Commentary on Canada's Afghanistan Policy

We Have To Stand On Our Own Feet

While Canada bears a disproportionate share of the burden, Ottawa is not calling the shots

The Globe and Mail
December 18, 2007

Prime Minister Stephen Harper describes Canada's sacrifices in Afghanistan as a price of our new leadership in international affairs. In reality, however, Canada has been a follower in Afghanistan, not a leader, and Mr. Harper has not demonstrated effective leadership on this issue at home.

Yes, Canada has borne a disproportionate burden among its NATO allies, and our soldiers, development officials and diplomats have discharged their duties with professionalism and courage. But a willingness to commit blood and treasure does not, in itself, constitute leadership.

Last week, for example, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Britain would support deals with Taliban insurgents to give them a place in Afghanistan's government and military. The idea of reincorporating members of the insurgency into the political life of the country is something that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been calling for - against the wishes of the United States, which has a more sweeping and undifferentiated view of the Taliban as "enemy."

Unless NATO is willing to keep tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely - which is both politically implausible, given public opinion in the troop-contributing countries, and strategically dangerous, given the history of Afghans eventually turning against foreign forces on their soil - any solution to the insurgency will probably require side deals with less hard-line Taliban elements.

Canada, with its history of support for peace efforts, should understand this. But we have quietly toed the U.S. line, refusing to "negotiate with terrorists." This is not to say Canada should stop fighting. On the contrary, if Taliban elements come to the negotiating table, it will be because they realize they have no hope of prevailing in the military struggle. But counterinsurgency without openness to negotiation is a recipe for endless Afghan conflict - as Britain, but not Canada, has apparently recognized.

Canada has also lagged behind other NATO countries in protecting the rights of Afghan detainees. The deal that Ottawa initially struck with Kabul included less oversight of prisoners' welfare in Afghan custody than similar arrangements negotiated by the Dutch and Americans. It took a big brouhaha in the House of Commons to get the Harper government to revise these arrangements and strengthen their monitoring provisions.

Political leadership is lacking in other ways. Instead of giving Canadians a detailed accounting of the operation, Mr. Harper continues to recite boilerplate talking points: We are in Afghanistan with United Nations authorization and at the request of the Afghan government; we are making progress; the mission shows our new global leadership.

Canadians may not know much about Afghanistan, but they know enough to suspect that the situation is far more complex and disquieting than Mr. Harper lets on. Opinion polls reveal deep public doubt about the prospects for success, even among many who support the Afghan mission.

Canadians are right to worry. Last week, the University of Ottawa played host to some of the world's leading experts on Afghanistan. Over two days, one speaker after another mapped out the mixed results of international stabilization and reconstruction efforts six years after the Taliban regime's fall.

The insurgency, based in the increasingly lawless borderlands of Pakistan, has adopted more effective guerrilla tactics over the past year, and it is unclear how Afghanistan will be able hold the election scheduled for 2009, since much of the country is too insecure even for UN aid workers. The opium economy continues to burgeon, efforts to reduce corruption in key government ministries are going nowhere and the police and courts remain desperately weak. (One speaker who visited recently reported that his convoy was attacked by a mixed group of Taliban and national police.)

There is also poor co-ordination among NATO countries, aid donors and international organizations - and some confusion on the precise purposes of the multilateral mission. Is it to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban? To isolate foreign jihadists and reintegrate the Taliban into the politics of the country? To build a democratic, liberal state? To consolidate a less-than-democratic state that can, at least, exercise control over territory? Or to construct pockets of effective governance at the local level? With the U.S. still distracted by Iraq, Canada should be a leader within NATO in clarifying these goals.

Mr. Harper should also provide Canadians with a full explanation of the purposes of the mission, how these purposes will be accomplished, and in what realistic time frame. The government report to Parliament last February purported to "measure progress" in Afghanistan but was utterly vacuous. We need detailed, timely and unfiltered data to evaluate our stabilization efforts, not cherry-picked lists of showpiece "accomplishments."

As Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington noted at last week's conference: "The entire history of governmental reporting on war since ancient Athens is a warning that democratic governments need constant public and legislative scrutiny, that they make more mistakes without it, and that governments do not deserve public trust, they must earn it."

Of course, such candour would be politically risky. The opposition parties (which have no serious Afghan policies themselves) are likely to use any less-than-positive information about the mission to attack the government. But if Mr. Harper wants to build public support for Canada's involvement, the only way to overcome the skepticism will be to provide an unvarnished accounting of the mission, its purposes and progress. Recognizing this need, and accepting the political risk, would be an act of true leadership.

Roland Paris is Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa.  The proceedings of the University of Ottawa's conference on Afghanistan will be broadcast by CPAC in January.


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