NATO: Go Big or Get Out

The choice in Afghanistan is stark, and it's Canada's job to persuade the alliance to fish or cut bait, says ROLAND PARIS

The Globe and Mail
October 25, 2006
NATO has only two options in Afghanistan: make a major commitment of additional resources to Afghan reconstruction, or plan a phased withdrawal. As a major contributor of troops to this mission, Canada should press its NATO allies to face up to this difficult decision.

Canada's interest in Afghanistan is to prevent the country from becoming, once again, a major base for transnational terrorists who pose a threat to Canadians or our allies. That requires building governmental institutions that most Afghans view as legitimate and that are capable of maintaining a reasonable level of security in most parts of the country.

These are not impossible goals, and much has been achieved in the past five years. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been held, and some 1,000 schools, clinics and government buildings have been built. In real terms, the non-drug economy has grown at an impressive average of 15 per cent a year. Most Afghans do not want the Taliban back in power. And unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is not verging on civil war.

But recent trends are discouraging. A strengthened insurgency has made much of the country unsafe for civilian development personnel. Local warlords and drug traffickers are reportedly collaborating with the Taliban against the government. And ordinary Afghans are showing signs of mounting disaffection with their own government's inability to provide security and public services.

If these trends continue, the Afghan mission will fail. Defeat will come slowly, not on the battlefield but in the minds of Afghans, most of whom simply want security and opportunity for themselves and their families. If the legitimately elected government of Afghanistan and its foreign backers cannot provide such essentials, Afghans will look elsewhere.

Having acknowledged that Afghanistan has reached a “tipping point,” NATO now wants to accelerate reconstruction projects during the expected winter lull in fighting, and is looking for 2,500 additional troops.

But much more is needed. This mission is the most under-resourced international stabilization operation since the Second World War. For example, there were 20.5 international peacekeepers in Kosovo per 1,000 inhabitants, 19 in Bosnia, 10 in Sierra Leone and 3.5 in Haiti. The ratio in Afghanistan is a paltry 1 to 1,000. From the beginning, the operation has been hampered by a lack of international forces to help the Kabul government establish its presence throughout the country.

Afghanistan has also received less international aid per capita than many other war-torn countries, including East Timor, Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands.

But appeals for more troops and aid will only work if contributing governments are convinced that further sacrifices will make a difference. NATO is having trouble finding more soldiers, in part because its appeals are not accompanied by a new strategy or renewed commitment to the operation — and the status quo is not inspiring confidence.

A new strategy is needed to reverse the slow slide in Afghanistan and to rally NATO members.

First, stop destroying opium poppy crops. Eradication is not working. Worse, it is alienating poor farming communities and fostering resentment against the government and foreign forces. Instead, we should explore ways of regulating (and perhaps even taxing) the opium trade, using a portion of production to reduce the global shortage of opium-based pain medicines.

Second, make police training a priority. Police are largely in the hands of local strongmen. Most are poorly equipped and organized, function on the basis of personal loyalty to a commander, and are accountable to no one.

Third, get serious about rooting out official corruption. President Hamid Karzai recently sidestepped a new process for vetting high-level police appointees by appointing a regional strongman, with links to organized crime, as police chief of Kabul. In the judiciary, too, unqualified people have been installed because they are loyal to various factions, undermining public confidence in the government.

Fourth, build an Afghan army that can stand by itself. Newly trained units are performing well, but the current plan is to train only 70,000 soldiers. This will almost certainly prove inadequate. There are already about 70,000 international and Afghan troops in the country (40,000 international forces and 30,000 Afghans), yet security remains a problem. Replacing NATO forces with Afghan recruits will produce an army of similar size but considerably less capacity. To stand on their own, Afghan forces will need to be much larger.

Fifth, the flow of Taliban fighters from their safe havens in Pakistan must be contained. Insurgencies with foreign bases have rarely been defeated. In September, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor proposed joint patrols of Canadian and Pakistani troops on both sides of the border, a proposal that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf summarily dismissed. NATO must speak with a single voice and privately make it clear to Gen. Musharraf that Pakistan's lucrative position as a close ally will be in jeopardy unless he does more to address Pakistan-based threats to Afghanistan.

NATO will need to refocus its efforts on all five elements of this strategy and make a major new commitment of diplomatic, military and development resources if it is to be successful in Afghanistan. The mission cannot be accomplished on the cheap.

If NATO chooses not to make this commitment, it should not wait around for conditions to worsen. It should withdraw, because the current course is a recipe for creeping defeat — and that would do untold damage to the alliance.

This puts Canada in a difficult spot. Our troops are in the most strategically important and dangerous part of Afghanistan, committed until 2009. Yet, many NATO members are reluctant to contribute further to the mission.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says he wants to restore Canada's position of leadership in world affairs. Now he has a chance to do so. His difficult task is to convince his fellow NATO leaders that the alliance needs to make a tough choice in Afghanistan: Go big, or get out.

Roland Paris is associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa and author of At War's End: Building Peace After Civil Conflict. He was a foreign policy adviser in the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Privy Council Office from 2003 to 2005.

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