BULLETS FLY. OTTAWA DUCKS.
How Canada slipped into a war our leaders can’t— or won’t—explain
By now the image of a maple leafdraped coffin being loaded into the belly of a military transport plane at Kandahar airfield is fa-
miliar to any Canadian with a TV set. Troops line the tarmac at attention, except for the recently wounded, who sometimes weep in their wheelchairs. The grimmest day so far for the Canadians was Aug. 3, when three soldiers from Canada’s 2,000-plus contingent in Afghanistan were killed in a rocketpropelled grenade attack, and a fourth died when his armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Ten more Canadian soldiers were injured by Taliban insurgents that day. “We’ve got to be patient,” was the reaction of Brig.Gen David Fraser, the top Canadian officer in Afghanistan. “We’ve got to be determined to see this through as long as it takes.”
A commander in the field has little choice but to adopt a resolute tone when the news is so bad. And in wartime, a general making the case for staying the course might normally expect patriotic citizens back home to be inclined to agree. But recent polls suggest a majority of Canadians no longer support staying in Afghanistan, and misgivings about what it’s all about are entirely understandable. Determined to see this through for as long as what takes? How much sacrifice and to what end? Canada’s political and military leaders have done little to answer those fundamental questions about what is arguably the biggest test of Canadian military mettle and foreign policy savvy in a generation. Canada’s initial engagement in Afghanistan
back in 2002 was to be a brief post-9/ll mission, largely to help the Americans hunt terrorists. The second phase that began in 2003 was sold as something akin to a conventional peacekeeping assignment—and a politically palatable alternative to joining the coming U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even moving Canadian troops south from the relative safety of Kabul, the capital, to Kandahar, the main city in the Taliban’s volatile southern heartland, was being described by politicians and top officers only a few months ago as not really a combat mission. Take Fraser’s own media briefing on the Kandahar challenge back on Feb. 2. Pressed repeatedly to describe the sort of fighting he expected, the general deflected the questions onto safer ground. “My focus,” he insisted, “is not on combat.”
Although he allowed that Canadian soldiers would shoot if they needed to, he framed the mission in much softer terms: “It’s Foreign Affairs, it’s CIDA, it’s the RCMP, and it’s the [Afghan] national government agencies and international community working together.” But that sort of talk of a balanced effort in which the army supports the work of diplomats and aid workers soon began to sound like a fantasy. Instead, this spring and summer brought all but uninterrupted hard fighting, punctuated increasingly by suicide bomber attacks, as Canadian and other NATO forces, mainly American, British and Dutch, pressed into Taliban strongholds in an offensive called Operation Mountain Thrust.
Gen. Rick Hillier, the charismatic chief of defence staff, who is deeply committed to helping Afghanistan find its feet as a democracy, recently admitted the obvious: the Taliban resistance in the south has been stiffer this summer than anyone expected. But Lt.-Gen. David Richards, the British officer who now commands all NATO troops in Afghanistan, has been far blunter. He openly speaks of the possibility of the Taliban winning if NATO forces fail to push back the insurgents
sufficiently over the next few weeks, and unless ordinary Afghans see their own prosperity and security grow markedly better over the next three to five years. “If it doesn’t visibly improve soon,” Richards said, “people are going to say we’d rather have the certain security-albeit the rotten life that goes with it— of the Taliban than go on fighting forever.” Canadian military and political figures haven’t come close to that sort of bracing frankness. But Canadians seem to have figured out for themselves that Afghanistan could turn out to be a disaster: a Strategic Counsel poll this week found that 55 per cent opposed the military mission in Kandahar, up from 41 per cent in March. Reversing that trend might seem like an obvious step for Stephen Harper. Yet the Prime Minister hasn’t made ex-
‘We have no strategic planning on Afghanistan. But we may have just Stumbled into the right place.'
plaining Afghanistan to Canadians much of a priority, beyond his speech on a motion in the House last spring to extend the mission by two years to February 2009-a parliamentary ploy that looked more designed to expose a rift in the Liberal party on the issue than to spark serious debate.
