A Stable Afghanistan is Important
Sep 15, 2009

Why are we in Afghanistan?
Less than 20 years ago, in an address to the Conference of Defence Associations, McGill historian Dr. Desmond Morton pointed out that, in the future, if not then, Canada and its leadership would be less and less immune to violent upheavals around the world, due to the rapidity of global dissemination of information and Canada’s growing dependence on immigration to sustain its way of life. Watching the recent Tamil demonstrations in our country and looking at the prosecutions of the so-called “Toronto 18,” I am reminded how quickly violence and terrorism elsewhere finds its way here in this northern, otherwise humanly stable environment.

A little over 8 years ago, on my way to work in Ottawa, I was rocked as the radio announced the initial stages of the  9-11 attacks. Thousands were murdered on that day in New York by Al-Qaeda fundamentalists bent on imposing the new Caliphate on the world and destroying all “infidels” and many of their own in so doing.

By 2003, following a UN motion, the Taliban were thrown largely out of power by the U.S. and its allies for acting as the petri dish of Al-Qaeda international terrorism. They withdrew to the territories of NW Pakistan and to other largely Pashtun enclaves South and West of Kabul.  In 2005, a successful UN-supervised election in Afghanistan saw the first democratic government under President Karzai, followed in January 2006 with the signing, in London, of the Afghanistan Compact between the new government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and 66 (14 observer) countries and 15 international organizations. This set the four goals and criteria for launching this new republic. These goals ( security, drugs, development and governance) would be monitored and reviewed at the end of 2010. Canada was a signatory.

Operational Mentor and Liaison Team.

The Canadian government, as part of NATO ISAF, agreed to send more forces and moved that same year to the Kandahar region and began operations against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in this hotbed of Pashtun rivalries and traditions. In operations since then, Canada has lost 131 soldiers, largely to roadside bombs and has expended large amounts of its treasury and human effort in an attempt to do its share make life liveable for Afghans under their own governance.

Finally, as I consider the geography (there) and time issues (when and how long), I am reminded of the famous Pashtun activist, Khan Abdul Wali’s answer (1972) when asked to whom he owed his allegiance: “I have been a Pashtun for six thousand years, a Muslim for thirteen hundred years and a Pakistani for 25 years.” Similar perspectives can be made by many within that most recent of creations, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. It is the human terrain not the geographical one that needs to be understood and won over, and it does cross political borders.

With this I mind, I postulate that our work is yet to be completed and that we should clearly define the conditions and type of any disengagement we seek. We should do so in the interests of Canada, our allies and the citizens of Afghanistan.

The Canadian Interest
In March 2008, Parliament voted to maintain the presence of our military to conduct operations until July 2011, and, as a rider, to pursue, by quarterly reports, the six priorities and three signature projects in Afghanistan. Its latest report of June 2009 is of interest, with the end of September report expected shortly.

In addition, on 5 October 2009 a presentation and debate on the report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs and International Development Committee took place as reported in Hansard. The intervention by the Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic, the Honourable Bob Rae, was ­particularly interesting in view of what was deemed in the “national interest.” His response to our presence in Afghanistan after 2011 is worth noting (see text box).

Bob Rae speaks on the Afghan Mission, post-2011 


“We should never make the mistake of thinking that this is somehow a conflict in which Canada alone is involved. There are over 40 members of the United Nations that are engaged in some way or other with respect to their activities in Afghanistan in support of the United Nations mandate and in support of the mandate which flowed from the London conference. Canada, Canadian troops, Canadian CIDA workers and Canadian diplomats are engaged in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in the neighbouring region, and we are not engaged in it alone. Our troops are not alone. Our diplomats are not alone. Our aid workers are not alone. Somehow, that reality has to filter down more powerfully into the ­discussion in the House of Commons…
“I am convinced that we have suffered a little from what I call ­mission creep in Afghanistan. Too many people started out with the rhetorical ambition that we would turn Afghanistan into a liberal democracy in relatively short order.

