Big trouble with the neighbours
Helping Afghanistan is just part of our job. In the fight against the Taliban, it’s Pakistan that matters.
SEAN M. MALONEY
“So how do you
“How would you feel if Afghanistan invaded Canada?” he countered.
“We’re not invading: we are here at the invitation and in support of the legitimately elected government of Afghanistan. You’re a Taliban,” I shot back. “The Taliban were a
feel about killing Canadians?” I asked the former Taliban commander for the Panjwayi district, a man who was in the process of changing sides.
creation of the Pakistani government back in 1996 to control Afghanistan. How do you feel about serving the interests of another country against your own people?”
Mullah Ibrahim, a man suspected of leading the cell that killed Canadian diplomat
Glyn Berry, thought for a moment as a C-130 Hercules roared off from the Kandahar airfield. “You realize the CIA created the Taliban. It’s all an American conspiracy.” “No,” I corrected him. “The Pakistani InterServices Intelligence organization created the Taliban. You were probably trained by the ISI who pretended they had the sanction of somebody else.” I could tell from the look on his face that I had hit a nerve. Earlier he admitted he had been trained by Pakistani intelligence personnel. We talked about the Soviet period and war-fighting methodologies for a while: after all, I’m a military historian and interested in such things. He grew increas-
ingly troubled through the evening. Eventually, Mullah Ibrahim looked at me and said, with some pain in his eyes, “Doctor Sean, on some reflection, you are correct. The ISI is a
state within a state and does what it wishes, What it does is no longer good for Afghanistan.”
The defection of a Taliban commander and his public declaration thanking “God first, and Canada second for saving my life,” is just one of many events here that Canadians might not have expected. In July 2006, they were treated to extensive television footage of their soldiers engaged in combat with the Taliban at the Battle of Pashmul. It’s the sort of action Canadians typically see only on the History Channel, with its grainy black-and-white images of their great-grandfathers and grandfathers fighting at Vimy or in Normandy. Though most of the recent news about Canadians in Afghanistan has come when a soldier is killed or wounded in a suicide or improvised explosive device (IED) attack, this time Canada was able to take the fight to the enemy—and beat them at their own game.
The terrain in Zharey district rivals that of the Normandy bocage country: sun-hardened mud fortresses surrounded by rows and rows of trenches filled with grapevines, nar-
row roads, and concealed irrigation systems, It’s ideal defensive terrain. Canada’s soldiers in their sweat-stained, brown-motded camouflage uniforms manouevred through the com-
pounds in 50-degree heat, while the eightwheel Canadian-built LAV III armoured vehi-
des poured fire from their 25-mm guns onto enemy positions. At night things shifted from mud brown to night-vision green as we saw Taliban carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles get mowed down or killed by snipers before they could move in and hurt our people. Canadian artillery thundered to cut off and destroy the escaping enemy. Little was left to chance: troops knew the enemy had depopulated the area
WEAPONS GETTING INTO THE WRONG HANDS
so there was little fear of civilian casualties.
Acts of valour proliferated: medics shielded the wounded, the infantry conducted perilous, close-quarter battle, gunners called in air strikes in “danger close” proximity. Transport drivers took vulnerable lumbering supply trucks through enemy-controlled areas. It was a long, hot summer. And the Canadian people were surprised: their supposedly hedonistic Gen Y “Millennial” twentysomethings, led by cynical GenX “Slacker” thirtysomethings, can fight and fight well.
Yet, at the same time, there are those who question Canada’s role in Afghanistan. In effect, there is a clash of views. One is that Canada is a “peacekeeping nation,” a “moral superpower,” and that UN supremacy should be the dominant expression of Canadian foreign policy. In this world view, Canada should focus on saving Africa from the depredations of 19th-century European colonialism and not get involved in morally suspect regions like southwest Asia and the Arabian Gulf basin, which are an “American” preserve. Afghanistan is “an American war” and we should have our people killed only in the service of the UN, not in American or NATO-led operations. This “UN versus United States” view plays well among those with an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the Americans, and is a holdover from the 1970s Trudeau era when it was fostered by the government of the day.
