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The world must finish its job—and protect its legacy—in Afghanistan

Opinion: Former diplomat Chris Alexander on what’s at stake and what must happen in Afghanistan, as America announces more troops
Chris Alexander
Leaving Afghanistan.
Afghan National Army soldiers, left, and American soldiers from Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Armored Division, destroy a Taliban firing position in the Layadira village of Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Feb. 14, 2013. As American troops prepare to speed up their 2014 withdrawal, it is clear some of it will happen under fire, as Taliban fighters try to strike at departing soldiers. (Bryan Denton/New York Times/Getty Images)

Chris Alexander was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2009, Canada’s minister of Citizenship and Immigration, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of National Defence and a leadership candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada.

I’ll be honest: watching a third U.S. president send more troops to Afghanistan is dispiriting. It’s not exactly Groundhog Day, but it definitely elicits a groan.

Why? Sixteen years after 9/11, everyone knows U.S. strategy hasn’t worked. The situation today is dire: most gave up on “winning” in Afghanistan long ago.

And U.S. skepticism and skittishness are nothing new. When I arrived in Kabul as Canada’s ambassador 14 years ago this month, U.S. staying power was already ebbing away as the invasion of Iraq took centre stage in Washington—and we know how that ill-starred war of choice turned out.

The disaster of Iraq cost Afghanistan dearly. It was the ultimate distraction, and a huge drain on resources that would have been better used against the Taliban.

George W. Bush didn’t re-commit to a bigger effort in Afghanistan until late 2007. Then it fell to Barack Obama to take out Osama bin Laden—hiding in plain sight in Pakistan in a sizable house outside their equivalent of West Point—and to raise U.S. troop levels to nearly 100,000 by the first half of 2011 before letting the force size shrink back to current levels, which clocks in at less than 10,000 U.S. troops.

If Trump is now keeping his forces in Afghanistan, it’s only because the decision to pull every last soldier out of Iraq in 2011 was, if anything, more disastrous than the original 2003 invasion.

That post-2011 vacuum gave the world a cornucopia of catastrophes: ISIS; a spiralling genocide in Syria; the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War; escalating terrorism-fuelled conflicts across the Middle East and Africa; and a slow unravelling of Europe’s “ever closer” postwar union thanks to poisonous politics unleashed by a massive migration crisis.

It’s a pattern with a century-old backstory: the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda all came into being themselves after ill-conceived swerves in British or American policy that invited backlash. Withdrawal from Afghanistan now would court chaos, collapse and a Taliban comeback.

While staying is unpalatable, exiting is even less enticing for Trump, who apparently saw the Twin Towers fall in Manhattan first-hand.

Staying is the right move. Abandoning Afghanistan now would bring only dishonour and death. But the strategy has to change.

How does this cycle of failure end? What’s the solution?

Let’s remember, as Afghan Canadians remind us, there’s a legacy to protect.

Not just the roughly 10 million kids, 40 per cent of them girls, who are in school, or the boilerplate stories of clinics and roads, a freewheeling media, three painful but triumphant electoral cycles and exuberant woman entrepreneurs—these Afghans who certainly don’t deserve to see their hopes dashed, as those of every generation have been in an unbroken chain of wars stretching back to the 1970s.

No, the legacy most worth protecting is as unfashionable today as it is real and necessary: international co-operation itself.

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Since 2001, more than 50 countries, including many Muslim-majority states, have sent troops; 80 or so donors have delivered the most ambitious programme of support to a war-torn, low-income society ever attempted. And it’s all taken place under Afghan leadership, according to agreed-upon plans, backed by UN resolutions and NATO capabilities.

A failure that allowed the Taliban and other terrorists to retake power would knock Afghans for a new loop, kill hundreds of thousands, trigger a new refugee exodus—and would consign the credibility of our post-1945 international institutions to a pine box.

This wouldn’t be “just another vacuum.” In place of the collective will that liberated and rebuilt Europe, freed South Korea and brought down the Berlin Wall, there would be a smoking crater of indifference and inaction, a standing invitation to the world’s depraved to do their worst.

