Alice in Afghanistan

Canada has gone to war with complete confusion of purpose.

The few people who are entertained by the way Ottawa makes decisions will find The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar worthy of close study. It is timely and a page turner in its compelling historical detail. It is also generally well researched and presented. The final chapter provides a stark examination of where things actually stand in Afghanistan—an account not available from any government source—and offers a realistic assessment of the array of bad options available to current decision makers.

This account presented by Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang of how we came to be fighting a war in southern Afghanistan is not, however, balanced. The authors—she a political scientist and director of the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre of International Studies, he a former chief of staff to two of Canada’s Liberal ministers of defence from 2002 to 2006—do not seem as interested in recording the advice offered, or in objectively plumbing the quality of that advice, as they are in learning from the political class how badly those ministers deem they were briefed by both diplomats and defence experts. This lack of balance would not be so acute were the politicians and their political staffs not so bent on blaming their advisors for their own ignorance and for every lapse of foresight and every misstep along the way; it is not then a paean to ministerial accountability. (Some of the politicians we hear from in the book are Paul Martin, Bill Graham, John McCallum and Gordon O’Connor.)

The Unexpected War nevertheless remains an important piece of political archaeology. The decision to go to war was, according to Stein and Lang, all about Washington and very little about Afghanistan, a country few Canadians had any reason to know anything about. The authors are convinced that an obsession with “what the Americans think” is the template that must necessarily be applied to all military and geo-strategic decision making in Canada. I am afraid that it is just not that easy.

The authors are remarkably free with sweeping generalizations about “the military” or “the bureaucracy.” Stein and Lang also love conspiracies that pit one clan of Liberals against another, bureaucrats against politicians, civilians against the military in the Department of National Defence, and everybody at each other’s throats on the ground in Afghanistan. Regrettably, I have not been to Afghanistan, but based on all my Canadian government experience, this intrigue is overplayed.

One of the more extreme generalizations in the book is this: “Both in Iraq and in Afghanistan, Canada’s senior military leaders did not think about the war that would ensue after the battle was over.” And, without revealing any sources or evidence, Stein and Lang state that “in Canada, the military was simply not well connected enough to those experts outside government who could provide the warning.” Clearly, DND should not have let its subscription lapse to the Briefings issued by the Munk Centre for International Studies.

A similarly unsubstantiated allegation is made with the portentous suggestion that “few in Ottawa realized at the time [February 2003] that the assignment to Kabul, and Canada’s efforts to bring NATO into Afghanistan, would draw Canada into a long-term military operation in a country where security was deteriorating. This was the first step down a long road.” How did the authors conclude that “few in Ottawa” understood there would be long-term implications in going to Afghanistan with NATO? Why would they assume that within the defence department and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade there was not a world-weary and very deep understanding, honed over almost 60 years of peacekeeping service with UNTSO in the Middle East, and half that time on the Golan Heights, through more than 60 troop rotations in Cyprus, and more than a decade of peacekeeping in the Balkans, that we were in Afghanistan for the long haul?

The Ottawa establishment will be intrigued to learn that Prime Minister Martin’s “inquiring mind endeared him to officials and advisers—finally, here was a senior politician who didn’t think he knew everything and really wanted advice.” Lang and Stein’s political partiality is, of course, well established, but comments such as this seriously impair their credibility. In fairness, the authors do allow a little later that “when [Martin] became prime minister, this style inevitably led to a sclerotic, constipated decision-making process that is still the stuff of legend in Ottawa.” One cannot help wondering whether one of the authors wrote the first passage and the other the second.

Still, Stein and Lang get it largely, if not completely, right in trying to explain what is really happening in a country about which Canadians still know and understand so little. If anything, they don’t tell enough of the story. It is important to realize that in Afghanistan, the world’s sixth poorest nation, there is no real economy beyond the opium culture. There have been bumper crops of poppies and their derivatives in each of the last two years. Afghanistan supplies virtually all of the heroin consumed not only on the mean streets of western Europe but also in neighbouring Iran, which admits to having 1.5 to 3 million addicts and to have lost 3,400 soldiers in battles with Afghan drug lords seeking to supply those addicts, a contribution little acknowledged. If indeed Canada has a coherent policy on poppy eradication or the production of officially sanctioned opiates, neither the authors nor the current government have revealed what it is.