But there is another, newer view. Canada does not need to choose between the U.S. and the UN. Canada has interests independent from but overlapping with other Western powers that are global in nature and are threatened by a totalitarian ideology, as they
were during the Second World War by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, and during the Cold War by Soviet Communism. In those conflicts, and in the Balkans during the 1990s, Canada deployed military forces overseas to confront or contain violence that could threaten Canada and her allies. Our society is based on free markets and individual liberty. Radical Islam is the latest variant of a mindset that seeks to destroy the individual and subordinate it to the state or, in this case, it is a twisted variant of Islam used as a tool for control by charismatic leaders who view our political, economic and social system as an obstacle to their designs.
The global al-Qaeda movement is at war with Canada. We are mentioned by their prime leader as an enemy; our people were murdered by al-Qaeda in the 9/11 attacks; al-Qaeda cells plot the murder of our democratically elected officials; they murder our soldiers in Afghanistan through their proxies. In this war, like the others in the
past, there are several fronts. Afghanistan is one of them, but military forces from several coalitions fight the al-Qaeda movement in the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Iraq, the Horn of Africa. Canada chose, in 2001, to engage the movement and its proxies in Afghanistan. And this is the root of why we are there today.
Canadians need to understand what we have been doing in Afghanistan and why it matters. From 1996 to 2001, al-Qaeda used its relationship with the Taliban to establish base areas from which their global jihad would operate. They never believed that the West would storm this rugged citadel, and believed that the track record of failure in previous attempts to control Afghanistan would serve as a deterrent. They were wrong. The coalition effort, Operation Enduring Freedom, destroyed the Taliban government shielding al-Qaeda and ripped out the terrorist infrastructure. The Taliban, who were imposed on the Afghan people and were supported by previous Pakistani governments, fled to the south while both al-Qaeda and other Taliban decamped to Pakistan. It was the first major success against the al-Qaeda movement. We must not forget that Canada deployed forces to fight in that phase of the operation.
One does not walk away from a victory-one consolidates it. We walked away from victory after the First World War and the result was Nazi Germany in the 1930s. We stayed in Germany in 1945 to ensure that the totalitarian state was destroyed and the German nation transformed. The same principle holds true for Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda could not be allowed to come back in, nor could various armed groups be allowed to precipitate a civil war, as they had in 1993,
which led to the intervention of the Taliban in 1996 in the first place.
The international effort shifted to stabilization operations: Canada deployed with military forces and helped ensure the security of the first legitimate country-wide elections, which brought the Karzai government to power in 2004Several Canadians were killed as part of the effort to disrupt terrorist cells. By 2005, however, the enemy ramped up a campaign to disrupt the reconstruction effort. Operating from Pakistan and emboldened by al-Qaeda successes in Iraq, enemy forces made more and more forays into the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabol and Oruzgan. The south became an area of prime concern to the Afghan government. The requirement for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Kabul waned, and in a reassessment of strategy, Canada chose to commit to the coalition effort in the critical Kandahar province in the south. Working alongside American forces, Canada deployed special operations forces and a provincial reconstruction team, or PRT. In essence, special operations forces hunt the enemy, while the PRT helps the provincial government learn to govern and coordinates assistance programs.
Together, “hunting” operations and “building” operations counter the Taliban’s attempts to coerce the Afghan people in the province to join their cause. You can’t have one without the other. In time, Canada committed to lead a multinational brigade in Kandahar and to send an infantry battalion in 2006, in part because the Afghan government has been slow to build up its army and police.
Yusuf Zoi is a respected member of the Afghan security forces. I’ve known him for several years, and he knows well the main problems in Kandahar. “The army is still being built, and our police are corrupt: this happens when they haven’t been paid in months,”
he says. “Without police there is no security. The enemy exploits this. At the same time, they come across the border from Pakistan. Weapons flow across, including the rockets fired at your camp. There is now a rumour going around amongst the people that the Americans created the Taliban! Why? They reason that because America is a powerful country, it can remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but cannot remove them from Quetta [the Pakistani city where the Taliban leadership is based]. They must therefore control them! It is insane!”
To succeed, any insurgency needs several things. The enemy needs a fighting force and needs the ability to transition from acts of urban terrorism to engaging our forces with guerrilla operations and holding “liberated” areas. It needs a means of paying for the in-
THE COALITION CAN’T GET AT THE TALIBAN NETWORK IN PAKISTAN
surgency, and it needs a safe area to operate from. It also needs a parallel government to challenge the existing government at the local level. A global information campaign is necessary to convince others of the legitimacy of the cause. Finally, the insurgency needs the support of the people in the target area.
