Register Thursday | December 13 | 2018

Canada's Mission Impossible

After five years of efforts by American, British and Canadian troops, southern Afghanistan has become more, not less, dangerous.

1. THE VALUE OF CANADIAN LIVES.

Forty-four Canadian soldiers and one diplomat have lost their lives in Afghanistan. Almost two hundred have been seriously injured—with lost limbs, blindness, brain damage or other forms of severe psychological harm. Most of the deaths and injuries have occurred since February 2006, when our soldiers were moved from a traditional, peacekeeping role in Kabul (the capital city) to an aggressive, US-led counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar. “Canadians don’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in March 2006. He’s right: Canadians are not cowards or quitters. But we are well beyond the “first sign of trouble” now.

2. THE TALIBAN DO NOT POSE A THREAT TO CANADA.

It’s argued that the counter-insurgency mission is necessary to protect Canadians. This is a serious position, but it can be exaggerated. The Taliban are not developing weapons of mass destruction and missiles capable of reaching North America. The al Qaeda elements sheltered behind the Taliban don’t pose an imminent threat to Canada. They certainly provide moral and, perhaps, technical support to aspiring terrorists elsewhere, but if the threat were truly serious, Washington would not have shifted its focus to Iraq.

3. Opium production has doubled.

It’s argued that our troops are needed in Afghanistan to restrict the production of opium. But opium production has more than doubled since Western troops arrived. As the Senlis Council has explained: “Five years of flawed counter-narcotics priorities … have only served to undermine government legitimacy, stability, security and development, whilst farmers have lost confidence in the current Karzai administration.”

4. We’re not helping the Afghan people.

Five years after Western troops arrived in Afghanistan, the average life expectancy remains below forty-five years, and one thousand six hundred mothers out of a hundred thousand die during childbirth. Some of the most important posts in the Afghan government are held by former warlords whom international human rights groups have accused of heinous crimes. Corruption is rampant, billions of dollars in overseas development assistance have vanished and Kabul still doesn’t have a reliable supply of electricity.

5. NATO credibility is not at stake.

Of the twenty-six NATO countries, Canada—with our relatively small population and military—has made the fourth largest contribution of troops to the counter-insurgency mission. We’ve also suffered 25 percent of the casualties. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union—the raison d’être of the North Atlantic alliance—NATO is simply a collection of countries that may or may not choose to cooperate in any given situation. During its initial intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, the United States chose not to call on NATO for help. No one regards France or Germany as less credible because they refused to deploy into southern Afghanistan. Nor are Spain and Italy less credible because they chose to withdraw from Iraq.

6. CANADIAN CREDIBILITY IS NOT AT STAKE.

“Preserving Canada’s credibility in Washington” has a familiar ring: it was an argument for Canada to join in the Vietnam War and more recently, to join in the 2003 Iraq War. The retrospective wisdom of our decisions not to participate in those conflicts shows one simple thing: Canadians are better judges of the Canadian national interest than Americans. As long as we provide reasonable notice of our intentions, Washington has no reason to complain.

7. MILITARY INTERVENTION IS VERY EXPENSIVE.

In May 2006, the Polaris Institute estimated that the cost (for fiscal year 2006–2007) of Canada’s Afghan operations would exceed $1 billion, perhaps substantially, “and will continue at that level as long as the Canadian mission lasts.” Compare this $1 billion per year to the $1 billion over ten years that Canada is providing for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan. One billion dollars per year could provide a great deal of development and humanitarian assistance, and not just in Afghanistan. Wisely spent, this money could save millions of lives, especially in disease-and-famine-ridden Africa.

8. OUR NATIONAL INTEREST LIES ELSEWHERE. 

Because our forces are committed in Afghanistan, Canadians are conspicuously absent from UN peacekeeping forces now in Lebanon. Yet, we have a much clearer national interest in maintaining this ceasefire since the Middle East conflict has the potential to escalate—and quickly—into a highly destabilizing regional war involving attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities.

9. DARFUR: A LITTLE GOES A LONG WAY.

Since 2003, an estimated two hundred thousand to four hundred thousand people have been killed in Darfur, countless women have been raped and several million people have been forced from their homes. There is a robust mandate for a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, but as Senator Roméo Dallaire has explained, no militarily advanced, middle-power country has yet offered to take the lead. A declared willingness to deploy one or two thousand Canadian soldiers could be just what is needed to move things forward. The agents of destruction in Sudan—the Janjaweed (who ride camels and horses) and the Sudanese military (which pushes crude barrel bombs out of the backs of cargo planes)—would be no match for a well-trained and well-equipped Western military. Which is better for our reputation and influence: continuing a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop a genocidal campaign that has raged for four years now?

