Harper’s comment’s regarding the Liberal’s ‘passion’ for the Taliban was more than just a new low point in Canadian political debate, it reveals the government’s disturbingly shallow grasp of the strategy and tactics necessary to win in Afghanistan.
For the sake of both our military and the mission, the Prime Minister would be wise to read Lieutenant David Grossman’s landmark book, On Killing. In the book, Grossman, an Army Lieutenant Colonel and professor at West Point, describes the psychological implications of killing, both legally and illegally, in battle. Of specific interest to the Prime Minister would be the author’s argument and the historical evidence that explain why adhering to the Geneva Conventions and treating POW’s humanely is of supreme strategic and tactical importance to any organized army.
In short, enemy forces are much more willing to surrender when secure in the knowledge that in doing so they will be treated fairly and humanely. Enemies that believe otherwise are likely to fight to the death and inflict greater causalities even in a losing effort.
During the Second World War the Western allies’ adherence to the Geneva Convention resulted in German soldiers surrendering to US forces in large numbers. This was in sharp contrast to the experience of the Soviets, who cared little for POW’s. But one need not go back 60 years for evidence. Lieutenant Paul Rieckhoff, who fought in Iraq and then founded and became Executive Director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, makes a similar argument regarding today’s conflicts. Prior to the Abu Ghraib debacle he noted how: “on the streets of Baghdad, I saw countless insurgents surrender when faced with the prospect of a hot meal, a pack of cigarettes and air-conditioning. America’s moral integrity was the single most important weapon my platoon had on the streets. It saved innumerable lives…”
When members of parliament, and ordinary Canadians, ask about the treatment of Afghan prisoners they don’t do so out of contempt, but out of a deep respect and concern for, Canadian soldiers. Canadians know we can ill afford to treat enemy combatants inhumanely. They know this because it is in opposition to our values and our very purpose in Afghanistan. However, they also know there is a compelling military reason: it would rob our soldiers of possibly their single most important tactical and strategic tool – moral integrity. Without this tool, who knows many Canadian lives will be needlessly lost in battles where an insurgent, believing that surrender is tantamount to execution, will instead opt to fight to the death.
The Prime Minister may believe that talking like a cowboy about Afghan prisoners and human rights will make the Government appear tough. The unfortunately reality is that it only makes him a danger to both the mission, and our soldier’s lives.