The Toronto Star recently described Canadian Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier as optimistic about the mission in Afghanistan.[i] At the same time, an impressive (and depressing) array of independent reporting from Afghanistan is consistent in describing Afghanistan's security situation as dire and deteriorating.[ii]
Background briefings and roundtables involving Canadian military officials are consistently informative and upbeat about Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. The same officials also have a keen appreciation that ultimately success depends on progress in meeting the non-military challenges of reconstruction and good governance. But their official optimism that the Taliban have been knocked back on their heels is not, to put it delicately, widely shared. Nor is this a new discrepancy.
Last fall the Minister of Defence, Gordon O'Connor told the House of Commons Defence Committee that "o f [Afghanistan's] 34 provinces, the insurgency is a great challenge in maybe six or seven. In the remaining provinces you have, in Afghan terms, relative stability." But the report of the Secretary-General of a just a few weeks earlier described an upsurge in violence and described the insurgency as covering "a broad arc of mostly Pashtun-dominated territory, extending from Kunar province in the east to Farah province in the west; it also increasingly affects the southern fringe of the central highlands." The swath of insurgency described by the Secretary-General was closer to including 15 to 20 provinces, and he concluded that "at no time since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 has the threat of Afghanistan's transition been so severe."[iii]
In his next report, March of this year, the Secretary-General noted that "since the last reporting period, there was a marked increase in insurgent forces prepared to engage in conventional combat operations against Government and international security forces, and a significant improvement in the insurgents' tactics and training."[iv]
So, Canadian official reporting notwithstanding, the insurgency in the south appears to be at least as disruptive as ever.[v] In the north, dissatisfaction with the Government in Kabul is also growing, and while the north is still largely free of insurgency,[vi] there are reports of new arms coming to competing and newly assertive warlords,[vii] and some analysts warn of renewed inter-ethnic fighting if corrective action is not soon taken.[viii]
Canadian Forces and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) can certainly point to military victories and to numbers of insurgents killed. But some tactical victories, won at huge political cost, turn out as strategic victories for the Taliban. As we've been hearing with disturbing regularity, successful battles against the Taliban frequently involve the significant loss of civilian lives, disruptions to local communities, and displaced populations. To be sure, and this should not be forgotten, the insurgent forces have to date been responsible for the majority of civilian killings in Afghanistan - according to Human Rights Watch, in 2006 there were 492 civilians killed in bombings and another 177 by other attacks and executions.[ix] Nevertheless, Afghan authorities report that in the first 6 months of 2007 American and ISAF forces killed more than 130 civilians,[x] and other reports claim that in the first half of 2007 more civilians were killed by ISAF and American Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) forces than by insurgents.[xi]
Indeed, the Taliban appear adept at luring ISAF forces into battles that are tactical defeats for the Taliban but which they know will advance their strategic prospects. The Secretary-General's March 2007 report on the situation in Afghanistan put it this way: "Despite high losses of personnel during the past year, indications pointed to an insurgency emboldened by their strategic successes, rather than disheartened by tactical failures."[xii] In other words, the International Security Assistance Force may well be fuelling the insurgency, in part because of the political costs of tactical victories and in part because Pashtun southerners widely believe that the Afghan military forces and their international backers are supporting a government and political order that is not in their interests.
Too much of the Canadian response seems guided by the old adage that, "having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts." Despite the now widespread recognition that a military solution is not possible,[xiii] one military expert proposes a fourfold increase in NATO troops on the ground.[xiv] Another political analyst wants Canada to leverage its presence by offering NATO a Canadian military presence beyond February 2009 on condition that other NATO countries match our effort.[xv]
It seems some Canadians want to end the military effort in Afghanistan because isn't working; others want to increase and extend the military effort because it isn't working yet.
Frank assessment[xvi] of what is and what isn't working is essential for the debate in Canada to transition from its current focus on exit strategies to explorations of how the international community collectively can best make progress toward a stable security situation in Afghanistan - characterized by a genuinely representative and accountable government, an economy that works and ends its drug dependency, and a political-legal culture that respects basic rights.
February 2009 is nobody's end date in Afghanistan. An active international presence, with a significant security element to it, will be required well into the future. Under international burden sharing it is entirely legitimate for particular countries, including Canada, to depart after they have made a meaningful contribution, but only on condition that others are available to fill in - not to continue a counter-insurgency fight that is in danger of advancing the strategic interests of the insurgents, but to learn the lessons of experience and to change to a more effective course.
For the time being, Canada remains in a mission that is difficult and faltering. That means we should be talking less about getting out and more about what is needed to make it work for the people of Afghanistan. More on that soon.
