Afghan Mission Motion Misses Three Key Issues

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Published by Embassy, an Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly

There are still three key issues to be addressed before the new Conservative-Liberal motion on Afghanistan can hope to garner broad national consensus-an objective that should animate the leadership of all the political parties.

First, the assumption that combat decisions must be left to local commanders raises the question of how to ensure that tactical engagement decisions made in the field actually reflect the changed strategic direction the motion sets for the mission- namely, the switch from search and destroy counterinsurgency combat to providing security for reconstruction or peacebuilding in those parts of Kandahar province where that is possible.

Second, the motion does not recognize the real trouble that the NATO counterinsurgency war is now in and thus there is no call for a much-needed review of NATO strategy, only an intention to make sure forces other than Canadians carry it out.

Third, there is no acknowledgement of the need for dedicated diplomatic and reconciliation initiatives designed to address the grievances and conflicting interests that fuel the insurgency and continue to generate support for it in the Pashtun-dominated south and in Pakistan.

The central military issue that has driven the Canadian political debate and the differing Afghanistan policies of the Conservatives, Liberals, and the NDP has been the choice between either intensifying the southern war against the Taliban or strengthening peace consolidation efforts in more stable parts of the country. In fact, the same question emerged on the first day of debate on the motion when Liberal Deputy Leader Michael Ignatieff warned the government not “sneak past Parliament” a continuation of the existing mission while talking training and reconstruction.

The Conservative government, backed by the Manley Panel’s recommendations, had preferred to redouble efforts in the counterinsurgency war. That led to the central demand for another thousand troops along with helicopters and drones. But as security conditions have continued to deteriorate, the Conservatives and even Canadian military commanders have become increasingly interested in shifting combat responsibilities to Afghan forces-hence the focus on training.

The Liberals, based on the principle of burden sharing, also want other NATO forces and the Afghans to do the war-fighting after February 2009. At that time, they say, Canada’s military effort should shift to training Afghan forces and to providing security for reconstruction and development in Kandahar Province (which in practical terms would mean essentially Kandahar City and its immediate environs).

The NDP has always wanted NATO/ISAF to end counterinsurgency operations and so has called for Canada to withdraw its troops from their current counterinsurgency combat role in favour of a civilian focused effort in support of reconstruction and related peacebuilding efforts.

Elements of the NDP have been open to an ongoing military role for Canada, as long as it would be oriented toward supporting reconstruction with a strong mandate to protect civilians.

The Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan failed to bridge these three positions mainly because of its erroneous insistence that “there is not yet a peace to keep in Afghanistan.” That led it to the conclusion that the only credible role for the Canadian military is counterinsurgency combat and training Afghans for the same. In fact, in much of Afghanistan there is a peace to keep. It is a fragile peace, to be sure, and one that will yet be lost if it is not protected and consolidated.

Consolidating security and advancing well-being in areas of the country nominally under government control is critical to avoiding the spread of the civil war. That means ongoing security assistance to protect reconstruction outside the current war zones and to train and reform Afghan forces, not for counterinsurgency war, but to provide security services that win the trust of local communities.

It is this requirement that demands a clear political directive to pursue military peace support operations, rather than engage in counterinsurgency warfare, along with assurances that training is not defined as mentoring Afghans in counterinsurgency.

As for the counterinsurgency war, it is currently on a trajectory, as the Manley Panel essentially admitted, to repeat history-confirming that insurgencies rooted in the grievances of a strong ethnic community (the Pashtuns), with independent means of financial support (the poppy trade), and with access to havens of retreat (Pakistan), are not generally amenable to military defeat.

The motion now before Parliament still foresees a long-term counterinsurgency war. It reflects declining expectations that it can be won, but relies on growing hopes that it can therefore be handed over to the Afghans that we train-a strategy that Richard Nixon followed in the 1970s, and called “Vietnamization,” to memorable effect.

It is this failed strategy that demands an overall review of the NATO military approach and Canada should be in the forefront of encouraging it.

And there must finally be a way to give concrete political meaning to the assertion, repeated by the Manley Panel, that “no insurgency-and certainly not the Afghan insurgency-can be defeated by military force alone.” That means, in addition to protecting reconstruction and responsible governance in the parts of country that are currently beyond the insurgency’s reach, there must be a prominent increase in diplomatic support for a comprehensive peace process to address the domestic and regional roots of the insurgency and to forge a new national consensus in Afghanistan.

Military guidelines to ensure an end to Canadian counterinsurgency operations, a call to review NATO’s failing strategy, and support for a comprehensive peace process-these three provisions added to the current motion could do much to promote consensus both in Canada and Afghanistan.

© 2008 The Hill Times Publishing Inc.

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