Thursday, November 25, 2010

Passage of Time: Meaningless Category

I had a nice tweet discussion with Juliet O'Neill today.  She is a Canadian journalist and was mentioning that the defence critic of the New Democratic Party said that Canada will be in Afghanistan longer than the Russians were.  She called this evocative and provocative after I said it was meaningless.  A similar statement is that Canada (and NATO) have been in Afghanistan longer than the two World Wars combined. 

Both statements are technically true.  But what do they mean?  To say we have been doing "this" longer than the world wars ignores several key differences:
  • Most obviously, the war in Afghanistan has never been anywhere near as intense as the effort in either World War.  Canada's deployment has never been over three thousand.  Canada lost more than that number in many different battles and campaigns in either war.  The effort in Afghanistan may be the focal point of the Canadian military, but it is a sideshow for the Canadian public.  It has not greatly affected what Canada does at home or in the world.  
  • What is Canada doing in Afghanistan?  It is not fighting a conventional war to defeat an aggressive enemy that has sought to conquer its neighbors.  Instead, it has been an unconventional war, sometimes counter-insurgency (2006-2011), some times peace keeping op (Kabul 2004-05), sometimes Taliban-AQ chasing (winter 2002).  So, expecting defeat or easily measurable progress over a period of time is not quite so simple.
  • Whatever we have been doing, "this" has not been going on for the entire time frame.  Canada has only been doing COIN in Kandahar since 2006 at best.  So, whenever the idea is that we have been doing this is longer than the world wars, well, that is b.s.  It has not been a steady, committed effort.  We know have four separate decisions to deploy to Afghanistan.  I believe Canada made one big decision for WWI and another big one for WWII.  
Russians versus Canadians
  • What does this comparison mean?  That the Russians failed sooner than the Canadians?  Endurance by itself may or may not mean much, but saying that the Russians left sooner than the Canadians means what?
  • Well, for one, the effort by the Afghans against the Russians makes the IED campaign against the Canadians appear to be a walk in the park (with all due apologies to the folks harmed in this campaign).  Afghans were nearly unanimous in their opposition to the Russians.  Afghans are much more supportive of the Canadians despite what Canadians and others believe.
  • Canadians are doing far less harm and a whole lot more good.  Success may not be easy to measure and victory may be elusive, but the situation facing NATO in 2010 is not what the Russians faced in 1988.  
Evocative and provocative perhaps these comparisons might be.  But they deceive rather than inform.  Is this deliberate or just ignorance (the NDP, not Juliet O'Neill)?  Not sure.   

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