Noble fight or lost cause?

What to do in Afghanistan was the subject of a Maclean’s panel debate last week in Halifax, broadcast live by CPAC.

Wells: In Kandahar, they actually poll the residents quite frequently about how they feel. Kandahar residents feel substantially less safe than they did a couple of years ago. They have a lot less confidence in the government than they used to. No wonder, after the lurid spectacle of the elections this summer.

Until 2009, the deadliest month for coalition forces in Afghanistan was July 2008: 46 soldiers died. We are now four months in a row with a substantially higher—nearly double—death toll than in July 2008. These rates could be sustainable if there was some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, but what we keep seeing is more tunnel. Afghanistan is the smaller of a sort of duplex of international terrorism, which is Afghanistan and Pakistan. When we concentrate on Pakistan, the bad guys just move across the mountains into Afghanistan and vice versa.

Coyne: Afghanistan has to be seen in the context of the situation in Pakistan—where we have an insurgency that would take enormous heart from a defeat for NATO in Afghanistan—and in the broader fight against “jihad international,” where the best slogan for recruiting al-Qaeda fighters is, “We’re winning.” Everybody wants Pakistan to get serious about going after its own Taliban. Why are the Pakistanis going to do that if they think we’re going to leave Afghanistan, if they’re going to have a Taliban government on their doorstep? It’s true that we have not defeated the Taliban. But the Taliban haven’t defeated us either; they cannot seize power as long as we’re there. As long as NATO remains we can train up the Afghan army.

If we were proposing no change in strategy that would be one thing, but we are on the verge right now of bringing in 40,000 more troops from the U.S., of changing fundamentally the strategy toward counter-insurgency. That’s an odd time to pull out.

Wells: I’ll just note that what we’ve already seen this year is 17,000 supplemental U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and that has led pretty much directly to a near doubling of the casualty rate.

Alexander: It’s certainly a noble cause. We’re celebrating 20 years since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Afghanistan after that period experienced 12 years of neglect that allowed terrorism to take root, that allowed a civil war to wreak havoc on that population. The process of overcoming the ills of that period only began in 2001. Building institutions takes a long time, especially institutions like police. Canada has made a difference as lead investor in many areas of development. But the job’s not finished.

Stephenson: It is a very challenging and difficult fight, but when in Canada’s history have we given up simply because something was difficult? I think this is the fight that will define our generation. So much of the Canadian debate, when we talk about whether we should stay or go, has evolved around domestic politics rather than what’s going to happen to that region, the emboldening of global jihad, what that means for Western security in the long run, as well as Canada’s international reputation.

Taylor: It was originally a noble cause, but we never took this on as a fight. When we first went in the Taliban were already defeated. It was going to be a two-year mission. The original budget was some $250 million. The idea was to get the elections up and running, have a government established, provide some support to the Afghan army to get it self-sufficient, and by 2005 we were to come home.

That’s what we were sold on as Canadians, and now look at the numbers they’re talking about, up to $18 billion, 133 fatalities, 800 wounded and a lot of those guys permanently disabled. We stepped into this quagmire. The election this summer has proven that democracy is dead. That part of the experiment’s gone. We need to seriously rethink what we’re doing there to make this worth what we’ve invested in it so far. It’s taken eight years to train an Afghan army. History has shown Afghans can fight, but they simply choose not to exert that same level of enthusiasm when they’re fighting for something as ineffective as the Karzai government.

Alexander: Why is it that every discussion of Afghanistan begins with Canadian soldiers on patrol in Kandahar? It’s a country of 34 provinces. Development programs are being implemented across the country. The number of schools is 9,000. When I arrived in 2003 it was 3,000. All of those trends are happening partly because Canadians and others are facing the Taliban, but we need to look behind casualty rates to actually measure what progress is being made. The progress that counts is in building institutions.

Taylor: When we did the initial planning, the only casualties we expected to take were from incidental unexploded ordnance, or criminal activity. Now we can’t go outside of our front gates in Kandahar without being bumped. It’s not the number of casualties, it’s the obvious lack of progress. We’ve talked the talk about building up the Afghan security forces to be self-sufficient. When we went in the early days, they did it on the dirt-cheap. Illiterate recruits were given two weeks of training for the police force, we were recruiting former warlords and thugs and giving them uniforms and equipment, creating this monster that was beginning to prey upon its own people again. So we made a lot of mistakes in terms of winning hearts and minds.

