In the immediate wake of September 11, 2001, the dominant refrain was that the menace had arrived on our shores and we in North America would now all have to rise to the challenge and “defend our way of life.” But Prime Minister Chrétien’s early message was different. Now more than ever, he told the House of Commons, we would have to depend on our way of life: “Let our actions be guided by a spirit of wisdom and perseverance, by our values and our way of life. As we press the struggle, let us never, ever, forget who we are and what we stand for.”

It was a distinction that went unnoticed where it counted most. Washington adopted the mantra that on 9-11 “everything changed,” while CNN’s omnipresent banner headline trumpeted “America’s New War.” The claim that “everything changed” actively discouraged the idea that we could depend on our way of life, on its durable civil values and standards, in responding to the challenge of terrorism. The insistence that we were in extraordinary times fed the view that extraordinary measures were now required and we should not be constrained or inhibited by the rules and values that guide us in normal times. The “everything changed” mood fostered the sense that we were in a new context in which the usual political rudders and the navigational aids offered by established morality could not be relied on and needed to be jettisoned in favour of new tools.

Within weeks of the attack, CNN’s banner ceased to be a metaphor. Claiming self-defence, the United States attacked Afghanistan; the United Nations Security Council implicitly agreed; NATO states invoked article V of their alliance pact to declare the terrorist attack on the United States an attack on them all; and Canada sent four ships to the war effort in symbolic but unmistakable acquiescence to the prevailing mood – and in sanguine disregard of the Prime Minister’s earlier wisdom.

Five years into America’s New War, we’ve seen a surfeit of innovative tools, used by the United States as well as Canada: arrests without trial or security certificate detentions, violations of privacy through wiretap programs, illegal deportations, abuse of prisoners and of course renewed warfare. In time, warfare converted Iraq from an oppressive state that nevertheless eschewed Islamic extremism and refused cooperation with Islamic terrorism into a spectacularly failed state where lawlessness and escalating sectarian violence offer an open arena for the recruitment, training and activity of terrorists. In Afghanistan, the all-out American attacks in 2001 deposed the Taliban with impressive efficiency, but then things got a lot more complicated. Once again, Afghanistan was flooded with small arms and light weapons. Warlords continued to use their private armies for criminal trafficking in drugs in a thriving opium trade that now accounts for half of the country’s GDP and finances the still-growing insurgency.

Washington and Ottawa still find battles to win and victories to proclaim. But from the United Nations to a host of analysts and think tanks, the testimony speaks to a steadily and significantly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. Insurgent fighting is widespread, and suicide bombers, as Canadians have tragically learned, increasingly attack foreign troops as well as expatriate aid and construction workers. Afghan police and government officials and facilities – notably schools – continue to be prominent targets. The Canadian death toll continues to rise and the end is not in sight.

Lessons spurned

It is a bitter irony that these wars to build democracy and end terror follow more than a decade of lessons learned about what does and doesn’t work when trying to reverse state failure, build sustainable societies and prevent violent conflict – in other words, peacebuilding.

The basic understanding that had emerged out of the peacebuilding decade that followed the end of the Cold War was that to prevent violent conflict, and especially to prevent backsliding in societies just emerging out of prolonged war, it was necessary to focus on building conditions in which the local population could see positive change and would develop some confidence that the pursuit of such change was being seriously engaged. Elections, as a means of demonstrating a commitment to political inclusiveness and power sharing, were an important component, but by no means the central one. Inclusiveness had to be part of a much larger strategy: building local security institutions, like the police and judiciary, that were experienced by the people as fair and operating in the interests of all; building an infrastructure of basic services, especially humanitarian relief to the most stricken populations but also education, health care, transport and communication; the demobilization and disarming of combatants to give the civilian population the assurance of a serious effort to control crime and sectarian violence; and the start of economic development measures.