But Afghanistan preoccupies Defence and Foreign Affairs strategists much more than that hurried and highly partisan parliamentary debate suggests. It has come to dominate the two main dimensions of Ottawa’s outlook on the world: managing our bilateral relationship with the U.S. and leveraging our position in multilateral organizations. On
one hand, Canadian boots on the ground in Afghanistan lend Ottawa much of whatever credibility it boasts in today’s terror-obsessed Washington. On the other, the growing UNsanctioned NATO role in Afghanistan makes this the key test for a new sort of muscular but benign multilateral intervention. Helping the sixth-poorest nation on earth, while preventing it from reverting to being an incubator for terrorism, might be worth it. “We have no strategic planning on Afghanistan,” says Rob Huebert, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. “But we may have just stumbled into the right place.”
A TOUGHER PLACE to work out a new way for Canada to play a part in global affairs is hard to imagine. Afghanistan is infamous for chewing up armies and spitting them out. Skeptical observers are inclined to draw a stark lesson from that history: it will never work. They have their pick of grisly old images to draw on to illustrate their point. The headless, mutilated body of William Macnaghten, the optimistic bureaucrat put in charge of the first British bid to take over Afghanistan, hanging at the gates to the Kabul market in 1841. (Macnaghten was killed after foolishly trying to double-cross insurgents at a meeting during a truce.) The British retreat
from Kabul that followed his death was a legendary fiasco, ending with a lone survivor of the withdrawal of 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers riding a dying horse into a British outpost fort. Despite that doleful experience, Britain invaded again in 1879, won the military campaign, but pulled out without making a real effort to rule the fractious country.
Britain’s influence in the region, though, remained potent as long as neighbouring India was part of its empire. In one of those consequential exercises in colonial map-making, the British drew a border called the Durand Line in 1893, which still divides Afghanistan from Pakistan. It cuts through the tribal lands of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, representing about 40 per cent of the
The Afghans were so war weary after a quaitBf*
century of killing the Russians and then each
Other that they were hungry for help
population today. Dividing the fiercely independent Pashtuns, who usually ruled Afghanistan, might have made sense to a shrewd foreign power, but that border has always been problematic. After the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, many Afghan Pashtuns fled across it to camps in the Pashtun territories of Pakistan. It was there that the Taliban emerged among refugee Pashtuns in 1994, fuelled by a toxic blend of puritanical Islam and the influence of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
The British period tends to be paired with the more recent Soviet chapter as two cautionary tales. Like the Brits before them, the
Russians found overrunning Afghanistan quite easy. Then the hard part started. In the face of the Soviet army, Afghan mujaheddeen fighters melted away into the hardscrabble countryside or Pakistan. But with U.S. and Saudi Arabian support, they never stopped fighting. At the peak of the Soviet campaign, Moscow poured 120,000 soldiers into Afghanistan—about three times the current U.S. and NATO troop strength in the country. The Russians spent an estimated US$45 billion in a futile effort to crush the resistance, and lost about 15,000 soldiers, before giving up and going home in 1989, leaving behind ancient orchards flattened to deny cover to insurgents and long stretches of the road system bombed or mined beyond use.
They also left a power vacuum that well-
armed factions fought each other to fill. The frighteningly fundamentalist Taliban came out on top by 1996, imposing the harshest Islamic law and denying women even the most basic rights. Only Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban government, but world disapproval didn’t amount to much until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Then the Taliban became a prime target for having allowed Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda to operate terror camps inside Afghanistan. Less than a month after the World Trade Center towers fell, the U.S. and Britain launched air strikes on Kabul. The Taliban were bombed out of power with deceptive ease, losing
control of their last stronghold—Kandahar, naturally—by early December.
But critics say George W. Bush’s White House squandered the early opportunity to pour in enough troops and money to turn Afghanistan around for good. Bush’s neocon foreign-policy thinkers didn’t believe in
the concept of nation-building in general, and they interpreted the Russian experience as proving that Afghans would resist any large foreign presence. So they tried to get by at first with a “light footprint” approach—a smallish force of 10,000 and an initial Afghanistan reconstruction budget request of just US$500 million. “History sometimes provides poor analogies,” says James Dobbins, Bush’s first special envoy to Afghanistan. “The U.S. administration’s policy back in 2001-02 was definitely influenced by popular conceptions of what happened to the Russians, and even the British. The feeling was that the Afghans were notoriouslyxenophobic, and therefore
one had to commit the minimum resources and avoid exacerbating resistance.”
