Has Stephen "Rambo" Harper truly had a change of heart over Canada's mission to Afghanistan? He recently said he didn't want to extend our commitment to Kandahar past 2009 without a consensus in parliament and the country.
So what made Harpo stop banging his war drum and has he really decided that Canada has outstayed the course?
Thomas Walkom, writing in the Toronto Star, says "the mission" is all but dead:
"The reasons are twofold and intertwined. First, NATO's war against Afghan insurgents is not succeeding. Second, there is not enough political support for that war here at home.
"This does not mean Canada will be out of Afghanistan altogether. The Liberals – and even the NDP in some of its statements– say Canada should continue to play an undefined role there. Harper too made reference to that on Friday.
"But whatever that role is, it won't be the current one. Canadian troops won't be undertaking search and destroy combat missions in Kandahar. They probably won't be in Kandahar at all."
What happened? For starters, Canada suffered a chronic failure of leadership. De Hoop Scheffer, NATO's Secretary General, turned out to be a bag of stale wind; Harpo failed to persuade Canadians that Afghanistan was remotely worth it; and Generalissimo Rick Hillier acted like an encyclopedia salesman, a pitchman who made grand promises and utterly failed to deliver.
Under NATO's protection, the Karzai government steadily weakened and the Taliban grew steadily stronger. With our help Karzai had no choice but to reach out to the Taliban for a deal and even the Kabul parliament had to go along.
Sure we built some roads and a number of schools but that was still little more than window dressing for a people on the brink of starvation. The urban populations of Kabul and Kandahar city were better off, but only so long as the barbarians were kept from the gate. The countryside became the fiefdom of insurgents, terrorists, drug lords and common criminals. The narco-economy flourishes and we have utterly failed to come up with an alternative.
This whole, sorry business went wrong from the start, by which I mean the moment at which the Northern Alliance sent the Taliban and al-Qaeda running for the hills. The Bush regime was so unsophisticated and indifferent as to blithely swallow the "my enemy's enemy" nonsense. The reality was that we stepped into a gang war and helped one bunch of murderous thugs put the boots to their rival gang of murderous religious zealots.
Then we installed Hamid Karzai as boss because we knew he was someone we could work with but we failed to vet the people who would shortly become his lieutenants, the real power in the Karzai government. We told him we didn't want many of these in his government but completely failed to give him the support he needed to hold them at bay. Not surprisingly the warlords and criminals wasted no time in installing themselves in positions of power in the military and security services.
If you don't believe this, here's some proof. One of Karzai's long running complaints has been that NATO and US forces don't co-ordinate with their Afghan counterparts before running operations. In other words, we don't pre-clear our activities with the Afghans. Why do you think that is? Could it be because we know they're thoroughly infiltrated, hopelessly corrupt and little more than a conduit to the bad guys? We don't trust them! We have enough problems with ambushes already.
We went over there with token forces to wage a counter-insurgency war. Even NATO officials have admitted the job requires hundreds of thousands of soldiers, troops that don't exist. That leaves us hunkered down in garrisons and fortified outposts from which we run patrols and occasional search and destroy missions (think France in Indo-China). That, in turn, yields control of the countryside to the insurgents and leaves the villagers unprotected. Worst of all, our lack of numbers leaves us dependent on massive firepower in the form of air strikes and artillery barrages that far too often winds up killing innocent civilians. In other words, "the mission" is tailor-made to the needs of the Taliban. Oh sure we may whack a few of them every now and then but not enough to make an appreciable dent in their capabilities and, worse, we often cause as much, perhaps even more damage to the very government we're supposed to be defending. We don't have these guys on the run. They're bringing the fight to us.
Then there was genuinely awful military leadership from our very own macho-man, Rick Hillier. Remember that he pitched the Kandahar mission on the basis of an opponent he described as "a few dozen ...scumbags." That was the enemy for which he crafted a 2,500-strong force. Since then he's been on cruise control but never passing up a photo op.
Now we're facing not Hillier's "few dozen" but several hundred insurgents who come and go pretty much as they please, who control large parts of "our" Kandahar province and who have seized the initiative. When night time comes, we get our heads down and wait for the dawn. The telling part is that we're still trying to do the job with the same size force (although with a few tanks that aren't particularly suited to fighting a guerrilla war anyway).
If General Hillier supports the troops, why hasn't he been clamouring for an additional 15- 20,000 soldiers? Modern military thinking holds we'd need that number to actually control the 55,000 sq. km. Kandahar province and provide genuine security to its people. Why hasn't he been raising proper hell about the predicament we've dropped our soldiers into? It's not as though he hasn't had ample opportunity to speak out.
No, like Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld and Pace and Harper and O'Connor, Hillier has been stuck in "stay the course" gear, unable to shift into second or even reverse. Meanwhile Karzai is in decline while the Taliban ascends.
Yet another key failure has been our unwillingness or inability to deal with Afghanistan's narco-economy. We have had to let this flourish even as we knew the opium wealth was filling the Taliban's coffers to help them wage the war against us and the Kabul government.
You may have played Whack-A-Mole, a carnival game in which the player uses a mallet to try to hit mole-like targets that pop up at random from various holes on the board. The object is to whack them all. We're playing Whack-A-Mole in Afghanistan but our version is slightly different. We're only trying to hit one mole out of four. We aim at the Taliban moles but leave untouched the Narco moles and the Warlord moles and the Criminal moles. If you're only swinging at 25% of the targets it's mighty hard to win, eh?
So, the smart money seems to predict that Canada will bail out of Kandahar with the mandate lapses in 2009 and seek safer turf, presumably in the north. How much longer the Afghan north will remain safer is unclear. Let's face it. The warlords and narco-barons and criminals that have ensconced themselves in the Karzai government are there for what they can get out of it. If Karzai gets much weaker, how long before they jump ship and the democracy project is right back to square one, the country back in the direct rule of the warlords?
At the end of the day we're left with "support the troops." Just what does that mean? Is it putting a little plastic ribbon on the trunk lid of my car? I suppose but that really doesn't accomplish much. How about NATO supporting the troops by all those member states that have been dodging "the mission" taking their turn in the cauldron? If they're not (and they aren't) then it's facile to claim that NATO itself is supporting the troops. How about our politicians and our generals supporting the troops by demanding the necessary reforms, resources and commitment to make a lasting difference? They're not and so it's ingenuous to say they're supporting the troops. Just who, then, is supporting the troops? I don't know. Tell me.