Wednesday July 30, 2014




Mission accomplished?

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View from the Cheap Seats is kind of an extension of the newsroom. Whenever our three regular reporters, Calvin Daniels, Thom Barker and Randy Brenzen are in the building together, it is frequently a site of heated debate. This week: With our troops pulling out of Afghanistan last week, was the Canadian mission a success?

Time will tell

The problem with this kind of question is in defining success. With that in mind, it is helpful to revisit Canada’s initial goals in militarily supporting the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2002. At the time, the Canadian government’s first goal in participating was to “defend Canada’s national interests.”

This is a bit of a head-scratcher for a lot of Canadians, but in my opinion it means, primarily, defending our relationship with the United States. I think it is pretty safe to say given George W. Bush’s hyperbole on September 12, 2001 when he said, “either you’re with us or you are with the terrorists,” that Canada’s national interest was with the Americans.

We did what was asked of us and we did it for seven years longer than we originally committed to. And the Canadian Forces policy shift to a more aggressive, combat-oriented stance almost certainly put us in good stead with our southern neighbours.

Despite a somewhat chilly personal relationship between our current prime minister and their current president, I’d say the overall relationship is just as solid as it has ever been. So, job 1 accomplished.

The second important thing from my perspective is the moral ground. Are Afghanis better off today than they were before the war?

Pre-2001 Afghanistan had been largely overrun by an extremely oppressive Taliban regime except for a small area in the northeast of the country, which remained in the hands of the progressive leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Post-911 American policy made no distinction between terrorist groups and countries that harboured them. The United States wanted to crush Al-Qaeda and kill Osama Bin Laden. In their estimation, the way to do that was to install a new, U.S.-friendly government in Kabul.

Today in Afghanistan, the Taliban is largely defeated. The Afghan Army controls about 93 per cent of the country. There is a semblance of democratic institutions—in fact, presidential elections are taking place next month and parliamentary elections, the country’s third round, later this year.

As part of the NATO force, Canada was a big part of making that happen. Canadian troops also built schools and clinics. Girls are going to school. Health care has improved. Ethnic repression has been reduced.

If these things can be sustained, Canada might be able to put this conflict in the win column.

Unfortunately, that remains a big if. The democratic institutions are in their infancy. Corruption is endemic. Taliban insurgency continues. Pakistan remains a looming wildcard. Without western help, can the Afghan Army hold its ground?

It may well be decades before we can truly answer the question of Canadian mission success, but one major element in sustaining it will be whether the incoming president can ratify the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States that would see “non-combat” American forces remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.

— Thom Barker

Folly

Canada’s time fighting a war in Afghanistan is at an end. And so comes the post-war analysis, and the question that is always asked, was the cost worth it?

For the sake of those who served in Afghanistan, and especially for the families of those who died doing their duty, it would be nice to put a huge exclamation mark of success on their effort.

While a government which was of course supportive of the operation, and continued to support the effort up until the final withdrawal of troops sees little but glowing success, I fear history will be less supportive.

The core issues of the war within Afghanistan are generations old, and while foreign troops have tried to either hold direct power, or to be a buffer between factions to allow for some semblance of normalcy to take control domestically, those efforts have not erased the history.

The Russians gave up on trying to hold power there. The Americans fared no better in their efforts to elicit control by their foreign might.

To think what Canada did in its years in Afghanistan will change things for the better now that we have left the battlefield is to be far too arrogant of our ability to influence another country.

The old hatreds, the religious conflicts, the distrust, the tribal rivalries will take generations to overcome. We see that repeatedly from Northern Ireland to the split between Serbia and Croatia, and the Czech Republic and Slovakia after decades as single countries held together by Soviet power. And now we see it happening yet again in Ukraine.

The long term prospect for Afghanistan remains one of upheaval even after Canada’s years of effort.

Which brings up the question were we wise to try, or was it folly which was doomed to failure, and at the cost of too many young Canadian soldiers lives?

Sadly from where I sit, and from what I suspect history will bare out, this effort was folly

— Calvin Daniels


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