Thursday, October 04, 2007

Plenty of Room for Debate on Afghanistan

Honest dissent qualifies as an important form of dissent

In the increasingly politicized, polarized and partisan political climate surrounding Afghanistan, honest debate has indeed become a rare occurrence.

There can be such a thing.

Rory Stewart, a former British Diplomat and author of The Places in Between, doesn’t think so.

"If you point out that our state-building enterprise is not working, people will quite quickly accuse you of being a reactionary or even a racist,” Stewart complains. “They will try to suggest that if you raise problems, you're being denigrating towards Afghans, that you're not respecting the sacrifice of the troops.”

"Anybody engaged in this debate comes under a lot of pressure from the military, from diplomats and from the Afghan government itself to try to suggest that everything is going well when it's not,” he concludes.

To this sense, he may be right. Perhaps the pressure being applied by proponents of the Afghanistan has been a little intense, but to this end, the pressure being applied by opponents of the mission has been no less so.

The finger of blame, which actually must be shared equally, aside, we as Canadians need to make more room for honest debate on the Afghanistan issue. Fortunately, this is where people like Stewart come in.

For his part, Stewart feels that NATO is in over its head in Afghanistan.

"NATO has set itself up for failure by taking on far more than it could possibly achieve,'' he announced during a recent visit to Ottawa.

"Canada's great challenge,” according to Stewart, “is to identify three or four things that could realistically be done with the kind of resources, commitment and will that we have. And to make sure we achieve them in a way that leaves Canadian people feeling proud, NATO feeling that it's done something and, most important of all, the Afghans feeling that they've gotten something out of this intervention.''

Stewart has suggested that NATO resort to a tactic similar to that which the United States used in Vietnam: holding the major cities with conventional forces, while using special forces to hunt insurgent forces in the countryside.

When one considers the historical state of affairs in Afghanistan, this almost makes sense. Historically, Afghanistan has only ever been successfully governed via a strategy often referred to as “encapsulation”, whereby a government maintains control of the easily-governed cities, while conceding control of the countrysides to the tribal jurgas that essentially rule the smaller villages and rural areas.

It’s a model whereby sovereignty is claimed over these outlying areas only officially, but actually exercised by the jurgas in return for government deferral to their localized authority.

Yet, this governmental strategy is what has led to Afghanistan becoming what it was prior to the post-9/11 invasions, and to this day: a country, incompatible with central government, without ability to assert sovereignty throughout its territory, and with porous, uncontrolled borders. Really not so much a failed state as a non-state: one that, in the ways that we define modern states, has actually never existed, except as a portion of land drawn in and labeled on a map.

Stewart may be right when he suggests that NATO may have to focus on state-building efforts in the north of the country, while negotiating with the southern jurgas in order to allow them to govern Khandahar and Helmand as they will.

With a preference for the Pashtun tribal codes of justice (as opposed to the sharia the Taliban would prefer to impose) as well as secure in already possessing what they want, the jurgas would have little need for the Taliban, and may well ally with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (who shares no great love of the Taliban) against them. (Then again all this is merely a visit to the specularium.)

In a mission that needs to be defined for the future, people like Rory Stewart are actually offering the most valuable form of support: an honest concern about the nature of the mission, and should be engaged on the basis of those opinions, not merely on empty demands for unconditional or absolute support of the mission.

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