Five years after the Taliban regime’s demise, Afghanistan is back on the brink. Early successes, such as the much vaunted presidential and legislative elections, have been overshadowed by a growing insurgency in the south, a dramatic increase in poppy production, a persistently feeble central government and an uneven economic recovery. The internationally backed plan for the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan seems to have malfunctioned and fostered the same conditions that led to the takeover of Afghanistan by Islamic extremists in the mid-1990s.
Entangled somewhere in the middle of all this, Canada has paid dearly for the setbacks. One of Washington’s best troopers in the “war on terror,” it has staked a lot on Afghanistan. Of the approximately 3,000 Canadian troops deployed worldwide, 2,300 are in Afghanistan, a proportion that has been relatively constant in the last few years and is at odds with Canada’s more typical sprinkling of troops in a number of operations. Relatively little noticed until 2005, this fact has been dramatically emphasized by the substantial military casualties suffered in 2006. Following the takeover of the Kandahar region, Canada has sustained more casualties per capita than any of its NATO partners including the United States and Britain, making its combat toll the highest since the Korean War.
Jean Chrétien’s Liberal dynasty originally sent a significant number of troops into Afghanistan. The succession of minority governments that followed Chrétien has led to much dithering about Canadian policy in the country. While there has certainly been more continuity than rupture on the issue through the different governments, an inevitable sense of uncertainty and state of flux hangs over the work of Canada’s representatives in the field and policymakers in Ottawa.
Events both in Afghanistan and in Canada help explain a downturn in public opinion toward the mission. Sceptics generally ask two questions: why are we in Afghanistan, and when will we leave? Before we can examine the goals set for Canadian policy, we must first understand the present situation in Afghanistan.
The combined pressures of the Taliban-led insurgency, rampant criminality and incomplete national reconciliation jeopardize stabilization and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and could lead to renewed civil war. Such an outcome would annihilate all the progress made in five years, which is considerable despite the present gloom. This downturn of events can be attributed to a number of key failures.
At the end of 2001, Afghan and international actors convened in Bonn, Germany, to set the course for post-Taliban Afghanistan. The whole plan was deemed the “Bonn process.” It included a number of steps to stabilize and rebuild Afghanistan and pledges of support from countries from around the world. A “light footprint” approach underlay the Bonn process. It was thought that given the history of Afghanistan and the alleged repulsion for any foreign intervenors, the international presence on the ground, or footprint, should be kept to a minimum.
The Bonn process came to a close with the legislative elections held in September 2005. Up to that point, things seemed to be heading in the right direction and the strategy seemed to be vindicated. Yet the recent upsurge in violence contradicts this. The “light footprint” has in fact often been used by countries as an excuse for a “light commitment.” Up until now, countries have honoured about half the aid pledges they have made. Per capita development aid provided to Afghans is a fraction of that invested in Bosnia, Haiti or East Timor. These shortcomings are all the more critical considering the dire needs of a country that is coming out of more than 20 years of war. Most international staff in Kabul now recognize that the “light footprint” has proved wrong and that it will need to be far “heavier” if anything is to be achieved.
This approach has also contributed to another key failure: a lack of military presence in the most disturbed regions. Three international missions were sent to Afghanistan: the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and, after the rout of the Taliban, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). To summarize the division of labour, OEF is charged with the warfighting, ISAF with the peacekeeping and UNAMA with coordinating aid and providing political support.
NATO took over ISAF in August 2003. At the time, the operation covered only the Kabul area. Not until late 2006 did ISAF expand to the southern and most troubled part of the country. This unbearably slow extension process is a reflection of the problems NATO faced in trying to secure contributions from its members and partner countries and in agreeing on a common purpose for the mission. In practice, this means that international security forces have mostly operated under OEF for five years. The mandate of OEF is focused on counterterrorism and its leaders have only reluctantly agreed to get involved in wider nation-building schemes.