Stephenson: People say, “There haven’t been enough troops,” and absolutely there haven’t been. If I’m an average villager and you’re coming to my village and saying, “I’d like to know who’s Taliban here, I’d like to know where the IED factory is,” and I know I’m not going to see you again for two weeks but I know that the Taliban is watching me, why am I going to co-operate with you?

If you think of counter-insurgency, think of it as an upside-down triangle, and that little bit at the bottom, that’s the military bit. The rest is all civilian. But we haven’t seen the aid agencies, because the security hasn’t been there. And in the absence of those things, the building of civil society hasn’t been there to instill confidence in Afghans.

Taylor: If we put penny packets of troops out and had a permanent presence in those villages, our casualty rate would be akin to what the Russians experienced, because they would be able to overwhelm us in small outposts. So we’ve kept our guys in large central areas, well protected. This is a coalition of the reluctant. Not one of the 42 countries contributing wants to spend one soldier’s life or one dollar more than they have to, and that means that we’re not going to put guys at risk in small groups. We still don’t have a single Pashto speaker in the Canadian Forces, and I’m sure with most of our NATO allies it’s the same thing. So they’re sensing that we are still strangers operating pretty much blind and deaf in that area, and you can’t win a counter-insurgency with those tactics.

Alexander: I think it’s uncharitable to dump on the Canadian Forces for not having Pashto speakers, because that’s not the point: they have worked extremely well with the Afghan army, with the police, and with Afghan civilian organizations, to the point where our model of working with civilians is being taken on board by other allies, including the U.S. The key shortcoming—which Mercedes gestured at—is numbers. Counter-insurgency needs time, and a ratio of counter-insurgents that is overwhelming. We saw that in Malaya, in Northern Ireland, everywhere counter-insurgency has succeeded. In Afghanistan we’ve never had it. It will take a larger Afghan army, larger Afghan police, and more international forces.

Taylor: There actually are now 175,000 Afghan security forces, between the police and the army. If you add that to the U.S. forces there, the NATO force there, and the private security contractors, that comes out to a figure of about 300,000, while the largest estimate to date is 15,000 Taliban fighters. I think that 20-1 is a pretty overwhelming statistic.

We’ve got night-vision goggles, laser rangefinders, howitzer shells. Never in history has one side had that kind of technological superiority, or the numerical superiority that we’ve got over this estimated 15,000 guys with Kalashnikovs and sandals that use an old artillery shell as an IED to take us out.
Coyne: Scott, it seems to me that you were arguing in terms of the old strategy. If the argument was, “Can we go out and extirpate the Taliban,” no, and no amount of numbers are going to change that because they just come flooding in from Pakistan. But if the strategy is not to do that, but to protect the population, to win them over, surely numbers can make a difference in that situation.

Taylor: It depends how we employ them. Culturally, we’ve made faux pas. If they’re offered a meal inside one of the villages, they’re going to refuse to take it because they don’t want to get dysentery, but that is a huge insult to someone who’s offered to break bread with you. We have dogs that will sniff individuals for explosives—dogs being the lowest animal in the Islamic world—and it will emasculate them, or we’ll have soldiers enter a house where the women are, which only drives up the enmity of the people.

If we mean to get serious about this, and we mean to get the Afghan army self-sufficient, we need to move on that. The reason the Afghan army took so many casualties is because in the early stages it was a 10-week training program and we gave them old discarded crap, and put them out there very ill-trained, ill-equipped. They’re not stupid. They can see that we look like Robocop with all this body armour, night-vision goggles, and they’re standing there in an old American uniform with a rusty old Kalashnikov.

Stephenson: I’m wondering if Scott is maybe confusing Canadian soldiers with some of our allies. Trevor Greene had an axe put through his head at a village shura because he was sitting there with his helmet off to show respect. They are very, very good at connecting with the local population. They don’t go blowing through villages on “presence patrols” and not get down off their vehicles. This is where Gen. Stanley McChrystal got the idea to expand the entire NATO strategy: from watching the Canadian Forces and the way they connected to the local people.

