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Afghanistan's 'Hard Mission' Slips Away

By Richard L. Fricker
March 10, 2007

Canadian lawmakers have written an Afghanistan version of the Iraq Study Group report, reaching a conclusion that the conditions on that original battlefront in the “war on terror” are grave and deteriorating. 

The 16-page Canadian Senate report, entitled “Taking a Hard Look at a Hard Mission,” foresees a conflict that could drag on for generations and might well fail unless NATO significantly increases its commitment of money and troops.

“It is in our view doubtful that this mission can be accomplished given the limited resources that NATO is currently investing in Afghanistan,” said the report by the Standing Committee on National Security and Defence. “The current NATO contingent doesn’t have enough troops to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban.”

Former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander told the committee that it would take five generations to “make a difference in Afghanistan,” while Land Forces Commander Andrew Leslie estimated that it would take at least two decades to complete the mission.

NATO has roughly 32,000 troops in Afghanistan, including 15,000 Americans and 2,500 Canadians. Another 12,000 American troops under U.S. command conduct missions ranging from counter-terrorism to training Afghan forces.

In 2001 after the 9/11 attacks were blamed on al-Qaeda operatives based in Afghanistan, the United States led an invasion of the rugged country, toppling its Taliban government and trapping many al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, in the mountains of Tora Bora along the Pakistani border.

At that crucial moment in December 2001, however, President George W. Bush failed to deploy adequate U.S. military forces to capture bin Laden, who managed to escape on horseback with some of his key lieutenants into Pakistan.

Bush then redirected the attention of the U.S. military and intelligence services toward Iraq in preparation for the invasion on March 19, 2003. Since then, the conflict in Iraq has absorbed the bulk of U.S. military resources and political attention.

Al-Qaeda Resurgence

Over those past five years, al-Qaeda has regrouped in the mountains of Pakistan and the Taliban has reemerged as a potent force inside Afghanistan, where NATO forces are anticipating a fierce spring offensive by Taliban fighters. [See's "Bush Is Losing the War on Terror."]

The deteriorating situation in Afghanistan has ratcheted up political and military pressure on America’s NATO allies who had expected their Afghan deployments to concentrate mostly on peacekeeping and reconstruction, not fighting a major counterinsurgency war.

U.S. aerial assaults also have killed substantial numbers of civilians and thus deepened Afghani resentment of Westerners. That local anger and the broader fury in the Muslim world over the Iraq War have attracted a flow of Islamic militants to Afghanistan as well as to Iraq.

When Vice President Dick Cheney was visiting a U.S. military base in Afghanistan on Feb. 27, a Taliban fighter blew himself apart at the gate of the base, killing 23 people but not directly endangering Cheney. The attack, however, was a reminder of the Taliban’s determination to challenge the presence of Westerners on Afghan territory.

“The Afghans are holding elections in their own minds as to whether or not the Westerners can provide the wherewithal to make life better or let the Taliban come back; at least they are predictable,” Canadian Committee Chairman Colin Kenny told me. “We have a very short window of time in which to show them we can assist them.”

Dawn Black, a member of the House of Commons and the New Democratic Party’s voice on defense and security issues, also expressed doubts about assurances from Canada’s Conservative government regarding what it calls generally positive trends in the conflict.

“The government says things are improving,” Black told me. “I was there last month. The security situation is such that they didn’t feel it was safe enough for us to leave the air base” at Kandahar.

When the Canadian delegation did visit an encampment of Afghans “just beyond the wire, the people are starving,” Black said.

Black also complained that heavy-handed military tactics have alienated the Afghani population and set back the goal of winning hearts and minds.

“How are you winning the hearts and minds of these people when you drive a tank through their farms?” Black said. “The NDP would like to see Canada withdraw from the combat mission.”

Election Chances

Canada’s Senate national security committee is dominated by Liberals and Conservatives, but the NDP could play a pivotal role in future Canadian policy in Afghanistan, especially if the Conservative minority government of Stephen Harper is forced into a new election.

