Monday, January 21, 2008

The Long Way Home Is Sometimes The Better Way

The global shock of 9/11 created broad international concern at the time that no country could remain immune to similar attacks from terrorist groups in the future; a consensus rapidly emerged that joint international action was required to eliminate such groups and their sanctuaries wherever they werel ocated. President George W. Bush unambiguously demanded that all countries align themselves as “either with the U.S. or against it” in the struggle. Canada initially responded to the challenge by mobilizing air and naval forces and then secretly sent Joint Task Force Two (JTF2) troops to Afghanistan in late 2001. A larger contingent of 750 Canadian soldiers was then sent to Kandahar in February 2002 for a period of six months. Afghanistan became a symbolically key state in the broader effort to deter radical Islamic jihadism, particularly given its past role as host to al-Qa’ida under the Taliban.
Seems like such a long time ago now. Almost a lifetime, in some ways. Funny how, as I recall, not too many had much trouble with the whole idea of the US invading Afghanistan to rout out the Taliban after 9/11. And I don't recall many, if any, having any problem with the idea of Canadian troops deploying to Afghanistan to do our part. Admittedly, Iraq was always a different story. But not Afghanistan.

So where are we now, over six years later and with 2,500 Canadian soldiers in country? Depending on who you want to believe, and how recently they were conducted, polls would tell us that anywhere from 50% to 60% of Canadians feel that our troops should be brought home as soon as possible. And why is that? Well, it might have something to do with the 78 young men and women that have been killed in a country so far away from home. Might. Yeah, right. Just might.
Canada took responsibility for Kandahar province after other NATO member countries volunteered to deploy to more secure provinces in 2004. In 2005, Canadian Forces moved to Kandahar, taking over an American Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), one of 24 PRTs now active in the country. The current Canadian mission consists of 2,500 troops in Kandahar; 30 CF personnel in Kabul, either working on specific security areas as liaison or embedded within a joint task force; and a 15 member strategic advisory team of military planners assisting the Afghan government. The deployment has been renewed until February 2009.

Canada has supported other stabilization and peacebuilding initiatives, notably in the area of demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration of ex-combatants (DDR). Canada supported the decommissioning of militia forces, the collection and storage of 12,000weapons, the destruction of ammunition stockpiles, de-mining, and landmine education.

Canadian involvement in Afghanistan first hit Canadian television screens in a major way when the CF moved to Kandahar to take on an active combat role in the more volatile and unstable south; they rapidly became the object of regular Taliban attacks, and CF began to sustain the heaviest casualties of any NATO participant in per capita terms.
Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, the Liberals, believes that Canada should be looking at aid projects and other non-combat roles in Afghanistan when its current commitment expires in February, 2009, just about one year from now. Which is a bit of a backpedal from what they were saying a year or so ago actually, when they seemed to more strongly agree with the NDP position. Which has basically been, get the hell of out of Afghanistan. Now. And as I said, unfortunately, it appears that many Canadians agree with them.

Personally, I see what we, along with the other members of the NATO, are doing in Afghanistan as critically important. For a variety of reasons. For one thing, if we leave to early and let the Taliban regain their foothold, then what really have we accomplished at all in being there for six years? And wouldn't that mean, really, that all of our soldiers to say nothing of the countless number of Afghans themselves, have died in vain? Even looking at it from a purely 'selfish' point of view, have we made the world any safer for ourselves here in Canada?

There's also the fact that we supported the US actions in going into that country and 'bombing it back to the stone age', to borrow the popular phrase at the time. The country, the people for whom that is home, deserve to have some form of order restored to their lives. They also deserve to have what we, as an international community, promised them ... freedom, education for women and girls, a better life. Will we cut and run before we keep our promise?

Nothing saddens and distresses me more than hearing about the death of another Canadian soldier. It literally twists in my gut. But I don't see the answer, the solution, to our losses as being as simple as packing up and leaving. I know that's not what our men and women on the ground in Afghanistan believe. Nor is it what I believe. We will honour their deaths, their ultimate sacrifice only by finishing what we started. By keeping our promise to the Afghans, our allies and ourselves.

But as we draw closer and closer to another election, an election which is likely to turn in large part on the decision of what to do when our current mission in Afghanistan is complete, I become more and more troubled. With the US now planning to send 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan, I am hopeful that if we stay the course, we will accomplish our goal. I fear however that that situation ma well play out differently without the assistance of Canada.

And what exactly was up with US Defence Secretary Gates' recent comments as to the [in]effectiveness of NATO forces in the south of the country? Sure, he tried to back pedal:
[Gates] said "allied forces from the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark and other nations have stepped up to the plate and are playing a significant and powerful role in Afghanistan."

"They have rolled back the Taliban from previous strongholds in the south. They are taking the fight to the enemy in some of the most gruelling conditions imaginable," Gates said.

"As a result of the valour and sacrifice of these allies, the Taliban have suffered significant losses and no longer hold real estate of any consequence."

Gates noted that sniping among allies has happened in previous conflicts, but he pointed out: "Our allies, including the Canadians, the British, the Dutch, the Australians and others, are suffering losses as they demonstrate valour and skill in combat."

