The U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 seemed at the time to many in Canada, and in the Western nations generally, a welcome development. While doubts existed about the wisdom of proceeding so quickly with the use of force, United Nations approval was obtained, and the result was the removal from power of an unelected government that had shown a deplorable lack of respect for human rights and human life at home and abroad. The Taliban provided a sanctuary for terrorism against Western nations, and it treated its own people with disdain. The defeat of the Taliban was supported by a majority in Afghanistan itself, and support was widespread for a new, more democratic government that would protect basic human rights and provide stable government.

Five years later, it is hard to be so positive. The country is once more caught up in armed conflict. Hundreds of military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban government. More than 40 of these have been Canadians. The new government has proved less than successful at establishing order and at providing needed services and development. Many people in the country express fears about security; the longevity of the new democratically elected regime is in doubt.

The events of mid- and late 2006 are particularly alarming. In late May, an incident in Kabul brought thousands of armed people into the streets, and was suppressed with great difficulty and loss of life. This incident challenged the widespread assumption that Kabul is secure and supportive of the regime. There has also been intense fighting in the southern regions around Kandahar, generating new fears that a resurgent Taliban may be poised to lead a more broadly based uprising against the government. Incidents in other parts of Afghanistan also suggest that the ability of the government to impose order is in doubt over much of the country.

In Canada, the doubts and questions are particularly acute. For the first time since the Korean War, Canadian soldiers are dying on active duty in direct combat as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). While Canadian soldiers are now part of an international force, the first deaths occurred when they were fighting with the U.S. Operation Enduring Freedom forces. There is concern that the ISAF effort is simply part of a misguided U.S.-led venture of doubtful origins and even more doubtful management.

Canada and the other countries involved are eager to have people believe that much more is taking place than armed conflict. An elected president and parliament, a major effort at development and reconstruction, and the creation of Afghan police and armed forces are all cited as evidence that progress is being made.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the effort to rescue Afghanistan from the Taliban and extremist terrorist forces and to establish order, security, democracy and development is in grave difficulty. Many argue that the current venture is fatally flawed and must either be abandoned or radically restructured. This view has particular salience in Canada.

I argue that abandoning Afghanistan now would be strategically wrong and morally unacceptable. While it would be easy to withdraw and leave the Afghan people to their fate, Canada has an interest in what happens that transcends the tragedy of the death of soldiers and the desire to disentangle from U.S. foreign ventures. Canada’s departure would almost certainly encourage other countries to do likewise, leaving the fate of the country in the hands of the United States. It is doubtful whether the United States has much continuing interest in the future of the country beyond that which military dominance can provide. To leave Afghanistan to the United States is not in the interests of the Afghan people or the world community. Afghanistan would most likely continue to be a pawn in the ever-growing battle between the United States and those who see the U.S. as an imperial power determined to impose its will around the world.

Canada is needed in Afghanistan. Canada has been there since the beginning of the reconstruction effort and is in a unique position to provide the leadership needed to help the country develop democratic institutions and political, social and economic stability in tune with what Afghans want.

Canada’s presence in Afghanistan

Canada has committed $1 billion in development aid to Afghanistan over ten years. This commitment originally arose out of the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which provided for an interim government, the convening of a Loya Jirga to draft a new constitution and a the creation of an independent judiciary. Under that agreement, Afghan representatives asked the international community to assist with protection of the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan; the rehabilitation, recovery and reconstruction of the country; and combating terrorism and the drug trade. Canada, along with many other Western countries, agreed to help meet these requests.

Canada’s reconstruction assistance is specifically directed at responding to the needs identified by the Afghan government in its National Development Framework of 2002. This is being done through programs in support of governance, rural assistance and development, and management and administration within the central government. A Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) deployed to Kandahar in the summer of 2005 is intended to work to stabilize the Kandahar region and support development efforts. The team works together with military forces in an attempt to ensure that development and security are integrated into a common effort. Canada’s main commitment is to assign a Canadian development officer to administer a Security Sector Reform Fund, leverage other development efforts and support the delivery of national programs in the region. The killing by the Taliban of the first person appointed is a tragic reminder of this commitment.