When Mozambique emerged from decades of violent conflict in the early 1990s, the prospects were woefully dim for one of the world’s poorest countries, rent by ethnic and regional divides and awash with Kalashnikovs and every imaginable make and style of small arms. But combinations of development projects – especially ones that linked economic activity to gun collection and cooperation among former enemies – with the buildup of basic services and good governance have transformed it into an African success story. Mozambique’s remarkable recovery has taken more than a decade and is obviously not finished, but it is testimony to both the possibilities and the requirements for overcoming prolonged armed conflict.

Complementing the peacebuilding lessons, the Canadian-sponsored report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), “The Responsibility to Protect,” was released in late 2001 and gradually became the focus and stimulus for an international effort to formally recognize the international community’s responsibility to come to the protection of highly vulnerable communities when their own governments failed or refused to provide such protection. On the military protection of the vulnerable, the report had brief but explicit advice about a new kind of military intervention, for humanitarian purposes, that “involves a form of military action significantly more narrowly focused and targeted than all out warfighting.” Winning the acceptance of civilian populations, says the report, “means accepting limitations and demonstrating through the use of restraint that the operation is not a war to defeat a state but an operation to protect populations in that state from being harassed, persecuted or killed.”1

In Afghanistan the lessons have been spurned rather than learned – reconstruction objectives have been radically underfunded and military methods have been all too familiar. Indeed, America’s Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) had the declared purpose of defeating a state without any plan for successfully supporting a successor regime. Removing the Taliban was also to remove the obstacles to human rights and democracy, but that was more an added hope than a determined objective. The core concern in the attack on Afghanistan, practically and formally, was the interests and security of the United States. It was an invasion intended to advance the interests of the invader, and it was formally acknowledged as such.

That does not mean it was illegal, and the UN Security Council, by acknowledging the right of self-defence, implicitly confirmed that it was not in violation of the UN Charter. Still, the focus was the safety and interests of Americans, and five years later American OEF forces in Afghanistan continue to operate formally under the self-defence umbrella. There is no bilateral agreement between the United States and Afghanistan through which Afghanistan acknowledges or welcomes the U.S. presence, which means that the United States continues to override Afghan sovereignty and continues to operate entirely at its own discretion, according to its own goals and interests and without feeling any obligation to consult its host.

Canada participated in the early phase of the war, focused on the destruction of the Taliban regime and on immediate post-regime counterinsurgency operations (it was during these operations that four Canadian soldiers were killed by fire from U.S. aircraft). Then in 2003 Canada joined the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was established in the 2001 post-Taliban meeting of Afghans in Bonn to launch an interim government and set in motion a process leading to elections. The ISAF mandate, approved by the UN Security Council, is sharply different from that of OEF. The objective of ISAF forces is not the security of the intervening forces, but the security of Afghanistan.

Explanations for Canada’s priority involvement in Afghanistan have ranged from helping to give NATO a 21st-century purpose2 to repairing Canada-U.S. relations to advancing neo-imperialist agendas – but also to alleviating human suffering and building conditions for a durable peace. No doubt the motives of the various actors cover all of the above, but the ISAF mandate is overtly focused on this last objective: to advance conditions for a durable peace. ISAF was initially limited to Kabul and the region around it, and protection and peacebuilding objectives were prominently featured. When Canadian general Rick Hillier, now Chief of Staff of the Canadian Forces, served as ISAF Commander for a six-month rotation beginning in August 2004, he emphasized both civilian protection and peacebuilding approaches.

A shortcoming of the early ISAF was its narrow range of operation, but in late 2003 the UN Security Council expanded ISAF’s mandate “to allow it, as resources permit, to support the Afghan Transitional Authority and its successors in the maintenance of security in areas of Afghanistan outside Kabul and its environs” (Resolution 1510). In each renewal of the ISAF mandate, the Security Council calls on ISAF “to continue to work in close consultation with the Afghan Transitional Authority and its successors and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General as well as with the Operation Enduring Freedom Coalition in the implementation of the force mandate.”

