Afghanistan: terrible news, muddled message


081114_afghanistanWith all the uproar on Parliament Hill, Friday’s terrible news of three more Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan is taking more time than it should to sink in, even though these latest fatalities push the death toll of Canadian troops to the black milestone of 100.

I would feel ashamed of myself if I didn’t for a few minutes clear my desk, and my mind, of thoughts of coalition and prorogation, and try to add some context to the news from Kandahar.

On Nov. 26, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, acting in his capacity as chairman of the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, delivered what was at best a confused message when the government tabled its second quarterly report on Afghanistan.

Day admitted that the security situation had “deteriorated” and yet insisted Canada was “on track” to meet its “policy objectives in Afghanistan.” How can we be on track if things are getting worse? I asked Day to explain, and he suggested the deterioration in the last quarter was merely a matter of the “summer fighting season.”

But no reputable account of the situation in Afghanistan holds that what’s happening amounts to mere seasonal fluctuations in violence. The quarterly report Day released tells us, in its first paragraph: “Numbers of insurgent incidents, and casualty rates among civilians and soldiers, reached levels higher than in any year since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.”

The government tried to report on the rising violence and at the same time inject a falsely upbeat tone. No easy task. The quarterly report, titled “Canada’s Engagement in Afghanistan, September 2008,” offers this perplexing sentence: “Despite these unprecedented levels of insurgent violence, Canada strengthened its engagement in Afghanistan during the quarter.”

Why “despite”? How about “because of”? After all, if we’re really in Kandahar to make progress, surely worsening violence from the insurgents demands a stronger reaction.

Our strengthened engagement reportedly came in the form of training more Afghan troops, while restoring a dam, building or fixing up 50 schools, and providing polio vaccinations.

That’s all fine. But the very next page of the report tells us that the Taliban is “demonstrating improved tactical leadership and in some cases mounting larger and more complex attacks.” As well, the insurgents now enjoy “complete or nearly complete freedom of movement” in much of Kandahar.

What do we make of this muddled message? I suggest this charitable conclusion: Canada might be inching forward on specific aims, but the broader situation is growing more dangerous and discouraging.

Canadian are mourning three more soldiers. It would be foolish to take solace from news about building schools and vaccinating kids, if the real story is about the bad guys moving freely, gaining sophistication, killing more.

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