Stephen Harper surprised many people when he told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last Sunday that the Afghan insurgency would probably not be defeated. He did not say that it was an error to be in Afghanistan, nor that lives were being wasted in combat. He merely stated what most outside experts had already said and what was later repeated in an official government report issued this week. He was not fudging the facts nor conceding defeat. Rather, he was putting things in perspective.
Let us recall that the UN- and NATO-backed operation was launched after the tragic events of 9/11. Of course, the Taliban and their atrocious policies had been around since well before the twin towers fell, and no western nation was openly considering an invasion in the 1990s. Women were kept covered in burkas, deprived of fundamental human rights, and barred from attending school. Meanwhile, the Taliban government was allowing al Qaeda to flourish and plot acts of terrorism against America and its allies. We all knew that and nothing was being done. Only after America was attacked did a consensus emerge to overthrow the Taliban.
The fall of the Taliban was quick but not decisive. It seems that the political culture and the people of Afghanistan had not been yearning liberation. The failure of external powers to impose their will on Afghanistan is well-documented, and memories of the spectacular defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s were still vivid at the time of the invasion. Like it or not, and as evil as it was, the Taliban government had brought stability and had eradicated the drug trade during their years in power. There was little doubt that an insurgency would eventually surface and the odds of success grew longer when the Bush administration opted for war in Iraq and sent more troops there.
Under Chrétien, Canada opposed the Iraq war, but played a significant role in Afghanistan. The decision to go to Kandahar is an illustration of how committed we were. Over 100 lives have already been lost, with another three soldiers killed this week. That Harper’s admission took place this week and so soon after the Obama visit has allowed opposition parties to have had a field day criticizing the Prime Minister.
As a Canadian, I believe it is refreshing that we have a real debate on the real objectives in Afghanistan. Barack Obama recently stated that the objective should be to protect America. Harper was very convincing on the question of North American security in his press conference with Obama. Was Harper preparing the way for Obama’s re-defining of American objectives in that part of the world? Or is Harper’s pessimism a sign he is out of step with the American president?
It should be recalled that Canada questioned the escalation of the Vietnam war in 1968 and America gradually modified its role. Also, Pierre Trudeau went to China before Nixon did. This is not to say there is collusion, but I believe we share more diplomatic objectives than we care to admit. That has been the strength of Canadian diplomacy since WW II. Obama has emphasized Afghanistan, but he does not want it to be his Vietnam. In this light, while the Harper admission may be controversial to some, it is full of realism and may ultimately steer a better course to achieve the objectives of the NATO allies.