have been part of this war in afghanistan. it was dragged in when george bush basically bribed the canadian government for its support. not canada’s responsibility to be involved i afghanistan!

  11. I'm not sure appointing a new liaison constitutes "a new turn in our Afghan strategy."

    Wellsian hyperbole aside, it would be nice if our government took input from other Members of Parliament more seriously than input from foreign governments. We're all Canadians here and we should be listening to each other's opinions, particularly when those opinions concern wartime policy and come from elected representatives.

  12. This is what I have been saying for a long time – " … Canadian troops have proportionately suffered more fatalities that any other Nato contingent … " – but nobody asks why.

    Why ?

  13. The Canadian for Holbrooke was actually reported earlier by George Packer in the "New Yorker", Sept. 28 (p. 7):

    Holbrooke has taken over two suites of offices at State Department headquarters, filling them with a staff that has grown to some thirty people. (He had told Clinton that he would need around fifteen.) Nine government agencies, including the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the Defense and Treasury Departments, and two foreign countries, Britain and Canada, are represented in the office…"

    Bit premature about the Canadian actually being there it seems.


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