Victory in Afghanistan means understanding what we can achieve there, then sticking to it

SEAN M. MALONEY November 13 2006


Victory in Afghanistan means understanding what we can achieve there, then sticking to it

SEAN M. MALONEY November 13 2006



Victory in Afghanistan means understanding what we can achieve there, then sticking to it


“What’s your exit strategy?” Tom Arnold demands from Arnold Schwarzenegger as he’s pursued by terrorist goons in the movie True Lies. “I’m going to walk right out the front gate,” Schwarzenegger calmly replies.

Exit strategy: an American entrepreneurial term from the fast and loose 1990s, implying do your business and get out quick before something bad happens. Exit strategy: a term that reflected the Clinton administration’s fear of getting deeply engaged in the conflicts of that decade—Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia—and meant no involvement without an exit strategy. Now we’re hearing the term bandied about with reference to Canada’s operations in Afghanistan.

This sort of debate is new for Canadians, as novel as our deep engagement in a counter-

insurgency campaign in southwest Asia. Throughout the Cold War, there was no need for an exit strategy: UN peacekeeping was designed to freeze regional conflicts in place to discourage Communist infiltration of the Third World so the Cold War wouldn’t go hot. InWest Germany, Canada’s soldiers served for more than four decades in an armed deterrent role opposite Soviet forces occupying eastern Europe. The exit strategy, which amounted to preventing mushroom clouds from appearing over allied cities, defied concrete explanation at the time. In the Balkans, starting in 1992, Canadians served with the European Union, UN and NATO missions for 14 years: there was no defined exit strategy. It was only in the late 1990s that Canadian governments looked towards timelimited military commitments—and mostly for budgetary reasons. The plethora of “one-offs” included East Timor, Central African Republic, and Eritrea/Ethiopia. Leaving Somalia was dictated by the international community’s decision to withdraw entirely from that country, not by a Canadian exit strategy.

For the most part, Canada has never really adopted the concept of exit strategy. We have persevered in the conflicts that really matter to us, from the Boer War to the Balkan wars: the grab bag of more limited UN peace missions in the 1990s, as far-flung as they were, did not require Canadian perseverance.

Any discussion of a Canadian exit strategy for Afghanistan must take into account the reasons we are there in the first place, what we hope to accomplish given the current situation— which has evolved over the course of five years— and how we get there from here. All of this must be balanced against what resources Canada can bring to bear and how those resources

are balanced with other national requirements.

This is the essence of strategy.

Canada is al-Qaeda’s enemy. We stand for everything they hate, and they cannot be negotiated with—negotiations are neither acceptable nor desired, on either side. The war in Afghanistan is one of several conflicts that fit under the umbrella of the global war against the al-Qaeda movement, what is now referred to as “The Long War.” Afghanistan is but one front: in the Second World War there were operations in Europe, the Atlantic, Pacific, North Africa and so on, but Canada

committed mostly to the Atlantic and Europe. In this case, Canada has chosen to focus on Afghanistan and not Iraq, the Philippines, the Horn of Africa, nor the streets of Madrid or London.

Al-Qaeda sees Canada as an enemy, and Osama bin Laden himself has identified us as one of the major obstacles preventing the Taliban’s reacquisition of Afghanistan. Suggesting Canada won’t be targeted if we remain uninvolved is a view born of fear. In a war with such a strong psychological component, fear can be fatal—consider the way Spanish politics were manipulated by the Madrid bombings and their effect on Spain’s military commitments overseas. Would Canada have retreated from Afghanistan if the al-Qaeda network in Toronto had succeeded in its mission this summer?

Afghanistan is our first victory against the al-Qaeda movement, one with both practical and psychological aspects. Al-Qaeda can no longer use the country as a base, its planned operations were completely disrupted, and our insight into the movement increased exponentially. The psychological component had two parts. First, the enemy was shocked that we could pull this operation off: they were slaves to history and thought we would never come after them after the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. A senior al-Qaeda commander noted in his internal analy-

sis: “The Asian Corps suffers from the negative effects of sedition in Kabul that followed the conquest, the negative effects of disorganized evacuation and removal of the Arabs from the area, the negative effects of international pursuit of the Arabs in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the negative effects of the Islamic shock at what happened in Afghanistan after the conquest, and the severe collapse, psychologically and in terms of morale.”