Dobbins argues that, in fact, the Afghans were so war-weary after a quarter-century of killing the Russians and then each other that they were hungry for intervention. “Polling showed that Afghans welcomed an interna-
tional presence, were really tired of civil war, and prepared to do almost anything to prevent its resumption,” he says. The early flow of aid money was a trickle by the standards of recent nation-building efforts in failed states: annual assistance spending in Afghanistan during the first two years of international intervention totalled just US$57 per person, compared with US$206 in Iraq, US$526 in East Timor, and US$679 in Bosnia. Those figures come from research spearheaded by Dobbins at the RAND Corp., the foreign-policy think tank where he is now an analyst. He focuses on the most politically telling contrast to show how the Afghan effort was shortchanged: “Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, it’s poorer than Iraq, it’s more heavily damaged by war than Iraq.”
The Bush administration has since realized that stabilizing Afghanistan will take much more. The U.S. now has about 20,000
troops in the country, and Bush’s 2006 budget earmarked US$1.1 billion for Afghan development spending. But it took more than four years after the fall of the Taliban for large numbers of coalition troops to make their presence felt deep in the Taliban’s home turf, while development efforts in that dangerous
southern zone have been spotty at best. Even the widespread reopening of schools—which had been touted as a major success of the post-Taliban era—is threatened. In the past 12 months, 208 schools have been closed after emboldened Taliban insurgents burned 144 more and killed 41 teachers and students.
Larry Goodson, professor at the U.S. Army
War College and author of Afghanistan’s Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban, worries that a historic chance to make a decisive break in Afghanistan’s violent history has been missed. “The window of opportunity has been closing,” Goodson says, “and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
IF WASHINGTON took too long to grasp what Afghanistan demanded, Ottawa hardly stands as a beacon of early insight. From the outset, federal politicians have either grossly underestimated what Canada was getting into— or lacked the courage to be candid in their statements. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien dispatched a battalion of ground troops and Joint Task Force 2 commandos to Afghanistan in early 2002 as part of the U.S.-led invasion. But the Taliban had already fallen in late 2001, so it looked more like a mopping-up mission than the beginning of a long, tough peacemaking exercise. Liberal defence minister Art Eggleton said the deployment might last just a couple of months, and certainly wouldn’t grow to rival “the kind of long mission” Canada undertook
in splintered Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
In hindsight, his prognosis looks dead wrong: Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan, in which 26 troops and one diplomat have died so far, has made the 14-year Balkan experience, which claimed no Canadian lives in combat, look mild by comparison. Back in early 2002, however, Eggleton’s view of Afghanistan as a limited challenge seemed reasonable. By that spring, the government announced its 750 regular soldiers would be pulled out by August, leaving only JTF2 to help U.S. forces strike alQaeda and Taliban remnants. At that point,
the only Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan were the four who died when a U.S. pilot mistakenly bombed them during a night training exercise.
Still, behind the scenes, top military planners were worried from the outset about what Canada had gotten itself into. “My concern— indeed, it’s fair to say the collective military concern—was that if we get involved here, this is a long-term issue,” recalls Lt.-Gen. Mike Jeffery, now retired, who was head of the Canadian army at the time. “The history of the region is that this is not an area you are going to get out of quickly or easily.” The Americans didn’t seem to view Afghanistan’s quagmire potential with the same misgivings. Hunting al-Qaeda and the Taliban was the U.S. priority, not worrying about how long it would take to secure Afghanistan’s lasting stability. “Fundamentally, they were chasing bad guys,” Jeffery says. “At that stage of the game it was not about nation-building.”
Marvin Weinbaum, an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst for the U.S. State Department from 1999 to 2003, now scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington, agrees: “There should have been more concern about how we head off insurgency and less concern about terrorism.” But in the White House, the fragile new Kabul government was viewed in those early days not as a vulnerable work-in-progress, but as a mission accomplished. By the summer of 2002, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was calling Afghanistan “a breathtaking accomplishment” that served as “a successful model for what could happen to Iraq if individuals were liberated.”
