Our Tactics in Afghanistan Must Change: Focus should be placed on entrenching peace, rather than on a hopeless counter-insurgency

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

Published by the Waterloo Region Record

The prime minister’s welcome appeal to bipartisan co-operation in reshaping the Canadian mission in Afghanistan offers a chance to pursue a national consensus that spans a broad political spectrum and is rooted in proven peace-building and counterinsurgency realities.

The government’s new motion on the Afghanistan mission is a significant step toward such a consensus, but there are still three key issues that require clarification and attention.

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 for the mission –namely, the switch from search and destroy counter-insurgency combat to providing security for reconstruction or peace-building in those parts of Kandahar province where that is possible.

Second, there is no recognition of the trouble that the NATO counterinsurgency war is now in, and so 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 acknowledgment 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 of Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

The central military issue that has driven the Canadian political debate and the differing Afghanistan policies of the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP has been the choice between intensifying the southern war against the Taliban, on the one hand, and strengthening peace consolidation efforts in more stable parts of the country, on the other. All three parties have supported a continuing Canadian presence in Afghanistan; the challenge has always been how to maximize its effectiveness.

The Conservative government, backed by the recommendations of the John Manley panel, clearly wanted a more effective counterinsurgency war. That led to the central demand for another 1,000 troops, along with helicopters and drones. But as security conditions have continued to deteriorate, the Conservatives and 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, 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 and security forces 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 peace-building 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.

One of the key failures of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan was its insistence that “there is not yet a peace to keep in Afghanistan,” leading it to the conclusion that the only credible role for the Canadian military is counterinsurgency combat and training Afghans for the same duties. 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.

In areas of the country where the insurgency is not present, mainly the north, reports of deteriorating security conditions mount. Chronic criminal violence is exacerbated by spreading political clashes as militia leaders take advantage of Kabul’s and the international community’s preoccupation with the war in the south to reassert their extra-constitutional presence and influence.

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 there’s a need for 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 the military to mount a peace support operation, rather than engage in counterinsurgency warfare, along with assurances that training is not defined as mentoring Afghans in counterinsurgency.

At the moment, as the Manley panel essentially admitted, the military counterinsurgency effort is on a trajectory 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.

Unfortunately, the new compromise motion 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,” with memorable results.

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

And there must finally be a way to give concrete political meaning to the recognition, repeated by the Manley panel, that ultimately “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 the country that are currently beyond the reach of the insurgency, 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.

With these three issues included in a new parliamentary motion — military guidelines to ensure an end to Canadian counterinsurgency operations, the call for a review of NATO’s Afghanistan strategy, and support for a comprehensive peace process — we could also forge a new national consensus in Canada.

© Copyright 2008 Metroland Media Group Ltd.

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