Canada needs to adjust its goals in Afghanistan
Hindsight is always 20/20.
It’s in this sense that the sharp vision of Michael Scheuer, the author of In Our Enemies’ Eyes should be very much appreciated, even if his observations have come four years too late to make the important difference.
According to Sheuer, Canada and NATO have devoted too few forces to the war in Afghanistan, underequipped them, and given them too many tasks to accomplish.
"They (the soldiers) have to keep Karzai's government in power, they have to defeat the Taliban insurgency, they have to reconstruct the economy, they're supposed to build a democracy, they're assigned to eradicate the heroin industry, and in their spare time they can go after bin Laden,” Scheuer notes.
It’s fair comment.
Sheuer has a very strong point when he refers to what he describes as the lack of focus in the Afghanistan mission (though it may better be described as “overburdening”).
What eventually occurs is a further complication of the Afghanistan mission. Even if the Canadian public could be coaxed into a greater level of support for the mission, we as Canadians still need to continue to define what the mission in Afghanistan is going to be. In that sense, we need to address what our responsibilities in Afghanistan are, what our needs are, and what we are capable of accomplishing.
Expecting Canadian troops on the ground in Afghanistan to democratize that state we must reject as a goal of the mission. Only twice in all of human history has democracy effectively been imposed upon countries with no democratic tradition – in post-WWII Germany and Japan. As Benjamin Barber notes, the defining factor in the success of imposing Democracy on these two states had more to do with the exhaustion of having just exited a 50-year era of imperial warfare, coupled with the reality of possibly having to face it with no support from allies, and sharing only tense international relations with other countries.
Afghanistan does not share this in common with Germany and Japan. First off, the majority of Afghanistan’s struggles have always dealt with some form of internal dischord, be it struggling against unwelcome occupiers such as Britain or the Soviet Union (as opposed to the current state of affairs where non-Pashtun Afghans support the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan), or civil struggles between Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority and its assorted minorities.
While Germany and Japan’s defeats were the defeat of while-defined countries at the hands of equally well-defined opponents, many Afghans cannot even agree on how to define their country in the first place. (This is one of the reasons why a naturally-occurring partition of Afghanistan along tribal lines may be inevitable).
One cannot impose democracy on a state that cannot define itself. Furthermore, as Barber would remind us, we cannot expect to impose on Afghanistan democratic institutions that have taken centuries in the rest of the world to develop it. It shouldn’t be considered Canada’s responsibility to build a functioning Afghan democracy, and we certainly can’t do that at the barrel of a gun.
What can be done at the barrel of a gun is provide Afghans an opportunity to either embrace democracy or reject it, by their own accord, rather than by the decree of an Islamic theocracy. Our troops should not be in Afghanistan to build a democracy, but rather to afford Afghans the opportunity to build their own.
Likewise, rebuilding the Afghan economy is not the responsibility of Canadian troops. That, also, should be considered the responsibility of Afghans themselves. Just as Barber would remind us that we can’t impose democracy by force, William Easterly would remind us that we cannot impose the free market on Afghanistan. The market institutions (banks, courts, etc) that organize our economy have, like our democratic institutions, taken centuries to develop. We cannot transplant those institutions into Afghanistan by force, but we can use force to afford them the opportunity to develop such institutions on their own.
Both of these tasks requires fighting the Taliban, and preventing them from imposing their theocratic rule over those Afghans who do not want it. (Although we may eventually have to accept the establishment of a theocracy over those Afghans who prefer it.)
There is no question that Canada is using force in Afghanistan. What we need to define is how and why we are using that force, and even while “aggression” remains an ill-defined explanation for that use of force, the belief that we will transform Afghanistan into the spitting image of a western democracy is not only out of touch with the on-the-ground realities in Afghanistan, but is the height of hubris: a form of postmodern imperialism.
It has long become an accepted fact among observers of the Afghanistan conflict that NATO has not placed enough troops on the ground to stabilize Afghanistan. Although we typically win when engaging the Taliban, there are not sufficient NATO troops on the ground to secure what has been won. The return of the Taliban to the previously-cleared Panjwar district is evidence enough of this.
More troops are needed on the ground in Afghanistan. Unfortuantely, the ill-advised and unnecessary war in Iraq (which has also served to poison the public opinion environment against Afghanistan) has severely stretched the military resources of the two premier countries wherein the political will to commit to the War on Terror exists. This being the United States and Britain.
This has become something of a catch .22 for supporters of the war in Afghanistan. Even if one rejects the war in Iraq (and there is much cause to do so), one must recognize that the danger argued to be present in Iraq before the 2003 invasion certainly exists there now.
Even though Iraq’s relationship to Al Qaida and other terrorist groups prior to the American invasion was close to non-existent (most Islamic terrorists despised Saddam Hussein as a socialist, and hated his brutal treatment of Shi’ite clergy), Iraq certainly is a breeding ground for terrorists now.
While it may be tempting to see an immediate American withdrawal from Iraq as a boon for the war in Afghanistan (making more forces available to fight the Taliban), one must remember that, unfortunately, an American defeat in Iraq would be as disastrous for the War on Terror as defeat in Afghanistan.
While the United States has certainly managed to turn Iraq into a threat vis a vis terrorism, this doesn’t undermine the fact that this threat exists nonetheless.
Perhaps the greatest failure of the Afgnaistan mission is the failure to properly equip our troops. Consider the case of the late delivery of anti-IED (improvised explosive device) multivehicle systems designed to locate and disarm roadside bombs. While IEDs have been killing Canadian troops at an unacceptable rate for more than a year, these systems will not be delivered to Canadian forces until later this year.
To point partisan fingers over this failure – as some are prone to do – would be improper: even though the Liberals sent Canadian troops into Khandahar without this equipment, the Conservatives certainly haven’t moved fast enough to get it into the field. No matter how many failures can be attributed to either of the parties that have contributed to Canada’s role in Afghanistan, there are failures that can be attributed to their opponents that are just as bad, or even worse.
Eliminating Afghanistan’s opium industry, while appearing to be a common-sense solution to a Afghan problem with street-level Canadian implications, would actually be a mistake. If anything, Afghanistan’s opium industry actually presents an opportunity in terms of manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs – particularly painkillers. While the transition between street narcotics and pharmaceutical drugs presents an excellent solution to this problem, we must remember that it remains the responsibility of the Afghan people themselves to make that transition. We can certainly provide help to this end, and encourage them to make this change, but the transition itself must be made by Afghans.
The definition of missions such as the war in Afghanistan rarely remain static. They change because the natural state of war is unpredictable, and requires such changes. As the scope of the Afghanistan mission changes, so much the Canadian approach.
Michael Scheuer’s recent comments should not discourage Canadians from staying the course in Afghanistan. They should, however, encourage us to accept this critical juncture in the war to adjust our approach in Afghanistan, address the problems as they appear, reassess our responsibilities in the matter, and approach them accordingly.
Scheuer's analysis would have been useful if rendered much sooner. Hindsight, however, is always 20/20. With a little foresight, we need not find ourselves in a position where we’re using that 20/20 vision in regret.