Of course, Iraq was fast emerging to overshadow Afghanistan. In Ottawa, the prospect of being drawn into Bush’s “coalition of the willing” worried Chrétien’s government. Turning the U.S. down was bound to cause a riff between the two countries, but Canada might salvage some respectability in Washington by renewing involvement in that other front in the war on terror, Afghanistan, which looked like a far less dangerous option. Toronto-area MP John McCallum, who was then Chrétien’s defence minister, remembers tension between the government and top Canadian Forces officers over this calculated trade-off. “They wanted to go into Iraq,” McCallum says. “The military leadership of the day wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about Afghanistan.”
Despite that resistance, McCallum announced on Feb. 12,2003, that Canada was sending a contingent of more than 1,000 soldiers to bolster the NATO force in Kabul. He saw the potential to both support the U.S. and stay within the bounds of the Canadian peacekeeping tradition. “It was more in the nature of peacekeeping, not so much peace-
making,” he says of the mission. “I was convinced that we were there at the invitation of the Afghan government, with the acquiescence of the vast majority of the Afghan people.” Canadian officials were talking up what they called the 3-D approach: the blending of defence, development and diplomacy. It didn’t sound much like warfare.
If the Liberals’ hope to do good in Afghanistan was genuine, heading back into the country was more immediately motivated by the desire to avoid sending forces to
help topple Saddam. In a speech soon after announcing the mission, McCallum’s pointed message was that this would be Canada’s military contribution to the war on terrorism— and Washington knew better than to ask for more. “The Afghanistan mission is right for Canada,” he said. “Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld welcomed the initiative. Mr. Rumsfeld, I might add, is fully cognizant of the fact that this mission limits the deployment of Canadian land forces to other parts of the world for well over a year.”
Returning to Afghanistan during the buildup to the Iraq war didn’t sit well with key Canadian military strategists. Some saw Canada’s proper place as squarely inside a coalition dominated by our traditional allies, the U.S. and Britain. Maj.-Gen Cameron Ross, who was director general of international security policy at the Department of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa, quit in June 2003, reportedly over the redeployment decision.
Canada did not march into Afghanistan with a clear vision of the long hard task at hand
But a least a few senior officers approved of the call—and McCallum remembers that a rising-star general from Newfoundland, Rick Hillier, was among them. He was promoted to commander of the army that spring, and a few months later he took over as commander of die NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. For the forcefully outspoken soldier who was to be named chief of defence staff in early 2005, serving in Afghanistan seems to have left a deep personal and professional impression. He emerged as
a driving force behind Canada’s sustained Afghan commitment.
In an interview with Maclean’s after taking over as Canada’s top general, Hillier explained where Afghanistan fit in his vision for the military. Earlier, he had commanded NATO’s forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He described how Canadian forces were at times scattered in various corners of the former Yugoslavia. That presence was too diffuse to earn Canada the “influential seat at the table” that Hillier felt was deserved. “We can do better,” he concluded. “We can offer our government more options to pile on in such a way that we get the profile and we get the credit for it.”
By piling on, Hillier meant deploying troops in large enough groups to be noticed. As well, he emphasized the need for a “whole-government approach,” bringing diplomacy and development assistance into close coordination with plenty of men and women in uniform. Afghanistan has been Hillier’s chance
to put that formula—a substantial, multifaceted effort—into action. But the country clearly represents more to him than a strategic opportunity. Hillier came back from his stint in Kabul talking emotionally about the people he had met. “Once they decided that you weren’t there to invade or control Afghanistan, they quite literally and physically wrapped their arms around you,” Hillier said. “You had to experience their version of friendship to understand it. I experienced it from normal people we met right through
to President Hamid Karzai himself, and ineluding many of the warlords.”
