Canada’s Afghanistan mission after 2011

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is said to be planning to set out his Government’s plans for the post-2011 Afghanistan Mission in advance of the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government in Lisbon on 19-20 November 2010.[i]

The context for setting future priorities for Canada’s Afghan mission is not only Canada’s impending military withdrawal, it is also the admission, made almost two years ago by Mr. Harper, that the war in Afghanistan will not lead to the defeat of the insurgency.[ii] More recently, Richard Holbrook, the US special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said the same,[iii] as have many others.

That means that the objective of the current military surge is not to defeat the insurgency, but to set it back on its heels. A stalled insurgency, the reasoning goes, would create more favorable conditions for weaning fighters away from the insurgency (reintegration[iv]) and for inducing their leaders to seek negotiations with the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to end the war (reconciliation[v]).

Not all agree it is a workable strategy. Matt Waldman, formerly of Oxfam in Afghanistan, writes in a US Institute for Peace briefing that “field research indicates that the coalition’s military surge is intensifying the conflict, and compounding enmity and mistrust between the parties. It is therefore reducing the prospects of negotiations, which require confidence-building measures that should be incremental, structured and reciprocal.”[vi]

The implication is that the priority now should be to upgrade diplomacy and to focus on improved governance, services, and reconstruction measures, especially in those areas of the country where the insurgency is not a strongly debilitating presence. In other words, programs and activities that build confidence in a stable future, rather than intensified fighting, are what is needed to set the stage for the serious pursuit of a political settlement. The years of military effort to downgrade the Taliban have parallelled the insurgency’s steady ascent. So much so, says Ahmed Rashid, the Pakistani author, journalist, and expert on the entire region, that the Taliban are now a nationwide movement.[vii]

The debate about the impact of the “surge” will not be quickly resolved – for example, the New York Times has run prominent stories of new success in routing the Taliban[viii] — but Ahmed Rashid goes on to say that despite the significant advances and spread of the insurgency, the Taliban may have hit both a military and political wall: “Taliban leaders may also realize that they are now at their apogee. They are a nationwide guerilla insurgency, but they cannot take or control major population centres given NATO’s firepower. There is no populist insurrection they can lead against US forces as there was in Iraq – the majority of Afghans do not want the return of a Taliban regime.”[ix] 

If this analysis is correct, Afghanistan fits the classic “hurting stalemate.” The Government of Afghanistan and its international partners, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) cannot defeat the Taliban and the Taliban cannot defeat the Government and its international security backers. It’s a stalemate that is politically and economically hurting both sides and calls out for a political solution.

That, in fact, is the central reality that should guide those planning Canadian policy for Afghanistan after 2011.

In August a leaked Government draft[x] proposed that after 2011 Canada focus on four priorities (down from the current six):

•           Securing a future for Afghan children and youth,

•           promoting regional diplomacy,

•           advancing the rule of law and human rights, and

•           delivering humanitarian assistance.

All are worthy and urgent. The reconciliation priority would, in this approach, focus on regional diplomacy – also very important and essential to future stability.

But the political way out of the currently stalemated war has a chance of being stable and durable only if that political process is transparent, inclusive of Afghans from all sectors of society, and respectful of the civil and human rights that are acknowledged around the world as basic to stable governance and the safety and well-being of people. Any such political process must be Afghan led, as Ottawa has rightly insisted, but Canada and the international community have an important role to play in encouraging a constructive and inclusive process.

So how should Canada shape its post-2011 mission in Afghanistan?

In the first instance, as a country that has invested heavily in the future of Afghanistan and has acknowledged at the highest level that the war is not winnable and that diplomacy is required, Canada needs to find a public voice to actively encourage pursuit of a transparent and inclusive reconciliation process.

Second, an important way for Canada to engage more directly in support of reconciliation efforts would be for the Foreign Minister to appoint a special diplomatic envoy on Afghanistan.[xi] In addition to monitoring and supporting regional diplomacy, part of the mandate of the envoy should be to encourage the Government of Afghanistan, as well as civil society, to develop mechanisms for an inclusive and consultative approach (Canada has used special envoys in other contexts, for example in Sudan during the negotiations toward the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to monitor and observe talks and work with an international Friends of Sudan Group). 

Third, given that Afghan civil society has already emphasized that for the people of Afghanistan to have confidence in a reconciliation process it must be transparent as well as inclusive, Canada should pledge financial support for building up the institutional capacity of Afghan civil society to engage actively in any forthcoming peace process. For civil society to be an effective participant it must have the organizational capacity to monitor the reconciliation process, to hold public forums and consultations, and to generally give leadership to citizen involvement in a process that will forge a new future for their country. That capacity can obviously be aided by financial support and international partnerships and Canada should make both a focus of its support.

And finally, community-level reconciliation, reintegration, and confidence building throughout the country are important, both to address local conflicts and concerns and to generate local support for and input into a national process. Canadian financial support for Afghan and international organizations that bolster local governance mechanisms, peacebuilding, and dialogue, and that have a capacity to work with traditional and informal authorities at local and district levels, should be part of our support for the reconciliation process. Ownership and leadership are not confined to national structures. Recognition of the traditions and advantages of decentralized governance in Afghanistan, along with the significant potential for local and informal authorities to serve as vehicles for conciliation, is part of the process of encouraging Afghan ownership of any reconciliation processes.

Canada is not positioned to play a decisive role in the move towards talking and reconciliation in Afghanistan, but we can most certainly play an important supportive role. And that support should be an increasing, indeed central, part of the Canadian mission in Afghanistan going forward.


[i] Murray Brewster, “Afghan counterterror role might fly with war-weary Canadians: Diplomat,” Toronto, Canadian Press, 31 October 2010.–SOMNIA.

 [ii] Canada’s Harper doubts Afghan insurgency can be defeated, CNN.Com, 1 March 2009.

 [iii] CNN, Afghanistan Blog, 25 October 2010.

 [iv] In the Afghan context, reintegration is understood, not as a post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding enterprise, but as a tactical counterinsurgency initiative. It is pursued as a war-time effort to persuade rank-and-file insurgents to quit fighting and lay down their arms in exchange for promises of personal safety, immunity, employment, and other financial incentives.  A recent US Congressional Research Service report puts it rather directly: the focus is on the “reintegration of fighters amenable to surrendering.”Kenneth Katzman, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,  The United States Congressional Research Service, 21 July 2010.

 [v] In the Afghan context, reconciliation is diplomacy that seeks to engage insurgency leaders in pursuit of a political settlement that will end the fighting.

 [vi] Matt Waldman, Navigating Negotiations in Afghanistan, USIP PeaceBrief 52, 13 September 2010.

 [vii] Ahmed Rashid, “Meeting the mullahs takes more than meets the eye,” The Globe and Mail, 22 October 2010.

 [viii] Carlotta Gall, “Coalition Forces Routing Taliban in Key Afghan Region,” The New York Times, 20 October 2010.

 [ix] Ahmed Rashid, “Meeting the mullahs takes more than meets the eye.”

 [x] Steven Chase, “Ottawa maps out post-combat role in Afghanistan,” The Globe and Mail, 24 August 2010.

 [xi] The Liberal Opposition encouraged the Government to use the occasion of the January 2010 London Conference to announce the appointment of a Canadian special envoy to lead Canadian efforts related to governance and reconciliation and, more broadly, Canada’s post-2011 involvement in Afghanistan. “Liberals call for special envoy to Afghanistan,”

This entry was posted in Armed Conflict, Defence and Human Security and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *