This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2011

A special This panel: The legacy of Canada’s 10-year Afghan mission

This Magazine Staff

Creative Commons photo by Aramis X. Ramirez/ISAF.

International Security Assistance Force troops at Kandahar Airfield. Creative Commons photo by Aramis X. Ramirez/ISAF.

On October 7, 2001, U.S. and U.K. forces began an invasion of Afghanistan aimed at capturing or killing the perpetrators of 9/11, believed to be sheltered there by the Taliban. Canadian forces soon joined the fray as part of the International Security Assistance Force, beginning The Forces’ longest and most controversial military engagement in history.

After nearly a decade on the ground in Afghanistan, reaching nearly 3,000 soldiers at their peak deployment, Canadian combat troops withdrew over the summer of 2011. Approximately 950 personnel are scheduled to remain in Afghanistan through 2014, now focused on training Afghan security forces, including its army and local police.

As we approach the 10-year mark for Canada’s Afghan mission, This Magazine asked three expert observers to talk about Canada’s role in the war-torn country, what has—and has not—been achieved, and what the legacy of this conflict will be for Canada’s military and diplomatic standing on the world stage.

The panel:

Amir Attaran is an Associate Professor in the Faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa, and holds the Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy. He is a frequent commentator in the press, having written for the Globe and Mail, New York Times, The Guardian, and the Literary Review of Canada, among others.

John Duncan is the director of the Ethics, Society, and Law program at the University of Trinity College in the University of Toronto. He is the founder of the international bilingual society for the study of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture, and the co-founder and academic director of the Humanities for Humanity outreach program at Trinity and Victoria University in the University of Toronto. He writes on philosophy, the humanities, and politics.

Graeme Smith is a Globe and Mail correspondent who was stationed in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2009. His reporting from Kandahar and Southern Afghanistan won numerous awards, including three National Newspaper Awards, the Canadian Association of Journalists’ award for investigative reporting, recognition from Amnesty International, and an Emmy for Smith’s online video series of interviews with Afghan insurgents, “Talking to the Taliban.”

The conversation:

This: The stated formal objective of the Afghan mission for Canada is “to help build a more secure, stable, and self-sufficient Afghanistan that is no longer a safe haven for terrorists.” By your estimation, are any of those criteria currently being met?

John Duncan: Terrorism is being suppressed, according to a few limited measures. But security within Afghanistan is now actually the worst it has been since 2001, which is to say violence including terrorism is a brutal fact of life for many Afghans, deepening resentment toward the West in the country and the broader region, which does not bode well for anti-terrorism internationally. In general terms, development has not been significant, governance is abysmal, and the situation of women and girls across the country has not improved significantly in 10 years.

Graeme Smith: You can make an argument that even though security’s worse right now in Afghanistan because the number of attacks keeps going up and up, there has been development in some places, and that in some places, it’s much harder for an organization like al Qaeda to organize their training camps. So you can argue that, in the short term, there has been progress. I think you really have to look at where the arc of this is going: where is Afghanistan going to be 10 years from now? And I worry that 10 years from now, all three of those indicators are going to be worse.

Duncan: Our allies in Afghanistan—the ones who are going to become incredibly more important as the drawdown continues over the next few years—are a bunch of people infiltrated by the warlords we supported against the Soviets, or their successors. And most of these folks are very nasty people. Take the assassination this summer of Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. He was one of our staunchest allies, but I can’t think of anyone who believes he was anything like a straight-up guy. There’s a real sense that we won’t be leaving the place in significantly better hands than the Taliban.

Amir Attaran: The strongest remedy to terrorism is actually a government that functions. That was the reason Canada could deal with FLQ terrorism, or the British could deal with the IRA. Unless you have a functioning government of your own, one in which people can trust, you won’t solve it. What Canada, the U.S., and NATO seem to have missed is the very basic lesson that the Afghans have to solve the problem of violence in their own midst. We can’t do it for them.

Smith: Afghanistan had a functioning country in some ways before we came in in 2001. That’s a qualified statement: the Taliban had been relatively successful in establishing a regime and you could argue that if you were looking for a partner to fight terrorism—a partner to take on al Qaeda and make sure that the country would remain stable with some kind of rule of law—in 2001, your best partner would have been the Taliban.

This: The Taliban is obviously still a going concern. Are they still a kind of government in waiting? Will they ever be back at the table? Is this something that can be negotiated? Will they take over anyway?