However, the failure to distinguish between ISAF and OEF methodologies, and the decision in the south to align ISAF closely with OEF’s counterinsurgency war, have helped bring about a marked decline in the legitimacy of both ISAF and Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government. Counterinsurgency strategies that kill civilians and displace communities3 and charges that ISAF’s close military collaboration with OEF is advancing American interests rather than serving the security needs of Afghans have contributed to the sense that the government is being supported by foreign forces that do not have the interests of Afghans at heart. Hence the suspicion that the government itself does not have the interests of Afghans at heart is exacerbated. Failure to meet reconstruction goals (in significant measure due to the failure of the international community to provide effective nonmilitary support), charges of corruption and deals with feared warlords have also contributed to a decline in public support for the government and thus to a sense that ISAF is propping up an illegitimate regime. The decline in legitimacy of the government and ISAF is mutually reinforcing.

By early 2006 Canadian forces – initially explicitly under OEF but now under ISAF – were deployed in the Kandahar region, where the legitimacy of the government and its foreign backers is most seriously in question. Rejecting the counsel of its own Responsibility to Protect commission, Canada has been adamant that ISAF and OEF strategies are identical. Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor told the House of Commons that in Canada’s switch from an OEF to an ISAF force, “There will not be one iota of change except that we will be under NATO command instead of Enduring Freedom. Nothing will change. We are following the same tactics. We are following NATO tactics.” Why, then, do both the Afghan peace agreement and the UN Security Council make a clear distinction between ISAF and OEF? If the roles and tactics are indeed identical, why bother with ISAF in the first place?

The full integration in the south of ISAF into OEF counterinsurgency operations has in fact been a recipe for failure. The only real question is whether the failure is irreversible.

Can the Afghan mission be fixed?

If good intentions and serious effort were what it took, Afghanistan would be a peaceful democracy today. Instead, a half-decade of cooperative security, democratization and reconstruction effort has left a frayed and fading vision of sustainable peace.

Of course, setbacks are to be expected and are themselves not evidence of the futility of the effort. The real surprise would be if recovery from decades of war and attempts to implement the ambitious Afghanistan Compact4 – “to overcome the legacy of conflict in Afghanistan by setting conditions for sustainable economic growth and development; strengthening state institutions and civil society; removing remaining terrorist threats; meeting the challenge of counter-narcotics; rebuilding capacity and infrastructure; reducing poverty; and meeting basic human needs” – were accomplished without a hitch in a matter of a few years. The question is whether the inevitable setbacks will be a spur to more effective effort or simply lead to the conclusion that in Afghanistan good governance ambitions have to be shelved in favour of a series of temporarily expedient and shifting protection contracts with an assortment of armed warlords, drug barons, gangsters and criminals, with the population permanently abandoned to endure assaults on their rights.

The good intentions for Afghanistan remain valid, but persisting in efforts that are demonstrably failing to implement them is not. CARE Canada President John Watson put it succinctly: “The truth is that our strategy for reconstituting failed states – military intervention followed by democratic elections – is failing.” As former foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy put it, the Afghan mission was to be a careful mix of diplomacy, development and defence – portrayed as a 3-D approach – but “now it has become one big ‘D.’” Even Defence Minister O’Connor has come to recognize that “Western militaries cannot eliminate the Taliban by force.”5

NATO representatives also acknowledge that “just killing the Taliban is not really the game. The objective is to occupy space that is currently left to the insurgents … A lot of these spaces are effectively ungoverned.”6 But the key to stabilizing such space in the long run is not so much military prowess as it is winning the support of the local population for the government that is to occupy the space, as well as for the domestic and foreign forces sent to patrol it. In September, reports tracked the progress of Canadian troops in clearing Afghan insurgents from a region measuring four by five kilometres in Panjwai district. The removal of Taliban fighters from this particular district (some were killed, some were captured, some fled) was hailed as a significant victory. At the same time, however, there are reports that as much as 80 per cent of the local population in the Kandahar region supports the Taliban.7

If the Karzai government has indeed lost the confidence of Afghans8 within specific ethnic groups and regions, it raises the prospect of Canadian and other troops in Kandahar region having been drawn into fighting on one side in Afghanistan’s longstanding civil war. Current stabilization efforts are premised on reinforcing the current political order, an order many Afghanistan watchers regard as intrinsically unstable inasmuch as it attempts to reward one side in this war. What was the Northern Alliance now dominates, while the regions and ethnic communities broadly linked to the Taliban are sidelined. Journalist Eric Margolis describes the forces which the West knows simply as the “Taliban” as including “a growing coalition of veteran Taliban fighters led by Mullah Dadullah, other clans of Pashtun tribal warriors, and nationalist resistance forces under Jalalladin Hikkani and former prime minister Gulbadin Hekmatyar.”9

