Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On NATO, Rick Hillier's Wrong - Dead Wrong

Rick Hillier has seen his place in Canadian history, and he doesn't like what he sees.

Hillier, the ex-general who, curiously, now denies being the architect of Canada's deeply flawed military mission to Afghanistan is, not surprisingly, indulging in America's post-Vietnam sport of ducking responsibility and deflecting blame onto others.

In his memoirs, the ex-general claims the decision to send a Canadian force barely a tenth the size needed to secure Kandahar province from a resurgent Taliban threat had almost nothing to do with him. The whole thing had been a done deal between the Department of National Defence and the office of prime minister Martin before Hillier got involved - he maintains, now that the stench of failure is inescapable.

After bemoaning that the whole mess isn't his fault, Hillier goes on to spew vitriol at NATO, claiming the alliance is done unless someone breathes air through its "rotten lips into those putrescent lungs." In Hillier's remarkable mind, if NATO can't win in Afghanistan it might as well be scrapped altogether.

Besides being self-serving, I believe Hillier's NATO remarks are seriously wrong-headed to boot. This guy would define an alliance that served the West remarkably well through a half-century of existential Cold War by how well it performs in a hopeless cause it was never intended to fight.

The problem isn't with NATO, it's with the political and military leadership of the alliance since the demise of the Soviet Union. No one, it seems, knew what to do with NATO after the Soviet threat receded and so it drifted, aimlessly, until some halfwit in the White House decided it'd make a dandy American Foreign Legion.

The core of NATO, the raison d'etre for the whole business, has always been mutual self-defence of any member state under attack. Now from what I've learned, America was never attacked by Afghanistan. Nine years after the Taliban were sent packing there's not been one scintilla of evidence suggesting they even were aware of the al-Qaeda 9/11 plot that was orchestrated out of Germany by a gang of mainly Saudi fundamentalists. Put that all together and it just doesn't correspond to NATO's mutual defence rationale. So what really happened?

In the wake of 9/11, we lost our senses and our backbone. The world's sole superpower was insistent on waging war against someplace and war-fighting tools are really pretty useless against criminal organizations, non-state actors like al-Qaeda. Washington couldn't bomb Germany for letting al-Qaeda plotters gather there. Couldn't bomb the House of Saud for its complicity in buying off the Wahabist extremists so long as they stayed out of Saudi Arabia. It couldn't bomb Florida for allowing al-Qaeda killers to leisurely while away their time at American flight schools either. Who are you gonna bomb? What's better than a fundamentalist Muslim regime, especially an extremist, contrarian bunch like the Taliban? Hey, if it's the best you've got, it's the best you've got.

NATO's mistake was in bending its own rules, actually tossing the rule book out the window. And so some NATO members, not all by any means, saw fit to send small packets of troops to aid the Americans in Afghanistan.

At first it was just routine security work defending the newly-installed Karzai government in the capital of Kabul. But then we looked up and saw that Bush and Cheney and Blair were in full rut to conquer Iraq and were pressuring everybody to lube up and jump into that mess with them.

Canada didn't want to go to Iraq. It was a bad idea from the outset. It was never sanctioned by the UN Security Council which made it illegal in any case. The political leadership behind it - Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, Feith, Blair and Straw - were doubtful starters at best. From the outset they were talking like school children about a war that would be over in 60-days and cost a few score billion at the outside. That's the sort of talk you hear from the bearded lunatic with the torn coat and soiled pants sitting at the back of the bus. You don't let that sort drag you into a war, especially not a war of choice based on the flimsiest of contrivances and prevarications.

But, of course, America's war-dodging War President was on a rampage, telling friend and foe alike that "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists!" Sadly no one had the guts to stand up and say, "George, you're nuts. Go fuck yourself." No, we dutifully fell into line behind the lunatic.

We weren't going to dive into the empty pool that was Iraq but, rather than risk being seen by the Americans as "Surrender Monkeys" we opted to assume some sort of combat role in Afghanistan. We would be the American army's place holders while they stepped out for a moment to set all straight in Iraq. We'd even fire guns and drop bombs and everything. Right.