Canada was also the sole donor for the National Priority Programmes Co-ordination Unit within the government of Afghanistan from mid-2005 to mid-2006. Its role was to help the government direct its resources and programs into the provinces with the greatest strategic reach and impact and extend central government control and activity to rural Afghanistan.

And of course Canada has a major military presence in the country, about 2,500 soldiers. The decision to commit Canadian troops was made by the Liberal government in late 2001. While Canadian forces were first mobilized in small numbers in support of the U.S. invasion forces, a much larger commitment came when Canada decided to be part of the International Security Assistance Force, which from August 2003 to November 2005 assumed a presence in the Kabul area, focusing on helping the international community maintain a safe and secure environment in and around the capital. Ottawa defended this commitment as consistent with participation in multilateral peacekeeping, as an effort to ensure peace and security in the country. It was also linked to reconstruction efforts in which Canada works with the international community to rebuild the country after years of war and internal fighting. Not a lot was said about the military forces also being there to prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a presence in the country, in part because it was believed that the Taliban were a spent force.

The current situation in Afghanistan

Much has been written and said about the current situation in Afghanistan. Much of it is discouraging and most of it is true. The most salient features of the current situation can be summarized as follows:

  • The economy is dismal: Unemployment is reported to be about 40 per cent, and the real figure is likely higher. Private-sector foreign investment is negligible, and there is little internally generated capital and savings. The market aptitudes and skills of people are evident on the streets and roads where hundreds of stalls provide a wide range of merchandise and food products, but significant economic opportunities are very limited. What is obvious is pervasive poverty, and little is being done for ordinary people to escape it.
  • Public services remain generally primitive or nonexistent: Sewage and water systems do not exist except in some privileged areas. Clean, safe water is a luxury. Electricity is virtually unknown in most of the country. In Kabul, a city of more than five million people, electricity is available for a few hours per day at best, and in many areas it is every second day or less. Police forces are inept and unreliable. The effort to build a new competent system of policing has made slow progress, even though this was given a high priority. Many of the top officers are previous warlords, drug dealers and smugglers. While some roads and streets have been built, particularly main thoroughfares and those with a high profile (the Kabul-Kandahar highway is now a first-class highway, but traffic is minimal because of the security problems in the south), most streets and secondary roads are in severe disrepair.
  • Basic housing is in short supply: This is particularly evident in Kabul, where it is estimated that well over a million people have no housing. More than a million returning refugees have settled in Kabul in squalid conditions. Many of these people were expected to return to their rural areas where they previously lived, but this has not happened. An even greater number of people are living in abysmal hovels.
  • While the education system has made some advances, a high proportion of young people still do not go to school: There are simply not enough schools and teachers. The quality of education is generally poor, with senior posts in the sector often filled by people from the Communist and pre-Communist periods. There has been considerable progress, particularly in urban areas, in opening up schools for girls. However, the government is beginning to yield to Islamic fundamentalists demanding that girls be excluded from schools, and there is a real fear that the number of girls in school will drop.
  • Elections for the new institutions of government have been only partially successful: The presidential election in 2004 went well, with good voter turnout and few problems. The parliamentary elections had a lower turnout but few problems in actual voting. Approximately 12 million people were eligible to vote, of whom about 6 million did. Elections were for both the 249-seat lower house (the Wolesi Jirga) and the 34 provincial councils, which elect one third of the members of the upper house. There were 2,707 candidates for the lower house: 328 women and 2,379 men. Women were guaranteed 25 per cent of the seats and won 28 per cent, six more than the minimum. All candidates ran as independents, since parties and lists were not permitted, and voting was by single nontransferable vote (SNTV) in multimember constituencies, meaning that each voter votes for only one candidate. With so many candidates, no parties and SNTV, there was little to distinguish between candidates. Votes were widely dispersed; voting results were almost random in some cases and in others were manipulated by well-organized candidates who understood that a small proportion of votes was enough to win. Former warlords and their adherents gained a large proportion of the seats in both the lower house and provincial councils. Fragmented voting and the ability to win a seat with a low proportion of total votes has meant that many elected MPs are not considered credible representatives – and in many cases are considered illegitimate criminals. The parliament has nevertheless been working hard to get organized, and to date has displayed a remarkable flair and enthusiasm for democracy in its internal workings. It has elected officers, passed a budget and approved cabinet and supreme court appointments after much debate and voting. However, the absence of parties has meant that proceedings are very time-consuming, and it is likely that this will create great difficulties when the parliament turns to considering legislation.
  • The executive government under President Karzai has generally functioned poorly: There are many reasons for this. There is virtually no professional public service. Karzai himself is not a good manager, and displays considerable insecurity regarding his political situation. To shore up his position he has appointed numerous warlords and drug dealers to positions of leadership, including cabinet posts. Corruption is widespread. There is very little trust in the government, even though the vast majority of people hope that it will work. The government has very little revenue. Its total budget is just $500 million – less than that of Yukon with 30,000 people. There is virtually no tax base because of the wreckage of the economy, and little means to collect taxes. The overall result is that the government is delivering very little to the people in terms of services, and its credibility is declining as time passes. Karzai is struggling to retain some vestige of power and support, but to more and more people he appears barely competent and largely impotent. As his position becomes more tenuous, he is reverting to many of the old ways of brokering to shore up popularity. He is increasingly dependent on warlords and other questionable characters. He has started to play to fundamentalist sentiment, for instance by reinstating the Ministry of Virtue and Vice. He is desperately dependent on the United States, which in turn seems to see him as the only leader whom they can depend on to satisfy their interests. Rather than insisting on good, reasonably honest government, the United States is now accommodating practices it would elsewhere consider abhorrent. The government appears to be in the early throes of a downward spiral to failure – unless clear and desperate measures are taken soon.
  •  An insurgency, led by Taliban and former Taliban dissidents and fuelled by popular discontent, is gathering momentum: These insurgents had virtually no credibility or support four years ago. However, they have been continuously financed and supported by a murky collection of actors intent on reversing the political situation in the country and reestablishing an anti-American, anti-Western state that will provide a base for various forms of jihad, terrorism and fundamentalist ideology to operate in the region and the world. There is no doubt that elements of Pakistan’s government are complicit in this effort. Many of the insurgents use border areas with Pakistan as a base, and move back and forth across the border. Money and arms also come from Pakistan and various other places, including Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich states. The Taliban forces are well stocked with men from the Arab world who have joined the fight for a variety of religious and personal reasons. The Taliban today is largely an external force, but there is a real possibility that it could regain popularity if life does not improve for ordinary people.
  • International aid has in many cases been ineffectual: The reasons for this are varied. First, there has not been enough of it. Basic things like infrastructure require much more money than the donors have made available. Second, it has not been successful in capturing the “hearts and minds” of the people. Many donor countries, Canada included, have administered too much aid through contractors. As one report has eloquently summarized the situation:

