Canada's and NATO's policies in Afghanistan are fundamentally flawed. We're just not getting this right and it makes the loss of each of our soldiers killed over there especially bitter to take.
Since I began this blog back in August, I've been writing about the profound mistakes we're making in Afghanistan. If you do a quick search of this site you'll find those articles and there are plenty of them. Taken together, they stand as an indictment of our sitting prime minister and his top soldier, General Rick Hillier.
I wish that I had some genius no one else has, that I was prescient at a mystical level. I don't and I'm not. The fact is that everything I've drawn upon in coming to my criticisms is relatively common knowledge, not even very obscure. Insurgency and counter-insurgency is probably the most clearly defined form of warfare that exists. It's the only form of warfare in which the weakest side - the one that fights at a huge disadvantage in firepower, manpower, communications and mobility - almost always wins. It's been practised time and again and it's an experiment that produces consistent results. Every mistake that we're making in Afghanistan today has been demonstrated repeatedly in the past.
But what do I know. Fortunately I don't have to rely on my say so. The US military has finally come to its senses, digested the lessons of history (some of that history they themselves made) and produced a new counter-insurgency field manual FM 3-24. It virtually catalogues everything we're doing wrong in Afghanistan. Check out Lawrence of Arabia, Col. T.E. Lawrence has his excellent accounts of his successful insurgency in the Middle East in WWI. There are several others.
Now Thomas Walkom, writing in today's Toronto Star, summarizes a report written by Gordon
Smith, now director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria, is Canada's former ambassador to NATO and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs. His Canada in Afghanistan: Is it Working? was done for the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, a Calgary think-tank that is not known for being squishy on matters military.
Smith maintains that negotiating with the Taliban is our only realistic option:
"'We do not believe that the Taliban can be defeated or eliminated as a political entity in any meaningful time frame by Western armies using military measures,' he says.
"The reasons for this are fourfold. First, the Taliban are still the dominant force among Pashtuns in Afghanistan's south, where Canadian troops are operating. NATO bête noire Mullah Omar 'remains unchallenged as leader of the Taliban,' Smith writes. 'There is no alternative representing Pashtun interests who has more clout than he.'
"Second, neighbouring Pakistan 'is highly ambivalent about crushing the Taliban insurgency.' While technically on NATO's side in this matter, important elements of the Pakistani state apparatus, Smith writes, continue to support the Taliban as their proxy in Afghanistan – mainly as a way to fend off what they see as hostile Russian and Indian influences.
"To destroy the Taliban would be to end Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, he says – which perhaps explains Islamabad's less than total support for the NATO mission.
"Third, the NATO strategy of using air power and heavy armour is backfiring. So is the policy of opium eradication. One destroys Afghan lives, the other their livelihoods. The net result, writes Smith (and here he echoes reports from the London-based Senlis Council), is to make Afghans even more hostile to NATO troops.
"Fourth, NATO countries don't have the will to fight a protracted war in a faraway country.
'If NATO states it will only be satisfied with a decisive military victory, the Taliban will call our bluff,' Smith says. 'The Taliban have demonstrated greater resolve, tactical efficiency and ability to absorb the costs of war over the long term than have NATO forces.'
"As a result, 'talking to the Taliban' emerges as the only feasible solution. 'Given the costs of war,' he writes, 'NATO needs to look candidly at the prospects – aware that there can be no guarantee – of a political solution.'"
Smith is clearly right that we're not going to somehow win this battle but he ends his discourse a bit too soon. Not mentioned is the real hurdle that will remain to be cleared - restoring some balance in political power in Afghanistan.
The Pashtun of Afghanistan are the Shia of Iraq - a majority. Thanks for 5+ years of Western indifference the Kabul government has come to be dominated by warlords, drug lords and common criminals of the minority Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaris and Turkmen. As far as they're concerned, the Afghan civil war is over and they're the victors. The Taliban are obviously not accepting that result and want to renew the civil war.
To settle this conflict NATO or the US or Pakistan or all of them (India included) will have to use their influence to get these mortal enemies, the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, to engage in some sort of legitimate power-sharing. The US will also have to use its influence to prevent India from exploiting Afghanistan to wage a proxy war against Pakistan. But, if we cannot broker some genuine agreement between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance we'll have to decide whether we're going to become embroiled in their civil war or step completely away from it.
This is a real conundrum but it's one that might have been avoided had George Bush not turned indifferent to Afghanistan in 2001 so that he could conquer Iraq. The US should have played a more direct role in shaping Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government. It should have developed a legitimate political entity to represent the majority Pashtun and it should have given Karzai essential support to prevent the warlords and drug lords from seizing political power. Our side should have kept that scum out of government and thereby prevented the corruption of the country's security services that simply drives the Pashtun into the arms of the Taliban.
We have to recognize that we can't turn back the clock to 2001 (unless we oust the warlords and go to war with the Northern Alliance mujahideen). We can't use firepower to legitimize a corrupted regime. We can't even expect our firepower to defeat this insurgency. So just what the hell are we doing there? It's time we revisited that debate.