Briefing on the Situation in Afghanistan

Tasneem Jamal Armed Conflicts, Defence & Human Security

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2006 Volume 27 Issue 4

A version of this article was presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development in Ottawa on 8 November 2006.

Introduction: Debating Afghanistan

Canadians are deeply ambivalent about Canada’s role in Afghanistan. It is appropriate for Canadians to submit the decisions and political priorities that send soldiers abroad and into harm’s way to serious and ongoing questioning. It is also appropriate for criticism to extend to the military leadership that commands and directs those military operations broad, but we understand such criticism to be in the context of deep respect for and honouring of the extraordinary service, commitment, and sacrifice of the soldiers who carry out assigned military missions in our name. The same respect is due and is paid to civilian workers – government diplomats and non-governmental – who share in the risks and the courage that are central to these complex operations.

Project Ploughshares has joined this public debate over Afghanistan on that same basis and we do it from our vantage point in Canada. None of us has visited Afghanistan; thus, like most Canadians, we must rely on the reporting of others — news media, the United Nations, NGOs, and research groups with people on the ground there, and, of course, our own government.

Assessing effectiveness: The nature of reporting

Canadians depend on thorough and extensive reporting by the Government. Recent visits by the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence Staff to the House of Commons Standing Committees on National Defence and on Foreign Affairs and International Development are welcome and need to be much more frequent. It would also be helpful to have a much clearer and more forthright Canadian perspective on the effectiveness and progress of the mission. Reports on Canadian activities and roles and logistics are obviously important, but we need assessments that confirm that those directing the mission at the highest level are keenly aware of what is or is not working, and that their decision-making is guided by such awareness and by a specifically Canadian perspective on what the situation requires.

In looking at the testimony of the Minister of Defence and Chief of Defence Staff, one is struck by two things: there is relatively little assessment of the overall Afghanistan situation, and when such assessment is offered, it is sometimes sharply out of step with the reporting from other sources.

On the strength of the insurgency, Minister O’Connor (2006) told the Defence Committee that “of [Afghanistan’s] 34 provinces, the insurgency is a great challenge in maybe six or seven. In the remaining provinces you have, in Afghan terms, relative stability.” At the Foreign Affairs Committee, the figure was increased to nine or ten (thus suggesting 24 or 25 are relatively stable), but already at the end of September the report of the UN Secretary-General (2006) described an upsurge in violence and a spreading insurgency that covered “a broad arc of mostly Pashtun-dominated territory, extending from Kunar province in the east to Farah province in the west; it also increasingly affects the southern fringe of the central highlands.” If you look at a map, that swath of insurgency seems to be closer to including 15 to 20 provinces. “At no time since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001,” said the Secretary-General, “has the threat of Afghanistan’s transition been so severe.”

The International Crisis Group’s new November 2 report (2006) and the Council on Foreign Relations (Rubin 2006) paint an even bleaker picture. The point is not that the Minister is necessarily wrong and all the others are right, but that we are in need of a serious Canadian assessment. If Canadian officials and political leaders come to different conclusions than those of others, there should be an explanation for the difference. Some of the Canadian ambivalence to our presence in Afghanistan can perhaps be attributed to a fear that we’re not really getting the full picture – or worse, a suspicion that the Canadian leadership isn’t letting us in on the full picture.

Considering a change of course

The switch from Operation Enduring Freedom to the International Security Assistance Force in Kandahar province, the region of Canadian operations, raises questions about the intended and on-the-ground distinctions between those two operations. Those of us who are not military planners or strategists need a clear accounting of the purpose and impact of the shift.

The two military operations, after all, are based on two very different rationales and mandates. OEF was launched to defend the United States. Based on Article 51 of the UN Charter, OEF did not have the benefit of a UN mandate. Its declared objective was to seek out and attack those non-state forces that were thought to have aided the September 11, 2001 attack on North America, and to have then been given sanctuary in Afghanistan. The ISAF operation, on the other hand, depends on another paradigm entirely: namely, the security and safety of the people of Afghanistan, not North America, through support for the security efforts of the new Government of Afghanistan.