In other words, ISAF’s adversaries are not simply spoilers without political objectives or their own constituencies. Our political leaders portray the Afghanistan war as a fight by those who love freedom against those who hate our freedoms, but it looks increasingly like a fight between insiders and outsiders. Seddiq Weera, an Afghan who is a senior associate at the Centre for Peace Studies at McMaster University and a senior policy adviser to the Minister of Education in Afghanistan, describes these Taliban-linked communities as having genuine grievances – notably having been frozen out of the 2001 Bonn accord – which need to be recognized and addressed through a political process.10 As long as they are excluded from the political process they will act as spoilers.

Peggy Mason, a former disarmament ambassador for Canada and currently an instructor at the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, adds that for foreign military stabilization forces to be successful, the key players have to want peace more than war – if that is the case, “individual spoilers can be effectively isolated and dealt with.”11 But if significant stakeholders believe that peace will leave them indefinitely marginalized, they will prefer war to peace – and Afghans wrote the book on the futility of trying to militarily defeat determined spoilers mounting armed insurgencies. That suggests opening the political process for renewed negotiations to bring dissident communities and regions into the political and governance process, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s assertion in the House of Commons on May 17 that “Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not interested in peace” clearly needs some nuancing.

Negotiation between states and their bitter enemies is hardly a new concept, but suggestions that the government of Afghanistan undertake such negotiations have been largely met with ridicule. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Canada cast it as a general principle: there cannot be “peace talks between an elected government and heavily-armed gangs of militant school-burners.”12

If that is indeed a principle, we should be grateful that it is regularly honoured in the breach. Governments of varying degrees of democracy are even now in prolonged negotiations with nonstate groups guilty of vicious attacks on civilians and state authorities. India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Sudan make up a partial list of governments that have finally had to sit down and deal with insurgents guilty of the vilest of deeds. The elected government of Uganda is now in talks with the Lord’s Resistance Army. This is a group of heavily armed bandits with no apparent agenda other than the maniacal fantasies of its leader and the kidnapping of young children, but after two decades the unspeakable horrors for which there have proven to be no military solutions must be ended. And so they’re talking.13

Enemies talk to each other because that is how wars are ended. Calls by Canadians for talks by the government of Afghanistan and its international backers with the Taliban recognize some hard realities. First, that there is no military solution to the Afghan conflict – indeed, Canada’s defence chief, General Hillier, recently confirmed it “has never been the strategy” to defeat the Taliban militarily: “We don’t have to defeat them militarily. What we’ve got to do is build a country.”14 Second, that many Afghans are transferring their allegiance to the very groups the international forces are fighting. Third, that rebuilding a country and restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of the central government and its backers is not simply a matter of improved performance: it also depends on a commitment to political inclusiveness that reaches out to those now in opposition to the government. Realism demands attention to the warnings of serious failure and requires a more credible response than a call for more soldiers – and now tanks.15

A prerequisite to peace is that Afghans become persuaded that their government has the interests of all Afghans at heart. In turn, that means dealing with those political-military entities in conflict with the government that represent genuine grievances and aspirations of Afghans, a group that by some accounts now includes at least elements of the Taliban. In the south the term “Taliban” includes Pashtun nationalists – the Pashtun are Afghanistan’s ethnic majority without whose cooperation national stability is impossible.16 The most recent report of the Senlis Council draws an east-west line across the centre of Afghanistan between the north that is essentially in support of the government and the south that is largely under the grip of the Taliban.

It is certainly true that conditions need to be right for successful negotiations, and it is not for observers in distant Canada to name the people, places and times for talks with representatives of that broad swath of Afghans alienated from the present government. But it is entirely appropriate for outside observers to insist on the principle that the Afghan government and its backers talk to their declared adversaries in search of accommodations that respect the needs of Afghans, including adherence to international standards of human rights.

