Tag Archives: afghanistan

Kandahar deal breakers: Op-Ed in Globe and Mail

Taylor and I published a web-exclusive op-ed on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan in today’s Globe and Mail.

I’ve noticed that the Globe and Mail has implemented a “Recommend this article” button at the bottom of pieces so that readers can “vote” for articles they like. Interesting feature and great filter to see what people say they think is compelling


Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque

Special to Globe and Mail
November 2, 2007 at 1:03 AM EDT

The results of the poll of Afghans by Environics on behalf of The Globe and Mail, the CBC and La Presse were surprising to many. Afghans are broadly content with their government, happy that Canada is in Afghanistan, and believe the work being done is beneficial and effective. Canadians should be proud. We are making a difference.

What is potentially worrying, however, is the fervour with which the poll was greeted in Canada by some of the mission’s supporters. While a useful reminder of why we are in Afghanistan, this poll is not a blank cheque for any and all future engagement.

Future actions, by us or our allies, could alter the political conditions in Afghanistan, negatively shifting indigenous public opinion. Consequently, this poll should reaffirm the necessity of debating how we engage, and under what conditions we walk away.

Two looming scenarios could derail the mission.

Consider, for instance, the spraying of poppy crops. This winter, under the leadership of the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, the Americans plan to spray opium fields with herbicides. Needless to say, the spraying will have little to no impact on the global availability of illegal opiates.

But the impact on Afghanistan will be dramatic. Opium is critical to the Afghan economy. Kill the poppies and you impoverish the farmers, their families and the communities they support. This will undermine Afghan support for the NATO mission and destabilize the Karzai government.

Perhaps most important, the U.S. spraying campaign undermines the agreed-on division of labour within the NATO alliance. Under the Afghan compact, Britain was given responsibility for counternarcotics. Unilateral spraying by the U.S. violates this agreement. Such actions call into question the terms under which the alliance agreed to function, and on which Canada agreed to sustain its presence in Afghanistan.

In short, a policy in which we have had no input, and we are not executing, will make Afghanistan more dangerous to our soldiers and less conducive to achieving a lasting peace.

A second possible deal breaker is also on the horizon. After the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Americans are likely to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. The purpose, strategy and tactics of this surge will have dramatic implications on the nature and potential success of our mission.

This influx of American troops could secure the troublesome Pakistani border and enhance the security environment for reconstruction and development. Alternatively, this force, hardened in Iraq, could engage in the most counterproductive forms of counterinsurgency, driving support to the Taliban. In short, a sea change in the composition of American forces could alter the nature of the mission into one that is unacceptable to Canada.

Neither the opium problem nor the insurgency can be solved with magic bullets. The appropriate policies are complex and long term. There are, however, things we should clearly not do.

In order for us to effectively react to, or ideally influence, these scenarios, it is not enough to be clear on our strategy and objectives. Canada must also outline to its allies the policies that so harm our actions that they negate our involvement.

This is not an empty threat. As Canadians already know, no one is willing to take over our role. Either our work in Kandahar is valuable to NATO, in which case we have influence, or it’s inconsequential, and we should be reconsidering our involvement. If the former, then we possess political leverage with which to shape the mission. What’s more, it is an aberration of responsibility to deploy our troops in the field but allow others to determine the course and strategy of the mission.

The Afghan poll gave us reasons to stay in Kandahar and to be proud of our role, but it is not a blank cheque. We must use our hard-won influence to negotiate with our allies on the terms and implementation of the mission. Poppy spraying and widespread use of aggressive counterinsurgency tactics should be deal breakers. Our military has won Canada real influence in Afghanistan; will our diplomats use it to ensure the mission’s success?

the significance of the afghan poll

In anticipation of the new Environics poll of Afghans I engaged in my biannual ceremonial watching of the CBC news. This poll is groundbreaking stuff since, until now, we’ve had very little data on what Afghans think. What is interesting about the poll isn’t the results per say, but the strength of the results. Equally interesting is the impact this could have politically here at home.

The Results

For example, people’s opinion of Canadian troops in Kandahar is remarkably positive, with 60% having a favourable opinion.

In addition – given the press reports we receive here in Canada – Afghans are actually comparatively upbeat about the effectiveness of the mission is itself.

