The Métropolitain

Canada and Afghanistan

By Jessica Murphy on April 9, 2009

Afghanistan is a mess - increasingly violent, facing major hurdles in development and a severe food shortage - but according to a panel of experts lined up by the Canadian International Council, NATO needs to see its engagement through.

The Council is a non-partisan, nationwide body established to strengthen Canada’s role in international affairs. It organized a national video conference in early December with Omar Samad, Afghan ambassador to Canada; Ronald Neumann, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan; Kevin McCort, president of CARE Canada; CBC journalist Derek Stoffel; and David Mulroney, Deputy Minister of Canada’s Afghanistan Task Force.

None of the panelists hesitated in saying the country’s situation was deteriorating.

“We’re not winning, the violence is worse, and the Afghans are scared,” said Neumann.

“We need to do a lot better. We all came into Afghanistan very quickly. You didn’t have time for a proper planning exercise. Now, we have to both do and plan.”

The ultimate aim of Canadian policy is to leave Afghanistan to Afghans, in a country that is better governed, more peaceful and more secure, but Canadians, faced with over 100 military casualties, have every reason to wonder whether the war is worth it.

Canada is currently leading NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and has over 2,500 boots on the ground. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed to pulling our troops  out of Kandahar by 2011 - a move backed by John Manley’s year-old report on Canada’s role in the war which suggests a greater emphasis on diplomacy and reconstruction and a shift from combat to training Afghan national security forces.

But two years seemed like a long time as the panelists ticked off a succession of disquieting facts: at least 30 per cent of the country is out of coalition control, instability in the region - Pakistan, India’s Kashmir province, Iran - is worsening the situation, kidnappings and bombings in previously secure Kabul are spiking, there’s pervasive corruption in a nascent government replete with former drug- and warlords, the drug trade is on the upswing, and unemployment is at catastrophic 40 per cent. Each panelist outlined the problems from his own perspective.

For Samad, an uncoordinated NATO force was dragging the country down. “Different strategies, different agendas are at play,” he said. “And it hurts all of us.”

Three decades of warfare have decimated the skills and abilities of the Afghan people to govern themselves, he added, and the political disputes in the surrounding countries are further destabilizing the country.

“We can’t disassociate from the things that are happening in the region,” Samad said, estimating 80 per cent of Afghanistan’s problems could be solved by dealing with regional issues.

McCort was concerned with the pace of development. (Afghanistan is actually the single largest recipient of Canadian bilateral foreign aid.)

Care Canada established its mission in Afghanistan in 1961 and is currently involved in food distribution, road and infrastructure reconstruction, schooling and small economic activity development.

McCort said much of their work has been a “tremendous success,” but has been severely compromised by the military’s attempts to combine aid with collaboration to help  ‘win hearts and minds.’

“All beneficiaries may appear to be collaborators even if they’re collaborating with us,” he said. “Our abilities to reach out have been severely constrained.”

The tactic is endangering aid workers - 31 NGO workers were killed in 2008, 25 of them Afghans. Further, little aid is going to the rural areas experiencing the greatest need and civilian deaths have ignited anger against the NATO forces.

McCort also warned of the major food crisis on the horizon; only 35 per cent of the food appeal has been met and a third of the population is facing food insecurity this winter.

There are also the presidential and provincial elections scheduled for the fall of 2009 in Afghanistan - elections that have been threatened by a dislodged, displaced, but undefeated Taliban insurgency.

One beacon of hope for the country is president-elect Barack Obama’s promise of a 20,000-strong troop surge that would bring troop levels to 30 per cent of those in Iraq, a pledge to ramp up development assistance and a regional diplomatic initiative to tackle the interlocking problems of Afghanistan and its neighbours.

“There’s a lot of talk about surges and new strategies and that’s all good,” said Samad. “But it shouldn’t only be a military angle. It needs to be accompanied by surges in development, diplomacy, and Afghan capabilities.”

So what are the arguments for staying? The Afghan people want us there, the embryonic  army and a police force, a justice system and a correctional system are taking small steps towards autonomy and - as Neumann bluntly reminded the audience - the region remains the hotbed for anti-Western terrorist activity and the stability of nuclear-armed Pakistan is at stake.

For those reasons, Canadian troops (along with the Afghan people) will continue to carry their share of the burden for the war and perhaps in 2011 we’ll see an Afghan civil society able to govern itself.