Clearly, no one change or initiative will end this war or reverse decades of instability and conflict. An end to Pakistan’s acquiescence to or connivance with Afghan spoilers acting within and from its territory is part of what needs to happen. Similarly, a reversal of the current approach to poppy crops and the opium industry is increasingly called for. Current programs of crop destruction are more likely to drive farmers to seek protection and alliance with Taliban fighters than to persuade them to forego their primary source of livelihood.

Canadian interests and obligations

While Prime Minister Harper and Defence Minister O’Connor have regularly tried to link the Afghanistan mission to immediate and vital Canadian interests – such as if we don’t fight the terrorists over there we will have to do it here – true Canadian interest in Afghanistan is both indirect and easy to define. Former defence minister Bill Graham did it as well as anyone: “We must address not only because of the geopolitical instability they generate as breeding grounds for terrorism and international crime …, but also because the suffering and denial of human rights challenges basic Canadian values.”17

Graham simply and persuasively makes the case for Canada being engaged in the world in support of responsible governance, human rights and the safety and well-being of people. After that, because it is obviously not possible to be everywhere, it is necessary to argue for particular cases, and Afghanistan is not any easy sell. If global leadership is a Canadian ambition, we should be at the forefront of efforts to mobilize an effective international response to glaring instances of desperate need. There is no particular Canadian interest in Afghanistan, any more than there is in the Darfur region of Sudan, the north of Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo – just some of the places where the international community has an obligation to help create security and protect vulnerable people.

A specific obligation to the people of Afghanistan, however, was incurred when Canada imprudently decided to join the United States in its war to unseat the Afghan government in late 2001. And now it is hard to escape our self-made Afghan dilemma. On the one hand, there is no clear, persuasive rationale for Canada to give Afghanistan priority over other, more devastating crises; on the other hand, if all others were also to question the priority accorded to Afghanistan and precipitate a wholesale military and civilian withdrawal, Afghanistan could be condemned to the worst kind of repetition of history. After helping to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the West left a devastated country to fend for itself and fall prey to the catastrophic ascendancy of the Taliban. The Afghans have paid a terrible price, and part of the cost was transferred to America when the Al Qaeda leadership that the Taliban had been harbouring launched its September 11 attacks on the United States.

Canada has sacrificed a great deal of human and material treasure in Afghanistan. The NDP has concluded that we have reached the limit. Opinion polls suggest that at least half of Canadians have reached the same “tipping point”18 and have concluded that Canadian troops should be returned home. But it is not clear that such Canadian views are driven by the level of sacrifice. Or at least, the impact of the sacrifices cannot be divorced from the question of whether the extraordinary costs are linked to real and honourable results. In fact, a September 2006 poll conducted by EKOS Research found that opposition to the Afghan mission is not driven by concerns about mounting casualties but by a sense that “the mission is unlikely to bring stability and democracy to Afghanistan.”19 In that sense, there is really only one relevant question: is the ISAF mission in southern Afghanistan working? The justifiably growing Canadian doubts about the Afghanistan mission arise because of well-documented uncertainty as to whether our presence there is actually serving the human security interests of the people of Afghanistan.

It is likely that if it could be demonstrated to Canadians that our forces really are helping to build a sustainable future for Afghanistan, that we are helping to give that country a chance for survival as a stable society, a chance for it to meet the needs of its citizens and to become a constructive presence in the international community, Canadians would remain in support of the mission. It would then not be too expensive. The sacrifice in lives would be understood as profoundly costly and tragic, but as made and honoured in the pursuit of a better world. The issue of Canada’s peacekeeping tradition being in conflict with warmaking would evaporate if there was confidence that military operations in dangerous circumstances were contributing to a broad-based peace-restoring strategy. Charges that we are there to do Washington’s bidding would be of no consequence if what we were actually doing was demonstrably serving the interests and well-being of the people of Afghanistan in creating chances for peace to take a foothold.