European nations and many commentators have criticized an overly military strategy applied in Afghanistan, a well-founded criticism in retrospect. Yet had the Europeans offered troops in a timely manner, they would have secured a more influental role for ISAF and hence a better balance between military and development intervention in the country. To compound the problem, some European troops that were actually sent operate under severe restrictions. For example, German troops in the north are strictly forbidden to take part in combat – a reassuring thought for local militias.
To illustrate the point, OEF had 100 troops permanently based in the restive region of Helmand (although these were backed by considerable reserve forces). When the British took over the region as part of the ISAF extension, they couldn’t secure it with more than 4,000. It has long been understood that insurgencies are not defeated by military operations alone. In 1959–60, the French army, under General Maurice Challe, conducted a series of brilliant campaigns in Algeria against the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) insurgents, virtually wiping out the FLN’s armed wing inside the country. Yet at the same time, President de Gaulle came to realize that the essential contest was lost and that he had to come to some sort of agreement with the independence movement. In insurgencies, the fundamental issue is political.
This provides the backdrop for another key failure: the dismal governance record in Afghanistan, especially in the southern regions. The constitution and affirmation of an Afghan political body was at the very core of the Bonn process. The goal is ambitious. Afghanistan is an uneasy patchwork of different religious, ethnic and tribal groups that, when not fighting each other, have never suffered a strong central authority. Furthermore, the level of disintegration of Afghan society after decades of civil wars should not be underestimated.1
In 2001, the Taliban held most of the country and the Northern Alliance, a loose federation of warlords, was on the defensive. The American-led intervention following the 9/11 attacks reversed the tide. The Northern Alliance received support in the form of massive military shipments and in return did most of the fighting on the ground, covered by the Western airpower umbrella. When the Taliban were routed at the end of 2001, warlords once again reigned supreme in afghanistan.
Thereafter, a slow process of integrating these divisive figures into the political stabilization efforts began. Two initiatives have been relatively successful: the disarmament of militias and the constitution of an Afghan National Army (ANA). But the problem of warlords remains. The warlords were empowered by the Western military intervention in Afghanistan, but they remain discredited in the eyes of most Afghans. The Taliban’s rise was in many ways the result of popular outrage at the warlords’ behaviour once the Soviet troops withdrew.
The Northern Alliance leaders still have much sway over Hamid Karzai’s government. Despite their heavy baggage, many hold key positions and the legislative elections became a great whitewashing operation. The 249 representatives in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house, include an estimated 40 commanders still associated with armed groups, 24 members who belong to criminal gangs, 17 drug traffickers and 19 members who face serious allegations of war crimes and human rights violations.2 Other examples of impunity abound. The former governor of Kandahar was replaced because of his alleged close links with drug traffickers. Instead of being chastised, he was simply offered a posting as a presidential nominee in the Meshrano Jirga or upper house. Karzai thereby avoided a confrontation, but he has allowed predatory practices to prevail inside his government.
This has been felt most severely in the southern regions where discredited local powerbrokers were reinstated. When the Kabul government was represented at all, too often it was by groups heavily involved in criminal activities. The dramatic increase in poppy cultivation is the result of collusion by various actors, including the Taliban, who share an interest in opposing any form of rule of law. In their heady days, the Taliban were ruthless and extreme. But they instilled a sense of justice and morality in a country wracked by war. In comparison, the Karzai government inspires contempt and distrust. Three years of relative calm were lost and it is hard to blame local Afghan populations for hesitating between these rival forces. As long as the political alternative to the Taliban is as distasteful as it currently is, the insurgency will not be quelled. The commander of ISAF, General David Richards, commented in early October 2006 after a number of offensives in the south: “We have created an opportunity … If we do not take advantage of this, then you can pour an additional 10,000 troops next year and we would not succeed because we would have lost by then the consent of the people.”3
The quasi-absence of international troops and abysmal governance record created a political vacuum which insurgents were keen to fill. This was facilitated by the havens provided in Pakistan’s border provinces. The sudden Taliban comeback in 2005 and rapid deterioration of the general situation in the south in the last year are hard to explain without reference to Afghanistan’s neighbour. Whether because of internal constraints or a covert strategy, Pakistan is a refuge for insurgents and is used as a launch pad for large-scale penetration of the southern regions of Afghanistan. A map of the most violence-prone regions of Afghanistan and the progress of the insurgency is a clear indictment of Pervez Musharraf’s government in Islamabad. It is impossible to ignore Pakistan’s role in the destabilization of the entire Pashtun belt in the south. This is all the more troubling considering the past close ties between the Taliban, the Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and the Pakistani military secret services or ISI.