In fact, the warlords, so often seen as an obstacle to peace, earned Hillier’s most effusive praise. “Those who had survived 23,24 years of all-out warfare were incredibly capable soldiers,” he said. “All of them had a part to play
in liberating their country, one way or another. Afterwards, when there was no solid government in place, there were some rivalries, and of course some of them got involved in the drug trade.” Still, Hillier saw more good in the l°cai strongmen than others might. “Many of these folks were incredible leaders. Many of them had one goal, and that was a stronger Afghanistan. Others went into
the drug trade, but in many cases from insecurity, because they didn’t know what their position was going to be in a future Afghanistan. Some of them became very close friends.” There is a blend of realism and romanticization in Hillier’s take on Afghanistan. The mission there offers a chance to test his theory that Canada can win a seat at the grown-ups’ table in world affairs—and an opportunity to help people whose historic plight and national character touched him. After he took over the Forces, it was perhaps inevitable that Canada’s role in Afghanistan would expand. In May 2005, Paul Martin, who as prime minister had promoted Hillier a few months before, decided to send Canadian troops to Kandahar, a far more dangerous base than Kabul had been. Hillier talked tough. “These are detestable murderers and scumbags,” he said of the Taliban elements his troops were bound to encounter. His political boss agreed. Bill Graham, Martin’s defence minister, embarked on what some called a “pre-bodybag” speaking tour last fall, trying to brace the public for the inevitable casualties.
THE SHIFT of Canadian operations south from Kabul happened in stages. A so-called provincial reconstruction team, combining soldiers, development advisers and Foreign Affairs officers, arrived in Kandahar in fall 2005. But the bulk of the troops, including a battle group, wouldn’t follow until after the Jan. 23, 2006, election that brought Harper’s Conservatives to power. With their traditional pro-military bent, some might have expected the Tories to be upfront about the army’s fighting role. Instead, their tone was more guarded than Graham’s had been only a few months before.
Gordon O’Connor, the retired general Harper named defence minister, played down
the likelihood of combat. In an interview, he said rather vaguely that the Canadian task force in Kandahar was there “to provide a security environment.” What about fighting the Taliban? “Our role is not to conduct combat operations,” O’Connor stressed, although there might be some “rooting out of insurgents.” But of course combat would turn out to be the main job. Canadian troops in Kandahar had little choice. Convoys were subjected to suicide bombings and roadside explosions; a young reservist was attacked with an axe as he sat talking with village elders. Harper used adversity as a rallying point in a surprise March trip to Kandahar. “Cutting and running is not my way,” he told about 1,000 troops there, “and it’s not the Canadian way.” In the weeks and months after his visit, the fighting intensified. In April, four Canadians were killed when their G-Wagon, a sort of armoured jeep, struck an improvised explosive device north of Kandahar city. In May, Capt. Nichola Goddard of Shilo, Man., died in a fierce firelight with Taliban forces, the first female member of the Canadian military
killed in combat since the Second World War. In June, the U.S.-led coalition launched its most aggressive push since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. About 10,000 troops, including 500 to 1,000 Canadians, mounted Operation Mountain Thrust, a long-planned summer bid to expand their presence. Insurgents fought long battles to try to hold what had been safe havens. That surprised experts on Taliban tactics like Goodson, and Canadian soldiers who had been told to expect a more elusive enemy. “That is a change of tactic by the Taliban,” said one Canadian officer of the drawn-out firefights. “But they are often losing by such large numbers that it is often bewildering to our planners.”
But inflicting pain on the Taliban has resonated far less back home than news of young Canadian lives lost. Poignant stories that came out after the death of Cpl. Anthony Boneca seemed to bring the uncertainty about just what we were fighting for in Afghanistan to the surface. Before he was killed in a firefight, Boneca reportedly told friends back home that he felt unprepared to wage a counter-insurgency campaign, and unclear about why Canada was in the fray. But the 21-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont., reservist’s grieving father stressed that his son had loved being in the Forces and was proud to make a difference in the lives of Afghanistan’s poor people, especially the children.
HARPER MIGHT SAY that he answered those questions in his May 17 speech in the House. He cast the mission mainly as a matter of preventing Afghanistan from lapsing back into being a terrorist haven. “We just cannot sit back,” he said, “and let the Taliban backed by al-Qaeda or other extremist elements re-
Both versions of his state of mind rang true. It’s not so different from the conflicting feelings of Canadians far removed from the combat zone—proud that their country is contributing, but shocked by how hard the task has turned out to be, and foggy on exactly what Canada expects to accomplish.
