13 October 2007

The Afghanistan Panel

My hat goes off to Prime Minister Stephen Harper for creating a panel of "renowned" Canadians to collaborate and provide a detailed action plan for what Canada should do vis-a-vis Afghanistan following the end of the current mission in February 2009. The four options provided by Harper clearly indicate that the mission will be significantly different than the one that Canada is currently conducting, which means that the NDP will no longer be able to trot out such ridiculous lines as "search and destroy missions" or, due to the timeframe, "fighting George Bush's war." No doubt they'll come up with new slogans to counter the legitimacy of these four key conceptualizations for Canada in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond, straight from the mouth of the Prime Minister:

Option one is to continue training the Afghan army and police with the goal of creating self-sufficient indigenous security forces in Kandahar province so Canadian troops can start withdrawing in February 2009.

This is as close to the status quo as we will see. As noted by fine blogs such as The Torch earlier this summer, the PM has pretty much given up hope of getting an extension of the current mission beyond the current parliamentary mandate. What makes this concept distinguishable from the status quo is that it provides for the beginning of the draw-down of Canadian Forces personnel starting early in 2009 and continuing until some undefined time in the future. The focus will be on improving security in Kandahar by assisting the Afghan security forces to step up their training and on-the-job efforts. It's essentially adopting the "as Iraqi forces stand up, American forces will stand down" plank that the United States had previously used in Iraq, with little success due to lack of political will on the part of the Iraqi government to actually stand up. We know that the Afghan government has been more assertive, however, and that may lead to this approach getting a strong recommendation from the panel. Canada's police and military forces are well-respected around the world for their professionalism, and if we can impart those skills, insights, and abilities upon the Afghan forces, they will be in good shape.

Option two is to focus on reconstruction in Kandahar, which would require some other country or countries to take over our security role.

This would require a shift in resource allocation and, more significantly, compelling one or several of Canada's European allies to step up their efforts. The first part of that is much easier. Canada has a tremendous international aid program headed up by CIDA. They do excellent work, and this is the type of "niche" activity that Canada could really appropriate and make it a defining feature of Canada's foreign affairs. It is something that appeals to many Canadians that buy into the myth of the blue-beret'd Canadian peacekeeper handing out sacks of grain and stopping conflict by doling out hugs. It wins hearts and minds to have Canadians working hard to build schools, hospitals, working to mediate differences between competing factions, and basically doing anything that involves building the state and not shooting terrorists. I like the concept a lot because it would serve as a template for Canada building a reputation for nation/state-building in post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization efforts. This is an area that is going to be of increasing significance in the coming years and decades. The American military Leviathan is sans peer when it comes to taking down the bad guys and eliminating hostile elements, but it is less adept at building things back up to establish a viable alternative to the status quo ante bellum. I'm predicting a more stringently multilateral America starting in 2009--whether a Republican or a Democrat is elected--and if Canada is going to remain engaged in the world and doing democracy promotion-related activities, this is the type of thing that can make Canada a desirable ally.
However, the second half of this equation is where the problem comes along. Harken back to the 2004 US Presidential Election, when John Kerry was musing openly that a victory for him would cause an instantaneous shift in European attitudes to American-led operations outside of the European defence perimeter of NATO's traditional area of operations. He figured that he'd be able to recruit Europe into Iraq to assist in the reconstruction of that country. It was, and still remains, a fantasy. We simply cannot rely on Europe to provide robust numbers of troops to take on the heavy lifting in this "out of area" international effort. There is considerable talk in European countries participating in Afghanistan to withdraw their efforts and drastically scale back their activities in the UN-authorized operation to rebuild Afghanistan. I can't foresee anybody other than the British stepping up to take over the hard power operations in Kandahar if Canada decides it wants to focus strictly on reconstruction efforts. I don't even know about their level of interest, as Gordon Brown is seemingly less the liberal interventionist than Tony Blair. I would really like to see this concept being adopted, but it is predicated on a very shaky foundation. The realist in me can see the glaring problem of hoping for the best when it comes to relying on reluctant allies to adopt our current role. They have seemingly less desire to sacrifice blood and treasure for the sake of Afghanistan than we do, and that results in it being very unlikely that they would increase their participation.

Option three is to shift Canadian security and reconstruction efforts to another region of Afghanistan.

This option runs into the same problem as that faced in the previous conception. If we leave Kandahar, somebody has to step in and do at least as good of a job as we have done during our tenure there. It would have to be one of the major countries stepping in, because they are the only ones that have a force capability to send at least 2500 troops to the region. France doesn't even let its soldiers off their bases at night. It pretty much comes down to Britain or Germany at that point, and I don't know if we can convince them to take on Kandahar. We simply can't pick a new place and not ensure that some other country comes in to fill the void. Geopolitics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and unless we get one of our allies to take over Kandahar, some more nefarious entity (read: the Taliban) will unless by some miracle Kandahar is completely secured by February 2009.

And option four is to withdraw all Canadian military forces after February 2009 except a small contingent to provide security for our remaining aid workers and diplomats.

A.K.A. Cut and run. This is the preferred option of the NDP and the radical left. The hard work of reconstruction and stabilization in Afghanistan will almost certainly not be done by February 2009. These types of efforts take at least a decade, possibly even longer under the circumstances. There is so much work to be done in Afghanistan, whether we're talking about human security and human rights, stability, democratic institutions, and law and order. Like I said earlier, Canada does this type of job really well, and it would be a real shame to see our leaders decide to withdraw all of our expertise from Afghanistan to leave the job to others. I'm sure that other countries can do the job, possibly as well as Canadians, but doesn't it reek of abdicating responsibility and embracing the cocoon? In situations where we can help, and our assistance has been requested, there is a degree of obligation to do so. Yes, it costs money and it may cost lives, but the long-term benefits stand to be enormous. Waving goodbye to Kandahar and Afghanistan while the work is incomplete has a ring of immorality to it, and I hope that this option does not end up being recommended by the panel.

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