Domestic politics are playing an increasingly destabilizing role in the coalition mission in Afghanistan. A disagreement over whether to extend the country’s military mission has brought down the Dutch government. The centre-right prime minister wanted to accede to NATO’s request for an extension, while one of his coalition partners on the left wanted to stick to the agreed-upon plan to leave Afghanistan this year.
NATO isn’t pretending this isn’t a problem.
The Dutch have been holding Uruzgan province, one of the more unstable regions after Kandahar and Helmand. The Australians were asked to step into the breach, and declined, which means that some of the American troops who were sent over as part of the surge into the south are going to have to go up to Uruzgan to replace the Dutch.
Meanwhile, Canada continues to proceed under the assumption that we are leaving Kandahar in 2011, regardless of how this summer’s counterinsurgency campaign turns out. On the record, Canadian officials will say that NATO is perfectly fine with that – we’ve done good work, paid our dues, etc. And on the record, NATO officials will say that Canada’s departure is just another operational constraint that needs to be factored into mission planning.
When it comes to don’t-quote-me-on-this discussions, it is a different thing entirely. Most officials I spoke with over there are very unhappy with Canada’s plan to leave. A senior British officer put it most bluntly: “It’s an absolute disaster, unless we can fill in the lost experience and that’s unlikely. It’s bad campaign work, and it’s bad alliance work.”
Most of the Afghans we met didn’t like it either. An ANA commander at one of the OMLT bases was very unhappy with the prospect of Canada leaving, and he got rather emotional when discussing how much the relationship his men had with the Canadians meant to him. And that’s one aspect that tends to get ignored in the debate over whether to stay or go – the deep personal bonds of trust that have been established between the Afghan troops and their Canadian mentors. Replacing that trust isn’t as simple as simply bringing in new troops from a new country.
None of this is an argument for extending the mission.I find it very hard to be hawkish about a war that has cost far too many lives on all sides and that promises to take still more lives over the next year and a half, to very little obvious effect. But the fact is Canada has made a commitment over there, not only to our NATO partners but – more importantly – to the Afghan people. Whatever we do, I think it is vital that we not betray that commitment.
What this country ought to have is a proper public debate the role we are going to play in Afghanistan after summer 2011. The state-building project we are engaged in is a decades-long endeavour, even assuming the military side of McChrystal’s COIN strategy works as planned. There are options that fall somewhere between a total pullout and remaining in full combat operations. One thing that McChrystal has repeatedly asked for is more trainers, and he hasn’t received anywhere close to the number he needs.
Meanwhile, today’s WSJ has a very interesting article about the surprisingly high level of support in Denmark for the country’s mission in Afghanistan. Despite having the second highest ratio of casualties to troops (after Canada), around half of all Danes support the mission, while only a third think that Denmark should not have troops in Afghanistan. In contrast, the latest Angus Reid poll has 47 percent of Canadians in support of the military operation, with 49 percent opposed.
One thing the Danes have done to engineer a rough consensus on the mission is to give reporters “deep access” to soldiers who are allowed to talk, on the record, about the mission. According to the Danish defense minister:
When troops say, ” ‘We did a job and we did it good, and it is worth doing,’ then it is very hard indeed for a lot of people to oppose, because those are the men and women who risk their lives,” he said.
In contrast, Canadians rarely hear from the rank and file about the work they are doing over there. Canadian soldiers are generally allowed to talk to reporters only about their specific job or area of expertise – any freelancing about geopolitics or the broader implications of what they are doing is forbidden. You can see why the military would want it this way, but one effect is that it reduces stories about the mission tend to two general types: Political stories, or dead-soldier stories. What we don’t hear much about is the huge amount of highly dedicated professional soldiering that is going on down in Kandahar.