Alexander: There are two things that have made it worse that we didn’t anticipate. First, that the Taliban would regroup and come back in large numbers. And secondly, we would not have predicted that in late 2009 the world’s opium production, by and large, would be concentrated in Helmand and Kandahar, fuelling this insurgency.

Building institutions takes time, and mobilizing resources from the U.S. and other countries has taken time, especially when they had a different priority in 2006-2007, namely Iraq. So we haven’t had the resources to have a chance of doing the job. President Obama has deployed more troops, he’s thinking about deploying still more. That may just bring us to the point where we start to see light at the end of the tunnel.

Coyne: Chris, we’ve talked a bit about the humanitarian and the military benchmarks. What about the democratic standpoint? Is there any good news in that election, or is it true, as Scott said, that democracy is dead?

Alexander: I think it’s far from dead: 5.6 million votes were cast. Hundreds of thousands were fraudulent but the vast majority were cast in good faith. It’s the rights of those Afghans that everyone’s been trying to protect. The result, President Karzai’s second term, is legal. The fraudulent votes were by and large thrown out thanks to a very tough, admirable, hard period of work by an electoral complaints commission headed by a Canadian but with UN authority. All of that speaks to due process that wouldn’t have been possible in Afghanistan five years ago.

Taylor: That’s a pretty good spin on what happened! This is actually Karzai’s third term. He was appointed for two years, then he was elected, and now we’re hearing that maybe even that first election wasn’t as legitimate as we were told. He’s not able to unify the country. We’ve provided him the troops, the money, staged these elections, and if after all that gasoline on that fire, it ain’t sparking up, that doesn’t really bode well.

Stephenson: We’re always talking about central government in Afghanistan, and Karzai, but what Afghans have the most experience with is local, and there’s been very little focus on local. And it’s much easier to maintain integrity at the local level: it’s perceived by Afghans as being much less corrupt, and it’s a program that many of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams could focus on to a much greater degree if we had a NATO-wide policy that gave people flexibility in their local areas. Why are we focused only on the central government?

Coyne: We’ve also had a lot of justified complaints about the conduct of our NATO partners. We’ve done the dangerous work, while a lot of our NATO friends have not contributed as much.

Alexander: There are 41 countries with troops, they all have different rules, but NATO has brought more countries into combat than anyone predicted. There are now 16 with troops in the south. Denmark has a higher casualty rate than Canada. They haven’t fought a war since 1864.

Stephenson: Afghanistan is the test of NATO, the only functioning military alliance in the world. This isn’t just about Afghanistan. What is the broader geostrategic outcome if NATO is seen to no longer be relevant? It’s highly destabilizing. And for Canada, one of the founding members, to be the first to leave Afghanistan? NATO already is very fragile. What’s going to deploy into zones of conflict in the future? The nature of conflict has changed and this is the only alliance capable of deploying allied troops. Are we ready to be the first country to begin pulling that thread that will pull apart NATO?

Coyne: Chris, the Prime Minister used to say we can’t set arbitrary deadlines. Now it seems like he’s setting an arbitrary deadline of 2011. Is that tenable?

Alexander: Parliament has passed a motion. That motion is being respected by all parties, but the debate is happening in Washington, in Brussels, in Afghanistan itself, and Canadian debate needs to be connected to all of those other debates. President Karzai is debating, in advance of his inauguration next week, what the priorities will be for his government in 2010. President Obama is debating how to prosecute counter-insurgency on a scale the U.S. has never yet done in Afghanistan. Those decisions will be very important for everyone. So we mustn’t turn this 2011 deadline into a shibboleth—there’s lots of room for debate. The Prime Minister—and many others—have agreed that our engagement must continue in some key areas, and we should look at what’s needed.

Taylor: This idea that it takes time to build institutions—I mean, it’s been eight years. The Afghans know how to fight, and we’re not creating an institution that’s going to have to go out and fight a First World nation with armoured warfare. If we can get them convinced that there is a reason for them to fight for a better Afghanistan, we’re on the way to success. Unfortunately, we sort of handed our coat to the Afghan forces and took on the fight ourself and forgot that, no, in fact this isn’t our fight. Ultimately it’s going to be an Afghan solution in Afghanistan, and that’s where the solution has to come first.

