The Government's decision to ask Parliament to extend Canada's current mission to 2011 (2) is linked to one of the more wrong-headed but still prominent complaints voiced in the current Canadian debate over Afghanistan. It is the charge that the Germans and others with forces in the more stable north are not doing any "heavy lifting" and thus are undermining the fight against the Taliban and, what some seem to find even more disturbing, putting the future of NATO in question.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Rick Hillier echoed that line of argument when he told CTV News that "there is no job outside of the south where you actually need extra troops right now. In fact, there is contemplation all the time in military circles of "Can you move troops from the rest of the country into the south where the need is most definite?" (3)
It is a deeply counter-productive approach because the international forces in the north are in fact mounting credible and essential operations that could well turn out to be the most important for the long-term viability of development and good governance in Afghanistan. Cutting back forces in the north (we can take "north" as shorthand for those parts of the country generally onside with the Government and not heavily challenged by insurgent forces) and redeploying them to the counter-insurgency war in the south (with "south" being shorthand for the parts of country plagued by a growing insurgency and where suspicions of the Kabul Government run highest) would not reliably improve chances of suppressing the insurgency but would definitely put the stability of the north in further jeopardy.
Reports of deteriorating security in the north are now frequent, with the always present violence of crime exacerbated by growing political attacks. (4) Northern Militia leaders are said to be "exploiting Kabul's preoccupation with the violence-ridden south and east in order to stake claims to their old fiefdoms." Some are rearming in order to prepare what they fear may be another war with a resurgent Taliban.(5) A new Oxfam International report on development and humanitarian priorities for Afghanistan also warns that the focus on the south is leading to neglect of the north and the danger of spreading insecurity.(6)
Successful peacebuilding and stability in the north are critical to Afghan avoiding the descent into a civil war that engulfs the whole country. And for the north to remain stable and for human security to be advanced there, international 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's claim that "there is not yet a peace to keep in Afghanistan" ignores the fact that it is in the North where there is in fact a realistic prospect of gradually shifting security responsibility from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan forces.
But that will take increased attention to training police that are 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 north was essentially "cleared" of the Taliban in the 2001 invasion by US and Northern Alliance forces, and has since been "held" by a combination of Afghan (Government and militias) and ISAF forces. The "develop" phase (reconstruction and governance in particular) has however been chronically under-resourced, with governance reform often resisted by both central government and local officials and politicians (and militia leaders) in efforts to preserve their own advantages under a still prominently corrupt system.
The priority in the North, broadly speaking, is therefore now to focus on the hold and develop tasks in order to assure a stable future for Afghans there. And, of course, the name that is usually given such a process is post-conflict peacebuilding. International forces in the north are thus following the proven model of peace support operations, what contemporary peacekeeping has become, that are designed protect people in their homes, communities, and places of work so that reconstruction can proceed. They operate under a UN Chapter VII mandate and can certainly involve the resort to lethal force, whatever national caveats may be in place. Such operations include instances of combat, but of a kind that is clearly distinguishable from the counter-insurgency fighting that tries to defeat the Taliban on their home ground.
The latter operations in the south are in the process of repeating history√Ç -- namely, that insurgencies rooted in a strong ethnic community, with independent means of support (the poppy trade), and with access to havens of retreat, are not generally amenable to military defeat.
The impending danger is not that NATO will fail to find another 1000 soldiers to operate with Canadians in the south, but that the focus on the south will result in the further neglect of security, reconstruction, and governance challenges in the north.
If Parliament passes the new Afghanistan resolution, we might well renege on the military imperative to keep the peace in the north and on the diplomatic imperative to seek the peace in the south.
1) Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan, Chaired by John Manley, reported at the end of January 08 (http://www.canada-afghanistan.gc.ca/cip-pic/afghanistan/pdf/Afghan_Report_web_e.pdf).
2) On Feb. 8 the Government tabled a motion calling for "the continuation of Canada's current responsibility for security in Kandahar to the end of 2011." (Available at http://www.canadaeast.com/news/article/207019.)
3) "German troops to stay in Afghan north despite pleas," CTV.Ca, February 1, 2008.
4) "Afghan suicide blast kills 40," "Fighters loyal to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahideen leader who is battling the Kabul government independently from the Taliban are known to be active in Baghlan," BBC News, November 6, 2007 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7081012.stm).
5) Ron Synovitz, "Afghanistan: Armed Northern Militias Complicate Security," Radio Free Europe, November 4, 2007 (http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2007/11/ffca5de1-b96c-4cdf-810b-831bec1b5a6c.html).
6)"Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities, Oxfam International, January 2008 (http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/RMOI-7BE2T6/$File/full_report.pdf).