Smith: It’s often been said that if NATO leaves Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai would be kicked out sometime within an hour and a day, and the insurgents will run the country again. Karzai’s regime has no strength without NATO. Now, that’s all supposed to be changing between now and 2014 as we withdraw and build up the Afghan security forces, but the Afghan security forces have proved to be extremely unreliable, the police especially. My analysis is still that we’re headed for a civil war and not that we’re headed for an immediate Taliban takeover.

Attaran: I can’t make up my own mind any longer whether it’s possible to negiotiate with the Taliban. I think that should have been tried years ago, and I think it would have succeeded years ago. One of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s gifts—apart from promoting his own interests—was that he was actually able to talk to the Taliban pretty well, as well as talking to the West. Back in 2008 he urged Canada to open a line of communication and that was done, somewhat covertly, although the government always denied it. Had that been done in earnest, I think we would be looking at a much happier situation today. But I don’t know that it’s possible today.

Duncan: The military leaders’ people have said all along that the campaign can’t be won militarily and there has to be a political settlement. I’m not sure our side is taking negotiations seriously, but anyway we need a partner with which to negotiate, and the insurgents are not serious about negotiations because they also see that NATO cannot win militarily. They see victory in the long run. “We have the watches, they have the time,” as is often said.

Maybe the most hopeful scenario we can see is that the regime won’t collapse as we withdraw, but will be able to hold significant parts of the country as well as the regime did after the Soviets left in 1989. But we’re standing up a bunch a guys there that are not humanitarians. Canada continually tries to sell the war to its own citizens on the basis of the idea that we’re improving the lot of women, and bringing development to these folks, but really we’re not standing up anything like feminists or pro-development people.

Smith: We’re not even standing up effective bad guys. Even if we were to make that compromise, and say, “Ahmed Wali Karzai is not a nice man but at least he can keep control of Southern Afghanistan,” at this point, at this level of desperation, that might be a bargain that we’re willing to make. But he wasn’t that guy.

Attaran: All three of us appear to agree that civil war is the most likely outcome in a few years. So the question ought to be on the part of policy-makers: “How do you minimize the intensity of the civil war?” Give up on the idea that you can avoid it. Just concentrate on minimizing its intensity. And to do that you need to take a page out of the playbook for resolving ethnic wars. That means going around to each of the affected interest groups and asking: “What will it take for you not to fight the people closest to you?” Find out grievances, find out wishes. Then a disinterested interlocutor could try and negotiate an agreement that bribes people to keep the peace. It will require subsidies, and incentives to settle old scores, except through non-violent means.

But of course through our stupidity of the war on terrorism, we’ve made this very difficult. Because today, under most countries’ laws, if you speak to a terrorist group and offer them training on making a peaceful transition, under the laws of Canada, the United States, Britain, and others, that’s considered giving material support to terrorism. So the international organizations or NGOs who specialize in peace-building negotiations and exercises, and who might be able to find a way out of this mess for the NATO alliance, would be criminals for doing their work, under the very stupid laws that exist in NATO countries today.

This: Let’s talk about the Afghan National Army. This has now become the primary focus of Canada’s mission there, to have Canadian military and police trainers on the ground to help the Afghan army and police reach a level where they can provide enough security for development to occur safely. Is the Afghan National Army in a position to provide that?

Attaran: Emphatically no. In successful states, it’s the state that holds what’s called the “monopoly of violence.” The current Afghan military, the police, and the National Directorate of Security are not able to maintain a monopoly of violence in the country.

Duncan: They can’t even do it with the help of 140,000 NATO troops, including overpowering air support and all the rest of the sophisticated NATO technology.

Attaran: No, it can’t. And in this case, one has to turn this axiom on its head. You have to say, “Whoever can provide the monopoly of violence becomes the state.” I think that’s how you have to do it. To minimize the intensity of the civil war that is coming, one has to send credible emissaries, and I have no idea who they are because every NATO country has no credibility on this issue now. You have to send a neutral emissary to approach all potentially violent factions and ask, “What will it take for you—by way of money, land, political influence—what will it take for you to not fight and not settle old scores? It all has a price.

This: If the NATO allies have no credibility when it comes to doing that kind of negotiation, is there a figure who could come in from outside who could do that negotiation and bring people to the table?