Afghanistan is a potential detonator in a volatile neighbourhood that includes nuclear-arms-aspiring Iran
turn to power.” He linked strengthening democracy and human rights and reducing poverty in Afghanistan to making “the free world safe from the threat of terrorism.” But given Afghanistan’s deep poverty and ethnic divisions, how long should Canadians expect to go on sacrificing lives and spending many millions? Harper said only that “there are no quick fixes.” At least one senior Canadian officer, though, has suggested a time frame. “Afghanistan is a 20-year venture,” Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie declared last summer, arguing that Canada had to help free the country from the grip of “warlords and tribalism.” Leslie’s words generated a few news stories, but should have commanded much more attention. His is a highly educated guess. He was decorated for service under fire in Bosnia, the closest experience Canadians have to the sort of tough nation-building Afghanistan needs. He also led Canadian forces based in Kabul in 2003, and was recently named head of our land forces. Hillier has also mused about at least a 10-year stay, although he didn’t specify if he meant Canadian troops, perhaps meaning that more generally NATO or other outside forces would have to remain.
Harper was prompted by Hillier’s remark to issue a public reminder that elected politicians, not uniformed officers, decide when a Canadian military mission will end. True enough. But the Prime Minister has barely hinted at what signs of progress toward security in Afghanistan would indicate that Canada’s army is no longer needed. That seems to violate Department of National Defence policy, which states that before sending troops into any failing country, the gov-
ernment should have a clear “exit strategy” or define the “end-state” conditions that signal mission accomplished. Senator Colin Kenny, chairman of the Senate national security and defence committee, has pressed for such clarity, first from the Liberals and now the Conservatives. “The committee is very critical of the government,” Kenny says, “for not describing what it expects to achieve.”
Demanding that the government lay out a clear blueprint for extricating Canada from Afghanistan, though, may not be quite fair. This line of criticism is, in a sense, the parallel of the U.S. debate over an exit strategy for Iraq. But the situations are hardly the same. Canada is merely a substantial contributor to a NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, not the dominant player calling the shots, as the U.S. clearly is—or aims to be—in Iraq. Thus, Canada can’t realistically hope its policy will be the deciding factor in the outcome. At most, Canada’s actions and arguments might help steel NATO’s collective will to stay on—or start a rush to the exit doors.
In fact, Afghanistan is turning into a defining post-Cold War test of the alliance. Established 57 years ago to confront the Soviet
threat, NATO has been tasked to fight a land war for the first time in Afghanistan. While the U.S. led the ousting of the Taliban, NATO has gradually taken on a bigger role, doubling its troop strength recently to 18,000 from roughly 9,000. The alliance now commands troops in Afghanistan’s north, west and south, and is expected to take over from the U.S. in the east later this year. How long Canada will remain a core part of the NATO contingent, though, is unclear. On a recent
visit to Ottawa, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer suggested “other allies will step up and say ‘we’ll take over’ ” when Canada’s current commitment runs out in 2009.
By then, Canada might well be ready for a break. Or perhaps Ottawa and the military will want to maintain a sizable presence—the price of that “seat at the table” coveted by Hillier. The Afghanistan experience has brought to the fore the possibility of serious NATO reform, aimed at making the alliance more flexible in deploying troops beyond Europe. Hillier has called for a “true and radical transformation” of NATO, as the 26 member countries prepare for a November summit in Riga, Latvia. Ranking with the British and Dutch as the most active NATO contributors in Afghanistan, aside from the separate U.S. force, could give Canada’s voice unprecedented weight at that meeting. “For the first time since the end of the Cold War,” says Huebert, “Canada is playing for real stakes.”
Although the challenge in Afghanistan is often seen mainly in military terms, the development challenge might turn out to be at least as important. Senior Canadian officers,
including Hillier and Fraser, stress the need to restore the country’s war-ravaged economy. The notion in 2003 was that development, defence and diplomacy would be harnessed together as never before. The innovative new vehicle for this combined action was to be the provincial reconstruction teams, units from several countries that combined aid experts, foreign affairs specialists, and the troops that would keep them safe. But the PRTs have gotten at best mixed reviews—doubts that extend well beyond Canada’s team in Kandahar. “We’ve had marginal success with our PRTs on the development side,” according to Weinbaum, who says the dangers of doing development work in Afghanistan tend to turn the units into “Fort Apaches” where staff hunker down in heavily guarded compounds and don’t interact enough with the people they are supposed to be helping.
