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.
The home front
Sustained public support for the mission at home is the first condition NATO member countries fighting in Afghanistan must meet for success to occur. The level of public support, in turn, mostly depends on the number of troop fatalities in Afghanistan. If troop fatalities continue to mount rapidly, the presence of Canadian, British and Dutch soldiers in Afghanistan will become too politically costly, leading to a premature withdrawal from the NATO mission. Liberal democracies are casualty-averse, whereas the Taliban are not. The Taliban can sacrifice hundreds of militants; we cannot. In this asymmetric warfare, the resolve to fight is also asymmetric.
This inverse relationship between casualties and public support is clear in Canada.
On the eve of the Canadian troop deployment in Kandahar, the majority of Canadians (around 60 per cent) were supportive of the mission. Six months and more than three dozen fatalities later, this support has declined to little more than 30 per cent. Canadians have become increasingly dismayed over the loss of Canadian life. What makes many Canadians sceptical about the mission is not so much its perceived purpose or the belief that it is ultimately “Bush’s war,” but rather the cost of the mission measured in terms of human life and its chances of success. As long as Canadian troops carry out their operations with minimal casualties, a significant minority – maybe a majority – of Canadians will support the mission. This support will require Prime Minister Stephen Harper to clearly convey to the public the importance of the Canadian deployment in Afghanistan, something he has failed to do so far. The counterargument – that most Canadians, and Quebecers in particular, want to see their military’s primary role as peacekeeping rather than soldiering – may be overblown.
If Canadian troop fatalities in Afghanistan continue to mount rapidly, public support is likely to decline further, putting enormous pressure on the government to withdraw. A turning point in the decline of public support may come if the number of Canadian deaths passes a psychological threshold, such as 50 or 100. In these circumstances, public support could easily fall well below 30 per cent, with little possibility of recovery. This would mean the end of the Canadian mission in Kandahar. The government would either pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan prematurely, reduce their number substantially or redeploy them to safer areas inside Afghanistan still under NATO command. Extending the presence of Canadian troops beyond 2009 would be completely out of the question, regardless of the level of progress achieved in Kandahar.
In light of the above, the main question that needs to be answered is: can Canadian fatalities be kept sufficiently low? The answer to this question is yes. Thus far, most Canadian casualties have been the result of three sources: in descending order, fighting, suicide bombs and roadside bombs. Casualties from roadside bombs (Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs) cannot be fully eliminated, but with technology they can be kept low. In Kandahar province, Canadian troops are now using infrared technology to defuse IEDs, to great effect. In the past few months, only one Canadian casualty from an IED was reported.
Suicide bombing is a different story. The only effective weapon against suicide bombers is vigilance (in addition to having intelligence to preempt the attacks). Suicide bombing has so far taken the lives of five Canadian soldiers, four of them in one single attack in September 2006. One bright spot in analyzing these gruesome attacks is that, according to American military sources, almost all the bombers have been Pashtun villagers from Pakistan with little training. As the Taliban turn their attention to soft targets and Afghan government members (whom they sees as collaborators), suicide attacks against Canadian and other NATO troops may decline.
In the coming months, most Canadian fatalities are likely to result from direct combat with the Taliban as Canadian troops increasingly take the battle into Taliban territory in Kandahar. As Canadians become more battle-hardened and experienced, however, we should expect a decline in Canadian fatalities on the battlefield. If these predictions hold, it is most likely that public support for the mission in Canada will remain at its current level of around 35 per cent – a politically bearable situation for the government in terms of keeping the troops in Afghanistan. A similar prospect is also likely in Britain and the Netherlands.
The operational front: Southern Afghanistan
The outcome of this war will be largely determined on the operational (or military/security) front in the four provinces of southern Afghanistan. The war against the Taliban and its allies can be characterized as a counterinsurgency war, albeit with some Afghan characteristics. Fighting the Taliban insurgency is, above all, about routing, killing and capturing its militants. Equally important, the war NATO is fighting is about gaining the allegiance and support of local residents.