Attaran: In the past we relied on Norwegians or other usefully helpful small countries like Canada to solve big global messes for us. I don’t know that that can happen anymore because Canada doesn’t have any credibility with the insurgents, being a member of NATO in Afghanistan. I don’t think that even the Norwegians can do it. I think the only possible answer is for the emerging countries to really flex their diplomatic muscle. I’m thinking as far away as Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa. Unless countries of that tier in the world begin to do part of their role in setting and accomplishing big projects in global diplomacy, there’s no one to get NATO out of their mess.

Smith: Not only NATO but also the United Nations. One of the difficult things about this conflict is that the United Nations has taken sides. In previous iterations of Afghan civil wars you had the United Nations acting as the neutral go-between, the honest broker. The UN will not be able to play that role this time around.

Attaran: I think this is sure to be an unpopular thing to say: Afghans will develop a certain trust in institutions once they see those institutions able to prosecute Westerners for war crimes. Nobody disputes that Western militaries caused unlawful civilian deaths, or utilized unlawful means such as torture—much of that is admitted by NATO countries themselves. If we want Afghans to believe in the power of global institutions, one thing that will help is for certain Westerners to be made criminally responsible by Afghan institutions. If they can see their own institutions flex muscle and show that they are not about to bow before the most powerful nations on the earth’s face, then they will believe those institutions matter.

Duncan: You’re right that it’s an unpopular thing to say; I can’t imagine Canadians feeling too comfortable about it. But it’s also right that anyone who commits a war crime ought to be prosecuted.

Smith: Here’s my main concern about using war crimes as the bully stick. I’m worried that in the coming decades, I’m going to be standing in some war-torn country—Libya, Syria, Somalia—and I’m going to be writing stories where people are calling for foreign intervention, people are calling for peacekeepers to prevent an atrocity. And that if the lawyers warn the international forces that there is some percentage risk of exposure on the war-crimes front, that that intervention will not happen, and that lots of people will have to die because we’re afraid to stick our necks out.

Attaran: It’s undeniably a risk. Part of going forth in the world and trying to change things, whether you call it “responsibility to protect,” as it’s called on the left, or “regime change” as it’s called on the right, means going forward and doing so in accordance to the laws of armed conflict, such as the Geneva Conventions and international human rights law. And if you don’t, it doesn’t matter whether your reasons for the foreign sojourn is prompted by the fear of terrorism on the right, or the desire to rid the world of despots on the left. The reasons are irrelevant; you still have the same laws to abide by.

This: Let’s come back to the situation of Canada’s diplomatic corps. What is the legacy of the Afghan conflict for Canada’s diplomatic reputation, and how is this changing foreign affairs currently?

Smith: Well, we’re certainly seen as a country that can kick some ass. That wasn’t the case before, for better or for worse.

Attaran: Our diplomatic corps is certainly viewed as compromised. We had a great relationship with a great many countries in the world, and that did indeed land us on the UN Security Council with regularity in the past. It’s failed not because we’ve succeeded in alienating a huge number of countries—although I think we’ve done that for other reasons—we weren’t actually successful in getting on the Security Council in the last session because the U.S. declined to campaign for us. That’s the most shocking thing. Even though we showed ourselves to be willing to kick ass and to appeal to Washington in that regard, it wasn’t good enough for Washington. And for the first time that I know of, Washington did not campaign on Canada’s behalf, did not ask other countries to vote for Canada for the Security Council seat. The moral of the story is: being able to kick ass but losing your broad-based diplomatic respect among many nations doesn’t work to win your influence. It simply makes you a somewhat boring, middle-sized, un-influential country, which is what Canada is in danger of becoming.

Duncan: Former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley, who produced the very influential 2008 report on the Afghan mission, has made the argument in public a number of times that the great sacrifice Canada is making in Afghanistan is something that politicians in Ottawa need to make clear and well-heard in Washington, to make sure we improve our recognition down there, with our neighbour, with our dominant trading partner, and with the world’s leading power.

Smith: You know, behind the scenes, we do still have this role as a moderating influence within NATO. So, for example, when the Americans were thinking about sending in chemical sprayers to eradicate the poppy fields of southern and eastern Afghanistan—which would have just thrown gasoline on the fire and been a disastrous move—the Canadians and the Brits quietly persuaded the Americans to see reason, and persuaded them not to escalate the conflict that way. So there are times, I think, when Canada still can be part of this club of nations that is taking unpopular actions and doing some harm reduction, as it were.