Nice try, but when he states that his remarks were not directed at Canadians, the Brits, the Dutch or the Australians, you have to wonder ... who were they directed at? And that statement above, by the way, came only after a statement from Canada's Minister of Defence, Peter MacKay, that in a private phone call Gates had assured him he did not mean to malign Canadian troops in any way was refuted hours later by a Pentagon spokesman stating that Gates’ comments were directed at all NATO allies — and yes, that included Canada.

I thought that Scott Taylor's column today made some interesting points. He posits that Gates, being well aware of the vast regional ethnic diversity of Afghanistan, compared apples to oranges (the situation in the east of Afghanistan with the situation in the south, where Canadian troops are deployed) in an effort to placate a domestic U.S. audience. An audience of war-weary Americans who wonder why 3,200 additional Marines are now being deployed to Afghanistan to fight a war they were told was won in November 2001.
At first, the Pentagon told us it was Pakistan’s fault that the insurgency in Kandahar was being rekindled; now Gates is telling Americans that it’s actually NATO’s fault for not being aggressive enough.

Canadian officers, familiar with the way in which the fiasco in Kandahar evolved, have called Gate’s comments the "height of hypocrisy." Even American Special Forces soldiers who participated in the battles that cleared the Taliban from Kandahar in early 2002 admit that the U.S. strategy was flawed from the outset.

When I visited Kabul last January, I was introduced to a U.S. Navy SEAL who had been assigned as an adviser to the Afghan Northern Alliance. When he learned that I was a Canadian, he had insisted on paying for my drinks. "We sold you guys a bucket of crap down in Kandahar, and for that I apologize," he said.

The SEAL explained that after the Taliban were chased out of the region, the U.S. left just one battalion stationed at the Kandahar airfield and fewer than 500 soldiers in all of Helmand province. The Pentagon had been completely focused on the invasion of Iraq and, as a result, from 2002 to 2005, the once scattered Taliban were able to regroup and rearm.

Supplies and recruits came in from the Pakistani side of Pashtunistan, but the small U.S. garrison in Kandahar was only concerned with self-protection at the airfield itself. Thus, when Canada accepted the change of location from Kabul to Kandahar, the Americans knew that the Canadians were walking into a veritable hornet’s nest of insurgents.

Gates’ comments in the L.A. Times inverted this sequence of events and made it sound like everything had been going swimmingly until NATO took over and made a bollocks of things.
I don't necessarily agree with all of Taylor's opinions on Afghanistan and Canada's role there but I must say that biting the hand that, in this case, helps to feed you, probably wasn't Gates' smartest political move. In that, if nothing else, in addition to whatever effect his words might have in other NATO countries, he may have well made Canada's up-hill battle an even steeper climb.

Update: When I wrote this post, I hadn't realized that the Manley Report is due to be released tomorrow. Apparently it is thought to have a little something for everyone.

News reports say the five-member panel will recommend that Canada extend its military mission beyond the current February 2009 end date, reflecting the Conservative government's wishes.

But their analysis may also appeal to more dovish critics by keying on the faltering relief and reconstruction efforts, especially in southern Afghanistan, and recommending a greater focus on improving the lives of average Afghans at least through 2011.

At any rate, I have no doubt that it will serve to ramp up the rhetoric on both sides of the issue. Which is unfortunate considering that it is our brave soldiers and the innocent people of Afghanistan that will be caught in the middle. Let's just hope that Mr. Manley and his panel has given the matter the grave attention and respect it deserves and that politicians of all stripes can resist, or as least temper, since I am sure 'resist' is too much to ask, the urge to use the report for political grandstanding and more partisan politcs.

H/T to Canadians for Afghanistan


Canadians for Afghanistan said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post.

I wanted to let you know about 'Canadians for Afghanistan', a new, non-partisan campaign to build public support for Canada's commitment to Afghanistan beyond 2009.

We were formed because like you, we agree that Canada has an important role to play in Afghanistan. Like you, we also agree that the end of our mission there cannot be determined by crossing days off a calendar, but by achieving our objectives and helping the people of Afghanistan take responsibility for their own affairs.

Please check out our campaign at and leave your thoughts.

Josh McJannett
Canadians for Afghanistan

Balancing Act said...

Very interesting post today Michelle. Being from the states sometimes it seems very long ago that 9/11 happened and yet I remember where I was, what I was doing and the fact that I was 8 weeks pregnant with my first child. I thank the troops (no matter where they are from) that assist in the fight for freedom. We are constantly hearing about the "days on the calendar" as you refer and am in agreement that the troops need to stay until the job is done that we promised. I know that no-one wants a repeat of 9/11 in their country or again in the U.S. No one wishes to go to war and no one wants casualities but they happen and the men and woman of the U.S. signed up to fight for our freedom. I thank them everyday. Thanks for your post today Michelle. It is Martin Luther Kings Birthday today... another one that believed in freedom and equality of all.

neardem said...

I found this post very interesting and I agree with you that Afghanistan is a very important issue, one that should never have been 'abandoned' as it were. I live in Argentina and support for that invasion was, as far as I can make out, total.
Canada has always played a very important role in helping -more than some people even imagine- the U.S. I suggest you read "The Quiet Canadian" by H. Montgomery Hyde. The Secret Service Story of Sir William Stephenson. I 'm sure you will find it as interesting as I have -it refers to the I and II World Wars