Second, it was a significant morale boost for the West that was absolutely critical after the chaos of the 9/11 attacks. As the 9/11 commission so aptly demonstrated, the Clinton administration failed on numerous occasions, which in turn emboldened the al-Qaeda movement. As a senior al-Qaeda commander explained to his subordinates: “The Muslim victory in Somalia over the America [sic] has profound implications ideologically, politically and psychologically that will require lengthy studies. [It] confirmed the spurious nature of American power and that it has not recovered from the Vietnam complex. It fears getting bogged down in a real war.” As do some Canadians when it comes to Afghanistan.

Next to having the Taliban and al-Qaeda in power in Afghanistan, the worst outcome would have been a power vacuum that helped radical Islamist organizations back into Afghanistan and voided our victory there. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed this line of thought on her recent Canadian visit when she said: “If you allow that kind of vacuum, if you allow a failed state in that strategic a location, you’re going to pay for it.” At the same time, allowing heavily armed ethnic groups to battle it out yet again in Kabul as they did in 1992-96 would have produced the same effect. The

Taliban gained traction in the first place in 1996 specifically because of those conditions.

What, then, are the conditions for the withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force and, thus, Canadian military forces? In broad terms, Afghanistan has to be able to protect itself from external and internal threats to its security. Afghanistan must have viable civil institutions that can provide or facilitate the basic needs for its population. Reconciliation of grievances is also an important component of the program. There are, however, numerous obstacles to meeting these conditions in the near-term.

The kind of civil institutions that would handle the basic needs of people in any average small Canadian town are practically non-existent in most of Afghanistan. It is tempting to throw all of our resources into this (apparently nonviolent) activity. There is a mistaken belief, however, that building civil institutions is some-

how separate from building security institutions. Some think security should precede the building of civil institutions, while other critics think that only the latter ought to encompass the Canadian mission. The reality is that we need both. Canada and her allies are in fact shielding efforts to build Afghan institutions by using military forces.

At the same time, the cultural and historical challenges in the capacity-building areas are immense. Afghanistan is really a confederation that has not historically had strong central government from Kabul. Canada, through its Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul,

has assisted the Afghan government in formulating the Afghanistan National Development Strategy (ANDS), but some areas resent federal interference (just like some parts of Canada resented policies like the National Energy Program in the 1980s). Our counterinsurgency operations were and remain necessary to achieve a level of security in the country so that there could be International Monetary Fund “buy-in” to the ANDS. Canada was a major contributor to that process, and wielded influence we would otherwise not have had without our military forces in-theatre. The effort in Afghanistan is dependent on IMF resources because there is so much institutional, ecological and demographic damage from the Soviet, civil war, and Taliban periods. It is not a matter of reconstruction; it is a matter of construction.

Time in Afghanistan does not have the same meaning as it does in Canada. Cutting to the chase can be culturally counterproductive, as I discovered personally on numerous occasions. How one does business is


radically different because of the time factor. And linked to that is what we in Canada would call “corruption”: tribal favouritism, kickbacks, diversion of resources through acts of nepotism, influence peddling. I once pointed out some specific examples of this on one of my early trips to an Afghan friend who had spent time in Montreal. He admonished me about Canadian corruption in the sponsorship scandal! He went on at length

about Canadian motorcycle gangs and their efforts to subvert politicians. And cigarette smuggling on the Mohawk reserves.

Flooding southern Afghanistan with nongovernmental and aid organizations is also a double-edged sword. I once watched a Swedish woman (without a head scarf) harangue the Kandahar provincial shura on the issue of child marriages, demanding that it be stopped or aid would stop. I understood where she was coming from: I participated in a Village Medical Outreach operation in a remote area where Canadian and American medics had to treat a 12-year-old girl for severe rectal bleeding. She had been married the night before. But the NGO representative was completely ineffective in front of these elders, and insulted them. They left the room. Nothing was accomplished, and the incident created ill will, which had ramifications in other more important areas.

