It just keeps getting harder to believe in Afghanistan

The guy most likely to hang on to power is a fraud backed by thugs in the service of values we like to claim we could never support


 

090908_afghanistan_wide

The first time I visited Afghanistan, two years ago, the presidential election of 2009 was already the most important date on the horizon. Well, nobody was entirely sure whether it would be in 2009 or 2010. But they knew it would matter big time. If it went well, Afghanistan’s deliverance from 30 years of near-constant internecine carnage would be accelerated greatly. If not, not.

Here’s how it went. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that a week before the election, the members of a southern tribe decided they had had enough of Hamid Karzai and they preferred his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. But they never got to vote for him because Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, threw the governor of Shorbak, the tribesmen’s district, in jail and shut down all of its polling stations. Then the district police stuffed ballot boxes until Shorbak had returned nearly 30,000 votes for Karzai.

So after Barack Obama and Stephen Harper showed all kinds of proper concern about the mockery of democracy that took place a couple of months ago in Iran’s national elections, they are now in a bit of a bind, because both men run governments that need to work with Hamid Karzai and his thug brother every day of the week.

I’m afraid it’s not obvious to me what the solution is here. Iran’s sham election was worth denouncing, and I continue to prefer to believe that Afghanistan’s sometimes-contemptible government shouldn’t be abandoned to the Taliban and their assorted henchmen.

But we have a problem here. Afghanistan is getting steadily far more violent, for its own inhabitants and for the Westerners, including Canadians, who have now spent eight years trying to put it right. More NATO soldiers died in July and August than in any entire year before 2006. The 17,000 extra U.S. troops Obama sent after his inauguration in January have been enough to stir up a hornets’ nest but not enough to control it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the only Republican holdover in Obama’s cabinet, fired the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, in June and sent a handpicked replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to clean up the mess. This week McChrystal sent his bosses a report calling for a new strategy in Afghanistan, eight years into the conflict and less than six months after Obama announced the last new strategy.

Reports say McChrystal will call for up to 20,000 additional U.S. troops on top of the 17,000 Obama already sent and the 30,000-odd who’ve been there all along. I think you could make a case that Gates—who went to the wall to keep the springtime troop surge from being too large—should lose his job if the commander he selected says that was a mistake. But firing Gates at this stage would merely be a distracting sacrifice to the gods of procedure. It would do nothing to halt Afghanistan’s downward spiral.

Remember Shiite Personal Status Law, which sought to protect the right of Shiite men in Afghanistan to rape their wives and forbade their wives to leave the house without permission? There was quite a fuss over it in April. “That’s unacceptable—period,” Peter MacKay said then. “We’re fighting for values that include equality and women’s rights. This sort of legislation won’t fly.”

It flew. Karzai’s government passed it into law in August.

So how are we doing? Afghanistan is deadlier for Canadians and our allies than ever. As a hole for military effort and expense in blood and treasure, it is getting deeper, not filling up. The guy who seems likeliest to hang onto power there is a fraud backed by thugs in the service of values we like to claim we could never support.

All of this to keep Afghanistan from breeding more terrorists—even though most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and hatched their plot in Germany, two countries we are not proposing to occupy and democratize.

At some point, the logical conclusion is that Afghanistan has ceased to be worth the effort because the effort does not make it measurably better on any axis that matters to its citizens or our own. Each observer will reach that point at a different time. For me it would tend to come very late indeed, because I have believed since Sept. 11, 2001, that this is Canada’s struggle too and that we should make a meaningful contribution.

It’s just harder and harder to see what’s meaningful about all this. On the so-called rape law, here’s what Stephen Harper said in the spring:

“The involvement in the international community, and particularly Canada and our NATO allies, is based on the pursuit of very fundamental values in opposition to the kinds of values the Taliban stood for . . . If we drift from that, there will be a clear diminishment in allied support for this venture.”

Since he said those words in April, the law Harper decried has come into force and 11 more Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan. It becomes harder every day to believe that patience in this struggle is synonymous with virtue.


 
Filed under:

It just keeps getting harder to believe in Afghanistan

  1. "I'm afraid it's not obvious to me what the solution is here"

    I know! Let's ask the brilliant and almighty General Rick Hillier. Surely Canada's military Oracle will have a solution mind for the war he pushed so hard for, yes?