Pakistan’s internal politics are complex and many religious, regional and ideological forces are pulling it in different directions. Musharraf’s military dictatorship has muddled through, relying in part on radical Islamic parties. Karzai, himself educated in India, has bluntly blamed Pakistan for the violence in the south. Musharraf has replied in kind, alleging that the Taliban were mostly Afghans and that Pakistan was on the receiving end of Afghan problems. Unfortunately, both are probably right.
The main failure here is the lack of involvement of regional players in the peace process. Regional rivalries have played a key role in aggravating the tensions within Afghanistan and helped sustain decades of continued fighting.4 Reassuring bitter adversaries in the complex political realm of Central Asia, including them in the restoration of an Afghan government and ensuring that none of them feel sidestepped is always going to be a tricky enterprise at best.
In a report to the United Nations Security Council in September 2006, Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote, “While previous periods have been marked by progressive and significant deteriorations in the security situation, the recent upsurge of violence represents a watershed. At no time since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 has the threat to Afghanistan’s transition been so severe.”5 Key failures in Afghanistan’s planned recovery have indeed led to ominous results.
First of all, although Afghanistan’s economy has grown since 2001, the recovery is concentrated in the northern half of the country. This uneven progress plays into the hands of ethnic animosity. The Bamian region in the north, where the local Hazara people have welcomed the foreign presence and where reconstruction projects and schools abound, stands in stark contrast to Kandahar where daily violence precludes any meaningful development work. The southern part of the country is dominated by Pashtuns who, being the largest group with an estimated 42 per cent of the population, are used to holding the reins of power. Other groups, such as the Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, reside mostly in the north. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, the Northern Alliance, based on these minorities, wields much influence in Kabul. The Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami are dominated by Pashtuns, and the uneven development effort gives credence to their grievances.
Second, it is now safe to say that an all-out insurgency is occurring in the south. In the Helmand region, British soldiers have been faced with groups of Taliban numbering in the hundreds and standing their ground. Such a feat requires not only a vast number of foot-soldiers but also significant financial and logistical support. Their tactics are in line with what is known as asymmetric warfare. This is a very nasty type of fighting that requires a prolonged presence and massive economic and political as well as military efforts. Two months after calling for an extra 2,500 troops for the south, NATO was still waiting for someone to heed the call. Faced with a counterinsurgency campaign, most European countries still didn’t want to see any combat role included in ISAF’s mandate. NATO had to settle for revised rules of engagement and including a liaison officer with OEF as it extended its mandate to the southern half of the country. Not exactly a great start.
The usual cycle in a postconflict intervention sees military contingents peak at first; then police take on a more important role as organized violence decreases; finally civilians and development workers remain to help in longer-term development. This cycle is dependent on the gradual improvement of security. It also reflects the limited attention span of most intervening countries. The international community has been in Afghanistan for five years and now is presented with a huge challenge. The third result is a sense of exhaustion and a loss of momentum at a time when international actors on the ground say they need extra effort from their governments.
Fourth, the Bonn process emphasized building Afghan political institutions, but complacency regarding governance has allowed incompetent, divisive, corrupt and self-interested figures access to power. This is especially true in the judiciary and interior ministry, which both have a central role to play in fostering the rule of law.6 Five years on, predatory leaders have had the time to entrench themselves and will now be much more difficult to discipline, let alone expunge. Despite their fatigue, international actors involved with the Karzai government will have to be much more forceful on these issues. This is critical if the insurgents who are now threatening the entire stabilization process are ultimately to be defeated.
