Bad news from Afghanistan, no matter what the season

The old assumption—more killing when it's warm, less as it gets colder—doesn’t seem to apply

Reading the federal government’s quarterly reports on the state of affairs in Afghanistan requires a bit of mental agility. Writing them must be a positively gymnastic prose exercise.

The aim of today’s, the third in this ongoing series, is the same as the last one: asserting that progress is being made while, at the same time, admitting that the violence is worse than ever.

Getting those two apparently opposed points to co-exist peacefully in the same document would be quite a feat. Not surprisingly, they don’t quite pull it off.

The previous quarterly report, released last September, surveyed the summer months. It emphasized the seasonal pattern of violence. “Summer has come to be known in Afghanistan as ‘the fighting season’,” explained the very first line in the report, “when insurgents mobilize for their most aggressive offensives.”

Today’s report covers the fall. And here’s its first sentence: “Security conditions in Afghanistan remained especially dangerous and by some measures deteriorated during the quarter.”

I guess they couldn’t go with, “Autumn has come to be known in Afghanistan as ‘the fighting season’…”

International Trade Minister Stockwell Day—who delivers these reports in his capacity as the chairman of the cabinet committee on Afghanistan—spoke today of the “cycle” of fighting in Afghanistan. He was big on the seasonal fighting theme last September, too.

This stubborn emphasis on how violence rises and falls seems to me to be a needless distraction from the basic underlying reality: the security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating for some time and it has nothing to do with the weather. In any case, the old assumption—more killing when it’s warm, less as it gets colder—doesn’t seem to apply: nine Canadian soldiers died in December, after three months without a death.

What matters is obviously the broader trend. As today’s report puts it, “the geographic spread and intensification of the insurgency,” and, elsewhere, “the grim and worsening realities of the war in Afghanistan.”

Once we’ve put aside the fixation on cycles, and accepted the fact that IED attacks and other killing grows ever more frequent, what about that progress in other areas? Let’s stipulate that building schools, and vaccinating kids against polio, and fixing a dam, are all very fine things.

But on the one file that just might offer long-term hope of something resembling peace, there is apparently nothing good to report. I refer to the sixth of Canada’s six stated Afghanistan priorities—“Facilitate Afghan-led efforts toward political reconciliation.”

This means getting the Afghan government talking to at least some elements of the insurgency. After all, Prime Minister Stephen Harper tells us the insurgency cannot be defeated, so it stands to reason that at least some insurgent factions must be coaxed into accepting the regime in Kabul for the fighting to ease.

On this critical front, no progress at all. Today’s report declares flatly that “no prospects for early and meaningful reconciliation were apparent during the quarter.”

But maybe fall isn’t the reconciliation season.