by Hakan Tunç
The debate over Canada’s military deployment in Kandahar province has, until now, focused on the “why” question (why are we in Afghanistan?) and the “what” question (what is our mission in Afghanistan: peacekeeping or peacemaking?). As it is now clear that Canadian troops in Afghanistan are at war against the Taliban and its supporters, the major questions around which debate should occur is: What are the prospects of the mission’s success? Can we win this war? Can we achieve our objectives in Afghanistan?
Let me clarify what I mean by we and win. We means not only Canadian troops, but also the other member countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) serving in Afghanistan. The Canadian mission is intrinsically intertwined with NATO’s. A Canadian victory in Kandahar will be of little significance if NATO fails to make progress against other Taliban strongholds inside Afghanistan. All of Afghanistan, especially the southern provinces where the Taliban is most active, is the battlefield. Overcoming the Taliban in part of the country is not enough as long as they maintain their strongholds elsewhere as bases to continue their assaults. Canada and other NATO members are in the same boat, and will all sink or swim together. This is especially true of Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, the three countries whose troops are engaged in active warfare in southern Afghanistan.
Identifying winning is not easy. NATO forces are engaged in a counterinsurgency operation, and in this kind of warfare there are no victory parades. Realistically, NATO will never be able to defeat the Taliban and their ilk in Afghanistan, unless the Taliban leadership decides to forego armed struggle, which is a very remote possibility. Winning therefore should be defined as weakening the Taliban’s power to the extent that its militancy is reduced to little more than a nuisance, say to one suicide bombing per season as opposed to the current rate of one suicide attack every week. We will “win” when we establish a secure environment for people to carry out their daily activities without fear and when we ensure that the Afghan government has the capacity to establish and sustain a secure environment on its own. This may take many years, even a decade.
The prospects of stabilizing Afghanistan increasingly preoccupy the minds of Canadians. As bad news flows from Afganistan and the number of Canadian casualties mounts, there is growing doubt that this goal can be reached in southern Afghanistan. This doubt is understandable. The problems seem intractable. The enemy is ferocious and fanatical, the Afghan national government is largely dysfunctional and most local officials are corrupt. Add to this the existence of multiple warlords, the drug trade and Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.
And yet, there are reasons to be optimistic about success in Afghanistan. The Afghan population remains generally pro-American and pro-NATO, and its appetite for sustained conflict is low after more than two decades of war. Most Afghans do not view NATO troops, including Canadian soldiers, as an occupation force. By contrast, almost every Afghan was against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Moreover, NATO has overwhelming firepower against the Taliban. The Taliban are not invincible and make costly mistakes. Afghanistan is not a quagmire for NATO.
Success in this war will depend on determinants on three fronts: the home front of NATO countries, the operational front in southern Afghanistan and the degree of improvement in Afghan security institutions. Developments on each of these fronts will inevitably affect the others.