10. OUR MILITARY CHARACTER IS WARPING.

In August 2005, then Major-General Andrew Leslie said that helping Afghanistan break out of “a cycle of warlords and tribalism” would be a “twenty-year venture.” In March 2006, General Rick Hillier said: “From NATO’s perspective, they look at this as a ten-year mission, right? Minimum. There’s going to be a huge demand for Canada to contribute over the longer period of time.” Clearly, Canada’s engagement in the Afghan mission is set to continue. We should be aware that, over time, the Canadian Forces could become focussed almost entirely—in training, ethos and equipment—on war-fighting missions conducted alongside or for the United States. This would have long-term consequences for our traditional role in peacekeeping and our overall foreign policy.

11. OUR COMMITMENT TO INTERNATIONAL HUMANITARIAN LAW IS WAVERING.

In 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were ordered by their American commander to lay anti-personnel landmines around their camp. When the Canadians refused—citing this country’s obligations under the 1997 Ottawa Convention—American soldiers, who are not subject to the same restrictions, went around the camp and laid the mines for them. At Bagram Airbase, Canadian forces also benefited from anti-personnel landmines laid by Soviet forces during the 1980s. The Canadian government argues that the Ottawa Convention has not been violated, since the prohibition on the “use” of anti-personnel mines does not extend to reliance on mines laid by others. This strained interpretation hardly reinforces our claim to be the leading proponent of the total elimination of these indiscriminate devices.

12. WE ARE BREAKING THE GENEVA CONVENTIONS.

In 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan captured detainees and transferred them to US custody—despite the fact that then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld had publicly refused to convene the “status determination tribunals” required by the Geneva Conventions. These tribunals investigate whether individuals captured on the battlefield are prisoners of war. Canada, by choosing to hand the detainees over in these circumstances, also violated the Geneva Conventions. The transfers did not undermine the prohibition on torture at the time, since there was no reason to believe the Americans would mistreat the detainees. Today, post-Abu Ghraib, we know better; since 2005, we’ve been transferring prisoners to Afghan custody instead. Yet this cannot relieve Canada of responsibility since Kabul may be expected to comply with US requests for further onward transfers. It is a matter of great concern that Canada did not secure a right to visit its transferred detainees, or to veto any proposed onward transfer. Given what we now know, the possibility that our detainees were tortured in US custody is real—as real, perhaps, as if we had sent them to Syria. We have, in effect, failed to protect and uphold Canada’s commitment to international humanitarian law. Recent allegations about at least one detainee being beaten by Canadian troops make the case for a new approach even more pressing.

A fresh approach: Three proposals

1. REDIRECT OUR EFFORTS: FUND DEVELOPMENT.

Canada needn’t abandon Afghanistan. Instead of wasting more than $1 billion per year on a failed counter-insurgency mission in the south, Canada should quadruple its overseas development assistance to the country as a whole. Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa has explained: “This year’s Afghan heroin trade will net a street value of more than US $50 billion. Compare that to Afghanistan’s current development aid from all countries: only US $1.8 billion. If Afghans follow the money then Afghanistan is not likely to develop as Canada wants.” Ensuring that our assistance actually reaches those who need it most would also help.

2. STRENGTHEN AFGHANS’ LOCAL CAPACITIES.

Eventually, Western forces will leave Afghanistan. Our opponents know this, and they’re prepared to wait us out. Instead of denying the inevitable, we should prepare for that day by doing everything possible to strengthen local capacities. Much more emphasis should be placed on training Afghan soldiers and police officers, and helping the Afghan government pay salaries that match or exceed those paid by the Taliban.

3. START TALKING TO THE ENEMY.

In August 2006, Jack Layton indicated the need for a comprehensive peace process that would necessarily include elements of the Taliban. Layton’s position was derided by the Canadian government and large segments of the media. But as Winston Churchill once said, “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Canada should take the lead in organizing an international peace conference, bringing all of the stakeholders in Afghanistan together so that they can begin the difficult but necessary process of finding common ground.