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The Mission: Halfway To Nowhere?
Description: Michael Byers holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law. He teaches at the University of British Columbia, and is the author, most recently, of Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For? Sally Armstrong is a journalist, activist and humanitarian. She first visited Afghanistan in 1997, shortly after the Taliban seized power, and is the author of Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of Women in Afghanistan. In an e-mail exchange,they talked about the state of Afghanistan, the merits of the mission, and what would happen if we left.
Date: 10 November 2007
Source: The National Post

Michael Byers holds a Canada Research Chair in global politics and international law. He teaches at the University of British Columbia, and is the author, most recently, of Intent for a Nation:What is Canada For? Sally Armstrong is a journalist, activist and humanitarian. She first visited Afghanistan in 1997, shortly after the Taliban seized power, and is the author of Veiled Threat: The Hidden Power of Women in Afghanistan. In an e-mail exchange, they talked about the state of Afghanistan, the merits of the mission, and what would happen if we left.

From: Sally Armstrong To:Michael Byers Subject : Talking about Afghanistan

Afghanistan is a country most Canadians couldn't have found easily on a map a decade ago. Now we can't get it out of our headlines, away from our tax dollars or off our minds. Not surprisingly, there is some rigorous debate about what we think we're doing in a fairly primitive country half way around the world that seems to be bent on self-destruction.

The simple answer to that question is: We're helping them to rebuild, as we promised we would in November, 2001, at the Bonn Agreement. But like almost every international rescue that's been staged in the past -- Bosnia for example -- the recovery is taking longer than predicted and raising new, confounding complications in the process.

Having said that, there are some improvements: an elected government which is fledgling and fraught with problems, but elected; and the Independent Human Rights Commission, which has been hailed as a success story. With the exception of the four southern provinces caught in the insurgency, Afghanistan is marginally better off today and in fact continues to gain ground in terms of rebuilding. If the international community were to leave, my bet is that Afghanistan would return to pariah-state status very quickly.

Your thoughts?


Dear Sally,

Let's be clear: I am not calling for the international community to abandon Afghanistan. But I do think it's time for Canada to rotate out of the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar Province. Nobody has ever exercised centralized control over the tribal regions of the south. Both the British Empire and the Soviet Union tried and failed. When you add in the anarchy across the border with Pakistan, the prospects become bleaker still.

It is possible to find early indicators of success in the north, but the picture in the south -- where Canadian soldiers are deployed -- is terrible. According to the United Nations, opium production increased by more than one-third since last year, making Afghanistan the source of 93% of the world's heroin. And the security situation is worsening, too. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 3,000 Afghans died as a result of the insurgency in 2006, twice as many as in 2005 and more than in any other year since 2001.

I'm proud of the efforts of our soldiers. But I also think it's time to change course.

Yours, Michael


Your points are well-taken. But I feel part of the confusion around the debate is mixing the British and Soviet eras with the current mission. Both the British and the Soviets invaded and tried to occupy Afghanistan. The resulting failures have been the source of much literature and myth from both sides. This mission is neither. NATO was invited by the Afghan government to bring forces that would help establish security.

While I agree that Canadian forces are carrying the heaviest load and that most other NATO countries are obliged but are so far refusing to step up to the plate in the fractious south, I feel that there is some progress in terms of security. The Taliban have given up the military fight and have resorted to suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices. Increasingly, villages in the south are putting their lot in with the government forces and denouncing the Taliban.

One more thing, I don't think the poppy production rate can be a factor in the decision to stay or abandon the country. We haven't figured out that issue in Colombia either.

As for civilian casualties, as you know the ratio used to be 80% military and 20% civilian, but with civil war it's the opposite. The same terrible methods are in use as they were in Sarajevo -- put your insurgents in a school or hospital or someone's home and presume you won't be fired on.

Finally, if we don't help, who will? And what will be the consequences if we leave?

