Sunday, August 23, 2009

Canada and Afghanistan in 2011: More Follow Ups

My op-ed in the Globe and Mail has produced a stronger response than all of my previous op-eds that I have written in Canada and the US combined. I stand by what I said, but will try to clarify what I was arguing, try to pop a myth or two, and also point to some interesting and troubling claims made by some of my "fans." Finally, I will suggest what Canada has bought with its blood and how it might parlay its increased influence.

First, as mentioned in the past few weeks in this blog, I am not completely sure that "armed nation-building" is the way ahead in Afghanistan. I am very much aware of the limitations of the current effort, as this article makes abundantly clear. I guess I should have been clearer in the op-ed that I was arguing that Canada should not leave before NATO does, but whether it works within NATO to push for a withdrawal, a change in strategy or a surge is still an open question. Mostly, I was arguing that there are motivations and benefits to Canada's participation that no one seems to mention in Canada, and the vociferous response to my op-ed suggests both why there has been silence on this issue and why that silence had to be broken.

Second, there are a lot of myths about Afghanistan. I am not going to try to deflect the various claims about pipelines here and other darker motivations. Instead, let me just clarify one key myth--while the US and its allies have been involved in Afghanistan since 2001, the counter-insurgency effort really is only three years old. Before that, the US mission was to clear out terrorists, and Rumsfeld actively limited what American commanders could do beyond that (we have interviews with senior US generals to buttress that point in our work underway). And NATO was restricted to Kabul until 2005. So, only three years, which is quite early in any counter-insurgency effort. Yes, the war is complicated by drugs, Pakistan and all the rest, but we should not be expecting a self-sustaining Afghanistan yet. The key really is whether we are making progress, but as discussed elsewhere in this blog, metrics here are hard to come by. My point here is using 2001 as the start date and arguing that this war is longer than WWI and WWII combined is not particularly illuminating.

Third, many commenters suggested that either I had no right as an ivory tower academic to ask Canada's troops to remain in harm's way or wondered when I was enlisting in the Canadian Forces. These comments seemed to suggest that only those who might be endangered have a right to decide to go to war or to have an opinion on it. So, we should leave these decisions up to the military, I guess. Ummm, that does not sound too healthy in a democracy. Of course, what these people really mean is that advocates for war must put themselves at risk while advocates for peace can do opine no matter what their occupation/risks might be. That does not sound terribly democratic either. I see their point that I am arguing that Canada should take on continued risks in Afghanistan from the safety of McGill. But, as the saying goes, isn't war too important to be left to the Generals?

Finally, in the piece, I did not specify what Canada gains from its sacrifices and perhaps why Canada would like NATO to stick around a while longer. Nor did I really go after one of my favorite targets--Arctic Sovereignty--and this is all related. Canada cannot really hope to defend its northern borders and waters from Russia or the US (perhaps Denmark). What it really needs is to be member of a multilateral alliance that can present a deterrent threat to Russia or a bilateral one (with just the US). Either way, helping out the US and NATO in Afghanistan is part of an implicit and sometimes explicit bargain--that fighting in Afghanistan and losing lives there is part of an effort to defend Canada not just from terrorists trained in Southwest Asia but also against the future threats up north.

AND perhaps, just perhaps, wise Canadian leadership combined with a new American administration might led to a new US-Canadian bargain so that the US concedes some ground vis-a-vis the Arctic. Yes, I am essentially saying that the lives lost so far and those yet to be lost are, indeed, bargaining chips. This may be offensive, but is essentially true nonetheless. Militaries are used not just for defense but for influence, and the real issue is how to get the most for the least, not to ignore the existence of trade-offs.

I will post more on this sometime this week--to answer the Phil question of influence more directly.

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