Even then it was all wink, wink/nudge, nudge. We, Canada, decided to take over and secure Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan, with a force of but 2,500 soldiers, most of them support types. That was the first clue that we weren't serious. Why? One of the fundamental precepts of counterinsurgency warfare is that it's enormously labour-intensive. To succeed, according to the Pentagon's own doctrine, you need to commit a force of one counterinsurgent (fighting soldier) for every 25-50 civilians you must protect and secure. In Kandahar province that would represent a minimum fighting force of 20,000 combat soldiers (with the requisite support troops backing them up). We had but 2,500 all in - support and fighting troops.

The second sign that we weren't serious was that our minuscule force strength remained static even as the Taliban numbers swelled. We crafted the mission according to the resources we poured into it, not according to the threat we were up against.

Missing during these several years was Hillier's voice. He was outspoken about just about everything else but he never spoke out publicly saying that Canada's force could not hold the Taliban and secure Kandahar without major reinforcement. He never said that we were losing. Yes, we were shooting up people and shelling and bombing the hell out of them but we were losing control of territory which is one way the insurgents win this type of war. We weren't keeping the population's villages safe at night, from the insurgents or from their own government's predations.

Yet, despite this track record, Hillier condemns NATO for failing to "win" in Afghanistan. Just what would winning look like? I'm not sure anyone really knows any longer. It's not the secure, secular and democratic state our delusional leaders fantasized about when this sorry business began. The Kabul government that we're propping up is what Chatham House, the Royal Institute itself, describes as a "criminal enterprise." Experience has shown us there has never been a viable Muslim state that didn't first overcome tribalism and warlordism and, when it comes to Afghanistan, those problems are both manifest and not even on the table for discussion. We know that, since we drove out the Taliban, Afghanistan has reverted to a narco-state. We know the Afghan government is so poor that it can't begin to afford the type and size of a national army it would need to secure its own territory.

Gee Rick, just what is there for NATO to win in Afghanistan or haven't you been reading the papers?

The fact is that neither Hillier nor anyone else can condemn NATO for Afghanistan when there is no proper role for the alliance in that country. It's entirely conceivable that the Taliban's war, the political war waged by all insurgencies, has already been decided - in their favour. Lord knows we didn't put up much of a fight in their war just as we fumed when they refused to fight our war, the military war.

But what of NATO and the future of the alliance? Is there any reason for its continued existence? What can it do for us? Despite Hillier's badmouthing, we're entering an era in which NATO may be more critical to the West than it ever has been even at the height of the Cold War.

Take climate change, desertification, deforestation, resource (particularly freshwater) depletion and exhaustion, species migration and extinction, air/land/water contamination, overpopulation and population displacement and migration, nuclear proliferation and global terrorism - add water, toss'em in a pressure cooker and turn the burner on "high." That is the world we're soon to be facing and that is why the West, or at least the original alliance members, need a NATO that is redefined, rationalized, refocused and reconstituted and we need to be giving that our immediate attention.

Both the British Ministry of Defence and Pentagon planners have released reports on the impacts of environmental threats on global security. The Pentagon is soon to release its Quadrennial Defense Review in which climate change will be identified as presenting a major security threat to the United States.

Are these threats real? Of course they are and they're already beginning. Are they serious? Ditto. In little more than a month the nations and blocs of nations that make up our world will be assembling in Copenhagen to seek consensus on some effective means to fight global warming. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that almost nobody believes Copenhagen will succeed, skip back two paragraphs to the list of challenges set out there. Global warming is the very first, listed as "climate change." Copenhagen isn't going to begin to resolve any of the other issues that are set out.

We're about to face a world in turmoil and upheaval and that has major security implications for the West, the industrialized nations that will ironically be the last and least impacted by the consequences of our own industry and consumption. Put bluntly, we may well need to defend ourselves as we never have before. For that we will need collective security, a revitalized North American Treaty Organization.

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