Harper hasn't reversed himself on Afghanistan

Interest in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s remark that the Taliban cannot be defeated by foreign forces in Afghanistan is generating plenty of comment in Canada and abroad.

Harper’s answer to a question from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria was trenchantly phrased. “We are not ever going ot defeat the insurgency,” he said. “My reading of Afghanistan’s history is that they’ve probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.”

It’s a solid quote. Yet this is not , as far as I know, a departure from his past statements, and certainly not the dreaded political “flip-flop.”

From my own experience of asking him about getting out of Afghanistan, I would point to the way he was framing the issue in an interview as far back as late 2007. Harper talked then, quite impatiently, about the need to withdraw as soon as possible, which I took to mean as soon as the Afghan army was up to the task of keeping the insurgents at bay.

He certainly didn’t talk in terms of coalition forces securing some sort of decisive victory over the Taliban before pulling out. Here’s what I wrote in a Dec. 28, 2007, piece we headlined “Not-so-happy New Year”:

On Afghanistan, the dominant defence and foreign policy file, Harper again looks ahead to tough choices. Rather than talking up the military mission in Kandahar as an inspiring undertaking, he used the year-end sit-down to vent frustration at slow progress in building a self-sufficient Afghan government. “You know, the United Nations and our allies will have been in Afghanistan 10 years in 2011. For God’s sakes, Germany was basically fully restored within four years; Germany joined NATO ten years after it was conquered.”

He does not seem to be willing to accept anything like an open-ended commitment in central Asia. “To say that Afghanistan would need decades and decades just to do the basic security work, I think is pushing credibility,” Harper said. “Not just pushing the patience of the Canadian public and the military, pushing the credibility of the effort. A sovereign government must, at some point, say, ‘We can actually deal with this on a day-to-day basis. We can be responsible.’”

So I would say Harper has been quite consistent that our overarching goal in Afghanistan has to be building up the capacity of the regime in Kabul, not crushing the insurgents once and for all.

In this, he seems sensible. On the other hand, as I pointed out in my previous posting, Harper sounds too much like he’s waiting for Washington to suggest how exactly to accomplish the task, rather than pushing ideas hatched in Ottawa.

And given Canada’s substantial, and often bitter, experience in Afghanistan over the past seven years, I think our government should by now be able to muster a more creative and confident stance. What do our diplomats and military officers think needs to change to turn things around?