Tag Archives: canadian troops

Why we are having the wrong debate on Afghanistan

Why is it that we continue to see the Afghanistan mission through the lens of peacekeeping, as opposed to peacebuilding? This fact seems to underlie and shape the entire debate – forcing us to ask the wrong questions and driving all our political parties to poorly thought out solutions.

Take, for example, the new Liberal position that insists on a non-combat role. As Rosie Dimanno points out in a recent Toronto Star article the number of Canadian troops killed in combat in Afghanistan last year was 0. 12 were killed by improvised explosive and 11 by roadside bombs and land mines. In addition there have been deaths from accidents. But there has not been a single combat death since Sept 3. 2006. One is forced to ask… why insist on a non-combat role? It is because this is what we’d like the mission to entail? Or because this is what the mission does entail. Although we may wish it, we are not peacekeeping. Our troops are not positioning themselves between enemy combatants in an effort to prevent them from fighting. This is peacebuilding – we are one of the combatants and we should not pretend otherwise.

The risks of pretending we are peacekeeping however, are significant. As she points out:

If Liberals are trying to spare Canadian lives – by venturing passively, ducking into calmer territory and promoting reconstruction in the absence of a secure environment – an anti-combat insistence is utterly without merit.

But it might get Canadian troops killed. An enemy that knows troops won’t fight back, can’t fight back because of political handcuffs slapped on half a world away, is an enemy given a blood-embossed invitation to attack at will.

Her article may be alarmist, but its central argument is correct. As General Lewis Mackenzie confirms, denying our troops the capacity to take advanced actions to protect themselves – or the NGO’s and aid workers attempting to rebuild Afghanistan – is sheer folly. Our polticians owe it to both the public and our military to be honest about what this mission requires of us.

Which brings us to a second distortion. In a peacekeeping mission one would want to know other countries are participating. A broader coalition means more countries are fostering international pressure to end the conflict and bring their peacekeepers home. Again, however, we are not in a peacekeeping mission. Either we believe an unstable Afghanistan is a threat to our national interest or we don’t. If it is a threat, why does it matter what our NATO allies think? Did we, prior to the second world war, wait to see who else signed up before committing to action? Of course not. The cause was important enough for us to commit ourselves. Nor, after 1943, did we say “we’ve done our part, time for someone else to step up.”And yet this is precisely how we are presently framing the issue.

As a result our national debate over Afghanistan actually undermines our efforts to solicit support. Our politicians end up treating Afghanistan as a duty – something, like peacekeeping, we do to maintain for humanitarian reasons, or to buttress our reputation within NATO or the United States. Not once in the last few months has Afghanistan been described as an imperative. But few, if any countries, are willing to put their soldiers in harms way out of a vague sense of obligation to an international body. Countries – and Canada should be among this list – should put their soldiers in harms way with enourmous trepidation, and usually only when they believe vital national interests are at stake. By telling our allies “it’s someone else’s turn” we risk conveying that we really don’t believe this mission is vital. If it were, we’d be asking them to work along side us, not replace us.

At present, it appears the majority of our allies don’t believe a stable Afghanistan is essential to global peace and security. This is either because it isn’t, or because we’ve failed to convince them. This is a difficult assessment to make and I’d be foolish to claim that I know the answer with complete certainty. That said, I suspect – as Paul Wells points out – our diplomat efforts to make the case have been weak at best.

Canada must decide for itself if we think a stable Afghanistan is critical to the stability of the international system and thus, in turn, our national interest. Sadly, I’ve heard little of this in the discussion among the political parties. And yet addressing this underlying question would not only be the more honest approach, it might cause the “are we in” or “are we out” debate to simply disappear.

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.