Is there a ‘third way’ in Afghanistan?

With Canada in a sustained ground war for the first time since Korea, it is not surprising that the debate over our role in Afghanistan has become thoroughly polarized.

The Prime Minister leads the charge for staying the course. Canada is at war, he says, and we don’t cut and run – we will stay in this war until the job is done. NDP Leader Jack Layton leads the call for withdrawal. It is the wrong mission for Canada; it is a war with unclear objectives and it can’t be won.

The Prime Minister sees Afghanistan as the kind of on-the-job experience that is making a better Canadian military. In fact, he implied in a CBC interview that the Canadian casualties are part of that process of shaping the military.[i] The whole experience, he said, is “certainly raising Canada’s leadership role.”

Mr. Layton in turn makes the point that withdrawing from the war and giving priority to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan will allow Canada to “focus on building a made-in-Canada foreign policy that moves us toward reclaiming Canada’s place in the world.”[ii]

Both arguments make the place of Canada in the world a central issue, but is that really the primary preoccupation of Canadians when it comes to Afghanistan? And should it be?

Two recent polls suggest that Canadian attitudes towards the war have less to do with its impact on Canada as a player on the world stage, and more to do with its impact on Afghanistan. A Decima poll found that 59 percent of Canadians agreed with the pollster’s statement that Canadian soldiers are dying for a cause that can’t be won.[iii]And in September EKOS Research found thatCanadian views are not driven so much by the level of sacrifice as by a sense that “the mission is unlikely to bring stability and democracy to Afghanistan.”[iv]

The evidence by now is well documented and mounting that the Canadian mission, indeed the entire International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operation in southern Afghanistan, is not working. But neither of the two options in the polarized debate – stick with a failing enterprise no matter what; pull out because it is a failing enterprise – responds to a primary concern of Canadians, namely, how to build a safer Afghanistan.

In other words, we need a third option. Calls for new negotiations with the Afghan dissidents and for increased attention to reconstruction efforts point in that direction, and recently a “third way” proposal was put forward by Eugene Lang, a former chief of staff to two recent defence ministers and now chief policy advisor to Bob Rae.
The proposal is in fact close to the Layton/NDP option. The main difference is that the NDP calls for military withdrawal from Afghanistan, while the Lang option calls for redeployment from the south to the north. Both, however, counsel withdrawal from the counter-insurgency war and call for greater non-military assistance.[v]

So here are the main elements of an emerging third option: pull out of the south; redeploy to the north in support of training and provincial reconstruction teams; substantially increase non-military aid; review the strategy, objectives, and tactics used by the NATO-led ISAF; and re-open the political process in pursuit of a more inclusive and representative political order for the entire country.

Of the three options, the least convincing is the stay-the-course focus of the Prime Minister. Even the Defence Minister now acknowledges that the Afghanistan conflict will not finally be settled on the battlefield, but it is the military prosecution of the conflict that is getting all the attention. Canadians are telling pollsters it won’t work, and conflict analysts and Afghan specialists have long been pointing out that if the objective of the counter-insurgency war is to stabilize Afghanistan and advance the well-being of Afghans, it is not getting the job done.

That leaves the other two options, complete withdrawal or the withdrawal from the counter-insurgency war and redeployment to peace support operations in the north while pursuing negotiations towards a more inclusive political order.Which of these options one supports depends on one’s understanding of the conditions that obtain in Afghanistan.

If the Government of Afghanistan has been discredited throughout the country and has lost the confidence of Afghans generally, and if the trend is thus toward outright and widespread civil war, then it is clear that foreign troops are there to support an illegitimate government and will themselves be regarded as illegitimate. In that case, foreign troops are more likely to fuel conflict than resolve it – with a pullout the logical conclusion.

If, however, the civil war is essentially confined to the south, and if in the north the Government still has the substantial support of the people, then the north is a post-conflict environment that, while still unstable, is amenable to security assisted peacebuilding efforts. In that case the redeployment of forces to the north to help in training security forces and in protecting newly funded civilian reconstruction operations would serve the greater well-being of Afghans.

Current reporting from Afghanistan is mixed, but it generally still suggests the latter situation prevails – with the clear implication that it will slide to the former unless major changes are made. That points to the urgent need to pursue the third option. But the fact that it is both urgent and prudent doesn’t guarantee, especially in the context of a polarized debate, that it will be chosen.

[i] “Canada’s military back on world stage: PM,” CBC News, September 19, 2006 account of interview on The National (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2006/09/19/harper-afghanistan.html).

[ii] ” Statement by NDP Leader Jack Layton on Canada’s mission in Afghanistan,” Aug 31, 2006 (http://www.ndp.ca/page/4119).

[iii] Keith Doucette, “MacKay slams Afghan poll,” The ChronicleHerald.ca, October 3, 2006 (http://www.herald.ns.ca/Canada/532054.html).

[iv] Bruce Campion-Smith, “Afghan mission impossible: Poll,” Toronto Star, Sept. 18/06 (available at http://25461.vws.magma.ca/admin/articles/TheStar18Sept2006.pdf).

[v] The Project Ploughshares materials have also called for an end to participation in a counter-insurgency war as counter-productive and a disservice to Afghans (e.g. “Towards counter-insurgency by other means,” http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/Briefings/brf061.pdf; “From good intentions to sustainable solutions,” http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/monitor/mons06f.pdf).

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