A new turn in our Afghan strategy

The U.S. special representative in Afghanistan would like a Canadian on his team

A new turn in our Afghan strategyThere is progress being made on Afghanistan, if you define “progress” narrowly enough. It has become harder to deny what a mess the country has become, so fewer people are trying to deny it. Progress.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s Aug. 30 report to Barack Obama makes an important conceptual breakthrough. “Progress is hindered by the dual threat of a resilient insurgency and a crisis of confidence in the [Afghan] government and the international coalition,” the theatre’s top military commander wrote. “To win their support, we must protect the people from both of these threats.” For McChrystal, a careful writer, to frame his enemy and his own side as parallel threats is an astonishing admission.

It follows that it will do no good for “the international coalition” to clean up its act if the Afghan government doesn’t follow suit. “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government,” McChrystal writes.

The summer election in Afghanistan was supposed to turn the page on corruption, abuse and malign action. It did the opposite. Peter Galbraith, the U.S. diplomat who had served as number two to the country’s highest-ranking United Nations official, Kai Eide, was fired for speaking out about Hamid Karzai’s attempt to steal the election. Galbraith declined to go quietly. “For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

The highest-ranking Western soldier in Afghanistan says the precondition for military success is a serious Afghan government. The highest-ranking Western civilian there is trying to hide the election’s failure to produce a serious government. What now?

David Kilcullen, a prominent military adviser who said a year ago that this war was still “winnable, but only just,” now suggests it is probably not winnable. Without a runoff between Karzai and his main opponent, or an emergency national council to produce a coalition with broad support among the elite, the Karzai regime’s legitimacy will be hopelessly tarnished. NATO’s only choice then, Kilcullen writes, will be to “draw down troops and prepare to mitigate the inevitable humanitarian disaster that will come when the Kabul government falls to the Taliban—which, in the absence of reform, it eventually and deservedly will.”

Of course, Canada is in this up to its neck, even if Canadians are weary with the whole mess. And it’s because we’re in so deep that the Harper government finds itself preparing to implement a significant and unexpected change to its Afghan strategy.

Earlier this year there was an extended debate over whether Canada should appoint a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The question arose because Obama had named one. Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat and fixer, had a mandate that would cover the two countries on either side of the Hindu Kush, and his reports would reach the new President’s ear directly. Several countries scrambled to name their own Afghanistan-Pakistan emissaries. Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom were among them. In the Commons, Liberal Bob Rae goaded the Harper government for months to follow suit. For months the government dismissed Rae and the whole idea. We have an ambassador in Kabul and a high commissioner in Islamabad, and what was Rae’s problem? “This government has confidence in our foreign affairs professionals if the opposition does not,” Junior Foreign Minister Peter Kent said one afternoon in March.

Then something changed. Instead of the Liberals asking for an interlocutor for Holbrooke, Holbrooke asked.

Maclean’s has learned that the Harper government is on the verge of appointing a member of the Canadian government who will work as part of Holbrooke’s Washington team. “Canada is currently considering potential candidates for an assignment in Mr. Holbrooke’s office,” Jamie Christoff, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman, wrote in an email.

“This contribution is being considered as we are partnering even more closely with the U.S. to deliver on crucial governance, reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan.”

Through an intermediary, Holbrooke confirmed that he wants a Canadian in his office. He already has a British government representative, Jane Marriott, a career diplomat who served as speech writer to a former U.K. defence secretary. Holbrooke made his request directly to Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s foreign minister. “When I was down there [in Washington] a couple of months ago he suggested that we supply an individual to work with him,” Cannon told my colleague John Geddes this week.

If nothing else, the request from Holbrooke is further evidence that Canada remains a crucial interlocutor among Western allies on the Afghanistan file. Which helps explain why, at Kai Eide’s request, Canada hosted a little-noticed meeting at our consulate general in New York City on Sept. 25. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was there, Cannon says, along with Holbrooke and senior British, Italian and Australian dignitaries.

For Canada, as for every country involved in Afghanistan, the question is how to get out of something we are in so deeply. The Commons has voted for a military pullout in 2011. What does that mean? A foreign diplomat arriving in Ottawa this month was told by Canadian officials it means that “every Canadian soldier will leave Afghanistan in 2011, except perhaps for the military attaché at the embassy.”

There is no reason to expect that will change. But there was no reason to expect the Harper government would name an Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy either. And then the Americans asked.

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