Afghanistan: Sorry about the mess...

Last week, I was in Ottawa appearing on a panel discussion at UofO that was  about Canada’s future role in Afghanistan. Also speaking were Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada Jawed Ludin, former ambassador to Afghanistan (and current Conservative candidate) Chris Alexander, and Wahid Waissi, director of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.  My brief was supposed to be on the “security situation”, but given that pretty much everyone in the room was more qualified to talk about it than I was, I used up my allotted ten minutes to say, in various ways, that “it’s complicated and uncertain”.

I was gratified then when, during the discussion, a Canadian colonel with extensive experience in RC South stood up to say that the reason it the security situation seems complicated and uncertain is precisely because it is complicated and uncertain. The surge was only completed in early September, the crucial operations in Kandahar have only been underway for about six weeks, and it simply is not clear yet how things are going to turn out. There are plenty of negative signs, a few positive signs, and it won’t be clear which way the wind is really blowing until the “fighting season” resumes in early spring. Which is why Canada’s decision to cease combat operations next July 1 is increasingly turning into a big headache for our allies.

In private, American and British military officers have never hidden their disdain for the way Canada is handling this pullout. In February, a British general I was speaking with in Kabul called it “bad campaign work, and bad coalition work”. When I was back there in late September, I asked an American two-star general working at the IJC what they were going to do when Canada left. He sighed, then shrugged his shoulders. After a bit, he pointed at the map of Kandahar that was laid out in front of us, put his finger on Canada’s area of operations, and said that current thinking is the Canadians will be replaced with an Afghan kandak, assuming one can be found that can operate independently. The look on his face made it clear that he didn’t think that was plausible.

If Matthew Fisher’s report in today’s Gazette is accurate, it looks like they’ve decided to fill that vacancy with an American battalion. And the reason it is causing so many problems is not just that those troops have to come from somewhere else in the country, but that the changeover is going to be happening right smack in the middle of the fighting season, making the transition that much more difficult and dangerous. And since it is pretty clear that Canada is definitely leaving, the Americans have stopped keeping their concerns private. Here’s Fisher quoting Brig.-Gen. Fred Hodges, who has spent the last year directing the war in RC South:

Filling the hole left by departing Canadian Forces was “a great concern,” Hodges said. “It is not just the battle group, with a squadron of tanks, but all the enablers. They are a big chunk of our aviation. They have some of the best ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) collection capabilities.

“There are no more U.S. (troops) coming. It is going to come out of hide. You can be sure we are looking around right now for how to make that up.”

This is not to say that Canada’s combat commitment to Afghanistan should be permanent; there are lots of good arguments why the war has become a distraction from the original goal of fighting terrorism. But the problem is that a few years ago, the Afghan war switched from a mission to deny al-Qaeda a home to a broader program to rebuild a functioning Afghan state.

Maybe that was unwise, and maybe that mission is impossible. But it is the way we are leaving that is making our NATO allies and our Afghan friends extremely unhappy. As ambassador Ludin noted in his opening remarks at the panel last week (repeating a plea he made back in March) despite frequent promises to do so, the Canadian government has given no indication of what form our engagement in the country will take after we cease combat operations. The military people are desperate for trainers, Ludin says his country is desperate for our expertise on governance, but the message we’ve been giving is that we’re leaving, but we’re staying, but we’re not sure how.

This didn’t come up as one of the purported reasons for why Canada didn’t win a seat on the security council at the UN. But given the ignoble way we’re skulking out of one of the UN’s biggest security and development operations in decades, it is mystifying why we ever thought we deserved the seat.