To be sure, the Korean Peninsula is still a Dr. Strangelove sequel waiting to happen. Bosnia is hardly paradise. And Vladimir Putin is reassembling Humpty-Dumpty at gunpoint. But in each case, still, the glass is more than half full.

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But no one wants more “forever war.” How does this cycle of failure end?  How does Afghanistan stop more water from leaking out? Where troop surges and drone strikes have failed, how does Afghanistan get to peace? I’ve been asking this question every day since 2003—especially since writing The Long Way Back: Afghanistan’s Quest for Peace in 2011.

On Aug. 22, in a televised address to service members at Fort Myer in Virginia, Trump spoke of a country “weary of war without victory,” looking to inflict “lasting defeat” on America’s terrorist enemies. These are stirring words for people longing for an end to quagmires. But a simple rule of thumb is that to defeat your enemies, you first have to know who they are. Trump’s speech gave only part of the answer.

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures before delivering remarks on Americas military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Americas military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on Aug. 21, 2017, in Arlington, Va. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

There’s a famous 1983 photograph of Afghan mujahideen, trained by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence with CIA and Saudi funding to oppose Soviet occupation, visiting Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office; two years later, Reagan even praised “freedom fighters” like the mujahideen in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that called Nicaragua’s Contra rebels the “moral equal of our Founding Fathers.” But when CIA funding for mujahideen like Jalaluddin Haqqani dried up in 1989, some of them morphed into the al-Qaeda and Taliban of the 1990s, with lots of help from Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies; Haqqani himself became a founding member of al-Qaeda. Today, his sons are still killing with impunity; Kabul’s latest truck bomb was their handiwork.

The point is this: the Taliban, ISIS in South Asia and al-Qaeda are not free agents. They’re fully integrated arms of Pakistani state power—Islamabad’s proxy warriors. Pakistan, along with Iran, may well be the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today.

How have they gotten away with this?  Many naively doubted Pakistan’s duplicity; few do now. Others hoped the Taliban would negotiate peace; they have not. Obama preferred to strengthen civilian governments in Pakistan under Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif; both are now gone. Still others wanted to preserve intelligence-sharing or an illusory “strategic parity” with India; India does not host terrorist groups. To top off this brew of inertia and prevarication, Pakistan bankrolls brilliant lobbyists, especially in Washington.

The bankruptcy of this approach is now blindingly obvious: if Putin’s clique is facing tough sanctions for “crimes of invasion” in Ukraine on a scale that is child’s play compared to the savage multi-decade litany of death and destruction wrought by the Taliban, why is Pakistan not being held to account for its terrorist proxy war, which has killed thousands in Afghanistan every year since 1994?

Damaged cars are seen after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan May 31, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
A neighbourhood lies in ruins after a blast in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 31, 2017. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

As Trump said in Monday night’s speech, there are more recognized terrorist groups active in and around Pakistan than anywhere else on the planet; Canada was one of the first NATO allies to list the Taliban as terrorists.

The time has come for more concerted action. Pakistan’s misdeeds with al-Qaeda, the Haqqanis, ISIS and the Taliban have cost the world two decades of growing instability, and Pakistanis have also suffered.

We now owe a debt of honour to Afghans to finish the job they began in the 1980s and we’ve all joined since 2001: the job of securing a historic peace.

Canada and France are the only two NATO allies that haven’t contributed a single soldier to the new NATO train, advise and assist mission. Canada should rejoin this 39-member coalition, and we should take the lead on this new path to peace.

But to avoid more “forever war,” we need a new strategy.

Trump’s “conditions-based” incentives to end Pakistan’s role as a “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror” now need to get much more specific. Only a comprehensive sanctions regime will end Pakistan’s deadly double game; only tough diplomatic action by a united front of allies will stop Afghanistan’s unending war.

This would be the best way to honour the 159 Canadian Forces members who gave their lives in service during this mission, as well as Canada’s civilian casualties and all those wounded. It would renew our commitment to refugees and human rights, to our allies and the principles of the UN Charter.