The dilemma revolves around the question of societal transformation. It is the Afghans’ country and we don’t want to tell them how to run it, but there are parts of that country that have defied modernity, and that interferes with the security mission. The enemy gains converts in the remote areas of the Pashtun south by telling the uneducated there that we are coming to destroy their lives and religion. When NGOs show up with modern technology and modern expectations, this can cause problems. We may be overdoing it in some areas, particularly in things like the “gender equality” programs favoured by elements in CIDA and Foreign Affairs. Everybody on the outside wants this all “fixed” now, right now.

We need the means to have gradual societal transformation that is not invasive. As a historian, I favour a Roman approach: roads and aqueducts. Water is basic to everything that happens in an arid region like southern Afghanistan, and we can’t go wrong by helping people get it and use it. Roads will open social and economic communication between the remote and built-up areas. The situation will evolve on its own as the rural areas adjust to the more modern cities. Those who want access to education should be able to get

it and not have their teachers beheaded. Remember, Canada can’t stop incidents like the Dawson College shooting, so we can’t reasonably expect a complete end of the violence in Afghanistan. (And just try to implement a gun registry.)

When it comes to the cities, there are two major problems. The enemy appeals to youth who have no skills and no jobs. Young men are provided with money, a motorcycle, an assault rifle and are promised excitement. To stave this off, pilot programs introduced by American forces in the province of Zabul included the construction of a trade school with American soldiers, many of them reservists, assisting in instruction. Basic tools are provided to the graduates, and with all of the construction going on there is plenty of work. Programs like this need to be more widespread in the south: they’re not invasive and will have positive benefits to stability. Of course, the problems of tribalism and nepotism in hiring will remain, which makes effective governance critical.

Effective governance starts in the cities and radiates outwards (another Roman attribute). Opportunists already occupy many key positions and their agenda has little or nothing to do with stability. It will be a slow and difficult task to build up a pool of effective administrators who can manage a provincial government. We are not there yet.

Nor are we imposing democracy in the more rural areas. We don’t need to: it already exists, but in a form that is unfamiliar to us. It is like ancient Greece in some respects. The local shuras and similar tribal, district, and regional councils are a form of participatory democracy. There is no need to interfere with this system, nor should we by linking aid and construction to political and gender equality change at the local level. That is a stick best not used at all.

Indeed, the gender equality issue and the

poppy eradication program pushed by the U.S. State Department and others is counterproductive to our counter-insurgency efforts. Both undermine support for the government in rural areas. The Taliban, for example, send in mullahs to convince the rural people that we are there to ruin their livelihoods and destroy their society. And if we push both of these programs too far, the Taliban will gain more recruits. This schizophrenia in the international community’s approach was the underlying current to the high levels of violence encountered by British forces in poppy-rich Helmand province this summer.

The most significant problem in the Afghan effort is the slow buildup of the Afghan national security forces. In any society, there should be a distinction between soldiers and policemen. Soldiers fight the enemy, police handle law and order by fighting crime. There is overlap and co-operation because the enemy uses crime to further his insurgent aims, but having the army use military force to police the population is not viable, nor is using police to combat armed and organized enemies.

The Afghan National Army has been slow to build up. There are many reasons for this: cultural and language barriers, disagreements over what model to follow (French? American? Indian?), and provision of weapons. Pay is a huge problem, which has spinoff effects on corruption. Then there is dependency on American air power as a solution when the situation on the ground deteriorates. Some units fight well, like 209 Corps soldiers did in the Zharey district of Kandahar over the summer. Others do not. Canada plays a small role in training the ANA, but the Canadian military training contingent punches well above its weight, and needs to be reinforced. We need to invest in this more. Our soldiers

are excellent trainers and need to accompany their Afghan counterparts on operations. Trust is everything.

The various Afghan police forces are a collective disaster. Underpaid, co-opted by the Taliban, used by provincial governors for their own purposes, under-equipped and undertrained, the police are or should be a key link between the government and the people. In one district I visited, the people feared the police more than the insurgents. An emergency police transformation program was implemented this summer with a Canadian general in the lead, but this will take some time to have an effect. The increase of RCMP trainers in Kandahar province from two to 10 is a good move, but more needs to be done to professionalize the police. And then one

needs a judicial system to go along with the police, an area that has been mishandled by Italy, which adopted that development pillar.

