Cdn Politics, Global Issues

G&M Oped: Afghan Deal Dreakers

Dave and I had the following op-ed in the Globe today:

Kandahar deal breakers: The Afghan poll is not a blank cheque
Special to Globe and Mail Update
November 2, 2007 at 1:03 AM EDT

The results of the poll of Afghans by Environics on behalf of The Globe and Mail, the CBC and La Presse were surprising to many. Afghans are broadly content with their government, happy that Canada is in Afghanistan, and believe the work being done is beneficial and effective. Canadians should be proud. We are making a difference.

What is potentially worrying, however, is the fervour with which the poll was greeted in Canada by some of the mission’s supporters. While a useful reminder of why we are in Afghanistan, this poll is not a blank cheque for any and all future engagement.

Future actions, by us or our allies, could alter the political conditions in Afghanistan, negatively shifting indigenous public opinion. Consequently, this poll should reaffirm the necessity of debating how we engage, and under what conditions we walk away.

Two looming scenarios could derail the mission.

Consider, for instance, the spraying of poppy crops. This winter, under the leadership of the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia, the Americans plan to spray opium fields with herbicides. Needless to say, the spraying will have little to no impact on the global availability of illegal opiates.

But the impact on Afghanistan will be dramatic. Opium is critical to the Afghan economy. Kill the poppies and you impoverish the farmers, their families and the communities they support. This will undermine Afghan support for the NATO mission and destabilize the Karzai government.

Perhaps most important, the U.S. spraying campaign undermines the agreed-on division of labour within the NATO alliance. Under the Afghan compact, Britain was given responsibility for counternarcotics. Unilateral spraying by the U.S. violates this agreement. Such actions call into question the terms under which the alliance agreed to function, and on which Canada agreed to sustain its presence in Afghanistan.

In short, a policy in which we have had no input, and we are not executing, will make Afghanistan more dangerous to our soldiers and less conducive to achieving a lasting peace.

A second possible deal breaker is also on the horizon. After the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Americans are likely to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. The purpose, strategy and tactics of this surge will have dramatic implications on the nature and potential success of our mission.

This influx of American troops could secure the troublesome Pakistani border and enhance the security environment for reconstruction and development. Alternatively, this force, hardened in Iraq, could engage in the most counterproductive forms of counterinsurgency, driving support to the Taliban. In short, a sea change in the composition of American forces could alter the nature of the mission into one that is unacceptable to Canada.

Neither the opium problem nor the insurgency can be solved with magic bullets. The appropriate policies are complex and long term. There are, however, things we should clearly not do.

In order for us to effectively react to, or ideally influence, these scenarios, it is not enough to be clear on our strategy and objectives. Canada must also outline to its allies the policies that so harm our actions that they negate our involvement.

This is not an empty threat. As Canadians already know, no one is willing to take over our role. Either our work in Kandahar is valuable to NATO, in which case we have influence, or it’s inconsequential, and we should be reconsidering our involvement. If the former, then we possess political leverage with which to shape the mission. What’s more, it is an aberration of responsibility to deploy our troops in the field but allow others to determine the course and strategy of the mission.

The Afghan poll gave us reasons to stay in Kandahar and to be proud of our role, but it is not a blank cheque. We must use our hard-won influence to negotiate with our allies on the terms and implementation of the mission. Poppy spraying and widespread use of aggressive counterinsurgency tactics should be deal breakers. Our military has won Canada real influence in Afghanistan; will our diplomats use it to ensure the mission’s success?

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