Canada in Afghanistan: Mission becoming impossible task

Wednesday, September 16, 2009 – Globe and Mail

Canada’s Afghanistan mission is falling short of its goals as violence and instability continue to worsen in Kandahar and across the country. Critics and military experts are questioning whether those goals can possibly be met by the time Canada ends its military commitment in 2011 – and whether they were realistic to begin with.

A quarterly report released yesterday detailing the progress of Canadian military operations in Afghanistan found Kandahar province becoming more violent, less stable and less secure, and attacks across the country becoming more frequent than at any time since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Less than two years before the scheduled end of its military mission in Kandahar, Canada isn’t meeting the benchmarks it set coming out of the Manley commission.

In the wake of an Afghan national election that is being condemned for widespread fraud, military experts are pointing to Canada’s lofty military and development goals as simply unrealistic – certainly not anything its troops can accomplish by the pullout date.

Seasonal violence increases every year at the end of the poppy harvest in Afghanistan, whose population still depends largely on the heroin trade. But the report notes “exceptionally high” frequency of attacks this spring ahead of last month’s national election, compared with a year earlier.

At the same time, Afghans are reporting they’re less satisfied with education provisions and employment levels – something Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who is in charge of the cabinet committee on Afghanistan, attributed yesterday to the increased security concerns.

The report notes that, rather than attempting to disrupt the Taliban in Kandahar province as a whole, Canada is shifting its focus to maintaining stability in the capital Kandahar city and its environs.

These scaled-back expectations make sense, said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, and Canada was foolish not to keep its ambitions more modest years ago when its Kandahar commitment began in earnest.

“We never had the troops to cover the entire province. I understand people believed we did, but that was clearly a miscalculation.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is calling for more troops, and more time, for the American mission in Afghanistan. Adm. Mullen argues a dramatic boost in forces is necessary if the operation is to succeed. Mr. Day told reporters yesterday that progress continues to be made “on all fronts” in Kandahar, despite the heightened violence and insecurity.

He said the national election, clouded by threats of violence and then by widespread allegations of fraud, was still better than none at all.

“Along with all the difficulties, the fact that millions of citizens in Afghanistan not only registered but voted under threat of their lives is certainly significant,” he said. “Not so many years ago, there were no elections at all in Afghanistan.

“A little over a year ago, there wasn’t even a commission to take complaints.”

New Democratic Party foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said that the report indicates an “incredible lack of progress” and that Canada should be re-evaluating its direction in Afghanistan altogether.

“There’s been a lack of leadership, there’s been utter confusion as to what our goals really are and all this does is try to paper over what is a mission that has gone drastically wrong,” he said.

“What are the goals, what does success look like and when are we done?”

Canadians, and their politicians, who question Canada’s presence in Afghanistan need to be realistic about the tiny size of the mission and what it can accomplish, Dr. Bercuson said. If Canada leaves in 2011, he said, it will be able to point to keeping Kandahar city out of Taliban hands for several years with limited resources – but little else.

“We were overly ambitious,” he said. “Corruption, accountability. I think you’ve just got to be realistic about the part of the world that you’re dealing with.”

With a report from Campbell Clark in Ottawa



Training and mentoring

Afghan National Security Forces

Goal: Increased capacity of both Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police in Kandahar by 2011 Progress: Both army and police are taking on greater roles, with Canada providing some of their training. But critics have voiced concerns about continuing allegations of torture or abuse of power.

Basic services

Goal: Ability of Kandahar’s administration to provide basic services to “key districts” of the province by 2011

Progress: Five of the 50 schools in Canada’s “signature” school-building project are complete, and 28 are under construction. Surveys this spring indicated residents are less satisfied with the education available. Rehabilitation of the Dahla Dam, another signature Canadian project, continues.

Humanitarian assistance

Goal: Make humanitarian assistance available for Afghan refugees, returnees and for internally displaced persons by 2011

Progress: Canada has continued its signature polio vaccination project, but new cases continue to be reported – eight during the second quarter of this year. The report states the insurgency as well as an increasing number of cases in Pakistan, are impeding the eradication program. Canada is also clearing land mines and contributing to food and refugee aid through the UN and the World Food Program.

Border security

and dialogue

Goal: A stronger capacity on the part of Afghan and Pakistani institutions to manage their border and foster economic development in the border area

Progress: A trilateral Washington summit was held this spring between Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United States. Canada is assisting in plans for a new border facility in Spin Boldak.

Democratic development and national institutions

Goal: Increased capacity on the part of national, provincial and local institutions, particularly in Kandahar province, to govern democratically, deliver public programs and carry out democratic elections

Progress: The report released yesterday calls Afghanistan’s government capacity “chronically weak and undermined by widespread corruption.” There was widespread intimidation and threats of violence leading up to the national election last month, whose results have been called into question based on allegations of pervasive fraud.

Political reconciliation

Goal: Encouragement of political reconciliation on the part of provincial and national Afghan government initiatives, supported by Canada

Progress: “The onset of the summer fighting season and the concentration of politicians and activists on the August elections discouraged expectations of noteworthy initiatives in reconciliation,” the report notes.

Anna Mehler Paperny

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