Afghanistan: Noble fight or lost cause?

The debate over what needs to be done, and whether the war is even worth fighting
Andrew Coyne and Paul Wells

Afghanistan: Noble fight or lost cause? On Nov. 10, Maclean’s will present a round table discussion on “Afghanistan: Noble Fight or Lost Cause?” at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax, the second in a series of talks. The debate, broadcast live nationwide on CPAC, will feature Scott Taylor, a former soldier and the publisher and editor of Esprit de Corps, and Mercedes Stephenson, military analyst and vice-president of Breakout Educational Network, among others. The event will be moderated by CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen, and include Maclean’s columnists Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne as panellists. Click here for tickets.

This week, Wells and Coyne kick off the discussion.

Paul Wells: Andrew, last week I spent a day with soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group at Petawawa while they trained for deployment to Afghanistan next spring. I was impressed as always by the seriousness and professionalism of our troops. I saw weapons and equipment that were far superior to the army-surplus clichés that are too easily peddled about the Canadian Forces. But I’m haunted by a remark from one young woman who was asked whether she’s looking forward to going to Afghanistan. “Of course,” she said. “I mean, this is why we signed up, right? To go someplace and make a difference.”

That’s what you want to hear from a soldier: resolute eagerness to go where the job will take her. But I felt my conscience tug anyway—because I’m less and less sure that woman and her colleagues from 2 CMBG will be making a difference when they get to Kandahar.

Until the end of 2008, the deadliest months in the entire Afghanistan war for the International Security Assistance Force (NATO and allied Western forces) had been June and August of that year, when 46 soldiers had been killed. As I write this, October is the fourth month in a row in 2009 with a higher death toll. The casualty rate has grown for six years running, but the human cost is still sustainable—as long as it leads to a safer Afghanistan, to a South Asia that isn’t a hive of Islamist extremism, and to more secure Canadian and Western homelands. That’s the rub. After enthusiastically supporting Canada’s Afghan deployment since 2001, I see less and less evidence that any of those strategic objectives is brought closer by the work Canadians do in Afghanistan. So one question we’ll debate in Halifax is whether Canada’s troops should stay in Afghanistan past 2011. But lately I wonder whether they should even stay that long.

Andrew Coyne: Paul, you have every reason to be skeptical. The war is not going well. The Taliban are proving more resilient, the loyalties of tribal leaders more mercurial, the Karzai regime more corrupt than expected. At this point, the prospects of victory—a stable, legitimate government in Afghanistan that can defend itself from the Taliban—seem remote. But, well, war is hell. If we only fought wars we were sure of winning, we should never have fought any wars at all.

Whether to fight on is rather dependent on three interrelated variables: the importance of the cause, the rate of casualties, and the likelihood of victory. The greater the cause, or the better the chances of victory, the higher the casualty rate the public will be willing to endure.

I take it we are agreed that the West’s aims in Afghanistan (Canada had reasons of its own for fighting, as it would for leaving, but for now let’s talk in broader terms) remain as pressing as ever—perhaps more so, with the deteriorating situation in its neighbour, Pakistan. While progress toward those goals has been unsteady, it has not been nil. Canadians, judging by our Maclean’s/Nanos poll (full details will be discussed at the Nov. 10 event), seem to believe we’ve made a difference, notably in humanitarian terms: nearly two-thirds scored Canada’s efforts at greater than five out of 10. The recent presidential election was a fraud—but next month’s runoff gives reason to hope for a more democratic future.

It’s common to ask what victory “looks like.” I’d like to know what defeat looks like. What are unacceptable losses? Where is the line that separates grim realism from defeatism? Since 2002, 109 Canadians have been killed in action in Afghanistan, a little more than one a month. Every death is a tragedy, but by the standards of all previous conflicts, these are relatively minor losses. In Canada, during the same period, 47 police officers and 125 firefighters were killed in the line of duty. The inevitability of casualties in these professions is not generally taken as a signal that we should give up the fight against crime, or fire. Neither is the exceeding improbability of victory.

