Apologies for the light posting of late, it has been a hectic work month. I have an op-ed in today’s Toronto Star (written with friend and colleague David Eaves), the slightly longer and unedited version of which is below:
Getting Back on Track in Afghanistan
Success in Afghanistan remains as vital today as when the government first sent troops, aid workers and diplomats to Kandahar in August 2005. Many Canadians, however, feel unsure about the mission and want to be assured that our government has a strategy. On February 6th, Prime Minister Harper promised as much, stating his government will table a report summarizing the progress and challenges to date, and will make a significant announcement about our next steps. This is an opportunity to clarify our strategy and to unite both Parliament and the country around the largest deployment of Canadian forces since the Korean war.
First, let us be clear. Canada has an unambiguous purpose in Afghanistan. Failure to secure and rebuild will leave the country as a failed state, a neo-Taliban led fundamentalist regime, or a training ground for terrorists. Any of these would fundamentally threaten Afghan human security, regional stability, and our Canadian national interests.
Prime Minister Harper must reaffirm our commitment and clearly articulate our way forward. We suggest that his report must address three critical areas that if left unchecked, will cause the mission to deteriorate and could cause it to fail.
1. Return to a strategy that complements counterinsurgency with reconstruction and the imposition of the rule of law. Over the past year Prime Minister Harper has increasingly relied on failed US policies and rhetoric, compounding existing problems and creating new ones. In a battle for the hearts and minds of southern Afghans, an aggressive approach will do more harm than good.
Militarily, the killing of even one civilian can do great strategic harm, turning entire villages against us. The Taliban use these casualties to great effect, so that some Afghans now fear international forces more than those who brutally ruled over them.
We need to rethink our counterinsurgency strategy, by relying less on military force, and more on innovative local interactions. As a start, we must curtail the use of air strikes, resume the policy of compensating civilian casualties and determine how our forces can best support reconstruction. The Liberal cabinet deliberately chose not to deploy Leopard tanks and CF-18’s, prioritizing interpersonal contact with Afghans over brute military might. The Prime Minister must explain why we deviated from this strategy.
Most importantly, we need to ensure effective governance. Support for the Taliban derived, in part, from their capacity to impose law and order. Many felt a draconian but predictable governance structure was preferable to chaos and anarchy. Afghan’s desperately want the stability and freedom that comes with the rule of law. If we want to win their hearts and minds we must enable them to establish a just and fair system as quickly as possible.
Diplomatically, the Taliban resurgence in the south remains unchecked. Our problem starts, not from lofty negotiations with Pakistan, but from our own polarised view of the Taliban. Like the failed de-Baathification of Iraq, categorising all who support the Taliban as “against us”, both radicalizes and creates enemies out of moderates whose political support could help stabilize the country.
2. Align Domestic and Foreign Policies. Support for US-backed counter-narcotics tactics endangers the Afghan mission. Poppy eradication destroys the livelihoods of many Afghans and fuels Taliban recruitment. Forcing farmers to shift from poppies, which generate $5,200 per acre, to wheat, which generates $121, is unrealistic. Farmers need a viable alternative. One that curtails the influence of warlords and reduces the global supply of heroin.
Internationally, the Canadian government should ally with the British to develop a regulatory regime that legalizes the purchase of Afghan poppy crops. These crops could be used in the legal production of codeine and morphine, which are scarce in the developing world.
The Canadian Government should also support the Afghan mission by curbing demand for opiates the one place it can – at home. In our globalized world there is a direct link between the poppy fields of Afghanistan and overdose deaths in downtown Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. Domestic policies that reduce demand for illegal opiates – such as renewing Vancouver’s Insite safe injection site – diminish the market for these illicit crops and make it easier to shift Afghan farmers to alternatives.
3. Provide clarity of mission. Canadians must be provided with the necesary information to judge our strategy and progress in Afghanistan. When Canada agreed to the Kandahar mission it sought to balance development, military and diplomatic components. Prime Minister Paul Martin outlined this strategy on February 22nd, 2005 when he described how Canadian Forces “…will be assisted by aid officers, who will identify key assistance projects to help to reduce tensions, and by diplomats, who will work with the provincial and local authorities in building confidence with the local population.” Are we still implementing a 3D strategy? If not, why not? If so, what are the benchmarks with which we can measure our success and evaluate the balance between our defence, development and diplomatic efforts?
Transparency is particularly important for effective humanitarian assistance. Critical questions remain unanswered. Where is our development money going? How much are we spending, and on what? Are these programs symbiotic with our military and diplomatic operations?
The Government would be well advised to establish a development measurement framework with clear milestones, based on the Afghanistan Compact, enabling projects to be evaluated and held accountable. Canada could also appoint a Director of Reconstruction to serve as a counterpart to our military commander and charged with achieving our development objectives. Combined, these initiatives would enhance security by ensuring those programs that most positively impact the lives of local Afghans are prioritized and monitored.
While we are but one partner of a large coalition, smart, targeted Canadian policies can make a substantial difference. Because the Afghanistan mission is difficult and, at times, dangerous it continues to test our leadership. Harper’s report is timely, but will only be valuable if he addresses head on the critical challenges we face. Canada needs a clear strategy for success – one that builds trust, engages in development and reconstruction, and ensures the rule of law, simultaneously. Without such a strategy we risk defaulting to a US-style military approach, neglecting development and diplomacy. This is Canada’s mission – let us ensure we tackle it Canada’s way.