One of the more wrongheaded, but still ubiquitous, complaints voiced in the current Canadian debate over Afghanistan is that the Germans and others with forces in the north are not doing any "heavy lifting" and thus are both undermining the fight against the Taliban and - which some seem to find even more disturbing - putting the future of NATO in question. Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier echoed the point when he told CTV News on February 1 that within military circles the question is regularly asked: "Can you move troops from the rest of the country into the south where the need is most definite?"[i]

It is a Kandahar-centric question that fails to recognize that international forces in the north are in fact mounting credible and essential operations that could well turn out to be key to the long-term viability of development and good governance in Afghanistan. To cut back forces in the north ("north" being shorthand for those parts of the country generally onside with the Government and not heavily challenged by insurgent forces) and to redeploy them to the counterinsurgency war in the south (the parts of country plagued by a growing insurgency and where suspicion of the Kabul Government runs highest) would not necessarily or not even likely improve the chances of suppressing the insurgency, but would definitely put the stability of the north in further jeopardy.

In November 2007, for example, the BBC reported that in the north the always present violent crime is now being exacerbated by growing political attacks: "Fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar—a former mujahideen leader who is battling the Kabul government independently from the Taleban —are known to be active in Baghlan."[ii]Another November example, a report from Radio Free Europe, describes northern militia leaders as "exploiting Kabul's preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims to their old fiefdoms." Some are rearming to prepare for what they fear may be another war with a resurgent Taliban.[iii]A new Oxfam International (2008) report on development and humanitarian priorities for Afghanistan also warns that the focus on the south is leading to neglect of the north and increasing the danger of spreading insecurity.[iv]

To preserve stability and advance human security in the north, stabilization forces must continue to contribute to conditions that are conducive to peacebuilding, that is, to reconstruction, disarmament, security sector reform, and accountable governance. The Manley Panel (p. 32) says that "there is not yet a peace to keep in Afghanistan," but in fact there is a peace to keep and build in the north. It is a fragile peace, to be sure, but it is one that must be nurtured and built up or it will be lost.

It is primarily in the north where there is currently a realistic prospect of gradually shifting security responsibility from ISAF to Afghan forces, but only with increased attention to training local police who will be trusted and to building the kind of economic and social conditions on the ground that are conducive to political stability. In the "clear, hold, and develop" framework, the 2001 invasion by US and northern Alliance forces was able to "clear" the north of the Taliban because the latter had few roots there. Since then the north has been "held" by a combination of Afghan (Government and militias) and ISAF troops. However, the "develop" phase (reconstruction and governance, in particular) has been chronically under-resourced. Governance reform has been resisted by both the central government and local officials and politicians (and militia leaders) in attempts to preserve their own advantages in a still corrupt system.

Much of the current debate is about whether or not Canadian forces should be engaged in combat operations. The real choice, however, is between counter-insurgency combat and a genuine post-conflict peace support and security assistance operation designed to stabilize the regions already largely under Government control. Both counterinsurgency clearing operations in Taliban-held regions and security patrols in government-held areas are UN Chapter VII (use of force) operations involving the resort to lethal force. The former, however, takes the fight to the Taliban without, as experience is showing (see the Feb 16 posting here), effectively suppressing the insurgency, while the latter focuses on providing security protection in communities where the insurgents are not present in the same way—even though the presence of spoilers is and will continue to be a challenge.

The explicit rejection of a combat role in Kandahar province should be understood as a rejection of counterinsurgency combat in favour of security patrols consistent with peace support operations in post-conflict areas of the country. In Afghanistan peace support operations are not carried out by Blue Helmets with binoculars and radios, but an armed security force with a mandate to protect people in their homes, communities, schools and places of work.

So, the general priority should now be to focus on the "hold" and "develop" tasks to ensure a stable future for Afghans in locations where the Government is basically in control and the insurgency is not present.

A British Humanitarian worker and researcher writes the following after recent visits to Afghanistan:[v]

"Almost everyone I spoke to on my recent visit thinks that this strategy, which essentially consists of trying to capture territory held by the insurgents and then to "love-bomb" local residents with aid projects is crazy. It is a terrible way of distributing aid, it is not buying hearts and minds and it is actually creating an incentive for people in peaceful areas to stage "incidents" so that they can get "more, more, more" attention as well.

"Western strategy within Afghanistan should concentrate on securing the areas of the country that are currently under the nominal control of the government, strengthening the institutions of the state and tackling corruption and impunity. That will require a significant reorientation of existing policy - and real political courage - but until the institutions of government begin to command the respect of ordinary Afghans there is no hope achieving a durable political settlement.

"That does not mean the withdrawal of international military forces, but it should mean winding down aggressive military operations in the south and east. There is absolutely no point in asking British soldiers to risk their lives to capture territory during the day that the Taliban will simply reoccupy the next night. No amount of ill-thought-out aid is going to win the hearts and minds of a village whose children then get killed by an air strike."

International military forces are needed to help "hold" the fragile peace in the north through stabilization or peace support operations that can be appropriately called Chapter VII peacekeeping. Efforts to "develop" that fragile peace into a sustainable peace are obviously what we know as post-conflict peacebuilding. Now is definitely not the time to shift forces from that vital peace support role in the north to join the unsuccessful counterinsurgency war in the south.


[i] "German troops to stay in Afghan north despite pleas," The Associated Press, February 1, 2008 (

[ii] "Afghan suicide blast 'kills 40'," BBC News, November 6, 2007 (

[iii] Ron Synovitz, "Afghanistan: Armed Northern Militias Complicate Security," RFE/Rl, November 4, 2007 (

[iv] "Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities," Oxfam International, January 2008 ($File/full_report.pdf).

[v] Conor Foley, "Who is Right on Afghanistan?" February 15, 2008, Guardian Unlimited (

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.