Negotiation with the Taliban is a delusion. The Taliban militants are motivated by an ideology based on a radical interpretation of Islam derived from the Deobandi school of thought. They will not settle for anything less than imposing their ideology on all of Afghanistan, something they had largely achieved in the 1990s. Diplomacy and compromise are alien concepts to the Taliban leadership. What could one negotiate with the Taliban, after all – the right of girls to attend school, the acceptable length of men’s beards? In the words of one Afghan official from Kandahar province, “The line is very clear now. This fight is between the democrats and the fundamentalists. If we do not kill the fundamentalists, they will kill us.”
Even without negotiation, however, the future prospects of military success are more promising than many believe. There are several reasons for optimism. The obvious one is NATO’s firepower and superior planning and technology. Since their deployment, coalition troops in Afghanistan have not lost a single battle and have killed scores of Taliban fighters. Equally important is the clear understanding now existing within NATO that an offensive stance against the Taliban can only be achieved by the deployment of large numbers of forces on the ground. Small battles here and there are ineffective – as is the reliance on army patrols, as Canadian troops learned in the first weeks of their deployment. This past spring, Canadian troops’ engagement in piecemeal and small battles against the Taliban in the areas around Kandahar City accomplished little and failed to dismantle the Taliban’s control in many villages and small towns, while taking an unprecedented toll on Canadian troops and nurturing the perception among the Taliban that Canadian troops are faint-hearted.
Only when NATO began to take the battle to Taliban strongholds in the countryside and resorted to aggressive operational military tactics was some progress made. The two large military offensives launched in southern Afghanistan this past summer – Operation Mountain Thrust and Operation Medusa – proved that coalition forces, together with the Afghan National Army, could defeat the Taliban even in the latter’s traditional strongholds. Operation Medusa, involving a Canadian offensive in Pashmul near Kandahar City, mostly cleared the area of Taliban forces.
From a tactical perspective, large-scale military offensives may not seem the appropriate way to conduct a counterinsurgency operation. Experts agree that counterinsurgencies require the use of minimum force in response to the enemy’s asymmetrical warfare tactics, such as ambushes and assassinations. Yet large-scale military offensives have certain advantages in NATO’s counterinsurgency operations. First, they affect the psychology of many local Afghans by demonstrating who is, ultimately, the stronger fighting force. By merely occupying and holding its ground, the Taliban gain prestige in the eyes of local Afghans. Thus, uprooting the Taliban from such places is critical.
Furthermore, the Taliban frequently resort to conventional war tactics alongside guerrilla ones. During NATO’s operations this past summer, for reasons that are not clear, the Taliban chose to stay and fight pitched battles. This gave the coalition the opportunity to hit back and inflict heavy losses. During the two large military operations, it is estimated that the Taliban lost more than a thousand militants, a large loss considering that the number of active Taliban militants operating in Kandahar province is no more that a few thousand.
Winning the allegiance, help and support of local populations is complicated. We know that, except for a few districts in the southern provinces, the Taliban do not have strong popular support. Because they are a recent movement rooted in the Afghan refugee camps and madrasas across the border in Pakistan, the Taliban have no natural tribal, ideological or military allies in southern Afghanistan. The Taliban’s radical ideology is alien to the traditionally tolerant version of Islam practised by most Afghans. Even though the Taliban share Pashtun ethnicity with 40 per cent of the Afghan population, this does not automatically translate into Pashtun support for the Taliban. The Pashtuns are divided across tribal and regional lines – President Hamid Karzai himself is a Pashtun.
The gravest threat to a future coalition victory would be the failure to obtain local Afghan support, the consequence of which would be increased support for the Taliban. The most potent factor that may alienate local support lies in the drug policies of NATO and the Afghan government.
The current policy is to destroy Afghan poppy crops and to punish farmers who engage in the cultivation of these crops. Unless this policy changes, it is unlikely that the Taliban will be effectively routed. Although there is no clear evidence that the Taliban are directly involved in the drug trade, poppy cultivation is their main source of financing. The Taliban receive payments from local drug barons to provide security to farmers.