Donors are rightfully proud that billions of dollars have poured into Afghanistan. But little of that international aid has filtered down to the average Afghan. In a vicious cycle, security is blamed for slow reconstruction and the failure to rebuild is said to lead to deteriorating security. A reevaluation of the reconstruction projects implemented in Afghanistan in the last five years would undoubtedly reveal mistakes. Many shortcomings might be related to a focus on shorter-term projects that the donors and Afghan government alike have tried to use to demonstrate progress to their respective constituencies – or even to each other. In other words, the emphasis thus far has not been on infrastructure but on Potemkin projects. But the infrastructure work is necessary in pursuit of long-term, state-building strategies despite its lack of immediate political benefits. Another, and more crucial, shortcoming has been a heavy reliance on foreign contractors to rebuild Afghanistan. Foreign contractors continue to boast of multimillion-dollar reconstruction projects while the average Afghan worker remains untrained and unemployed. 1

What is Canada doing in Afghanistan?

When Canada first engaged in Afghanistan, Canadians paid limited attention. As long as Canadian soldiers were not killed, there was little public or political focus on Canada’s part in the venture. That began to change when the last of the Canadian forces left Kabul and moved to Kandahar in November 2005, initially with U.S. forces and then since July 2006 as part of ISAF, which took over military responsibility in Kandahar and the southern region from the United States. This is the stronghold of the Taliban. Since that time, battles involving Canadian soldiers, including the highly publicized deaths, have become a regular part of the news cycle.