Finally, no matter what the intent of the Pakistani government, Pakistan’s frontier regions are destabilized and openly welcome Taliban, Al Qaeda and other affiliates of radical Islamic parties. The deployment of 80,000 Pakistani troops to some of these fiercely autonomous regions has only accelerated the radicalization of local elites. The recent Pakistani military withdrawal treaty signed with “tribal leaders” is recognition of Islamabad’s limited room for manoeuvre.
There are serious border disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand, Foreign Secretary in the British Indian government, defined the border between British India and Afghanistan. The “Durand line” divides the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and present-day Pakistan, and most Afghans do not accept the legitimacy of this border. A movement exists among Pashtun Afghans – but not among their non-Pashtun compatriots – for a Pashtun state incorporating Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. These conflicts are further compounded by complex regional relations involving India, Iran, China, Russia and Central Asian states. The bottom line is that Pakistan has a key role to play in Afghanistan’s transition. So far, that role has been more negative than positive.
To be fair, the picture is not nearly as dark as enumerating these failures and results would indicate. Although the situation is worrisome, immense improvements separate Afghanistan today from what it was in 2001. As for the future, ISAF’s extension to the entire country signals a shift in strategy that encompasses social, political and developmental aspects and is certainly more conducive to long-term stabilization. The successor to the Bonn process, the Afghan compact, announced at the end of January 2006, is a much-improved approach to rehabilitation and reconstruction. Although we may find the Bush Administration’s outlook on international relations abrasive, lessons have been learned from the blowbacks in Afghanistan and the disaster in Iraq. The switch of 12,000 U.S. troops to NATO command in early October clearly signals a newfound American willingness to work in a multilateral setting.
Five years on, the original momentum may have been lost, but a great deal has also been learned on the ground. Originally, most countries and international organizations involved in Afghanistan underestimated the scale of what they were attempting. The question now is whether these same actors will find the political will and consequent resources necessary to follow through.
The recent debate on Canada’s presence in Afghanistan reflects these doubts. Canada intervened in Afghanistan earlier and far more extensively than its international partners. Since 2001, Afghanistan has been one of the centrepieces of our foreign policy. Ottawa’s International Policy Statement, tabled in Parliament in April 2005, described it not only as a priority but as a model for Canada’s future role in world affairs. Around 80 per cent of the Canadian troops deployed overseas are in Afghanistan. CIDA has also made Afghanistan its most important beneficiary of bilateral aid.
In contrast to the United States and Britain, Canada did not participate in the war in Iraq. In Afghanistan, Canada has clearly signalled its intention of working within a multilateral framework by earmarking the bulk of its contingents for ISAF since 2003. In many ways, Canada has been NATO’s most committed supporter in Afghanistan, caught between dithering and suspicious Europeans and overly aggressive and unilateral-prone Americans.7
The character of Canada’s Afghanistan commitment is thus in line with Canadian foreign policy traditions, but its importance relative to other international commitments is unprecedented in peacetime. Some would argue that this is appropriate because we are at war against terrorism, but this is a dubious notion that has more to do with a political slogan than an actual description of the state of international affairs.
The September 11 attacks on the United States left a mark on international relations and put security issues back on top of the agenda. Canadian policymakers reacted accordingly. Defence budgets have been increased following a decade of reductions. General Rick Hillier launched a profound reform of our military to make it lighter and more responsive, and the 2005 International Policy Statement led us to concentrate our efforts in Afghanistan.
Canada’s objectives are a mixture of realpolitik concerns and traditional liberal-internationalist discourse. First and foremost, Canada’s deep involvement in Afghanistan is related to its vital partnership with the United States. It is a show of good will in the “war on terror” and a resolute answer to the “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” challenge posed by President Bush. Some hard facts need to be recalled. American and Canadian defence are closely knit, more than for any other two countries in the world. There are clear political and geographical reasons behind this 60-year old partnership. The two countries are also economically intertwined. The United States is by far our most important trading partner and Canada’s prosperity depends on this relationship. A severe crisis between our two countries would have devastating effects, especially for Canada. Canadian politicians are all too aware of the risks involved.
