From Manley Report to Sustainable Peace in Afghanistan: You Can’t Get There from Here!

John Siebert

John Siebert

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2008 Volume 29 Issue 1

On January 22, 2008, the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan (The Manley Panel) released its final report on Canada’s role in the current war in Afghanistan.

American writer John Gardner (1933-1982) reportedly said that there are only two plots in all of literature: you go on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

In many ways Gardner was an old-fashioned modernist writer, concerned as he was with responsibility, guilt, and redemption. Moral culpability for Gardner had not yet been obliterated in the miasma of post-modern literary and cultural critique. The novel was an art form for casting moral insights into relief by upsetting the normal run of things. When you go on a journey, the usual sights and guideposts are missing, the habits and normal rules are upset, overturned. In a similar way, when a stranger comes to town, townies are challenged by this strangeness to examine their lives, react, or even change.

Gardner’s typology of literary plots came to mind when I read the report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan chaired by John Manley (Manley Report). It’s about Canada going on a journey to Afghanistan, even if no one will confuse this report for literature. This journey is called an expeditionary war because the stranger, although he did come to New York, briefly, and is rumoured to be coming back if we are not resolute, had to be met and confronted somewhere else.

The morality at play in Manley’s modernist storyline is also central. Why did Canada go to Afghanistan and, more importantly, why should it stay there, given certain conditions? Manley provides four reasons.

Reasons to stay

The first reason is “global and Canadian security” (Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan 2008, p. 3). Canada must participate in efforts to defeat terrorism as embodied by Al Qaeda and its former host, the Taliban rulers, who, since being ejected from Kabul, are now fighting as insurgents. This struggle is not merely a post-modern, international contest of power and interests, but a moral competition in which, according to Manley, Canada is justified in fighting to defend its values.

The second reason follows closely on the first: “Canada’s international reputation” (p. 3) is at stake. Canada is an actor on the world stage, part of the NATO alliance, a UN member in good standing, an advocate of multilateral diplomacy and collective security, and a good neighbour to the United States that was attacked. More than a joiner, Canada independently has come to share the conclusion of its allies: what is at stake in Afghanistan is worth fighting and dying for, and is consistent with Canada’s history.

The third reason Canada is in Afghanistan, according to the Manley report, is to address “the well-being of some of the world’s most impoverished and vulnerable people” (p. 3). Canada contributes to the alleviation of poverty in many parts of the world. Why not also in Afghanistan, especially if this aid contributes to other worthy goals such as stabilizing a country that has proven to be a source of terrorism with global reach?

Finally, the Manley Panel states that Canada cannot abandon this fight because “it has already involved the sacrifice of Canadian lives” (p. 3). The emotive appeal is clear even if this argument does not really offer a logical justification for Canada’s remaining in Afghanistan or maintaining the same course. Instead, the fact that soldiers have been killed may be a good reason for changing course. Be that as it may, the Manley Panel wants to convince Canadians that staying in Afghanistan fits into an ordered, moral universe that should be preserved.

Seeking public support

Unfortunately, Canada’s journey to Afghanistan is not going well. The stark poverty, state institutions destroyed by decades of war, tribal and local allegiances, the narco-economy, the dangerous immediate geopolitical neighbourhood, the languages, religion, and culture, which are strange to most Canadians, have combined to upset Canada’s moral bearings in this fight. Support for the elected Karzai Government is strained by its endemic corruption. Canada’s allies are at odds with each other, some pushing forward with an aggressive counterinsurgency attack and others begging off combat. In Canada there is public confusion about, and lack of support for, this counterinsurgency war.

The current trouble with Canada’s journey to Afghanistan was conceded with the very striking of the Manley Panel in October 2007. Official Ottawa knew then that the old arguments for fighting terror—and populist appeals to Tim Hortons and hockey—were failing to explain and build support for the sacrifices being made in Afghanistan. After the announcement in spring 2007 that new measures were being taken to better communicate Canada’s reasons for being in Afghanistan, and the replacement of the politically moribund Gordon O’Connor with the dynamic Peter MacKay as Defence Minister, the polls checking the pulse of Canadian public approval were not moving appreciably. A majority of Canadians continued to believe that Canada should not be fighting a war in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Harper, known for controlling Government decisions and messages, handed over the biggest foreign policy issue of his administration to five former bureaucrats and politicians. Displaying a consensus-seeking mood at a press conference after the release of the Manley Report, the Prime Minister said that no other issue had caused him more headaches or heartache. No doubt the loss of Canadian lives explains the heartache. He is the current political master responsible for keeping those troops in Afghanistan, even if he didn’t send them there in the first place, so each death and injury naturally weighs heavily.

The headaches have a variety of causes, which the Manley Report outlines in detail. The chief source of discomfort is the deteriorating security situation in Kandahar Province—where Canadian Forces are concentrated—and in southern Afghanistan generally. Although Harper has known about this situation for some time from internal government reports, he has tried to remain publicly chipper about the good and worthy job Canadians are doing there.

The challenge of the journey

The Manley Report says that Canada’s journey to Afghanistan has upset expectations and understandings. It has not been the peacekeeping assignment Canadians are used to and support reflexively. Changes in public perception and in the way Canada used diplomacy and development aid to support military efforts are needed to meet the fourfold moral challenge described by Manley.
The storyline of this journey is being written in real time, with considerable cost, lamentable losses, and an unknown outcome. The problem is that neither the Manley Report nor the subsequent motions and manoeuvres in minority-government Ottawa have provided directions on how to achieve a sustainable peace in Afghanistan.

It must be maddening for NATO and ISAF planners to reflect that such a small group of insurgents, with an estimated core of 3,000 and occasional access to perhaps 7,000 more (UNSC 2007, p. 9), can primarily use asymmetric warfare to frustrate the aims of a military alliance that is the most powerful ever known and led by the only standing superpower.

To date it has proven difficult for ISAF member countries to make even incremental increases in troop deployments and equipment to assist in the troubled south and east of Afghanistan. The major question left by the Manley Report is whether the main recommendations, which focus on providing a thousand more NATO-sourced troops in Kandahar plus helicopters and drones, along with further training of Afghan national military and police forces, can effectively change the outcome.

In the absence of a willingness to overwhelmingly increase the military reach of ISAF—which could make a difference in containing if not defeating the insurgents in Afghanistan—there may be an opening for a different approach not contemplated in the Manley Report’s recommendations.

In On War (1833), the realist Carl von Clausewitz delineated the relationship between war and politics: “War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.” This sentence is often abbreviated to “war is politics by other means.” Barring outright military victory, the reassertion of politics is required to end war. A comprehensive political negotiation could be the route to end the civil war in Afghanistan and provide a basis for sustainable peace with considerably reduced violence.

Such a solution would require that Canada rethink the conduct of its current journey to Afghanistan. The Manley Report did not get us to that point. The combination of disappointments, mounting losses, and the unexpected that will produce such a shift by Canada and its allies will determine the as yet unknown ending to this sad journey.



Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan [The Manley Panel]. 2008. Final report.

United Nations Security Council. 2007. Letter dated 15 November 2007 from the Chairman of the Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) concerning Al-Qaida and the Taliban and associated individuals and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council. S/2007/677. 29 November.

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