On May 17, the House of Commons voted on a motion to extend Canada’s mission in Afghanistan until February 2009. The motion carried by four votes. A poll of Canadians taken at that time showed support at 41 per cent and opposition at 54 per cent, with 6 per cent not sure.2 Clearly both Parliament and the country are now sharply divided on the issue of troops in Afghanistan. It is probable that a free vote in the House of Commons would have defeated the motion, as would a vote taken of Canadians in general. Prime Minister Harper engineered the vote to force the hand of the opposition parties, and to highlight the support of his party for the war effort. It was an attempt to drive a wedge between his government and the opposition parties, split the opposition and rally Canadians around the fight.

But events have not unfolded as Harper expected. Canadian participation in the Afghan conflict has become a major obstacle to improving Conservative support. Public opinion polls continue to show that a majority of Canadians are deeply troubled by Canada’s participation.

Canadians are uncertain why Canada is in Afghanistan. The doubts are in part rooted in Canadian views about the legitimate use of our forces in the world. Of particular importance is the distinction between peacekeeping and active combat. Canadians generally view peacekeeping as a good thing, part of a tradition of support for peace and multilateralism that Canadian governments have nurtured since the 1950s. Canadian peacekeeping forces are to reinforce and stabilize political settlements that have been brokered by the international community, preferably through the United Nations. The United Nations umbrella is important because the use of force is then based on the rule of law rather than the unilateral exercise of power.

A justification for Canada’s military role that might convince Canadians is thus that it is an exercise in peacekeeping. In this case involvement has been backed up by UN resolutions, and Canada is part of an international presence. The overall objective of the international effort is to support stable democratic government, security, reconstruction and development and to promote human and democratic rights, women’s equality and universal education.

It is the facts on the ground that are the problem. Most Canadians do not accept this as an exercise in peacekeeping. Peacekeepers don’t seek out parties to the conflict to kill their soldiers and defeat them in battle, as is the case with the fight against the Taliban. This is not peacekeeping as it is known and understood by experts and citizens alike. Like it or not, Canada is continuing the war against the forces that the United States defeated in 2001.

One possible way around this difficulty is to redefine the exercise as peacemaking. But what exactly is peacemaking, in keeping with international norms and legitimacy? In 1992 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Secretary General of the United Nations, stated that peacemaking is “action to bring hostile parties to agreement, essentially through such peaceful means as those foreseen in Chapter VI of the Charter of the United Nations: Pacific Settlement of Disputes.”3 This chapter refers largely to diplomatic efforts where representative political institutions are engaged in processes of negotiation and reconciliation. In sum, Canadian intervention in the Afghan civil war cannot be redefined as peacemaking.

The focus of peacemaking is on conflict between claimants to a political role, on reconciling them in a way that realizes some form of accommodation. Not surprisingly, peacemaking is largely a means of addressing inter-nation conflicts, which is of course very much the focus of the United Nations and international law. While the concept perhaps has enough flexibility to encompass internal conflicts in which there are challenges to the legitimacy of the established government, the parties need to be open to some form of accommodation. In the case of the government of Afghanistan, its only interest is in defeating the Taliban. The Canadian and other forces are there to support them in that objective. At present the situation is symmetrical, in that the Taliban are intent on defeating the government, the Americans and their allies, including Canadians. The Afghan situation does not lend itself to peacemaking.

Attempts to justify the Canadian presence through international conventions and practices associated with peace are largely futile. They risk becoming simply semantic games. The simple fact is that the Canadian military is in Afghanistan in a highly partisan role, at least so far as the main military threat is concerned. The Canadian military is there to make Afghanistan and its government safe from the Taliban and other insurgents. By common agreement, this is the necessary prelude to democratic governance, security, reconstruction and development.

In this sense those who suggest that Canada should withdraw its military have a point. If we are neither peacekeepers nor peacemakers, the moral foundations for what we are doing are open to legitimate challenge. This is essentially what Jack Layton and the NDP argue. Layton has concluded that either Canada should withdraw or the Taliban should be brought into negotiations to resolve the differences and to make some kind of peace to which the Taliban could be a party.