“This is a deeply feudal, tribal society. This is a divided society, a badly damaged and traumatized society… with very high rates of ­illiteracy and very low levels of economic development. It is a narco-economy with over 50% of its GDP coming from the production and manufacture of highly illegal drugs. It is a society in which what we define and see as corruption is widespread.
“This is not a crusade… This is about providing security. It is about ensuring that… region will not become a base from which terrorist activity can threaten the security of the world… The more we can do to advance freedom, to advance the rule of law and to advance equality, the better off we will all be. However, let us not lose our focus on what must be the central activity. The central activity is security and it… cannot be achieved in Afghanistan alone. It is a security that must be matched by the security we find in Pakistan.
“People talk about Vietnam or other conflicts and say, ‘Wait a minute, let me understand. If there is a full scale retreat, there is a Taliban ­government in Kabul, there is greater destabilization in Pakistan and the possibility of a more radical fundamentalist government in Pakistan which has access to nuclear weapons and is an ally of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, what is the effect of that on the security of the world?’


“No thoughtful person can look upon that result and say that we have peace… If it is a peace in which the security of the rest of the world is deeply threatened, then we are simply putting our heads in the sand and pretending we found a solution.

“I have never been one who felt that going to war or taking military action was something that could be taken on lightly. I have certainly never thought of myself as somebody who believed that democracy comes at the end of the barrel of a gun.

“Nonetheless, I am certain that Canada has a vital interest in the security of the world. We must first find a way to ensure the security of the area around Afghanistan, so the people of that region and the people of the world, including Canada, are no longer subject to terrorist attacks.
“I do not believe that Canada’s commitment to Afghanistan can, in any way, shape or form, end in 2011. I do not believe our commitment to the region can end in 2011. We are beginning to understand better that what happens in Pakistan, particularly in the northwest, but in fact in the whole country, is every bit as important as what happens in Afghanistan, and I think Mr. Manley helped us do that.

“There is a major role for us to play in the rule of law and the governance of the country. There are significant issues with respect to how the government of Afghanistan actually operates and how the governance can operate.
“Finally, there is a very significant role for us to play in training the military and the police. There is a tremendously important role for us with respect to making sure that the Afghan army and the Afghan police are in a position to do the job, which simply has to be done. If honourable members accept my ­argument that security is the key, then those institutions are obviously key and critical. We have to take a long, hard look at what our role has to be in order to be useful. The resolution is clear that our military deployment in Kandahar will come to an end, but I certainly do not see that our role in Afghanistan with respect to development will come to a conclusion.”

The Strategy
U.S. General McChrystal’s  clear and recent strategy, with its call for a 40,000 additional U.S. troop surge and its solid Afghan centric approach, has gained much press attention; his 66-page synopsis is worth reading.  Canadian military strategists, such as General Lewis Mackenzie have also applauded the candour of the ISAF Commander’s strategy and troop increase that such counter insurgency operations demand.

However, it bears resemblance to General Hillier’s three points of direction to his staff in 2004 to harmonize all efforts on a strategic level within a structure called the Investment Management Framework, synchronizing governance, military and development mandates into one common vision for the country designed to move from a position of recovery to that of sustainable development. Unfortunately, both NATO and our own government did not support such an integrated approach by a military commander. The themes articulated by General Hillier in Einsiedlerhof, Germany on the day he first met his headquarters, retain their validity today:

Lead from behind – We are not there to tell Afghans how to do things, we are there to show and assist them in how to do things; and were credit is due, it is to be theirs alone.

Put an Afghan face in all we do – We are not occupiers, this is not our country. When occasion permits, Afghans – their government, their institutions, their ministries, their security forces – must be in front of all we do.

This is about Afghanistan, not us – The true measure of our effect must be “how does this improve the lot of the Afghan people.” If it is measured only in terms of our own agendas, then we will never succeed.