The insurgency in southern Afghanistan has some but not all of these elements. The Taliban has a fighting force, funds from alQaeda and sympathizers. It has a global information campaign on the Internet. It is working on parallel government structures. It has base areas inside Pakistan. But the insurgency lacks one critical element: broad support from the Afghan people. Canadian efforts in Afghanistan are designed specifically to deny this, particularly through the reconstruction teams. Coalition military efforts disrupt Taliban military and political activity and as a result the enemy resorts to suicide and IED attacks that kill more civilians than Canadian troops. Bombings that hurt the Afghan people do nothing to win them over to the Taliban side.
The problem is that the enemy can generate carnage in southern Afghanistan to convince the Canadian people to pressure our government to pull out: this is where Canadian media need to beware of being used as Taliban propaganda outlets. Canada and the coalition can hold the line in the south, but cannot get at the Taliban support network in Pakistan. That support network has a steady supply of weapons, jihadists, and suicide bombers ready to go in and kill our people to get us to quit. A senior British officer I know was disciplined for daring to identify this problem publicly, yet all of us who study insurgency know that outside support networks will have to be destroyed if we are to achieve peace in southern Afghanistan.
Long before 9/11 and prior to the Musharraf coup in 1999, Pakistan was an insurgent
incubator. The government, through the ISI, supported numerous anti-Indian groups in Kashmir for decades, while Arab nations funded Pakistani groups to “cleanse” the country of Iranian-backed Shias after 1979Pakistan, with Western and Arab support, backed over 20 anti-Soviet groups in the 1980s. Al-Qaeda’s predecessor organization, the Afghan Services Bureau, had offices in Peshawar. At the same time, Pakistan has to contend with tribaland ethnic-based insurgencies in Balochistan, the North-West Frontier, and Waziristan, provinces which border Afghanistan and are heavily infiltrated by al-Qaeda sympathizers. The Musharraf government does not exert control over these areas, and the situation is compounded by the fact that elements within Pakistan’s security apparatus continue to actively support a variety of insurgent groups. As Afghan analyst Musa Khan Jalalzai has written, “By supporting the jihadist cause, Pakistan has weakened its own stability. Many of the Islamists want a new regime in Islamabad.”
This is a dangerous state of affairs, made
even more frightening by the fact that Pakistan has a nuclear arsenal of between 55 and 90 weapons, not to mention that A.Q. Khan, the “Pakistani Oppenheimer,” was engaged in supplying nuclear weapons technologies to rogue regimes—and had connections to the Taliban and other radical Islamists. As a 2003 U.S. government study noted, “Concerns about onward proliferation and fears that Pakistan could become destabilized by the U.S.-led anti-terrorism war efforts in Afghanistan have heightened U.S. attention to [weapons of mass destruction] proliferation in South Asia.” Canada is not immune and has an interest in ensuring that the Musharraf government doesn’t collapse, and the nuclear weapons don’t get into the wrong (radical Islamist) hands: an American intelligence officer told me that al-Qaeda was “a gunshot away” from this possibility. Osama bin Laden himself has said that these weapons will be used against Western targets.
Another American 2005 study notes, “policy analysts consider the apparent arms race between India and Pakistan as posing perhaps the most likely prospect for the future use of nuclear weapons by states.” The prospect of pre-emptive Indian action in the event of a loss of control over Pakistani nuclear weapons remains very real. It is not in Canada’s best interests to play the ostrich in South Asia and pretend that Africa is somehow a more vital region in which to deploy our limited diplomatic, aid, and military resources.
On a less apocalyptic note, continuing operations in Kandahar may be the price we all—Britain, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and the United States—have to pay for continued Pakistani co-operation in countering plots like the recent plan by British Pakistanis to destroy civilian airliners over the Atlantic Ocean. Musa Khan Jalalzai notes that “without Pakistan’s assistance, the U.S. will not be able to make much headway in nabbing the wanted al-Qaeda suspects.” American analyst C. Christine Fair elaborates: “Questions remain about the nature and depth of support that al-Qaeda enjoys among the Pakistani army and 1ST Reports of arrests of army officers linked to al-Qaeda are both comforting... but also disturbing in that such assistance is occurring at all.”
Until we figure out a strategy for assisting Pakistan in containing radical Islamic groups, and gaining control of the border areas, Canada and her allies will continue to hold the line in southern Afghanistan. M
Sean Maloney teaches Contemporary Warfare at Royal Military College and is the author of Enduring the Freedom: A Rogue Historian in Afghanistan.