The intellectual clarity of the NDP position has not been acknowledged as fully as it should in the political debate. The NDP is correct in arguing that Canada cannot justify its presence on the basis of either peacekeeping or peacemaking.

Should Canada withdraw its troops?

However, peacekeeping and peacemaking are not the only possible moral justifications for the presence of Canadian troops. There are other ways to frame the moral case. Many, including obviously the United States, consider the Taliban to be a legitimate military target for the simple reason that they are a threat to U.S. and Western security. When it was in power, the Taliban government provided shelter and protection to Al Qaeda, and the Taliban continue to support and defend terrorism directed at the United States and other Western countries, including Canada. Framed this way, every country has a right to defend itself, and preventing the Taliban from once again becoming a force in Afghanistan is thereby justified. This position enjoys international legitimacy, inasmuch as it is supported by UN resolutions.

It is hard to dispute this argument. The Taliban sees the United States as an enemy, and supports future attacks on the U.S. It is almost certain that the Taliban sees Canada in exactly the same way. The moral force of the argument may not seem as compelling to Canadians as do peacekeeping and peacemaking, but national self-defence is almost universally recognized as a legitimate reason to use military force. There is room to argue whether there is a real and present danger, but the evidence of September 11, 2001, and statements since then support the claim that the Taliban and Al Qaeda pose a real threat.

Having a defensible moral justification for Canada’s military presence doesn’t mean Canada needs to be there. Canada has a choice. The risk of Taliban success may be so low as not to warrant devoting Canadian resources, including soldiers’ lives, to the effort. Or Canada could free-ride on the work and sacrifices of others. We could leave fighting the Taliban to the United States and other willing members of the international community. There is nothing immoral about this position. Self-interest is a widely accepted motive in foreign policy, and this would simply be a case of Canada acting in its own self-interest.

Looked at in this way, the problem entails weighing Canadian benefits and costs. The main cost of withdrawal is U.S. disapproval. Withdrawal would also prevent Canada from having a say in what happens in Afghanistan.

But there are also benefits to withdrawal. First of all, it avoids a large numbers of Canadian deaths. And most Canadians do not believe that the United States places that much importance on what Canada does. Canadians who think like this have a case. The United States is no doubt pleased to find Canada taking as much responsibility as it is, and would be annoyed if Canadian troops withdrew, as it was annoyed when Canada did not participate in Iraq. But Canada-U.S. relations did not much change post-2003, and they would probably not much change if Canada withdrew from Afghanistan. If we are to stay and fight in Afghanistan, a better argument is needed to convince Canadians.

A better argument does exist. It can be argued that it is both morally right and in Canada’s interest to be there, based on the needs of Canada, the world community and Afghans. There are many international conflicts today that threaten instability and disruption. These conflicts are part of the reality of living in a complex world. The real questions are about the impact of the conflicts and how best to resolve them. Canada is a member of the international community. It is affected by these conflicts and can in turn have an impact on how they are resolved. Canada’s status in the world means that impact can be unique and positive. The results of engagement may not only serve Canada’s interests, but also bring about a better outcome for the Afghan people.

In the Cold War era, Canada’s ability to influence the outcomes of conflicts was limited. Superpower interests inevitably dominated most conflicts. Canada’s status as a satellite of the United States further constrained its room for manoeuvre. The best option for Canada was generally not to engage. A limited Canadian role in support of conflict resolution and peacekeeping at times served the purposes of the superpowers, and Canada wisely carved out a place for itself in such processes. This had the collateral benefit of permitting Canada to develop a reputation in the world as a supporter of peace, and of having Canadians come to see foreign policy as an endeavour carried out on a higher moral plane than the mere pursuit of self-interest.