Harper, a staunch ally of President Bush, is struggling in opinion polls, dragged down in part by the increasingly unpopular war in Afghanistan. If neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals can win a clear electoral victory, the NDP could be the power broker deciding who will form the next Canadian government. [For more on the politics, see's "Bush's Canadian Clone in Jeopardy."]

Harper has proposed an additional $200 million aid package that would go to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai despite concerns over widespread corruption. Sen. Kenny, a Liberal, questioned the wisdom of pouring money into that black hole.

“Canadians will not be able to see how their tax dollars are being spent,” Kenny told me. “I think there will be a lot of money going to a number of people to enhance their Swiss bank accounts. Perhaps some of it will get through to the Afghan people.”

The committee report, released in February, recommended redirecting aid through the military to ensure that more of the money actually reaches the population.

Overall, the report saw few bright spots.

“Anyone expecting to see the emergence in Afghanistan within the next several decades of a recognizable modern democracy capable of delivering justice and amenities to its people is dreaming in Technicolor,” the report said.

“The three primary forces in Afghan politics [are] armed power, tribal loyalties and corruption,” the report said. “Eliminating corruption in a place like Afghanistan is probably a pipe dream. …

“Any attempts to centralize control are complicated by the fact that Afghanistan’s economy is almost totally dependent on the sale of opium, and the opium marketplace is controlled by the warlords and, increasingly, the Taliban.”

The Canadian senators made little effort to sugarcoat the challenges ahead.

“The Taliban have time and geography on their side,” the report said. “Afghanistan is considerably more backward than other difficult areas like Iraq, Iran and Palestine. Whatever changes are made here are going to take many generations to effect and any early reforms are unlikely to present Canadians with the kinds of successes that might easily be seen to justify our involvement in Afghanistan.”

The report summed up the local situation by saying, “People outside Kabul are generally far more dependent on their traditional Sharia courts and systems of government than they are on the central government. …While NATO is proud of the fact that national elections have taken place, these elections have proven to be all but irrelevant to Afghans in places like Kandahar.”

The committee also took the Canadian International Development Agency to task for insisting “that it has a number of development projects underway in the province, but no one was able to show us.”

Beyond the lack of proof that Canada’s commitment was improving the lives of Afghans, the report noted that “life is clearly more perilous because we are there. That doesn’t mean that Canada shouldn’t be there…but it does mean that the ordinary citizen of Kandahar is living in a war zone that he or she wouldn’t be living in if NATO troops weren’t there.

“The combination of too many innocent lives being lost and too little development assistance coming through the pipeline contributes to making life bleak and dangerous.”

More Troops

While noting that “we cannot succeed in Afghanistan at the point of a bayonet,” the report said security for the population required more troops on the ground. “Some of our allies are doing a lot of saluting, but not much marching,” the report said.

“We don’t need F-18’s; we need boots on the ground,” Sen. Kenny told me, adding that some European allies are reluctant to give more help to the United States in Afghanistan because of objections to U.S. policies in Iraq and in the “war on terror.”

“Europe is getting back at the U.S. because of the failed Iraq policy and the loss of moral high ground because of Gitmo, renditions, etc.,” Kenny said.
The Canadian report faulted Germany and France for not supplying troops and more assistance. It also noted that after the Russians left Afghanistan in 1989, the United States “largely abandoned the Afghans” leaving them to the mercy of the Taliban.

Prime Minister Harper reacted to the critical report much the way President Bush responded to the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations for a phased withdrawal from Iraq – Harper brushed the bad news aside and made clear he would push ahead with an escalation of the old policy.

Unlike Bush, however, Harper may have to face the voters in the near future. Asked if Afghanistan could be an election issue in the months ahead, Sen. Kenny responded, “It very well could.”

[To read the grim Canadian report, click here.]

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