Canada's souring Afghanistan strategy

Afghanistan will be one of Obama’s first tests in office, and his Canadian neighbours are in no mood to be persuaded to stay

In less than three weeks the so-called Free World will have its new leader, but few leaders in the history of the world start so far behind the eight ball.

Not only will President Obama and his team have the financial mess to clean up, but that mess will impact directly on every single decision to be considered. His first one hundred minutes will seem like one hundred days, so full will they be of issues of mind-numbing complexity.

But wait. There’s more. Two wars are raging. Seven years in and the troops in Afghanistan have a term for the kind of fighting they are involved in – “mowing the lawns”. It means they clear out an area, move on and then return to where they have previously been successful to clear out the Taliban once again. It has a certain Vietnam quality to it.

When Britain and Russia were fighting over Afghanistan in the 19th century, their battle was called the Great Game. Central Asia was the prize. Success eluded them, as it did the Soviets in the 20th century. The ‘game’ is still on, except that now it is fiercely bloody and violent and anything but a battle of short wars fought on horseback.

Afghanistan was invaded after the United Nations sanctioned a NATO offensive as payback for the September 11, 2001 attacks on US soil. The 9/11 architect Osama bin Laden remains elusive but Obama sees this year as his time to finish the job that Bush was incapable of doing.

Obama’s policy is a troop surge of about 20,000 this (northern hemisphere) summer. The idea is that they go in, clear out the Taliban once and for all, and hopefully catch or kill bin Laden. No more ‘mowing’ required.

But 2009 is going to be a tough year in the troubled country. Canada’s most senior military authority on Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, reckons the US troop surge will bring a corresponding surge in violence. It will be 2010 before the situation turns around.

From Canada’s point of view that is an ominous prediction given that the Canadian casualties recently topped 100 (104 as of December 28, plus a diplomat and two aid workers), and Obama’s Defence Secretary Robert Gates has begun applying pressure for the Canadian’s to consider extending their mission.

While Gates on his pre-Christmas visit to the Canadian base in Kandahar praised the strength and bravery of the maple-leafed ones, he left no doubt he was looking for a longer term commitment.

The problem is Canada’s enthusiasm – if there ever was such a sentiment – has now truly soured as yet another ramp ceremony brought the coffins of the latest fallen soldiers home for their families to bury at Christmas.

When these soldiers who die are flown back to Canada, they are driven from the Air Force base to a morgue in Toronto. That road is known as the “Highway of Heroes” and there are often supporters watching from a bridge above it as the hearses pass beneath.

Their support can not be interpreted as continued support for the mission.

A decade of war is enough, according to Stephen Harper, so the bulk of Canada’s forces will be out in 2011. Afghanistan, he said, must at some point take responsibility for its own welfare. By that time Canadian troops will have been stuck in the most dangerous province for six years of their ten year commitment and it’s got to end.

During Canada’s 2008 election campaign there was evidence of increased Taliban activity clearly designed to impact the election outcome, as terrorists attacks in Spain had successfully done in 2004.

Separating increased attacks which result in deaths and injuries from a diminishing public appetite for keeping troops in such a war is impossible. If you are the Taliban you read it as scaring off the invaders. If you are a Western politician, you are deferring to your public secure in the knowledge that you have put in the hard yards, but have neither the troops nor public good will to squander any longer.

The latter is more fitting with the Canadian situation and is backed by defense analysts such as Phillipe Lagasse who recently told the CBC that Canada’s 2,500 troops in Afghanistan are simply worn out and the forces lack the numbers required for the good management of troop rotation.

He interpreted Gates’ comments as a nudge to Canada to stay. After all, if everyone pulls out who will step up and stop Afghanistan’s demise into Taliban rule? The question is when the Obama administration is at the controls, will that nudge become stronger?

The Director of the Centre for International Policy Studies in Ottawa, Roland Paris, considers 2009 to be pivotal for the war. He warns any decisions Canada makes should be fully debated. That wasn't the case when the previous Liberal government committed troops, nor when Harper was so unusually candid in his assertion that 2011 was time to leave – ready or not.

What is so galling is that the job in Afghanistan was not finished when it could have been. Like Iraq, “victory” was declared prematurely and the war raged on. And on.

It takes no Einstein to conclude that if anything the issues dogging Afghanistan have spread, and any success Obama hopes for will hinge on how he and the world can deal with, or deal to, Pakistan. While 2009 and the US troop surge will be crucial to the eventual outcome, Pakistan (both its internal tensions and its relationship with India) is pivotal to finding a solution.

If anything has been learned from the years of the Bush doctrine, it is hopefully that brawn and few brains do not constitute diplomacy. If Obama can have an immediate impact with his surge and bring a sense of stability he will need the courage – or the audacity – to believe that jaw and not war will pave the way for a solution. Until one is found the security of the region, and that of the world, remain in the balance.