    • So you are not a big fan of Rick Hillier – I get that part.

      But why not use a little more class when making that point?

      • I'm sorry… What part of my post lacked class,exactly? Is that not a fair question to ask the man who so adamantly pushed for this engagement and berated those who opposed it?

        • It is an entirely fair question to ask of the man who so adamantly pushed for this engagement and berated those who opposed it. I have no grief with that, although I would characterize his criticism of opponents as being forceful rather than berating, but that is an admittedly small difference, and my memory fades.

          I thought the phrase 'brilliant and almighty' had a mocking tone to it, and together with the use of 'Oracle' the comment moved from legitimate question to snark. I can be snarky, I understand snarky, I just find that snark rarely advances the cause.

        • As for "class", HIllier showed himself to be more or less free of that when he chose (a) to pronounce on what Canada's foreign policy should be (decidedly not his job, and in fact far worse than graceless), and (b) to do it in terms ("scumbags," etc.) that made him sound like an insecure but macho twenty-something thug.

          • Completely agree with you, PhilCP is overly sensitive.

          • Oh, I'm not losing any sleep or anything like that, and I know there have been many other comments posted against many other topics that have been much worse. And I don't mind sarcasm per se.

            The original comment just seemed unnecessarily 'over the top' and I pointed that out; so far I seem to be the only one who feels that way, and that's OK.

          • In truth I agree with you that "snark rarely advances the cause." But then polite, reasoned "debate" — usually held up as the alternative — is not notably more effectual. Not if the "cause" is getting a government to adopt and act on some hard-nosed, historically-informed, more or less illusion-free analysis of a situation.

            Or even just some plain common sense. Since the Persian Empire, has there been a foreign power or coalition that managed to impose its will on Afghanistan for longer than a generation or so? (Not a rhetorical question).

          • Good points, Bob.

            I'm certainly not saying that polite, reasoned debate is markedly more effective than snark, especially in the short term. However, I will make the argument that NO disagreement can be successfully 'permanently resolved without a period of polite, reasoned debate, often stretched out over quite a long time.

            And definitely agree wrt the Afghanistan situation.

  2. "All of this to keep Afghanistan from breeding more terrorists"

    For me, what has been lacking on the Afghanistan debate is discussion of the mission's objectives. It seemed pretty obvious after 9/11 – get Bin Laden, get the guys who attacked America, all under the guise of the war on terror.

    Are those still the objectives? Or have they evolved? Or should they?

    Is our objective to bring democracy to Afghanistan? Or women's rights? Or remove corruption from government? Or prevent the Taliban from regaining control? Or all of the above?

    I believe our objective in Afghanistan should be to put in place the conditions for its citizens to live with reasonable security and without oppression. I believe before we exit, both of these conditions should be sustainable.

    Does this sound like it'll take a long time? Damn right. I personally have the patience as a Canadian citizen and taxpayer. I recognize that most others disagree with this position – and I could very well be wrong. But this is how I'd like to frame the Afghanistan debate.

    • Very well put. That's the debate we need.

      • I tried to answer that below.

    • We're never going to get that debate. Why? Because in order to have that debate, people would have to come clean on our true purpose in A'stan.

      • Which is ?

        • For Chretien, to appease the Yanks. For Martin, Hillier and Harper, getting some respect for Canada through military might.

          • "For Chretien, to appease the Yanks."

            In other words, participating in Afghanistan is in Canada's national interest in the most direct way possible. Glad you affirm that. So as long as the Yankees think it's important, we'll be there. That makes it all quite simple, really.

          • So, you completely disagree with PJ, somewhat disagree, somewhat agree or what? Just wondering…

    • And even if after much blood and treasure is expended to bring a level of security to Afghanistan, AlQaida and the Taliban could just relocate to another failed state in the region and carry on as before exporting terror.

  3. This is an excellent column. Thank you Paul.

    The "rape law" and the subsequent reelection of Karzai after passing it was a real turning point for me too. It is much harder today to understand what we hope to accomplish there.

  4. Good column, Paul. Your loss of faith is understandable. Friedman also made a good point when he wrote: "We are transforming our mission — from baby-sitting to adoption." State Building 101, but nobody has any textbooks.