Sally Dear Sally,

My guess is that the insurgents think we invaded their country, or at least that the United States did when it removed the Taliban from power. For the record, I supported the U.S. intervention in 2001. And I believe that Canadian troops are in Afghanistan legally. But none of that goes to the wisdom of the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar Province today. Instead of berating the 20-plus NATO countries who've refused to send their troops to the south, we should be asking what they see that we don't.

It's not so much the casualty rates that have deterred countries like France and Germany, but rather the fact that Canada, Britain and the United States are fighting a futile and unnecessary battle. Instead of opening channels of communication with the leaders of different factions, we've been treating the Taliban and insurgent groups as a cohesive entity. Instead of focusing on winning hearts and minds and holding ground around the larger settlements, we've been pushing into remote tribal regions in partnership with U.S. air power provided, not as part of the NATO mission, but by "Operation Enduring Freedom." It's very difficult to win hearts and minds looking down the barrel of a tank -- and even more difficult from the cockpit of an F-16. And so we've been making more rather than less enemies.

As for your comment about the Taliban changing tactics, it reminds me of the British soldiers objecting to the guerrilla tactics adopted by their opponents during the American Revolution. What matters is that the insurgents are killing our soldiers, not that they've stopped fighting on our terms.

Even Afghan President Hamid Karzai recognizes that the way out of this mess involves negotiation. Even Karzai has objected to the use of airpower against villages in the south. We're in a hole in Kandahar Province, and it's time to stop digging.

Yours, Michael

So we need better methods. Why don't we do some out-side-the-box thinking about that rather than concentrating on pulling out? The thing is, we'll never defeat the Taliban. It's like saying we can defeat the Mafia.

What we can do, in my opinion, is push them back into their caves and keep them there until the Afghan government learns how to govern and the Afghan army can defend its own country.

The negotiation file is interesting. Just a year ago the Afghan people were telling their government that they did not want to negotiate with the Taliban (even though secret negotiations were already happening). Now negotiations seem to be gathering steam. Although the list of demands from the Taliban is ludicrous to the max, one can say it's a starting point.

We've all heard that the more moderate Taliban are fed up with the fighting and turning against the hard liners. I think we expect results too soon. Remember, the United Nations thought the Taliban were defeated in 2002 and have admitted that they made a grave mistake in ignoring them then.

At the end of the day, it's about whether or not the Afghan people are willing and able to make change. As you know, 85% are illiterate. Do you know that they refer to illiteracy as being blind? When I asked a woman why she described it that way, she said: "I couldn't read, so I couldn't see what was going on." In less than a dozen words, she explains the root of the problem.

Alas, you need security to run an education system and, for that matter, a government.

Sally Dear Sally,

We're making progress! You say caves; I say the tribal regions. But we seem to agree that "smoking them out of their holes" (to quote President Bush) is a futile endeavour. Now, shouldn't we be trying to figure out what the minimum requirements are, in terms of any military commitment in the southern provinces, rather than persisting with a counter-insurgency mission in remote tribal regions?

I'm not opposed to asking Canadian soldiers to take risks when those risks are necessary.

But it's irresponsible to send them into harm's way when there's a better, less dangerous approach.

We all want to help the people of Afghanistan. But our assessments of the counter-insurgency mission have become distorted by domestic politics and the perfectly understandable desire to believe that 71 Canadian soldiers died in pursuit of goals that could be achieved.

We can do a lot of good in Afghanistan. But we'd do more good if we realized that the country might never have all of its territory under centralized government control.

Afghanistan should remain a major recipient of our overseas development assistance. And after Canadian troops rotate out of Kandahar Province and have a much-needed rest, we can go back to the Afghan government with an offer to send them elsewhere in the country to provide stability and reconstruction--in short, to places, and in pursuit of goals, where their efforts can succeed.

It's difficult for anyone to admit that they've made a mistake, and all the more so for politicians and generals. I believe that Canada can contribute to Afghanistan. But I also believe that the counterinsurgency mission in Kandahar Province has failed. I wish it were otherwise, but there's no inconsistency in my position.

Thanks for the great discussion!


Source: The National Post

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