Is victory any less probable in Afghanistan? I’ll just say off the top that the debate about Afghanistan nowadays sounds a lot like Iraq in 2006—just before the surge that quelled the insurrection. Might not a similar change in strategy change the outlook in Afghanistan?

PW: Andrew, I’m not even sure we do agree that “the West’s aims in Afghanistan remain as pressing as ever.” The minimal aim, I suppose, was to ensure that Afghanistan did not become the incubator for another terrorist attack against the West. That’s a pressing aim if it is achievable and relevant. I’m not sure it’s achievable: today, after eight years of combat, large parts of Afghanistan are outside ISAF control and are now being used for terrorist training bases. But more than that, I’m nearly certain Afghanistan isn’t relevant, in the sense that any other nook in the world could be an incubator for a terrorist attack. Pakistan, obviously. Saudi Arabia, where most of the 9/11 terrorists came from, or Hamburg, where they met and plotted. Or the street where you live. Meanwhile, the huge cost of our work in Afghanistan will, in a world of finite resources, inevitably detract from our attention elsewhere.

Comparisons to classic industrial wars of the early 20th century are a romantic distraction. We knew for damned sure that Hitler posed an existential threat and that stopping him limited that threat. Now we can’t measure the threat the West faces or know where it lives. And has our progress really been greater than nil? Between early 2008 and early 2009, the proportion of Kandahar residents saying they believed they live in a secure environment fell from 55 per cent to 25 per cent. Kandahar is Canada’s responsibility.

Richard Haass, a former Bush administration official, recently told the New York Times: “It’s not self-evident that doing more will accomplish more. And I’m skeptical about how central Afghanistan is anymore to the global effort against terror.” I find myself thinking the same things lately.

AC: I’d share your pessimism if we’d spent the last eight years with enough troops and the right strategy, and still failed. But as the consensus seems to be, we haven’t had either, and as there is some chance of both now—NATO ministers having lately endorsed Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s shrewd counter-insurgency plan—I’m hesitant to surrender just yet.

Because that’s what it would be if we pull out: a surrender. Does that matter? It matters, certainly, to the Afghans, whom we would have abandoned to the Taliban a second time. But it matters to the security of the West, as well. Yes, al-Qaeda is a worldwide organization, but there’s a reason why its leadership was based in Afghanistan at the time of 9/11, and why it continues to lurk just across the border in Pakistan. According to intelligence reports, the Taliban, especially its Haqqani faction, remain intimately connected with al-Qaeda, with Taliban opium providing an important source of funds.

Besides, you can’t look at Afghanistan in isolation. Pakistan, with its vulnerable nuclear arsenal, is arguably the gravest security threat in the world today. How much more emboldened will its own insurgents be if the Taliban triumph in Afghanistan? Or never mind Pakistan: how much of a boost would a Western defeat in Afghanistan provide to jihadists around the world? There is no more potent recruiting slogan than “we’re winning.”

That dynamic works in reverse, too. A “hearts and minds” strategy in Afghanistan may in part be about democracy and development, but it’s mostly about the understandable desire of tribal leaders to line up with the winning side. Show resolve now, and they may fall our way; secure Afghanistan, and Pakistan will have less fear of going after its own Taliban.

Will that take time? Yes. The textbook example of a successful counter-insurgency campaign, the British operation in Malaya, took 12 years (1948-1960) to complete. But I’d argue time is on our side. The Taliban can’t win while we’re there. And as long as we’re there, we can train the Afghans to take our place. Eventually, they’ll reach fighting strength.

PW: All this talk of time and patience brings us to the obvious question: what are we to make of this 2011 deadline for a Canadian troop withdrawal? Here, I have to say, you’re making more sense than the Harper government. You think counter-insurgency can work and that we should keep at it. They think counter-insurgency can work and that we should stop doing it in two years. At least I think they do. The Prime Minister and his defence minister spent most of the autumn sending contradictory messages on this crucial issue. Peter MacKay said the army’s task would simply change. Stephen Harper said it would end.