I’d encourage everyone to take a look at the raw results yourself, they can be found on the Environics webpage.

The political impact

Before we begin, a caveat. I’m sure there are those who are thinking: this poll was commissioned by Conservatives and was rigged to ensure a desirable outcome. This could not be further from the truth. This poll is the brain child of Environics which wanted to bring the Afghan perspective into the debate. It is important to note that Environics is the same company that brought us Fire and Ice, a book that presents a rather unflattering picture of America and argues Americans and Canadians are becoming more different. This is no right wing organization – if anything it leans the opposite way.

I argued earlier in the week that the Liberal position on Afghan has been pretty suspect. This poll makes things worse. To be blunt, it’s a disaster for the NDP and damaging for the Liberals.

The NDP position has been based on the assumption that the mission is a mess. Now we have evidence that Afghans actually want Canadians there, they don’t like the Taliban and they believe we are doing a relatively good job. We can no longer claim we’d be leaving a divided country that doesn’t want us.

For the Liberals the problem is similar – this is the party that spent two decades constructing a foreign policy around the human security agenda. More importantly, it has always wanted Canada’s foreign policy resources to “do good.” It would appear that the Afghans believe we are doing just that. In addition, if we left, we would jeopardizes this success. Both the NDP and the Liberals now have to explain why we should leave and risk abandoning the Afghans.

However, the poll creates a nuanced public policy challenge – one the Conservatives are susceptible to succumbing to. The danger is this poll will eliminate the option to leave Afghanistan under any conditions. This would be a grave mistake. There are a number of things that could dramatically alter the conditions that created this poll’s results. For example, spraying the opium fields with pesticides could turn significant parts of the population against both the international force and the Karzai government. Making the assumption that these polling numbers would be the same under such conditions could trap us in a rapidly deteriorating situation. For the time being, it appears the locals believe we are effective, and are grateful. If our allies take actions that would create a new set of conditions that threaten to destabilize the current environment then we should be prepared to announce we too will take action, including the possibility of pulling out.

the manley inquiry into Afghanistan

Rudyard Griffiths has been calling for a blue ribbon commission into the future of Canada’s role in Afghanistan for a while. The good news is that the Prime Minister started listening to him. The bad news is that the Liberals are unhappy about it.

To date, the Conservatives have not had an inspired foreign policy. Indeed, they seem to lack confidence on this issue – something that may spring from the fact that this government is built around the old provincial Harris team who obviously didn’t have to think much about the subject. This insecurity – along with a desire to take a politically sensitive issue off the table in time for a possible fall election – has however forced them to adopt Griffiths’ advice.

This is good news for Canadian foreign policy and Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. The current debate on the Afghanistan mission has been mired in partisan battles shaped more by who can exploit the situation for political gain than by assessing what is the best option for Canada. On an issue this sensitive and important a blue ribbon panel can help establish a baseline of facts and set the terms of debate in a manner that hopefully elevate the level of discussion. This will help ensure that the country’s best interests – as opposed to those of a given political party – will be the first and foremost criteria of evaluation. In principal this should make it harder for the NDP and those like Michael Byers who advise them, to continue to call for a unilateral withdrawal without discussing the full consequences of such a choice.

In short, if the panel (John Manley, Pamela Wallin, Derek Burney, Paul Tellier and Jake Epp) does its job it can help ensure that Canadians make the best choice for Canada.

John_ManleyThe bad news is that Liberals are in a huff about the fact that John Manley’s appointment as the head of this panel insulates the conservative from a sticky issue in the lead up to an election. I can understand how one would lament the loss of a potential “wedge issue” that might have undermined Conservative support, especially in Quebec. But veiled attacks on Manley paint the party in a bad light. And for good reason. Liberals should be proud of Manley – or any Canadian – who attempts to bring coherence, clarity and a basic level of consensus to a debate of national importance.

Liberals are only mad at Manley because they know that although this commission shows the Conservatives are desperate (they are), it also exposes the shallowness of their own policy on the issue. And let’s be clear, the Liberals don’t have a coherent policy on Afghanistan. The current Liberal position of pulling our troops out after 2009 simply plays off the public’s fears. It does nothing to address the actual goals of why Canada is in Afghanistan. It’s odd to watch the party that championed Human Security and R2P argue for getting the military out of a country where the previous government had a complete disrespect for human rights, marginalized women and generally terrorized its own population. Nor is the notion that “it’s somebody else’s turn” inspiring the public. Either a) this mission is important and so if no one else will do it, we must or b) it’s not, and we should get out (and, by the way, if this was the case why did you get us in in the first place?).