    • Wrt the Friedman quote: Baby-sitting requires that there be parents to which the baby can be returned to at the end of the evening. Unfortunately, as it turns out there are no parents, so the West will need to raise the parents at the same time as we mind the baby, and this will take at least a generation and then some.

    • "State Building 101, but nobody has any textbooks."

      I don't know about that. Using the Brits and what they did to colonize territories would be a good place to start but I am also aware that Brits do not have good track record in Afghan. It seems to me we need some kind of Colonial Office that focuses on nation building over the long term because there is no way the West is going to achieve many of its goals in less than a decade with soldiers alone.

      • Are you serious? That's what the Soviets tried to do and they got their butts kicked.

        • But the Soviets also had to contend with a foe given a near-limitless supplies of arms (esp Stinger SAMs) by the US. As bad as EIDs are, it's not the same equation. I'm not saying we should, but if the west wanted to spend the blood, treasure and time we could stick around until 2035 or so and see what happens.

          • Sadly, I doubt we'd be able to do any better than they did, no matter how long we stay. You can't force democracy on a medieval country.

          • At least 2035…it would likely take at least a generation or two, and even then it could be dicey.

            They have to want it, and for too many of the older generations they just aren't interested (or can't) let go of the old ways. So you need to stick around until new generations who aren't so invested in the old ways grow up and move into leadership roles, and then you need to do that without obviously being an occupying power for all that time.

            Quite a challenge.

        • But the Soviets also had to contend with a foe given a near-limitless supplies of arms (esp Stinger SAMs) by the US. As bad as IEDs are, it's not the same equation. I'm not saying we should, but if the west wanted to spend the blood, treasure and time we could stick around until 2035 or so and see what happens.

  5. As I've read the comments made by the other posters, I will be more succinct than my first post:

    We need to agree on what problem we are trying to solve before we figure out what the solution should be. I believe we skipped this step.

    • But the third step is: profit!

  6. This was foreseeable. The Iraq war was pulling fighters in against the US for years, in a country with infrastructure, an educated populace, and flat desert. The fighters had little chance once the US stepped up the troop levels in 2006.

    Once the decision was made to pull out of Iraq in stages (by GWB) it was only a matter of time before fighters started moving to the other front at which they could kill Coalition soldiers: Afghanistan. Afghanistan has little infrastructure, a largely uneducated populace, and lots of mountains. Also it's run by tribes along the lines of a feudal system. It is a battlefield much more favourable to insurgents than Iraq.

    I don't say this to justify the invasion of Iraq. But with the invasion accomplished, it would have been wiser to take advantage of the circumstances: fight the battle on ground that favours us and hinders them.

    With the withdrawal from Iraq proceeding according to Bush's timetable we now have a serious problem in Afghanistan. There are only two ways out:
    (1) Engage on another battlefield similar to Iraq in terms of geography and civilization. This requires either another invasion (almost certainly unjustified) or a very cooperative government (almost certainly impossible).
    (2) Education of the majority of Afghans and conversion to a line of thinking that promotes fundamental human rights regardless of majority thinking or human law. This is (a) a generation long, and (b) not consistent with the thinking of most Canadians.

    Perhaps, therefore, we should get our own house in order before we start 'democratizing' other nations. The US can leave Special Forces behind to find and execute Bin Laden. The regret will be that Afghanistan will degenerate back to its former status, plus damage. Our soldiers will have died for nothing.

  7. We've already accomplished so much. Largest refugee resettlement in the history of the U.N.H.C.R, millions of children attending school, immunization programs that save over 50,000 children a year, the list goes on. Its disgraceful that our politicians can't seem to articulate these facts; its even worse that the media seems to gloss right over these accomplishments and instead only write about our "losses" as if they are the measuring stick of our success or failure.

    I guess if you were under the impression that in less then a decade we would turn a violent society, mired 1,000 years in the past, into a 21st century democracy with all its 21st western sensibilities, we were doomed to failure in your eyes before the first soldier set foot on Afghan soil.

    Would you put your life on the line to save your brothers child? How about the entire student population at your sons or daughters school? How about a city the size or Belleville populated by only children?

