Stepping back and looking forward on Afghanistan -

Stepping back and looking forward on Afghanistan


This morning’s news on Afghanistan should spur the Canadian government to plan and communicate much more clearly about exactly what it plans to do in the troubled country for many years to come. It’s as good a moment as any to take stock.

Let’s not get bogged down, at least for now, in the sporadic debate over the 2011 date for pulling our troops out of Kandahar, the commitment the Harper government and the opposition Liberals agree to last year. Assuming that withdrawal deadline isn’t changed, Canada still needs to much more clearly define its how it sees its role in Afghanistan. Two developments frame that decision:

1) preparations have begun for a Nov. 7 run-off vote to try to settle Afghanistan’s fraud-tainted late-summer presidential election, and;

2) pressure from Washington are mounting for NATO members and other countries to step up their Afghan contributions, as President Obama considers sending many more U.S. troops.

Of course nobody knows how the run-off will turn out or exactly what Obama will decide to do. But what’s clear is that Afghan politics will remain fraught with controversy for the foreseeable future and the U.S.-led military effort is likely to get bigger and more dangerous.

That combination of political instability and military sacrifice is bound to put even more of a strain on what’s left of popular support, in Canada and the U.S. and Europe, for spending billions and risking many lives in such an uncertain cause.

From a narrowly Canadian point of view, Ottawa needs to map out a realistic, long-term plan for trying to help. Once we take the focus off fighting, what next? If we’re to exit Kandahar, will we next concentrate on, say, building institutional capacity in the capital of Kabul? Or will we shift to a different sort of aid effort, one that somehow doesn’t require a lot of troops protecting development in dangerous places? How exactly can we keep training Afghan soldiers and police, as the government says we will, if we insist on keeping our own troops out of harm’s way?

Whatever roles we take on will require systematic planning that assumes a very long-term commitment in Afghanistan. Otherwise, why bother? But this sort of thinking ahead often hasn’t been happening the way it should. A telling example: David Ljunggren of Reuters reports that top Canadian officers admit they failed to implement enough basic training in Afghan languages, an often overlooked but fundamental requirement for succeeding on that ground at just about anything we might attempt.

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the head of Canada’s army, ruefully admits the hard job of language training didn’t seem worth it for a mission that wasn’t supposed to go on and on and on. “I always thought we’d be there (just) two more years,” Leslie told Reuters, “ two more years, two more years, and guess what?”

Lesson learned, one hopes. From decisions on basic direction, like what next after 2011, to those on execution, like how do we train enough soldiers and foreign service workers to speak Pashtun, the Canadian government needs to start taking—and publicly explaining—a long view that assumes Afghanistan will remain a massive and central challenge for a long, long time.

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