The current poppy eradication policy enables the Taliban to gain sympathizers among the local population. In the southern provinces, particularly Helmand and Kandahar, poppy cultivation is the only viable source of income for tens of thousands of families. Poppy eradication may deprive local people of their livelihood. Poppy farmers do not see the difference between drug eradication teams and NATO troops, and rightly so. While NATO troops (mainly Canadians and British) are not directly involved in eradicating poppies, they provide security for American and Afghan officials who are and, hence, are seen as collaborators by most poppy farmers. Unless the poppy eradication policy changes, foreign forces in Afghanistan may come to be regarded not as saviours but as invaders.
A recent United Nations report shows that poppy eradication programs have been a failure and are likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. In the past year, eradication teams were able to destroy only a tiny fraction of poppy cultivation. Consequently, the poppy yield in Afghanistan increased by nearly 60 per cent in the past year, mostly in the poppy heartland in Helmand.
Crop substitution, which is often advocated as a solution to the problem, will likely not work given the tremendous economic advantages of growing poppies – poppy cultivation nets four times the revenue of wheat and twice that of garden vegetables. More creative alternative strategies are needed. One such strategy has been offered by the Senlis Council, a European think tank, and by Canada’s Nobel laureate John Polanyi. It involves legalizing but regulating poppy production in Afghanistan. The poppy supply will be used to produce opium-based medicines, which are already in high demand for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS in developing countries. If opium is legalized, farmers will no longer buy protection. Despite the difficulties in initiating this strategy (the international community would be required to legalize opium, to name one), it is worth considering. Buying the entire Afghan poppy crop at the current market price and burning it is politically and financially not palatable to NATO countries, the United States in particular.
Turning the tide against the Taliban also depends on reconstruction, although less so compared to establishing stability and security. The link between security and development in Afghanistan, however, is not completely clear. The assumption that reconstruction will immunize local residents against the Taliban may not be true. Afghans in some endemically poor areas that lack basic services have never been supporters of the Taliban. On the other hand, certain regions where schools, clinics and wells have been built in the past few years have succumbed to Taliban control.
Take Zabul province in the south. The U.S. Army spent $17 million on development projects there in the past two years with the help of local Afghans. This assistance did little to bring order to Zabul’s countryside because the Taliban gained the upper hand in providing security and distributing justice to the people. The example of Zabul indicates that not all hopes should be pinned on the Provisional Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) – mixed military and civilian groups established to win the hearts and minds of Afghans living in poverty. The Taliban resurgence in southern Afghanistan can be directly linked to the absence of law and order as well as to Taliban terror tactics. These factors may be more important than any absence of infrastructure.
Economic development projects can be effective in winning the support of Afghans when those projects enhance the income and employment opportunities of local residents. The most needed projects in the rural areas of southern Afghanistan are related to water resources necessary for farming. This requires NATO to prioritize projects. Building irrigation canals should be the focus of infrastructure projects rather than, say, roads and clinics.
The Afghan institutional front
Another condition that must be met to weaken popular support for the Taliban involves the Afghan government. It is clear that the ability of the Taliban to win local sympathy is directly and positively correlated with the Afghan government’s failure to establish a solid official presence across the country, particularly in the realms of security, justice and social services. Thus, when the Taliban burn down coeducational schools and kill teachers, it is not only because they oppose the education of women (the Taliban banned girls from school during their five-year rule) but also because, in many areas, schools are the only symbol of government authority.
The only viable long-term policy to defeat the Taliban is to strengthen and expand the Afghan army and police – more recruitment, more ammunition, more pay and more training. After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, the United States and NATO put most of their energy into building a professional and ethnically mixed Afghan army. The Afghan National Army (ANA), created from scratch, is now 35,000 strong. Although it suffers from the usual problems of corruption and indiscipline facing every Afghan institution, its quality and performance are improving. The ANA effectively fought alongside NATO forces during military operations against the Taliban this summer. With additional resources forthcoming from the U.S. government ($2 billion worth of weapons and vehicles), the ANA will likely be better equipped and trained in the future and will ultimately increase its troop strength to more than 50,000. This number, however, may be insufficient to secure the country. According to several estimates, at least 100,000 Afghan troops are needed for the task.
The emphasis on creating a professional Afghan national army came at the expense of creating reputable and effective police forces. The Afghan National Police (ANP) is the Achilles heel in Afghanistan’s security net today. By all accounts, both the quality and quantity of police are abysmal. Police officers are semitrained and corrupt, and their pay is both low and highly irregular. As a result, the police frequently resort to extortion from ordinary Afghans. Partly because of these problems, and partly because they are organized on a regional basis, most police forces have a close working relationship with local warlords.
