Afghanistan: Opinion leaders, with their opinions

So my trip to Afghanistan was a Government of Canada junket. Might as well just say it outright. They (Privy Council Office, Foreign Affairs, and National Defence; it was DND that extended the invite) run occasional “opinion leaders’ tours” so people with some chance of influencing the national debate over Afghanistan can actually see the place. Typically the guest list is a mix of academics, think tankers and journalists. The model is very similar to the one that led to me being invited by NATO to visit Afghanistan from Brussels in October 2007, except that, of course, that group was multinational and this one was Canadian.

Well, mostly. My travel companions were Roland Paris from the University of Ottawa; John Hay from Carleton University; and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. We took pains to explain Tim Horton’s to Michael and soon enough he fit right in.

The advantages and limitations of these trips are obvious. The government decides who it wants to invite and determines the program. Total time in the Afghan theatre is limited, 8 days in our case. My colleagues who embed at Kandahar Air Field for other news organizations are there for a lot longer, and I’m very leery of seeming to think that my take (which will be published in the issue appearing tomorrow, and here online) is in any way definitive. But the offsetting advantage is the access to more than three dozen high-ranking military, government, NGO and civil-society personalities during our short time in Afghanistan. (I had no sense that their remarks were scripted. In almost every case that would have been impossible anyway. And several meetings I had specifically requested were arranged for us.) And I found it very helpful to return to Afghanistan 13 months after a first visit.

Anyway. John Hay, wisely, was usually the last to speak in our group, and he hasn’t produced an account of our trip yet that I’ve seen. O’Hanlon and Paris have. O’Hanlon’s op-ed, which canvasses the similarities and differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, is here; Paris’s, which considers possible ways the Canadian mission in Afghanistan could evolve, is here.