Canada in Afghanistan: What should happen after 2011?

The University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issue is hosting a panel discussion today about Canada’s post-2011 role in Afghanistan. Here’s a written summary of my remarks: 

Canada’s mission in Afghanistan after 2011 deserves more clarity and focus than it has so far been given. I believe three basic questions will help us frame that debate: What do we want to accomplish? What can we accomplish? How do we do achieve our goals?

I see three broad answers to the first question about what our goals should be, all of which will differently shape Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan: defence against terrorism; counter-insurgency; and nation-building.

If our goals are only to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for terrorists with international reach, and to destroy any such terrorists that are in Afghanistan, an argument can and has been made that we can afford a much lighter footprint. If our enemy is al Qaeda and affiliated groups that might directly threaten Canada, it shouldn’t matter to us how much territory the Taliban take over, or what abuses they inflict on local populations, unless territory under their control is used to shelter and support terrorist groups with global reach.

The degree of cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda is debatable. I recently spoke with a knowledgeable Western diplomat who said al Qaeda’s involvement in the Afghan insurgency is minimal. On the other hand, analysts such as Ahmed Rashid point with justification to past cooperation between the Taliban and al Qaeda as a sign of what might if Afghanistan were ceded to the Taliban, and there is evidence of interaction between local Taliban and international jihadists in Waziristan, Pakistan. It may be that targeting al Qaeda cannot be separated from targeting the Taliban. But we should clearly define our objective.  If our goal is counter-insurgency – defeating the Taliban and supporting the government of Hamid Karzai, or of his possible successor, Abdullah Abdullah – this too will shape our presence on the ground. Speaking very broadly, there are two main schools of thought regarding counter-insurgency. One holds that small numbers of special forces, operating largely out of sight of local populations, can train an indigenous military force, which then carries out the fighting on its own. Proponents of this model argue that it is effective because it doesn’t feel like a foreign occupation. It has the added bonus of fewer foreign casualties. The second model, favoured by Gen. David Patreaus in Iraq and now by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in Afghanistan, holds that foreign troops must protect the local population at all costs. This requires many, many boots on the ground.

Finally, if our goal is nation building in Afghanistan, an even bigger footprint will be needed. Nighttime raids by special forces and air strikes won’t build hospitals. To be done with any measure of success in a hostile environment, nation building requires a massive investment in money and, it must be said, blood. Friendly villages must be protected; schoolteachers need to feel safe.

As for the question about what we can accomplish, while I think our goals should be modest – Afghanistan will not be a stable, Western-style democracy in the near future – I personally don’t think the distinct objectives I outlined above can be effectively isolated. I believe that preventing Taliban from becoming a safe haven for terrorists with international reach necessitates confronting the Taliban through counter-insurgency. Effective counter-insurgency requires nation building. And nation building requires protecting the bits of the nation that have been rebuilt, which in turn will require the use of soldiers who, when necessary, shoot and kill people.

To sum up, even if our goals in Afghanistan are as narrow as we can afford to make them – self-defence against future terrorist attacks – I believe our engagement in the country needs to be comprehensive and involve targeted counter-terrorist operations, a broader counter-insurgency, and nation-building. I don’t think it is helpful or even honest to speak of combat and non-combat missions in Afghanistan. Our success there will depend on both.

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