But that is truly the question. Is it working, or are we actively spurning the lessons of peacebuilding and humanitarian protection, as well as the values and standards of our way of life, and expending human and material treasure in a futile effort? Canada cannot allow the 2001 decision to join the war on Taliban to indefinitely trump all other considerations. Persistence in failure is not a virtue, especially when we face other serious humanitarian and military obligations in a troubled word.

Still, obligations to the people of Afghanistan continue. Ongoing support for civilian reconstruction efforts, wherever they are possible, must be ensured. To the extent that external military forces continue to be necessary, the burden must be broadly shared, meaning that sooner or later other states will need to take their turn in Afghanistan. Above all, being in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan means being unrelenting in the search for ways to be effective in support their security and viability as a stable country that respects human rights. Whether or not Canadian troops should come home is a relevant question, but there is a prior need to rethink the role, strategy and tactics of international forces generally in Afghanistan. This reevaluation needs to be undertaken by the United Nations Security Council which has authorized the ISAF presence, by NATO which is managing that presence, and by Canadians who have asked our young men and women to pay the price of our commitment. n


1   International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001), pp. 37, 63. Available online:

2   Lyse Doucet, “NATO’s Afghan ‘Litmus Test’: Western Alliance Needs to Show it is a Winner,” Toronto Star, September 18, 2006.

3   Graeme Smith, “Civilian Deaths Reported in Operation Medusa,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 8, 2006.

4   The Afghanistan Compact, approved at the London Conference on Afghanistan, January 31–February 1, 2006. Available online: 20060130%20Afghanistan%20Compact%20Final%20Final,0.doc

5   John Watson, “Can Canada Succeed in Afghanistan?”, Globe and Mail Web-exclusive comment (; Bill Schiller, “Why Are We There, Critics Ask,” Toronto Star, August 4, 2006; Bill Schiller, “Force Alone Won’t Beat Taliban, Canada’s Defence Minister Says,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, September 8, 2006.

6   Matthew Fisher, “NATO Aims to Deprive Taliban of Territory,” Ottawa Citizen, June 27, 2006.

7   Graeme Smith, “Conquering Canadians Take Stock,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 13, 2006; Sanjay Suri, “Taliban Regaining Influence, Report Warns,” Inter Press Service News Agency (, June 28, 2006.

8   “Losing Afghanistan,” New York Times, August 24, 2006; Ahmed Rashid, “Losing the Battle for Hearts and Minds,” Daily Telegraph, September 11, 2006; Senlis Council, Afghanistan Five Years Later: The Return of the Taliban, Spring/Summer 2006 (

9   Eric Margolis, “We Won’t Win Afghan War,” Canoe network news, September 17, 2006. Available online:

10Seddiq Weera, “Can Canada Succeed in Afghanistan?”, Mondial, June 2006 (World Federalists of Canada).

11Peggy Mason, “Canadian Strategy Making Matters Worse,” Mondial, June 2006 (World Federalists of Canada).

12Omar Samad, “The Afghan Mission is Not a Failure,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 6, 2006.

13Project Ploughshares, 2006 Armed Conflicts Report (Available online:; “Uganda: Landmark Peace Talks Stumble,”, September 8, 2006 (Available online:

14Bill Schiller, “Force Alone Won’t Beat Taliban, Canada’s Defence Minister Says,” Kitchener-Waterloo Record, September 8, 2006.

15Campbell Clark, “Canada Sending 15 Tanks, 120 More Troops,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 11, 2006.

16Margolis, “We Won’t Win Afghan War.”

17Bill Graham, “The Canadian Forces Mission in Afghanistan: Canadian Policy and Values in Action,” Minister’s Speech, Vancouver, November 9, 2005. Available online:

18Michael Byers asked “where our national tipping point should be” (“Afghanistan: Just Where is Canada’s National Interest?”, Toronto Globe and Mail, September 14, 2006).

19Bruce Campion-Smith, “Afghan Mission Impossible: Poll,” Toronto Star, September 18, 2006.

 Ernie Regehr is Senior Policy Advisor with Project Ploughshares in Waterloo, Ontario.