[i] Bruce Campion-Smith, "General says he's no politician-in-waiting," Toronto Star, July 16, 2007 (http://www.thestar.com/News/article/236269).
[ii] Report of the Secretary-General, "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security," report to the General Assembly and Security Council, March 15, 2007 (A/61/799-S/2007/152).
Taliban Politics and Afghan Legitimate Grievances, policy paper by the Senlis Council, London, 2007 (http://www.senliscouncil.net/modules/publications/documents/taliban_politics_policy_paper).
Afghanistan's Endangered Compact, The International Crisis Group, Asia Briefing #59, January 29, 2007 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4631&l=1).Center for Defense Information, Afghanistan Update, May 1-31, 2007 (http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/document.cfm?DocumentID=3991&IssueID=48&StartRow=1&ListRows=10&appendURL=&Orderby=DateLastUpdated&ProgramID=39&issueID=48).
[iii] Report of the Secretary-General, "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security," report to the General Assembly and Security Council, September 11, 2006 (A/61/326-S/2006/727).
[iv] Report of the Secretary-General, "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security," report to the General Assembly and Security Council, March 15, 2007 (A/61/799-S/2007/152).
[v] The British Parliament's Commons Defence Committee has just issued a report acknowledging worrying signs that the Taliban are growing stronger. Luke Baker, "Taliban growing stronger in Afghanistan: report," Reuters Canada, July 18, 2007 (http://ca.today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=topNews&storyID=2007-07-18T094341Z_01_L17163224_RTRIDST_0_NEWS-BRITAIN-AFGHANISTAN-COL.XML&archived=False). Haseeb Humayoon, " The Iraqization of Insurgency in Afghanistan,"July 12, 2007, The Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, Afghanistan (http://www.caps.af//detail.asp?Lang=e&Cat=3&ContID=2549).
[vi] "Suicide bombings continued to define the security situation in Afghanistan with two particularly worrying attacks in relatively peaceful Regional Command North."
Center for Defense Information, Afghanistan Update, May 1-31, 2007 (http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/document.cfm?DocumentID=3991&IssueID=48&StartRow=1&ListRows=10&appendURL=&Orderby=DateLastUpdated&ProgramID=39&issueID=48).
[vii] Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in Mazar-e-Sharif, "Northern Afghanistan Faces New Security Threat," Institute of War and Peace Reporting, July 16, 2007 (http://www.iwpr.net/?p=arr&s=f&o=337148&apc_state=henh).
[viii] In Afghanistan's north the insurgency is largely absent but "the potential for wider intra-ethnic and intra-regional conflict remains," especially if the development and reconciliation objectives of the Afghanistan Compact are not pursued more effectively. Afghanistan's Endangered Compact, The International Crisis Group, Asia Briefing #59, January 29, 2007 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=4631&l=1).
[ix] "Taliban accused of war crimes for killing civilians," Associated Press, International Herald Tribune (Asia Pacific), April 16, 2007. http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/16/asia/afghan.php
[x] Barry Bearak and Taimoor Shah, "7 Children Kill in Airstrike in Afghanistan," The New York Times, June 19, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/world/asia/19afghan.html?ex=1182830400&en=c7cda1ad17b2a811&ei=5099&partner=TOPIXNEWS
[xi] "Afghan investigation finds 62 Taliban, 45 civilians killed in southern battle," International Herald Tribune, June 30, 2007. http://www.iht.com/bin/print.php?id=6428190
[xii] Report of the Secretary-General, "The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for international peace and security," report to the General Assembly and Security Council, March 15, 2007 (A/61/799-S/2007/152).
[xiii] "We know the success of our mission cannot be assured by military means alone."Department of National Defence,Backgrounder: Canadian Forces Operations in Afghanistan, BG-07.009 - May 15, 2007 (http://www.mdn.ca/site/newsroom/view_news_e.asp?id=1703).
[xiv] Bill Doskoch, "Time for a strategic re-think in Afghanistan?" a July 7, 2007 CTV report quoting retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie as saying that NATO needs four times the number of troops it now has on the ground in Kandahar (http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20070704/afghan_strategy_070704/20070704/).
[xv] Norman Spector, "An Afghan solution: Redefine the mission," The Globe and Mail, July 12, 2007 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070711.wcoafghan12/BNStory/Front/home).
[xvi] Spector calls on Prime Minister Harper to give "Canadians the unvarnished truth about the mission's prospects." Norman Spector, "An Afghan solution: Redefine the mission," The Globe and Mail, July 12, 2007 (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20070711.wcoafghan12/BNStory/Front/home).