Lessons from Afghanistan

Professors David Bercuson and Jack Granatstein wrote that “Afghanistan’s lessons weren’t just military” in the Oct 17 Globe and Mail. The following response was sent as a letter to the editor:

Professors Bercuson and Granatstein have missed the central lesson of that war — namely that in intrastate conflict, military peace support forces rarely trump the consequences of a deeply flawed peace process.

A related lesson is that the military pursuit of security in divided societies is undermined, not advanced, by the dogged refusal to countenance engagement and negotiations with one’s adversaries in the interests of repairing a dysfunctional political framework.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the key architect of the 2002 Bonn agreement that set the process toward a new Government in Afghanistan, has acknowledged more than once that he and his colleagues made a grievous error when the defeated Taliban and the Pashtun communities in which they had their base were kept away from the peace table.

So the legitimacy of the Afghan Government, claimed by the victors in the initial phase of the war, was compromised from the start. It was further weakened by corruption and unholy alliances with serious human rights violators. Then international forces dealt the Government of Afghanistan a further blow when, in its defence, they for a time killed as many civilians as did the insurgents. International forces have improved their record significantly, but the legacy of misguided military assaults still reverberates.

I hope Canada has learned some of the important operational and domestic political lessons from Afghanistan cited by Bercuson and Granatstein, but those learnings will be secondary to the core lesson that foreign armed forces pursing security in deeply divided societies cannot prevail in the absence of the vigorous diplomatic pursuit of inclusive and accountable governance.

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