In the post–Cold War era, conflicts have taken on a different character. The United States is the only superpower. It has to some degree adopted the role of world police, using mediation, threats and force to remove conflicts and challenges to U.S. national security. But these recent challenges are not nearly as substantial as the ones that arose in the days when the United States and the Soviet Union threatened each other with annihilation. Contrary to much popular opinion, the United States has become less invested in many of the conflicts in which it takes an interest. A pattern is developing in which the United States is generally interested in taking out the immediate source of the conflict and less so in rebuilding societies inevitably damaged by the conflict. This can lead to costly mistakes, as in the case of Iraq. It can also lead to a growing neglect of what is needed to restore damaged societies.

Afghanistan is just such a case. Despite many promises, the U.S. reconstruction and development effort has been dismally inadequate. It is difficult to believe that so little has been done after all the grand promises the United States made to build a new and prosperous democratic society in the wake of the Taliban. But the results speak for themselves. The failures have been many-faceted. The wind-down of the U.S. presence has been much more rapid than the security situation allows. The United States has not done nearly enough to pressure the new government to distance itself from warlords, drug barons and mujahidin as sources of support. The restoration of public infrastructure has been too little too late. Private investment in commercial ventures has been virtually nonexistent.

Can Canada make a difference?

Ironically, the failures of the United States provide an opportunity for Canada and other donor countries to establish their presence and influence in setting the direction and pace of development for the better. Military action is an essential component of what is needed. Virtually all Afghan leaders and observers agree that development and reconstruction are one side of a coin, the other side of which is security and safety. The Taliban and its supporters are betting that if security and safety are undermined, development and reconstruction will fail. The issue is not so much the Taliban as such: it is ensuring the necessary conditions for people to live, work, travel and study without fear of attack from hostile forces. Security forces must be accompanied by meaningful development; otherwise there is no real case for the forces being there. And without security forces, there is no real case for supporting development. The ISAF commander, Lieutenant-General David Richards, has emphasized the urgency of the situation. As Radio Free Europe reported:

warned on October 8 that without visible improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Afghans in the next six months, up to 70 per cent of Afghans could shift their allegiance to the Taliban-led insurgency. “The next six months have to be used for effective reconstruction and development to ensure” the continuing support that the Afghan government enjoys among citizens. But Richards added ominously that he knows that “ISAF cannot take the support of ordinary Afghans for granted.” Richards pledged that having “shown skill and power in combat,” NATO is “now putting equal effort into supporting the reconstruction and development that will improve lives and offer a real future to all.”

Richards’ warning is a very real one for Afghanistan. The crux of the matter arguably is not whether Afghans will support the resurgent neo-Taliban, but whether – in the absence of a genuine improvement of their daily lives – they care to support the current system. The operative word is “genuine.”4

The most important moral question is not whether our troops should stay. Rather, it is whether there is a willingness on Canada’s part to ensure a genuine improvement in the economy, public services, poverty reduction and governance. If there is not, keeping troops there is pointless. If there is, keeping troops there is essential.

Canada’s choice is perhaps as important as that of any country currently involved. Canada has made a proportionately large commitment to date, and is respected enough by all of the major players to have a huge impact on what happens next. If Canada cuts and runs, many others will follow. If Canada simply supports the status quo, and does what it has in the past on the reconstruction and development front, others will do the same. In either of these two options, Afghans will be left with broken promises, the cruel fate of a resurgent Taliban and an unreliable United States likely to offer little long-term help.

Canada is not immune from the criticisms directed at the international community as a whole regarding its development and reconstruction programs. It must reform its own practices and approaches along with the other donors. The money it has committed needs to flow more quickly and efficiently. The reliance on contractors and agencies must be reduced, and the capacity to get the job done must become the number one priority.

If Canada takes the lead, and demands that others do the same, there is a real possibility that Afghans will get the chance to shape their own lives and live in security with hope of a better economic future. But time has virtually run out. Change is urgently needed, and leadership is essential. It is time for Canada and Canadians to step up, not back.


1 Amin Trazai, “Afghanistan: ISAF Warning Offers Chance to Break Destructive Cycle,” Radio Free Europe, October 13, 2006.

2 Decima Research/Canadian Press.

3 Boutros Boutros-Ghali, An Agenda for Peace (New York: United Nations, 1992).

4 Trazai, “Afghanistan: ISAF Warning Offers Chance to Break Destructive Cycle.”

Doug McArthur is professor of public policy at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.