Moreover, let’s talk about the costs of leaving – there are people whose lives will be in significantly greater risk if Canada pulls out and the risks of Afghanistan becoming an operational centre for global terrorism are real. Conversely, let’s talk about the costs of staying – such as the fact that Afghanistan is going to be further destabilized this winter when the Americans start spraying Opium crops with pesticides. If this is the way the US is going to behave, maybe we should leave.

But this is the type of nuanced discussion neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives (it’s not worth mentioning the NDP) are willing to have. All that has happened is that the Conservatives realized that this superficial discussion would hurt them more and so they got smart.

So rather than getting mad at Manley Liberals should start coming up with a coherent policy on Afghanistan.

cut and run from cut and run

So it turns out that if you use Bush-like rhetoric people start to believe that you also share in his goals, aims and methods. And, given the president’s popularity is somewhere in the 20’s or 30’s in America, he’s almost certainly the most unpopular person in the world for Canadians.

Little wonder that Canadian support for the Afghan conflict has waned.

This is a serious problem, because contrary to what the NDP would have you believe, this is an important mission, one that benefits from the skills and experience a country like Canada brings to the table. Changing the rhetoric will be a good start, but the real question remains, are we prepared to tell the Americans how the mission should be run? Will we imprint a Canadian approach on the mission?

Taylormania sweeps the nation

Anyone who’s picked up the summer edition of The Walrus may have seen Taylor Owen and Patrick Travers piece – entitled 3D Vision – on Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Interesting that The Walrus allows free access to their articles.

Taylor also interviewed on CKNW Radio on sunday at 2:30pm, you can hear the interview if you go here (creating a user name and password is a hassle, but free).

Also, on a completely different tack, for those that didn’t catch it, this post once again demonstrates why Andrew Potter is such a joy to read.

Afghanistan – Exploding the mission

The Asia Times Online has reported that the United States and its NATO allies have been granted permission to hunt for the Taliban inside Pakistan.

This is a dramatic change in the mission.

The upside is significant. Extending the use of force into Pakistan denies the Taliban a safe haven from which to prepare and launch attacks in Afghanistan.

The risks however, are equally significant. This is a major escalation of the war. Indeed, it is, in many ways, precisely what Al-Qaeda has always wanted – an expansion of the conflict into a broader war, one that brings to rise the thorny situation of having an (at best) semi-legitimate secular Pakistani government coordinate attacks against its own citizens in conjunction with US forces.

Moreover, the Afghan conflict has always served as an outlet for Pakistani extremists, a method of preventing civil war by focusing their attention abroad. This agreement could bring those chickens home to roost – causing a civil war between secular and fundamentalist Pakistanis – all with American involvement.

If it goes well it will be a major blow against extremism. If it goes poorly, the geopolitical consequences will make Bush’s disastrous adventure in Iraq look like a historical footnote in comparison.

These stakes are big.

(good to see Canadian newspapers have so far ignored this important development)

Aerial bombing and Afgan Poppies

If you didn’t catch Taylor’s piece first time around in the Walrus – his article on the US bombing of Cambodia has been reprinted in Japan Focus and is picking up some serious press. This piece has obvious implications for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed speaking of Afghanistan, the Senlis Council has opened an office in Ottawa. For those not familiar with Senlis they are a think tank that is very active in Afghanistan, especially around the issue of narcotics. They (like me) are deeply concerned about the American desire to spray Afghanistan in order to kill the poppy crop – a move that will very likely drive most locals into the hands of the Taliban. They’d proposed a licensing system for Afghan poppies so that they could used to manufacture medicines – it was an idea that virtually every liberal leadership candidate (at least those that spoke about foreign policy) latched onto.

Will be curious to see if Senlis has an impact on Canadian policy in Afghanistan – particularly under this government. All that said, be for good or bad reasons, the one interesting thing about Senlis setting up an office in Ottawa is that they clearly think Canada matter in Afghanistan. Now isn’t that interesting…?