Sure, Canadian assistance programs have put lots of Afghan children (especially girls) in school, but it is hard to argue that we are fighting and dying for this when elsewhere in the world there are millions of children who would dearly love to attend school, and where getting them there does not risk lives. And we are investing hugely in “governance” in that country although we must know that we will not soon dent Afghanistan’s profound culture of corruption. As an Africanist, I cannot help but speculate what would be the reaction in Canada to our maintaining a relationship—indeed of proclaiming it to be “the central pillar of Canadian foreign policy,” as our foreign ministry so doggedly maintains—with such a regime on the African continent.

Nevertheless, our stated objective is to steadfastly support the popularly elected government of Afghanistan and to rebuild (and let’s soon acknowledge that that prefix is superfluous) its institutions. So what is the validity of such an objective?

According to her intervention at a recent conference sponsored by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs and the University of Ottawa’s new Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, Astri Suhrke, a senior research fellow at Norway’s Christian Michelsen Institute, noted that “a UN source estimated that of the 249 newly elected deputies, 40 were commanders still associated with armed groups, 24 members belonged to criminal gangs, 17 were drug traffickers and 19 faced serious allegations of war crimes.” Suhrke also observed that Afghanistan depends almost totally upon foreign funding, with around 90 percent of the national budget being predicated on foreign transfers, and that foreign donors exercise effective control over key funding decisions. Specifically, Afghans have little say over the management and development of their security forces, and even less say over the mission of foreign forces in their country.

This has been made ever more clear of late through President Hamid Karzai’s poignant pleading with those forces to limit the “collateral damage” by NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom’s air attacks. Indeed, Laura King of the Los Angeles Times reported in July 2007 that, “after more than five years of increasingly intense warfare, the conflict in Afghanistan reached a grim milestone in the first half of this year: U.S. troops and their NATO allies killed more civilians than insurgents did, according to several independent tallies.”

The essential question is whether the essence of the NATO mission is still, or is likely to remain, viable. Are we in fact supporting a legitimate, worthy, effective and democratic government in Kabul, one that is capable of exercising control and extending its authority over the country, so that we can leave? And is this a likely enough scenario to warrant further massive investments, risk more Canadian lives and hazard NATO’s future?

In more politically charged terms, are we indeed prevailing? Hard information is difficult to come by, but most observers seem prepared to admit that violence is on the increase. An Afghan official interviewed by Stein and Lang says violence is once again encroaching on the capital. “The noose around Kabul … is tightening,” said the official. “The roads in and out of the city are no longer secure.” Furthermore, both the military planning and coordination efforts of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the development effort seem to be in total disarray.

Arthur Kent, quoted in the book, reports on the all-important project to rebuild the Afghan National Army, sine qua non to our going home. In the November 2007 issue of Policy Options, he notes that “incompetence, conflict of interest, nepotism and corruption have led to chronic shortfalls in troop training targets. Instead of tackling the problems, US and NATO officials have concealed it by padding statistics.” Following an endless array of bogus numbers on the state of the ANA, Kent says, “in February 2007, it was widely agreed that the Afghan National Army numbered at most 22,000 men. Six years on, Hamid Karzai has less than a third of the force he and his allies regard as minimally capable of defending his regime … Unfortunately, it is still the case that the best Afghan militias are the private ones.” Those private militias total some 120,000 gunmen, “many [of which] enforce goods smuggling, land grabs and drug trafficking. None battle the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”

For its part, our current government is either as ignorant of geopolitical realities as its predecessors or similarly ignoring advice being proffered or—and I genuinely regret suggesting this could might be a possibility—is, in fact, being improperly briefed by intimidated bureaucrats seeking to please their stern and ever suspicious masters. Anecdotal evidence is building to suggest that, just like Bush on Iraq, Harper on Afghanistan is being told only what he wants to hear. One can only hope that the panel led by John Manley will speak truth to power.

The final chapter of The Unexpected War is worth the price of the book and much more. It is lucid, strong and forthright in its discussions of what we are and are not achieving in Afghanistan, and in its clear articulation of the reason that ought to have taken us there in the first instance and ought to have attracted allied support, but has not: “Canada is fighting in Afghanistan because an Afghan government supported those who planned and executed an attack against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.”

On the vexing matter of “how long” western governments, afflicted as they are by short attention spans, are expected to endure the pain and tribulations of the Afghan battlefield and the “nation building” challenge, Jim Travers of the Toronto Star notes: “There will be no decisive military victories. Victory will go to those with strategic patience and endurance.” Unless he is measuring endurance as the difference between 2009 and 2011, I suspect we will not know victory in Afghanistan.