Thus Canada’s participation in Operation Enduring Freedom is readily understandable in terms of realpolitik. But there is more than realpolitik at stake. Condemnation of the September 11 attacks was universal across the world, and Canadians expected their government to show solidarity with their longtime partner and friend south of the border.
An important shift occurred in May 2003, when the Canadian government announced that it was sending 2,000 troops to Afghanistan as part of ISAF, which at the time was operating only in Kabul. The timing of the announcement was eloquent. This was both compensation for Canada’s noninvolvement in the invasion of Iraq and an ideal excuse to say troops were not available for the Iraq invasion.
The decision to go to Kandahar, announced by the Martin government in May 2005, only deepened our commitment. The government had released its new International Policy Statement a month earlier, declaring that it wanted Canada to leave its mark on world affairs. The statement concluded that Canadian efforts should be targeted at specific priority countries. Trying to be everywhere meant having influence nowhere. Canada needed to overcome “ad hockery,” to quote General Hillier. In short, focus is key to influence.
Kandahar is the stronghold of the Taliban and the city is the gateway to southern Afghanistan. Back in early 2005, the situation there was far more stable than it has become since. The decision to move the centre of gravity of the Canadian presence in Afghanistan from Kabul to Kandahar made perfect sense as a way to secure influence in the constant negotiations that are part of any international deployment of troops in a country.
To reconcile Canada’s traditional liberal outlook in international affairs with the military imperatives of engagement in countries like Afghanistan, pushed by our southern neighbour, the International Policy Statement had introduced the “failed state” logic. This logic posits that states with severe internal dysfunctions tend to export their problems in an ever more interconnected world. Misery, death, fanaticism and rampant criminality translate internationally into destabilizing waves of refugees, terrorism, spreading conflict, increased trade in illegal goods, severe environmental degradation and so on. Afghanistan happens to be an ideal example.
To satisfy the more liberal-minded internationalists, the Canadian government linked the logic of failed states to the Human Security and Responsibility to Protect paradigms. To satisfy the political realists, including current policymakers in Washington, the statement linked the notion of preventive military action to burgeoning threats such as countries supporting terrorist organizations.
When countries set policy objectives, these must be weighed against their costs, and the strategies employed should be regularly reevaluated based on results. An assessment of our substantial Afghan involvement reveals that the results have been lukewarm.
In terms of our relationship with the United States, the American government understands that, no matter how significant our military contingent in Afghanistan, Canada would have accorded the United States much more political legitimacy by backing its invasion of Iraq. At the same time, however, the last few years have been humbling for the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. On the whole, Canada’s focus on Afghanistan has proved right and few would doubt that the adjustments made in our foreign policy and defence are in line with the “war on terror.” The election of a more lenient Martin government and then the obvious symmetries between the Bush and Harper governments have been additional factors leading to reconciliation.
Canada has certainly secured an influential role in Afghanistan. For half of 2004, Canada’s General Hillier assumed command of ISAF. Because of the deployment of an operational group in Kandahar, the main core of the current Canadian military presence, Canada was rewarded with the command of the Multi National Brigade for Regional Command South in Afghanistan. This means that Brigadier-General David Fraser is responsible for Canadian and ISAF operations, leading a force of about 6,000 soldiers from Canada and seven other countries: Britain, the Netherlands, the United States, Australia, Denmark, Romania and Estonia. This recognition of military commitment is complemented by a high-profile role for Canadian representatives involved in political and developmental issues.
The focus of resources has certainly led to a higher profile in Afghanistan, as the International Policy Statement intended. But the quick succession of governments in Ottawa, two of them with parliamentary minorities, has impeded the overall strategic orientation. The model for the International Policy Statement’s integrated Development, Diplomacy and Defence (or “3D”) vision of Canada’s role in the world was the British approach. Too often in the past, federal departments had been at odds, their different mandates leading to three different Canadian foreign policies. Unifying such divergent agencies requires very strong leadership from the Prime Minister’s Office. Tony Blair’s government has had the time and power to do this; a series of minority governments could not do the same in Canada. In practice, this means that although these governments have been consistent in the commitment to Afghanistan and its basic parameters, Canada’s representatives on the ground in Afghanistan have been guessing what to do with their new influence.