Attaran: Our diplomatic standing is about much more than how we comport ourselves during wartime. We have to remember that as much as we try to suck up to the Americans by taking the most dangerous part of Afghanistan militarily, we weren’t successful in getting the backing of our closest ally to be in the UN Security Council, because on enough other diplomatic fronts, we’ve proven to be very irritating. Stephen Harper’s government displeased the United States on climate change, on Omar Khadr’s repatriation, and on a very personal level, on President Obama’s campaign to become president, where it appears we leaked information about what he said in a briefing on NAFTA. If, diplomatically, Canada behaves like this—practices bush-league diplomacy, which is a growing specialty of ours—we are going to lose influence, despite making blood sacrifice.

Duncan: There is a debate in the military and academic literature about this. Some people have worried since the bombing runs Canada carried out in Yugoslavia that our sacrifices, the things we’ve done in hardcore military efforts, have not been sufficiently recognized because our forces were too integrated with other forces as in Yugoslavia. So the idea for Afghanistan was to make sure that everyone could see that Canada was there doing really heavy lifting in the specific region of Kandahar, to achieve some real salience, boosting our recognition, our credibility, and ultimately our influence on the world stage.

In addition to this debate, there’s another about trying to understand what our diplomatic and military mission around the world has been, is, and should be. Some say we have often intervened for peace—our peacekeeping heritage—but others say that national interests have actually always trumped peacekeeping in Canadian interventions. Now, since the Canadian self-understanding is largely wrapped up in the perception of a peacekeeping heritage, the concern with Afghanistan has been about whether too much heavy lifting—that is, war fighting—will alienate Canadian popular support for the mission.

So we have tough talk about “killing scumbags,” on the one hand, and doublespeak about “peacemaking” and “peace-building,” on the other hand. We see from these debates, as well as from mainstream press coverage of the war, that a major concern has been not to alienate Canadian support for the war. I’m no fan of promoting war, but at least the analysts arguing for salience and national interests are straight shooters with respect to Afghanistan, where about 90 percent of the funding has gone to the military mission—not to development, governance, women and girls, and so on. Despite the rhetoric, this has been war fighting for 10 years, and if that is not bad enough we also have to face the grim truth that the war fighting has achieved virtually nothing.

This: So this conflict has changed our diplomatic reputation; how is it changing the Canadian Forces themselves?

Smith: We talked about the Canadian Forces becoming blooded, becoming more combat ready, and I think it’s had that effect. Though our presence in Kandahar may, at the end of the day, have done some harm to Kandahar, I think it may have done some good to the Canadian Forces as an organization. They now have more airlift capability, they now have a cadre of experienced counter-insurgency experts, so should the Canadians have the stomach for another overseas adventure, the Canadian Forces will certainly be ready.

Duncan: There has been a lot of press lately about athletes suffering serious long-term effects from even mild concussions. Well, many Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan have suffered serious concussions from improvised exploisve device blasts, as well as other serious injuries and illnesses. For many returning soldiers we don’t really know how long-standing or severe their problems are going to be, and there are things to worry about there, such as whether or not there is sufficient support or care for them, what the effects will be on their families and communities, and what the effects will be on the military itself. Already there are worrying cases of inadequate care and support, and south of the border there are alarmingly high rates of soldier and veteran suicide.

Attaran: I don’t think this war has been good for the forces. There will be a great many young veterans who will be less well-cared-for than in previous generations because of the change to veterans’ benefits in this country. I think our military leadership—the brass if you will—has become markedly arrogant to the point that they’re showing their ill schooling. I blame no one for this more than General Rick Hillier, because he was the one who signed the status-of-forces agreement with Afghanistan. That is what launched this mission in southern Afghanistan, the Kandahar mission, and he did so on terms that were wholly unrealistic. When I read it I was gobsmacked to find his name above a statement to the effect that our mission was to “eradicate” the Taliban and al Qaeda. Eradicate—that was the word he used. History teaches that insurgencies are almost never eradicated, so for General Hillier to set that goal was stupid from the get-go. I’m profoundly in agreement with those who think the military would be better off reaffirming Canada’s territorial claims in the Arctic. We’re a country who’s been around since 1867. We have to think in 100-year, 200-year cycles, and in the long run, will Afghanistan matter to this country? Hardly. But the Arctic? Definitely. That’s what we gave up by going on this adventure.

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