Stephenson: If we pulled out at this point they wouldn’t be capable of fighting on their own, and that’s part of the critical need to be there. The Canadian Forces don’t conduct operations in Kandahar without their Afghan army partners. When we go into these village projects we’re talking about, the Afghan army is actually the one repelling the Taliban attacks. But if you simply say, “Look, we’re done, this is too difficult, we’re not going to stick around,” why would they want to fight for you? Of course they won’t. And so you do have to work with them.

Wells: Does anyone believe that development work can continue in the south without military escort and a battle group in the neighbourhood?

Stephenson: I’m deeply concerned about the future of not only Afghanistan but the region and Pakistan if NATO goes home. Start with Afghanistan. What happens to all of the people who co-operated with the West? They get wiped out, so we’re abdicating our responsibility to people we’re now leaving at the hands of the Taliban. Would the Taliban expand out across Afghanistan? Likely, because they’re far more aggressive than the other groups. Would they necessarily march back to Kabul? Worst case scenario, yes. Even worst case than that, perhaps, is another civil war.

Looking at Pakistan, what is the message that is sent to Pakistan, the critical piece of the puzzle? This is a country that is highly destabilized, that has nuclear weapons, and al-Qaeda and jihadists. If we say we’re not committed to Afghanistan, but by the way, Pakistan, we’d really like you to take care of those al-Qaeda guys, why would the Pakistani government put these kinds of resources into undermining a movement that, in many ways, has served their strategic interests, if the West isn’t serious about fighting it?

Wells: It’s refreshing to hear commentators discovering that there are repercussions for Pakistan in the international jihad. It was the factory where it was produced for 20 years and no one said boo. And it’s refreshing to hear people say, “Well, that damned Iraq war has been under-resourcing Afghanistan,” especially people who spent half a decade cheerleading the Iraq war.

Coyne: But likewise, the people who are now saying, “we can’t win, this is a quagmire,” were saying the same thing in 2006 in Iraq before the surge, and the surge worked. So if a change in strategy worked then, why are we running up the white flag now before we’ve even made the change in strategy?

Alexander: North America was attacked by al-Qaeda—which partnered with the Taliban—on the basis of a plan forged in Afghanistan. They’re now trying to regain their beachheads there, from neighbouring Pakistan. They have failed, so far. But security forces in Pakistan have not even raised a finger against them in many of the places where they do their most important training. North Waziristan has not had military operations in years, and even before that they were glancing blows. If the stability’s going to come, and this insurgency’s going to be tamed, we’re going to have to talk cross-border.

Coyne: Mercedes, is there any kind of end point? How long is too long, how much cost in lives and money is too much?

Stephenson: There has to be an end point. If there’s not, then you’re not going to be driving your strategy properly, and you’re not going to be putting pressure on the Afghan institutions to grow the way they need to, or, for example, calling Karzai on the fraud. Are we going to see Afghanistan morph into a democratic Western state? Absolutely not, and that shouldn’t be our goal. A secure and stable Afghanistan should be. It has to be a country that is capable of looking after its own security, that is not harbouring terrorists.

Before, when we went into Afghanistan, there were zero girls in school, and now we have millions. It’s very real change, but we can’t have this Aspirin culture of expecting it to change overnight. We were in the former Yugoslavia for over a decade. That was an established European state, and we’re looking at a country coming out of the stone age.

Coyne: There was a lot of talk about Canada “rotating out,” but you can’t just decide that unilaterally. I think we have to be at the table with NATO, I think we have to set a good example notwithstanding our frustrations with the other partners. I certainly think we’re going to come under a lot of pressure from the Americans if Obama goes ahead with putting 40,000 more troops in, and I think we have to take that seriously.

Wells: I greatly fear that we’re not going to begin to have a serious debate about Canada’s small part in that whole Western strategy until after the Canadian election of 2000-whenever. This is not a country that handles serious debates well before elections.

Stephenson: There’s not a political appetite in this country to discuss Afghanistan. It hasn’t been an honest discussion, it’s been driven completely by discussions about casualties. I don’t think any of those soldiers want that to be driving this debate, and not to have all of the options put on the table in advance of 2011. And that’s not just the government, it’s all of the parties, it’s the punditocracy, it’s everybody who’s involved in this who needs to pull back on the egos, and have an honest discussion about what this means for Canada and for international security.