There is no great risk in saying that the disintegration of Afghanistan, the coming of the Taliban and their harbouring of Al Qaeda has had devastating worldwide effects. But the failed state concept is at odds with a selective approach to Canada’s involvement in the world. If Afghanistan warrants Canada’s efforts, what about Somalia, Zimbabwe or Côte d’Ivoire? The International Policy Statement mentioned Darfur, Haiti and Afghanistan. The failed state logic may be helpful in justifying Canadian interventions in any of these countries; the same cannot be said about why and how these specific cases were selected.
There are clear reasons for Canada’s deep involvement in Afghanistan, but they were not stated as clearly as they should have been to Canadians at the time. Undertaking the justification now, given the combined pressures of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and rapidly mounting Canadian casualties, is politically difficult. Although Canadians have been mobilized in the past to support international military interventions, society has changed. The electronic media report casualties instantaneously and visually; arguably, public concern for the sanctity of life has also risen. The combination has made public opinion much more averse to casualties. How to overcome this aversion to military action?
The first tactic is to connect the Canadian presence in Afghanistan to a lingering threat hanging over our daily lives. This justification, used with much success in the United States, calls on powerful emotions bordering on paranoia. However, the fact is that the actual chances of dying or being injured in a terrorist attack are extremely low. And how do you assess whether actions taken internationally have reduced the terrorist threat? Even American intelligence agencies have come to realize that the invasion of Iraq, supposed to be part of the “war on terror,” has actually produced more terrorism.8 Europeans, who have long experience with terrorist organizations, have been much more cautious in linking foreign terrorist activities to potential domestic dangers.
Another angle is to invoke a humanitarian point of view. Much has been said about the plight of Afghan women and the extreme violence under the Taliban. This rationale was not enough to engage international actors in the 1990s, and it is doubtful that it will be enough to sustain a large commitment today.
While idealistic Canadians may not like it, humanitarian justifications must be balanced with an understanding of our national interest.9 But the minority situation in Parliament makes it difficult for the Canadian government to discuss our realpolitik interests publicly. Public opinion is thus far more important in the current Afghanistan debate than it was when the Prime Minister’s Office could confidently count on a parliamentary majority.
From an international point of view, Canada’s record in Afghanistan is enviable. Successive governments have maintained a balanced approach including political, developmental and military dimensions. In all three, it has delivered while most other international partners have proved unreliable. Canada has also favoured multilateral arenas and has mostly been involved through either ISAF or UNAMA, which share a balanced approach to solving Afghan problems in the long run. Recent dramatic footage should not obscure these facts.
More could be done in provision of development aid to Afghans, but this is a problem related to Canada’s overall development aid budget. Canada’s percentage of GDP spent on international aid is low compared to many other donor countries and at odds with the benevolent image we have of ourselves.
Some Canadian politicians argue that Canada’s Afghan intervention represents “an offensive turn” and a betrayal of Lester Pearson’s legacy. A few myths need debunking here. First, Canada’s defence during the cold war entailed preparations for an intensive, dramatic conventional war with the Eastern bloc. Peacekeeping was at the margins of this central commitment although Canadian governments have been keen to use it as an example of Canada’s honest-broker role in international relations.
Second, Canada’s military was deeply scarred by its experience in former Yugoslavia. Back then, the same people who now criticize Canada’s Afghan intervention lamented the inaction of the United Nations Protection Force as large-scale ethnic cleansing was taking place. Lessons learned in the 1990s have generally led to much more aggressive mandates being voted for new peace missions. This includes UN blue helmet operations in, for example, Congo-Kinshasa where armed militias are sowing havoc as in southern Afghanistan (although admittedly on a smaller scale).
None of this denies the difficult moral dilemmas and tricky political implications entailed by use of force. But an insistence on peacekeeping operations without resort to force is unhelpful in understanding current missions or in understanding the changing nature of war itself.
The Canadian government has given itself the tools and resources to have a significant impact on an important international crisis. With it must come a full explanation to the Canadian public. n