Forget peacekeeping—Canadian soldiers in Kabul could find themselves in combat
SEAN M. MALONEYJuly212003
Forget peacekeeping—Canadian soldiers in Kabul could find themselves in combat
SEAN M. MALONEY
THE SUN had climbed high into the March sky over Kabul when two Danish F-16 fighter bombers screamed overhead. A Dutch patrol with the International Security Assistance Force policing Kabul had been attacked south of the city in an area soldiers call Little Mogadishu, a reference to the disastrous 1993 UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia. A Dutch soldier had been severely injured and his translator killed when a remote-control bomb hidden in the girders of a bridge exploded, and the jets were on their way to provide cover for a helicopter carrying medical staff to the scene.
Afghanistan remains a deadly place. Nearly 19 ISAF soldiers have been killed in attacks and accidents since the force was put in place in December 2001. The attacks, which have been increasing, have been launched by remnants of the Taliban, al-Qaeda fighters, and rogue elements attached to warlords who resent the intrusion of Western forces into this strict Muslim country. As of this August, Canadians will be on the firing line as well when 1,800 of our soldiers arrive to patrol Kabul’s dangerous streets.
When Jean Chrétien made the decision last February to send the troops—an advance team of250 is already there—he was under intense pressure from the opposition to contribute to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At one point, senior staff in the Prime Minister’s Office asked the Department of National Defence to compile a list of missions our military, already badly stretched and inadequately equipped, could carry out. Most involved going to Iraq, but at the bottom of the list DND included joining ISAF, which is currently led by the Netherlands and Germany and gives Europe a role in the future of Afghanistan. Without consulting cabinet or debating the issue in the House of Commons, Chrétien decided on that option. In so doing, he did manage to demonstrate his opposition to U.S. unilateralism in Iraq by joining a European-led operation in Afghanistan. But while this may have kept Canada out of the Iraqi frying pan, we’ve
surely leapt into the Afghan fire.
I spent almost two months with ISAF earlier this year—and it’s obvious to me that Canadian soldiers are going to die in Afghanistan. This will not be a peacekeeping mission in the way the Liberal government likes to portray them: lightly armed Canadian troops negotiating with rival soldiers. This will be closer to a combat mission, more in line with the role Canada played in the 1990s in Bosnia, where 22 Canadian soldiers died. But Afghanistan is far more perilous. In Bosnia, combatants usually fought conventional battles. In Afghanistan, Canadians will face sudden death from terrorists and guerrilla fighters.
I had a taste of the dangers our troops are about to face while travelling on patrol through Kabul’s darkened streets with the Gebirgsjägers, one of Germany’s elite light infantry units. On that night, their task was to deter terrorist forces from firing 107mm rockets at ISAF camps—something that was increasing, both in number and accuracy. The Gebirgsjägers were equipped with Wiesel mini-tanks—vehicles that have anti-tank missiles, and night-vision equipment.
In a game of cat and mouse, the Gebirgsjägers hunted for terrorists in the dangerous Bagrami district on the city’s eastern edge, set against the backdrop of the stunning Hindu Kush mountains. According to intelligence sources, trucks laden with plastic explosives were coming in from Pakistan, destined for a covert bomb laboratory somewhere in Little Mogadishu. While a sweep failed to turn up explosives, a cache of several hundred 107-mm rockets was discovered in the surrounding hills.
But the Gebirgsjägers concede that, under the surface, real power in Kabul belongs to troops loyal to warlords, who now occupy bases in the city that once belonged to the Taliban. These soldiers are well-armed, with grenade launchers, AK-47 assault rifles, tanks and artillery. Some even are reported to have thermobaric munitions, incredibly lethal weapons that may have been stolen from the
Russian army in Chechnya. They fill buildings with explosive vapour, which then blows up with devastating impact.
Canadian troops, who are still training for the mission, will be jumping into this cauldron at a critical time. The Loya Jirga, an assembly of Afghan tribal chiefs, is set to meet in the fall; the presidential election will follow in 2004. Warlords will be asked to give up much of their power—the source of their wealth—and let democracy take root. There are more than 27,000 fighters loyal to various warlords in Kabul (and an estimated 100,000 in the whole country), and no one familiar with Afghanistan’s long history of bloody ethnic divisions expects them to quietly disarm and retreat into the mountains. With so much at stake, there will no doubt be violence.
If fighting breaks out, the 4,600 ISAF troops will find it almost impossible to control a city with a population exceeding two million. As for the rest of Afghanistan, it is for the most part openly controlled by war-
lords. There is little infrastructure, and the Afghan illiteracy rate exceeds 75 per cent, a serious challenge to implementing concepts like democracy and equality. In the end, the warlords, not the government of President Hamid Karzai or ISAF troops, are likely to determine the political future.
Defence Minister John McCallum has rationalized the dangers facing our troops, saying Canada must continue to take part in the international war on terrorism. But many in the military wonder if this is the right contribution to make. They would no doubt point out that while ISAF operations may be sanctioned by the UN, the force’s mandate is exceedingly vague. When it arrived in 2002, its purpose was to give Europe a voice in the future of Afghanistan and provide support to the Karzai government. But here’s the wrinkle: early on, protection of Karzai, and the training of the Afghan national army, was taken over by American forces because ISAF lacked the capability.
There is little coordination between the
Americans and ISAF. The U.S. continues to hunt down al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters inside Kabul and across the country. In the process, they often enlist the aid of warlords who are not aligned with Karzai. As informal as these alliances are, they will be hard to break, especially with the Taliban and alQaeda still active. And that often pits the U.S.’s strategic agenda (the complete eradication of al-Qaeda) against ISAF, which wants the warlords removed and Karzai’s authority expanded across the country.
With Canada now part of ISAF, it can be argued that the Prime Minister succeeded in drawing a line between Canada and the American agenda in the region. We will show the flag in Kabul, along with the Europeans, and talk about nation-building, while the Americans go about the dirty business of pursuing al-Qaeda and Taliban terrorists across the country. But there are
huge risks to our troops, and that in part explains why so many in DND oppose the mission. The major concern is security: if the situation in Kabul spins out of control and the warlords’ troops turn on the Canadians, where will they retreat to? (Images of the mutilated bodies of U.S. soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by troops loyal to Somali warlords immediately come to mind.)
Ottawa stripped the Canadian forces of their airlift capability years ago. If attacked, they will be dependent on the U.S. to evacuate them. That of course raises a number of questions. The most obvious: why would this Liberal government, the most antiAmerican in memory, leave it up to the U.S. to rescue Canadian troops? In the violent world of Kabul, such a rescue may move from possibility to reality very quickly. lül
Sean M. Maloney is a professor of war studies at the Royal Military College of Canada.
His most recent book is Canada and UN Peacekeeping: Cold War by Other Means 1945-1970.
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