"How to End the War in Afghanistan"

Little insight from Ottawa, so turn to David Miliband's latest essay for some clarity

An ongoing frustration for any Canadians trying to understand our country’s involvement in Afghanistan is the failure of the government to frame the mission seriously. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hasn’t delivered what could be considered a major speech on this war and its related foreign policy and development-assistance challenges.

We get only anodyne stuff, like the most recent speech from Harper that I can find which was devoted to this pressing subject. It was way back on May 7,  2009, when he visited Kandahar and used an address to the troops to tout Canada’s work fixing an irrigation system, building schools and vaccinating kids against polio. Not exactly challenging geopolitical insights.

No more illuminating are the featherlight speeches—or passing remarks, more often—in which Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon lets us in on his considered perspective. There was, for instance, his March 15 comment at the Hague, in which Cannon climbed out on a policy limb by enumerating four areas that need work: Afghanistan’s economy, government institutions, capacity to hold elections, and justice system. Odd that you don’t recall it.

There is no shortage of Canadian experience on Afghanistan: we’ve been there in a serious way since 2002. Diplomats, soldiers, aid workers, academics, journalists and hangers-on have cycled through Kandahar. Some come home with smart things to say about the place, and its precarious position in a troubled region. Little of that hard-earned knowledge, however, seems to find its way into the public statements of our government.

It’s not inconceivable that a cabinet minister might want to say something worth listening to about Afghanistan. In the early going, on Dec. 12, 2003, John McCallum, then the Liberal defence minister, gave a speech in Calgary in which he tried to both frankly answer early misgivings about the military adventure and lower expectations about what might be accomplished.

Lately, though, we’ve had to wait for foreign politicians to offer fully rounded, tightly argued, comprehensive talk on the Afghanistan conundrum. The latest to which Canadians can turn (with some envy) is British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s 4,600-word essay “How to End the War in Afghanistan” in the next issue of the New York Review of Books, now available online. Miliband grounds his argument in history, doesn’t flinch from mentioning bad news like the deep credibility problems of the Hamid Karzai’s regime, and makes his case for keeping up the fight without resorting to worn-out rhetoric.

I won’t try to summarize it all, but his main points can be sketched. Miliband argues for building a regional consensus around making sure neighboring countries grasp their interest in stopping Afghanistan from being a source of destabilizing drug trade, terrorism and refugees. He pleads for a fair understanding of Pakistan’s fears, particularly about Afghanistan’s relationship with India, and for bringing India, Russia, Turkey, and China into “the search for solutions.” He calls for cultivating common interest in Afghanistan’s usefulness as a regional trade and transport crossroads—even invoking the Silk Road for the benefit of those of us who cling to a bit of that old romance. Finally, he calls for a new forum, perhaps standing Conference on Stability, Security, and Cooperation in South Asia, to push for progress.

It’s not all exciting, but it is all coherent and expansive. Given the thin policy gruel Canadians have been fed by their own politicians, Miliband’s overview and argument is by comparison richly satisfying.