But finding a way to push aid through to ordinary, impoverished Afghans is as important as pushing back the Taliban. Nongovernmental aid workers are unable to work in the most violent parts of the country. CIDA pours much of Ottawa’s $100-million-a-year Afghanistan development budget through the UN and World Bank to Afghan government agencies, arguing it doesn’t need many Canadians on the ground (the lone CIDA staffer attached to the Kandahar PRT was slated to be joined by two more by this summer). Assessing how much good is being accomplished from half a world away is always difficult. Kenny complains that CIDA is mak-
ing it hard in the case of Afghanistan, refusing to provide his Senate committee with detailed reports on how its big budget is being spent. “Nothing CIDA has given my committee gives us any confidence,” he says, “that aid is going through in a way that assures us that local Afghan people will associate guys with Canadian insignia on their shoulders with their lives improving.”
A senior CIDA official defended the federal agency’s work to date. But he also said CIDA is re-targeting its Afghan spending, partly to concentrate resources on Kandahar to back up the Canadian forces there. One interesting CIDA-funded project aims to find alternatives to illicit poppy growing. Feeling the heat, CIDA is also aiming to show Afghans immediate benefits. “We are taking an approach that some people call quick-impact projects,” said the official, citing road-building
that not only creates highly visible new infrastructure, but also pays local Afghans badly needed cash for construction labour.
How efficiently assistance can be turned into measurable progress in winning over Afghan hearts and minds is open to question. Richards, the British NATO commander, recently blamed corrupt local officials, unscrupulous private security firms, and clashes among foreign agencies for bringing the country “close to anarchy.” The U.S. ambassador in Kabul, Ronald Neumann, has remarked that Afghanistan’s problems stem more from its weak government than from any real insurgent strength. But even a nearly anarchic,
weakly governed country can only improve when the baseline is so low—the UN ranks Afghanistan 173rd out of 178 countries in terms of development. Fuelled by billions in aid, the Afghan economy has been growing at 25 per cent a year since the Taliban fell.
But what’s happening inside Afghanistan is only part of the story. Taliban fighters often operate from across the border in Pakistan’s all-but-ungoverned tribal regions. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has claimed Pakistan isn’t doing enough to crack down. Outside observers doubt the Taliban will lose its ability to run and regroup in those neighbouring Pashtun areas anytime soon. “I don’t think there is going to be any appreciable change in Pakistan,” says Weinbaum. Indeed, the old problem of those border regions is a key reason even some of those who plead Afghanistan’s case most powerfully don’t rule out the possibility that one day—like the Russians and the British—the U.S. and NATO will give up. “There’s a legitimate question,” says Dobbins, “as to whether a country as large, as fragmented, as backward, as porous, and as traditionally combative as Afghanistan, can effectively be controlled by anybody, including any Afghan regime.”
Canada did not march into Afghanistan with a clear vision of the long, hard task at hand. Yet what started as a limited commitment after 9/11, and was renewed on a larger scale before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, has matured into Canada’s calling card in a changing NATO. It is what engages Canadians most directly in the debate over how to contain Islam’s most radical elements in a region that stretches from Iran to Algeria. And the latest terrorist arrests in Britain, which have been directly linked to Islamist groups in Pakistan, bring the menace uncomfortably close to home. Afghanistan is a potential detonator in a volatile neighbourhood that includes nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, and nuclear-arms-aspiring Iran. “If Afghanistan goes, the whole region is in jeopardy. The Iranians will move in, the Pakistanis will move in,” says Weinbaum. “I don’t see any way the U.S. can get out of there.”
Canadians may find consolation in thinking that the deaths of young soldiers add up to the price of continuing a proud history of helping out in the world. And so it is. But the duration of the NATO and U.S. stays in Afghanistan, and the pressure for Canada to keep sacrificing those lives and spending millions, may depend more on geopolitics than generosity. In the end, Canada might even stick it out in Afghanistan long enough for Canadians back home to gradually learn to understand the place a little-even if their politicians never do get around to making much effort to explain exactly what’s going on. M