November 05, 2008

New strategy needed in Afghanistan

As published in The Erin Advocate

If you have walked along Erin’s Main Street lately, you may have seen a reproduction of a Globe and Mail front page from May 8, 1945 displayed in the window of the Erin Chiropractic Centre. That was VE Day – Victory in Europe – when German forces finally surrendered to the Allies in World War II.

The headline proclaims, “This is victory”. Beneath a photo of a weary solder is an excerpt from a poem called The Song of the Pacifist, by Robert Service:

“When our children's children shall talk of War
as a madness that may not be;
When we thank our God for our grief to-day,
and blazon from sea to sea
In the name of the Dead the banner of Peace
. . . that will be Victory.”

He wrote it after serving as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross in World War I, the “war to end all wars”. It claimed the lives of 67,000 Canadians, with the total of our dead and wounded representing three percent of Canada’s population at the time. Today, with the war in Afghanistan in its seventh year, the meaning of victory remains elusive.

Remembrance Day is next Tuesday, November 11. Fortunately, it helps raise us above the gritty questions of politics and strategy, to honour those who have died in the service of Canada and the quest for peace around the world. We pay tribute also to the wounded, and to the families of our soldiers, who bear the heaviest of burdens in the war effort.

There will be a Remembrance Day Service and Parade this Sunday, November 9, with a 10:45 am service at the Erin Cenotaph and two minutes of silence at 11:00 am. A parade to the Royal Canadian Legion on Dundas St. E. will be followed by a non-denominational service. On November 11, the cenotaph service starts at 10:45 am.

After Remembrance Day, Canadians should ask some serious questions about Afghanistan. We honour the fallen and show concern for those now fighting when we hold our politicians accountable for our military actions.

Why has the federal government tried to obscure the cost of the war, which may now hit $18 billion by 2011? A parliamentary report in October concluded that MPs had to vote on spending for the mission without knowing the real costs. This is unacceptable in a democracy, one for which so many have given their lives.

Despite the unexpectedly high expenditure, it appears to be insufficient. Despite major progress in some areas, our Coalition has been unable to establish control in southern Afghanistan. We don’t have the troops or firepower to fully suppress a well-funded, highly-motivated enemy. It is now widely accepted that a military victory is not possible in Afghanistan under current conditions.

The loss of 97 Canadian lives is not in itself a reason to reconsider the mission. We expect soldiers to risk their lives to protect our interests, and they accept the risk. But if the current strategy is not working, it makes sense to take a step back until a better one is decided upon.

Our troops should remain in Afghanistan until 2011 as planned, but reduce their active combat role in Kandahar province. We have earned international respect by already doing more than our duty there. I know that parliament has passed a motion to have troops stay in Kandahar, but a change is possible.

Ultimately, we must weigh the costs against the potential benefits. Do we dig ourselves in deeper by applying overwhelming force, or do we accept that bringing stability to the region and countering the global terrorism threat are primarily tasks of diplomacy and economics?

The Afghan poppy crop generates $3.1 billion a year, allowing the Taliban to buy weapons, bribe government officials and pay its soldiers three times what they would make in the Afghan army. NATO forces have no mandate to eradicate the crops and labs, or go after those who run them. The trade will never been totally eliminated, but Afghan government is not yet strong enough to significantly reduce it.

We must find ways to suppress the Taliban’s military funding, influence and recruitment and build up the confidence of all Afghans – including those now loyal to the Taliban – to determine their own future, and work out their differences in peace.

As MP Michael Chong said at the Erin all-candidates meeting recently, “we are not going to defeat the Taliban – they are part of the solution”. He also said we can help mediate between Afghanistan and Pakistan to help negotiate some security for the Pashtun people on both sides of the border.

That sounds more reasonable than invading Pakistan, a possibility that has been raised in the US.

The task of converting tribal cultures into a modern democracy will take many decades, if indeed they want to be converted. Reconstruction has improved conditions in some areas, but the United Nations says Afghanistan remains extremely poor, with lack of basic health care leading to extremely high rates of maternal and infant mortality. Some 1,400 civilians have been killed this year, mostly by Taliban forces, but 395 in Western air strikes. Clearly, war is the worst solution for everyone involved.

This is primarily America’s war, but they have been too busy in Iraq to deal effectively with Afghanistan. An expected surge of US forces would improve the situation for Canadian troops, but it will not solve Afghanistan’s problems.

There is cause for hope, with George Bush about to fade into history, and US General David Petraeus leading a reassessment of American strategy in the region – essentially an admission that the original strategy has not worked well. The review will reportedly focus on reconciliation, economic development and regional diplomacy.

Here in Canada, let us see what the new US president does, and whether a new strategy is actually adopted. Then let us consider whether we will continue fighting in Kandahar province for three more years.

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