But even if you don’t listen to MacKay, the messaging coming from Harper is unacceptably incoherent. He complains that we’ve been at this for longer than two world wars. But if this counter-insurgency were effective and relevant, it wouldn’t matter that it is taking longer than all-out state-to-state industrial wars do. It’s not an all-out state-to-state industrial war. To make things worse, Harper’s spokesman Dimitri Soudas is peddling fantasy about Canadian troops staying in Afghanistan to train Afghan soldiers but not to fight with them. The only thing worse than a tight-lipped and sullen government is one that babbles incoherently.

If this mission is going to work, it needs more troops, more time and, I would argue, a miracle. You’re willing to give it troops and time. I wish I knew what Stephen Harper intends.

AC: We’re perilously close to agreeing on this one. If NATO doesn’t stay in Afghanistan, obviously there would be no point in leaving Canadian troops in place. But if, as seems increasingly likely, NATO decides to double down, led by the infusion of 40,000 additional troops from the United States, it’s hard to see how Canada could pick that moment to leave—notwithstanding the decided popular support for that option (upwards of 60 per cent, with another 17 per cent “somewhat” supportive) revealed in our Nanos poll.

There’s no doubt that we’ve shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden in Afghanistan, relative to most of our NATO  partners. In Kandahar, we’ve taken on perhaps the hardest, most dangerous assignment of all. Once upon a time in this country, that used to be a boast, not a complaint.

There’s a case to be made for other countries stepping up to do their share, allowing Canada to rotate out (though you’re right to note that “training” means combat, inescapably). But that’s a collective decision for NATO, not something Canada should be unilaterally announcing, say, in the middle of an election campaign. And if other countries don’t step up? You’ll notice the Americans don’t get to go home. Sometimes you just have to show leadership.

There’s a crasser, more self-interested reason for why we should stay. Just now we’re having a devil of a time convincing the Americans we’re as serious about fighting terrorism as they are. The issue has all sorts of obvious implications for our trade relations. Sticking it out in Afghanistan would be a fine way to prove our credentials. Whereas clearing out before the job’s done risks giving aid and comfort, not just to the enemy, but the French and Italians.

PW: The French, I’ll note, have lost 36 soldiers in Afghanistan. And while right-thinking anglospherians were busily snickering at them for being on the wrong side of history in Iraq, U.S. generals in Afghanistan were quietly frantic about the neglect that country—half again as large as Iraq, with a larger population living in grinding poverty—was suffering at the hands of people who claimed to be serious about foreign policy.

These things are path-dependent. Our domestic debates here are often based on arguments about whether seasonal pogey or seat-belt laws deform people’s behaviour. Try to imagine nearly a decade of massive civilian casualties from American bombs—a problem top U.S. commanders have barely begun to worry about—and an Afghan government that, even today, shakes down or threatens citizens every single time it interacts with them. I’m not sure Afghanistan can ever recover.

AC: You are right about the failings of the Afghan campaign until now, and perhaps I am too credulous in believing that Gen. McChrystal’s report signals a fundamental shift in direction: less use of air strikes, more boots on the ground; less concerned with attacking the Taliban, more with protecting the Afghan people.

But we are implicated in Afghanistan whatever we do: if we stay, and if we go. Part of that wretched nation’s plight is owing to the West’s failure to follow through after the Soviets were driven out. I very much dread what might happen if we do the same again.

Earlier, I accused you of pessimism. I’ll amend that: I accuse you of optimism. I know you’re not necessarily advocating withdrawal, but the implication—that we can leave Afghanistan to its fate and all will be well, or at least better—underestimates our adversary. We chafe because we have been in Afghanistan for eight years. Our enemy is bent on avenging the “tragedy of Andalusia,” i.e., the demise of Muslim rule in Spain, in 1492. We will be fighting them somewhere, I expect, for decades.

Whether Afghanistan is the best place is a worthwhile debate, one that we’ll continue on Nov. 10. But we cannot avoid this fight altogether.