    That's what our fine men and woman in the armed forces do over there every day. Its a damn shame you don't dedicate as many words for their successes as you do for their losses. Maybe your just as ignorant of these facts as the majority of Canadians!

    • "Would you put your life on the line to save your brothers child? … That's what our fine men and woman in the armed forces do over there every day."

      Nobody here questions their gallantry, bravery or heroism. Quite the opposite. They are volunteers, which makes their sacrifice all the more laudable. The question is whether Canada's military presence as an instrument of our foreign policy is effective in accomplishing what is in Canada's national interest. If the only criteria for our foreign policy is humanitarian assistance, we can do a lot more good in a lot of other areas of the world without the added expense of the military fighting a combat operation – meaning either we can do a lot more with the same resources, or we can do the same with much less resources.

    • The question is not the value of the work being done by our volunteer soldiers or their valour in doing so – nobody questions either. The question is whether the mission serves our interests as a nation, however that is defined. The argument is over how those interests are defined.

    • What I moreorless got from my reading of the article: even if until now one has had an optimistic and constructive view of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan, it's hard to say what success means in this venture and harder still to point to any signs that we are achieving it; this fault lies not with the troops, but either with the planners or with the very nature of the endeavor.. I didn't see any of the type of sentiment you seem to be reacting to.

  8. The hole was deep enough a long time ago: its time to stop digging. When the argument can be credibly made that the Iranian election was at least as fair and transparent as the Afghan election you know we are in trouble. Bring the troops home now. They are much to splendid and valiant a group of men and women for us to knowingly continue to waste their lives.

  9. I agree entirely, and wish I could frame it so concisely. All good things flow from peace. But can the Taliban be exhausted militarily? And would they, conceivably, be satisfied with ruling the Pushtun areas? I never grasped why, in the 1990's, they were so keen to conquer every last inch of Afghanistan, given that they're (among other things) Pushtun nationalists.

    Really, it would all be so much easier if Mullah Omar would just renounce Al Qaeda, or die and be replaced by a pragmatic Taliban military leader without a prophet complex.

    • "I never grasped why, in the 1990's, they were so keen to conquer every last inch of Afghanistan … "

      Ideology, whether it be social, economic, political or religious, is about power, not principle.

    • I don't know what happened to the reply I posted here earlier, but here goes another try :

      "I never grasped why, in the 1990's, they were so keen to conquer every last inch of Afghanistan … "

      Ideology, whether it be social, economic, political or religious, is not about principle, it's about power.

  10. The objective was clear when we started. Get in, take out the Al Qaeda terrorist camps. Canada and most of NATO went in to help what seemed to be a fairly righteous mission.

    Unfortunately, with those kind of forces lined up, it was too easy. They training camps were obliterated within days, no fuss, no muss, and, most importantly.. no catharsis for the American public. Where was the hard fought struggle they expected must happen to defeat an enemy that was able to hit them so brutally? Where was the sense of relief at defeating such a terrible foe? There wasn't any.. so. Next step, Iraq. Meanwhile the rest of the world went WTF?

    And with the training camps taken out.. what was left? Did we all send our military over there for essentially a long-weekend? That couldn't be what it was all about, could it? Why no! Why look at all the oppression, the theocracy, the appalling human rights condition. Surely ]this is what we came for..
    ..except it wasn't. And we never stopped to think about that.

    We forgot one of the primary lessons of democracy. It's about people having the choice over their system of government. And the first choice of a democracy is that the people want that choice bad enough that they are willing to fight against whatever other system is currently in place. They never made that choice. We never even gave them the opportunity. What's worse, now we're funding the power structure currently in place, making it even harder for those people who want democracy to make that choice.

    Meanwhile, Darfur.

    If there's anything to get gained from this, it's the lesson of applying your resources only where you can see a clear difference being made as a result. Specific acts for specific results.

  11. The objective was clear when we started. Get in, take out the Al Qaeda terrorist camps. Canada and most of NATO went in to help what seemed to be a fairly righteous mission.

    Unfortunately, with those kind of forces lined up, it was too easy. They training camps were obliterated within days, no fuss, no muss, and, most importantly.. no catharsis for the American public. Where was the hard fought struggle they expected must happen to defeat an enemy that was able to hit them so brutally? Where was the sense of relief at defeating such a terrible foe? There wasn't any.. so. Next step, Iraq. Meanwhile the rest of the world went WTF?