The importance of establishing an effective police force cannot be emphasized enough. A time-honoured rule when fighting a counterinsurgency war is to create an effective local police force. The NATO forces in southern Afghanistan can defeat insurgents in pitched battles, but they cannot counter the Taliban’s terror tactics, such as suicide bombings and strikes on “soft” civilian targets like schools. For that, a police force is necessary. Effective and honest policing may be the key to defeating the Taliban in the long term. Many Afghans in the southern provinces frequently cite harassment by the local police as being among their most serious problems.
Upgrading police forces is a more complex and decentralized function than creating an army. Tribal politics, corruption and warlords stand in the way. The first necessary step is to recognize that without accommodating local power-holders and finding compromises, little can be achieved on this front. In this regard, a step largely in the right direction was President Karzai’s appointment of some 50 regional strongmen as police chiefs in June. Karzai’s policy has been criticized for legitimizing the power of local warlords, some of whom have violated human rights and are involved with the drug trade. But the alternative to this policy, at least in the short term, is not clear. The options in Afghanistan are usually between the bad and the worse. The option of clean, technocratic and powerful local leaders does not exist.
NATO can significantly contribute to improving the quality and quantity of the Afghan police forces. It should first recognize that the official target of 55,000 police is woefully inadequate. This means a ratio of about 180 Afghan police per 100,000 inhabitants, which is low compared to other countries in the region. Based on an analysis of other stability operations, the number of domestic police in Afghanistan should be at least 250 per 100,000 inhabitants after five years. This means increasing the number of Afghan police to approximately 75,000.
Improving the quality of police forces in the “ink spots” – secure zones that NATO hopes to slowly expand outward – is particularly essential. In a promising sign, after retaking control of the Andar district in Gazhni province from the Taliban, an American and Afghan National Army brigade announced that it would remain until a new police force can be trained and deployed. A similar approach is recommended for districts in Kandahar, such as Panjwai, where Canadian and Afghan troops recently purged most of the Taliban.
Strengthening and expanding the army and police forces are also essential to secure the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and thus, in the long run, prevent the infiltration of Taliban militants from Pakistan. Intelligence reports indicate that the Taliban have training camps, recruiting centres and safe havens in Pakistan. The Pakistani city of Quetta, capital of Baluchistan, is considered the Taliban’s “command central.” The Taliban’s most important leadership council, the Quetta Shura, has strong support from elements within the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistani government. It is also evident that Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf is either unable or unwilling to control the ISI’s support for the Taliban.
It is unrealistic to expect the Pakistani government to play a significant role in blocking Taliban insurgents and their supplies at the border, regardless of the amount of pressure Western countries may exert on it. This is largely because Pakistan has other strategic objectives related to its historic rivalry with India. In the eyes of the Pakistani government, a pro-Pakistani Taliban regime in Kabul will be a bulwark against India’s increasing influence in the region. Moreover, by doing as little as possible to defeat the Taliban, the Pakistani government can continue to exploit American reliance on Islamabad in the pursuit of Al Qaeda leaders.
Given our conundrum with Pakistan, the only feasible solution appears to be strengthening border controls on the Afghan side. Indeed, “sealing” the border could seriously disrupt the Taliban’s supply lines. This can only be done, however, by increasing Afghan troop levels and by improving the level of training they receive from NATO. American special forces have played a critical role in stopping infiltrators and training Afghans to patrol their eastern borders over the last two years. With NATO’s financial and personnel commitment, this relative success can be repeated along the southern border.
There is a good chance that the tide can be turned in Afghanistan in favour of coalition forces. We are at the beginning of a long process of stabilizing the country. It has been only a few months since NATO assumed responsibility in the parts of Afghanistan which suffered from a power vacuum when the Taliban regime was ousted. Taliban commanders are often quoted as saying, “The foreigners have the clocks; we have the time.” In the next year or two, with commitment and appropriate policies, NATO and the Afghan government may very well find that the Taliban is running on borrowed time only.