The ANA and the Afghan National Police should be Afghanistan’s shield against violence. When they reach the point where they can be, or when the Taliban see the futility of their struggle and reject al-Qaeda manipulation of their cause, we can reduce our military footprint. We can’t back off now. Challenging the enemy on all levels, on all fronts, is a

critical psychological component of this war and Canadians are doing just that.

Critics demand a time frame. We learned in the 1990s, however, that publicly setting a firm exit date was an invitation for violent forces to wait us out and start again. This occurred in Somalia, which led to a decade of inter-clan violence. The NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia lasted a year, and was relieved by the Stabilization Force (SFOR), which itself was supposed to last 18 months. NATO leaders recognized near the end of SFOR’s mandate in 1998 that the ethnic factions were merely biding their time for a second round of violence, and extended SFOR until 2005—until the conditions for ethnic violence no longer existed.

Afghanistan is, of course, a different and more complex problem. Any exit strategy will have to take into account the fact that violence is supported from areas in Pakistan, and Pakistan exhibits different and varying degrees of stability. At some point we may

have to expand operations into Balochistan, in conjunction with Pakistani counter-insurgency efforts, before the situation improves. The international effort to assist Afghanistan will last at least a decade, probably two. It is impossible to predict what levels of violence will be encountered during this period.

At this point, the enemy is trying to find ways to disrupt the international effort in Afghanistan. This takes many forms: a terrorist suicide bombing campaign is calculated to undermine international support for intervention, as well as erode the morale of the security forces. Guerrilla operations have attempted to seize ground and draw in Operation Enduring Freedom and ISAF forces to generate casualties. Taliban mullahs attempt to proselytize the rural villages in a politi-

cal/religious mobilization campaign. In the course of these operations, a certain skittishness has been generated among some NATO powers, who are reluctant to back up those allies who have been bleeding in Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces.

Some commentators are even using a Maoist insurgency model from the 1960s to make the argument that the enemy has shifted from terrorism to guerrilla operations, and is using more conventional techniques—that the enemy is succeeding, in other words, and we are losing. The reality is that the enemy uses these techniques in combination, not in a linear fashion, and we have, thus far, met them on each plane. And the enemy has been thwarted each time. The insurgents do not control the physical terrain, and we continue to challenge them on the psychological terrain both in the field in Afghanistan and in Canada.

A lack of perspective in Canada is a continuing problem. False analogies to the Soviet

period (and even Vietnam) even figure in parliamentary committee debate: “the Soviets and the British couldn’t succeed, therefore we can’t,” one MP told me. We are not trying to do what the Soviets were attempting, but let’s look at the numbers anyway. The Soviets killed two million Afghan civilians using indiscriminate firepower and socialist societal transformation techniques. Soviet losses from their illegal intervention in 1979 to their withdrawal in 1989, we now believe, were around 28,000 killed over 10 years, or 2,800 per year. NATO and OEF losses over a fiveyear period are around 500. We are not employing indiscriminate firepower, there are comparatively few civilian casualties, and we are there in support of a legitimate, elected government. There is no real comparison.


Many seek to use numbers of Canadian dead to make their case: Canadians are being killed, therefore we are losing. Some NATOmember contingents rarely leave their camps and take no casualties, but they have little or no effect on the war. Canadians are aggressive, use their initiative, and challenge the enemy in the villages and in the mountains. They take casualties on these operations and they generate a disproportionate number of enemy casualties and destroy scarce enemy resources (until they can be resupplied from their bases in Pakistan). Since security is a precondition for development, it’s more than fair to say the enemy is not succeeding in Afghanistan.

Canada will be walking out the front gate when we feel the job is done, not slink out some dark back window when the going gets rough. After the disasters at Hong Kong and Dieppe during the Second World War, it was difficult if not impossible to see victory three and four years later in 1945In the dark days of 1995, we never believed that peace could be achieved in Bosnia, yet in 2004 the situation was stable enough for Canada to withdraw. We are in a stronger position in Afghanistan against our enemies now than we were in the Balkans five years in, and during the first years of the Second World War: let’s not throw it away and say it was all in vain because of ignorance and fear. M

Sean Maloney teaches Contemporary Warfare at the Royal Military College, and is the author of Enduring the Freedom: A Rogue Historian in Afghanistan.