    And with the training camps taken out.. what was left? Did we all send our military over there for essentially a long-weekend? That couldn't be what it was all about, could it? Why no! Why look at all the oppression, the theocracy, the appalling human rights condition. Surely this is what we came for..
    ..except it wasn't. And we never stopped to think about that.

    We forgot one of the primary lessons of democracy. It's about people having the choice over their system of government. And the first choice of a democracy is that the people want that choice bad enough that they are willing to fight against whatever other system is currently in place. They never made that choice. We never even gave them the opportunity. What's worse, now we're funding the power structure currently in place, making it even harder for those people who want democracy to make that choice.

    Meanwhile, Darfur.

    If there's anything to get gained from this, it's the lesson of applying your resources only where you can see a clear difference being made as a result. Specific acts for specific results.

    • "The objective was clear when we started. Get in, take out the Al Qaeda terrorist camps. Canada and most of NATO went in to help what seemed to be a fairly righteous mission. "

      Sorry Thwim but everything that we know about Afghanistan should have told us that this mission was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. I frankly don't understand why anyone would think that we were going to end up with any other result.

      Western arrogance, perhaps?

      • No, I think the specific mission of eliminating the training camps was done quickly and successfully. The problem happened because we allowed mission creep to take over. We allowed ourselves to think that we could eliminate terrorism completely, or that we could democratize the country, or change the culture to being one that is more respectful to women, or any of the myriad other goals that the mission has taken on since.

        But if we think way back.. back to the beginning, the mission was simply to take out those camps and demonstrate to the terrorists that there is a price to be paid for getting too obviously organized.

        • Eliminating training camps was never going to be sufficient. Training camps can be rebuilt or moved to another location overnight. Following the Afghan mission to its logical conclusion meant attempting to do a regime-change. A regime-change in that country is a non-starter. Don't take my word for it, just look at long history behind such previous attempts.

          • Meh. I never said it would be sufficient. I was saying what the mission was.

          • Meh. I never said it would be sufficient. I was saying what the mission was. In fact, that's part of my point, that the mission as it was was essentially worthless. We couldn't accept that, that was what we all mobilized for, and so the mission creep began.

          • Well if you are right and that was indeed the mission, it was damn stupid.

  12. I think that we tend to spend too much time on what didn't work and too little on what did. Girls not being killed for going to school. Relative peace in many areas of Afghanistan. Children's health.

    • Guess what Don? Girls are still being killed for going to school, children are still dying of preventable diseases and A'stan is as violent as ever if not more.

      • There are undoubtedly more girls in Afghanistan getting an education now than prior to 2002. There are undoubtedly fewer children dying of preventable disease than prior to 2002. And as violent as the uptick has been since 2006, it is not as violent as ever if not more (esp compared to the 80s). So one question is, is this very slow incremental progress worth it?

        That's what rubs me the wrong way about many opponents of the mission– the absolute refusal to admit any good has been or is capable of being done. Now, perhaps it's not worth our blood, treasure and time to make the slow small gains that have been made and that's what the public debate is about.

        • "There are undoubtedly more girls in Afghanistan getting an education now than prior to 2002. There are undoubtedly fewer children dying of preventable disease than prior to 2002. And as violent as the uptick has been since 2006, it is not as violent as ever if not more (esp compared to the 80s). So one question is, is this very slow incremental progress worth it?"

          Sorry Derek but I have yet to see any evidence of the "incremental progress" you described. And are we now reduced to comparing today's Afghanistan to that of the 80s to justify this mission?

  13. Macleans technical staff : don't you have a way of fixing this crazy comments software that keeps eating comments, only to regurgitate them later ?

  14. "All of this to keep Afghanistan from breeding more terrorists—even though most of the 9/11 terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and hatched their plot in Germany"

    This, to me, is the crux. Is it or is it not unacceptable to us that Al Qaeda should have bases and training camps in Afghanistan? We went to war because that was considered unacceptable in 2002. But does Al Qaeda not have bases and training camps now in the mountains of Pakistan? I don't know. Also, could NATO / Karzai disrupt such camps (in Afghanistan) enough to keep Al Qaeda off balance?