The switch from the defence of the interveners to the security of the host population suggests a switch in military focus away from the effort to drive hostile forces from their strongholds (largely in the south) and toward supporting Afghan security forces in areas where the government already has a foothold and is demonstrating the advantages of extending governmental authority (especially in the north).

The ISAF operation thus described offers the main elements of an emerging third option (the other two options being “staying the course” with an OEF-style counterinsurgency war, or pulling out entirely): pull the ISAF forces back from the counterinsurgency operations in the south; redeploy them to locations, including in the north, to support training of Afghan forces and to protect provincial reconstruction teams and other reconstruction and education efforts; substantially increase non-military aid; review the strategy, objectives, and tactics used by the NATO-led ISAF; and re-open the political process in pursuit of a more inclusive and representative political order for the entire country.

A new political/security dialogue

The pursuit of renewed political dialogue with forces in opposition to the Government is essential to respond to the judgment of many commentators and experts who are increasingly clear and insistent that the counterinsurgency war is headed for certain defeat. None of us wants to see forces hostile to political inclusiveness and basic human rights standards prevail, but given the record of foreign forces in Afghanistan, history is probably on the side of the insurgents, unless the Government of Afghanistan and those helping it find another approach.

The feasibility of renewed peace discussions is supported by the ICG report (2006, pp. 11-12), which identifies “factors that were repeatedly pointed to as driving people to oppose the government,” including

  • Political disenfranchisement:In “favouring one group or tribe” others have been left “out of decision-making and power structures.”
  • Resource quarrels:“These are particularly over land and water and have been exacerbated by the return of millions of refugees and internally displaced people as well as a long drought.”
  • Corruption:“This includes large-scale ransacking of state and donor resources by officials who regard state property as their own.”
  • Lack of opportunities and development:“Having been oversold the benefits that democracy would bring, there is growing public discontent and a backlash at the lack of change in everyday life.”
  • Abuse by local and international security forces: “This mainly involves mistreatment by local police or army, but also includes mistreatment by international forces in rough-house raids and illegal detentions.”

In other words, the challenge of what we broadly call “the Taliban” does not seem to be focused on irrational fanaticism, but rather on very basic and familiar grievances – the kind you find in any conflict. These are all grievances that are amenable to resolution through discussion, negotiation, and improved practices by the Government and its foreign backers. Until such negotiations and operational changes occur, the counterinsurgency war will continue and many Afghans will transfer their allegiance from a government that has not lived up to expectations to the very groups the international forces are fighting.

That in turn means that restoring legitimacy to the central government and its backers is not a matter of improved military performance or even accelerated reconstruction, but depends also on a commitment to political inclusiveness that reaches out to those now in opposition to the government.

The call for more talking is recognition that political stability depends on convincing Afghans that their government has the interests of all Afghans at heart. That means dealing with those political-military entities outside of government that represent the genuine grievances of Afghans – a group that, by all accounts, includes elements that are routinely deemed to be Taliban.

It is true that conditions need to be right for successful talks, and it is not for observers in distant Canada to name the people, places, and times for such talks. But it is entirely appropriate to insist on the principle that the Afghan government and its backers talk to their declared adversaries in search of accommodations that respect the needs of Afghans and international standards of human rights.


International Crisis Group. 2006. Countering Afghanistan’s Insurgency: No Quick Fixes. Asia Report No. 123, November 2.

O’Connor, The Hon. Gordon. 2006. Standing Committee on National Defence, 39th Parliament, 1st Session, October 18.

Rubin, Barnett R. 2006. Afghanistan at dangerous ‘tipping point’. Interview. Council on Foreign Relations, October 6.

United Nations. 2006. The situation in Afghanistan and its implications for peace and security. Report of the Secretary-General, United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, September 11. A/61/326-S/2006/727.

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