Indeed, in a statement that General Rick Hillier will likely rue for its reason, candour and clarity, the chief of defence staff is quoted as predicting that “Afghanistan will not be rebuilt in a year, or two, or five. It’s going to take a long, long time. It’s going to take a generation or more.” And over that long, long time, Stein and Lang wonder, “will the performance of the Afghan government improve as it gains experience and maturity?”

In trying to answer that question, they quote Sarah Chayes, an “intrepid journalist” living in Kandahar, who testified before a parliamentary committee in May 2007:

The people at the provincial and local level [in government] are just raping the country … You cannot get any administrative task performed without coughing up money … It is a terrible indictment of the post-Taliban experiment in nation building that we are unable to put up a government that has a minimum of respect for its citizens.

In her presentation to Canadian politicians, Chayes continued:

It’s really important that you understand [that] what is happening in southern Afghanistan is not so much an insurgency—that is, an indigenous uprising by the locals—but rather … a kind of invasion by proxy of Afghanistan by Pakistan, using Afghans. Fundamentally, this so-called insurgency is being orchestrated, organized, financed, trained, and equipped across the border in Pakistan.

Stein and Lang have understood this, and conclude, rather bleakly, that “if there is no reasonable chance of containing the insurgency, then it would be impossible to justify to Canadians a continuing military commitment and the loss of the lives of Canadian soldiers.”

Where, though, have we heard any articulation of a cogent strategy to engage Pakistan effectively in the search for a manageable border with Afghanistan? Is Pakistan not at least as much the font of al Qaeda support as Afghanistan, but just more difficult?

I do not believe we can win in the conditions that inform NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. Ido not believe that those conditions are likely to change substantially. And I do not believe that the Karzai government is worthy of our support. Afghanistan—as others have learned at such cost—is simply too far away, too complex and too difficult for poorly motivated, uncoordinated and insufficiently committed western governments to fix. We have neither the stamina nor the will to prevail in such circumstances. Certainly, NATO would suffer from defeat in a long, drawn-out insurgency for which it was never designed, but it would be a defeat of will rather than of arms, and thus perhaps more severe. Denying that deficiency of will can only enhance and prolong the pain for all concerned.

It is not good enough to intone some mantra about “a defeat of NATO being unacceptable.” That will not make the spectre of defeat disappear, even if the fiction that it is NATO that is fighting in Afghanistan could be preserved. Beyond the Americans, the Brits, the Dutch and ourselves, there really is no one else fighting in Afghanistan; others are being killed as the insurgents extend their reach, but in modest numbers. We four are doing the heavy lifting and the other 30 plus are observing ever more uncomfortably.

For example, the media tell us that useful tactical information gleaned from Germany’s Luftwaffe photo reconnaissance flights has been denied to Canadians in the south of Afghanistan on the basis that the Germans insist they were there only for peacekeeping purposes and as a result were prohibited from conveying tactical information to war-fighting allies. In such circumstances, while it may indeed have been convenient for both Germany and Canada to wrap a NATO flag around their fundamentally different Afghan deployments, it makes no sense whatsoever to claim that NATO is committed to defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan, and therefore it makes even less sense to insist that Canada must not “let NATO down” in Afghanistan. In my view, NATO has not travelled very well from its original vocation.

Should Canada’s government believe that the Afghan government is worth defending, that the opium challenge can be managed, that corruption and incompetence will not thwart the construction of an Afghan state where effectively none existed before, that the 30 million Pashtun in Pakistan will cease to offer safe haven to al Qaeda and to wage with impunity a proxy war against the Karzai government and its foreign defenders, and, most importantly, that the resurgent insurgency is defeatable with the resources likely to be at the disposal of those still willing to give battle: should Canada’s government choose to believe all this and therefore to extend the Afghan mission beyond 2009, then, as Stein and Lang aver, “political leaders would have to speak clearly to the public.” Few would disagree that such a task is long overdue. For, the authors ask, “was the purpose of the mission, as Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor said more than once, ‘retribution,’ or was it ‘war-fighting,’ or was it ‘reconstruction’? No country can afford to go to war with this confusion of purpose. Canada’s leaders would need to make compelling arguments for why Canada is fighting far away from home, why the outcome of this war matters … They would also have to tell Canadians that we are there for a generation.”