    I don't know if it's quite right to say that, because the 9/11 plot was organised in Germany (and subsequently in America) by Saudis, their training in Afghanistan was irrelevant. We are, after all, talking about a kind of cult in which the front-line fighters have to commit suicide. Of course fanaticism counts for a lot, but it seems to me the terrorists might need the discipline of training to actually carry through with their missions. Or not: the kid in Syriana didn't have much practical training, and IIRC the Palestinian suicide bombers we basically walk-ins. Hmm.

    Apparently we are reaping the whirlwind for all our cant about building democracy and helping Afghanistan to a brighter future, i.e. for the titanic failure of leadership in Canada and in the West generally which was unable to express a purpose for the war that was not reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz musical. But apparently modern societies are unable to go to war without lying. Yet I can't think of a significant war that was won on a lie: eventually the lie is exposed and the population is disheartened. Perhaps someone can think of an example.

    • Nope. This war was mainly about throwing a bone to the Americans and NATO, in my opinion. And about doing SOMETHING in the face of fear and uncertainty.

      • From the Nato point of view it was an attempt to avoid irrelavance. The cold war is over so how do the Secretary General, the bureaucrats and the Nato commanders (and possibly Rick Hillier) justify their cushy jobs? Easy. Obtain a reluctant colony which will provide gainful employment for all of the above for the forseable futur. What an excellent way to hide the uselessness of nato!!!!!

    • The Spanish-American War was won on a lie.

    • The Spanish-American War was won on a lie.

    • seriously. al queda? why are we still hanging on to this nugget?? there is little tie in with this ragtag group before 9/11…it all seems to magically appear after 9/11…even osama is not wanted for 9/11. dont believe me? check out FBI's most wanted list

      http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/fugitives/laden….

  15. This was foreseeable. The Iraq war was pulling fighters in against the US for years, in a country with infrastructure, an educated populace, and flat desert. The fighters had little chance once the US stepped up the troop levels in 2006.

    Once the decision was made to pull out of Iraq in stages (by GWB) it was only a matter of time before fighters started moving to the other front at which they could kill Coalition soldiers: Afghanistan. Afghanistan has little infrastructure, a largely uneducated populace, and lots of mountains. Also it's run by tribes along the lines of a feudal system. It is a battlefield much more favourable to insurgents than Iraq.

    I don't say this to justify the invasion of Iraq. But with the invasion accomplished, it would have been wiser to take advantage of the circumstances: fight the battle on ground that favours us and hinders them.

    With the withdrawal from Iraq proceeding according to Bush's timetable we now have a serious problem in Afghanistan. There are only two (victorious) ways out:
    (1) Engagement on another battlefield similar to Iraq in terms of geography and civilization. This requires either another invasion (almost certainly unjustified) or a very cooperative government (almost certainly impossible).
    (2) Education of the majority of Afghans and conversion to a line of thinking that promotes fundamental human rights regardless of majority rule or human law. This is (a) a generation long, and (b) not consistent with the thinking of most Canadians.

    Perhaps, therefore, we should get our own house in order before we start 'democratizing' other nations. The US can leave Special Forces behind to find and execute Bin Laden. The regret will be that Afghanistan will degenerate back to its former status, plus damage. Our soldiers will have died for nothing.

  16. Where do you start in a place like that.? It looks like a moonscape with crazy people. Back away slowly and avoid all eye contact.

  17. Lets just get out of there all at once and let them waste each other. They do not and will never understand democracy. At the same time do not allow any immigartion from any beligerent countries in the middle east including isreal. Let them all stew in thier own muck.

  18. Any so-called progress in Afghanistan is not worth the sacrifice of Canadian lives. Time to come home

  19. Everyday that NATO is killing Taliban and Al Qaeda types is a good day.

    • Should be Every day.

  20. Both Canada and America participated in WWI and WWII. We weren't attacked by the Germans in either WWI or WWII. Where would Europe be today if we hadn't entered those two wars. MANY civilians were killed in those wars. It's the nature of the beast, as tragic as it is. We can't win in Afghanistan if we have one hand tied behind our back. It's time to take the gloves off or get out.