It should also be noted that if one were to paraphrase T.E. Lawrence on the matter as he expressed for Arabia in today’s context of Afghanistan: “it is better that they do it tolerably than we do it perfectly.”

In a recent article, Dr. Jack Treddenick, an economist and author of The Wars of the 21st Century and Stability Operations: the Economic Dimension, states: “While contributors to stability operations must be simultaneously focused on short-term successes and geared up for the long haul, they must also be prepared for their own disengagement… The ultimate goal is to leave, at least eventually, and [leave] behind a state that is reasonably secure, stable, economically viable and increasingly integrated into the global economy. These are largely subjective criteria … but it might be generally agreed that they have been satisfied if… conflict resurgence is increasingly unlikely, if there is clear local ownership of recovery activities, and if corruption and organized crime are seemingly in check. More comforting would be signs that private foreign investment has begun to flow, that per capita GDP is approaching pre-conflict levels, and that the fruits of recovery are beginning to be shared by all sectors of society.”

The Nay Sayers
Beginning with the present Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, who made  recent  references  to the Vietnam withdrawal, this quote from the Afghan Defence Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, in the report by Gen McChrystal might serve as further reflection: “I reject the myth advanced in the media that Afghanistan is a ‘graveyard of empires’ and that the U.S. and NATO effort is destined to fail. Afghans have never seen you as occupiers, even though this has been the major focus of the enemy’s propaganda campaign. Unlike the Russians, who imposed a government with an alien ideology, you enabled us to write a democratic constitution and choose our own government. Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you come to rebuild.”

Some well-meaning Canadians have called for a return to “our traditional role of peacekeeping.” They reject commitments to any combat role. This is totally unrealistic. In this country, there exist no sides of an agreed cease-fire line that are prepared to have a mediated “blue beret” settlement. This mission is one that does, at times, demand serious combat. Hopefully, and more frequently, this will be carried out by Afghan Security elements who, until they feel capable, continue to receive NATO training and combat operational support.

As to the expectations on the legitimacy of the last election results, I tend to side with Richard Lappin who wrote:

“This privileging of war termination over democratisation is a defensible policy in volatile post-conflict countries such as Afghanistan. Indeed, without a degree of stability, the more long-term transition to liberal democratic governance becomes unfeasible. A democratic transition cannot be measured solely in electoral outcomes and must include less tangible elements such as levels of inclusiveness, accountability, and trust, all of which take generations – not votes – to develop. As such, the bar of what determines the success of a post-conflict election has arguably been set too high and exaggerated expectations of democratic progress can distract us from their chief purpose, namely to bring a halt to mass killings. Based upon a negative/ positive analysis, post-conflict elections can therefore be said to comprise of:

  • the ‘negative’ tasks of ending violence and establishing the formal procedures of elections; and
  • the ‘positive’ tasks of deepening democracy, aiding inclusiveness and expediting a self-sustaining mechanism to handle conflicts without recourse to violence.”

I do think that we need put more pressure on those of our other NATO allies who do not equally share the load, and that we should support a collective approach in dealing with Iran as well as Pakistan in this region. A Taliban-controlled fundamentalist Afghanistan with a nuclear armed Pakistan and nuclear rebel Iran would pose a quite unreasonable regional threat that must be addressed by the collective community.

RCMP Officers watch as the Afghan National Police practice search techniques.

As Dr. Liam Fox stated so well: “We are engaged in a national security mission. We must not try to justify it by other means.”

The sole concern that remains is the state of our own small but superb Armed Forces to continue to serve us and the Afghan people so well. I know that this presents a great challenge but I also know that we have the imaginative, dedicated and capable leadership to resolve this over time.

As a great Canadian Armoured regiment often trumpets: “Perseverance”!

Clive Addy is the Executive Editor of FrontLine Security magazine.
© FrontLine Defence 2009