Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Kandahar in the Rear View Mirror

Lots of stories in the Canadian press now about the mission in Afghanistan now that Canada is pulling out of Kandahar.  Pieces on the training of the Afghan military, Matthew Fisher's series this past week on the mission, Liberals having buyer's remorse (or blaming everyone else for their initial decision), and others provide are nice reminders that things are never clear when it comes to either Afghanistan or counter-insurgency.

I spent yesterday in Ottawa talking to various civilians about the "whole of government" or three D (defence, democracy, development) effort in Afghanistan.  Of the four meetings, one was pretty upbeat, one was overwhelmingly negative, and the two others were in between.  I think I would have only gotten more differences of opinion had I talked to a hundred economists (old joke inserted here). 

I guess I should feel much better about my ambivalence about the mission since it comes pretty close to the average of what I have heard.  Of course, we should be confused:
We've learned when the politicians change their story about why Canada is fighting and what is at stake, public support for war will erode. Successive governments over the past decade have changed their tune several times on this war - arguing variously that it was a fight to rout al-Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks; then arguing that it was an effort to stabilize a fragile new state; then that it was a war to defeat the Taliban that threatened its region and beyond; and finally that it was about re-building a wartorn country. These various narratives confused the public and led them to believe that Canada's involvement in Afghanistan was optional. Public support drained away as a result. Eugene Lang
A couple of quick reactions to this, keeping in mind that Eugene Lang was an adviser to several Liberal Ministers of National Defence.  First, it is not just the government that changed their tune.  The Liberals started the mission in 2005 and then ran away from it when it was out of power.  Sure, in Westminster systems, the job of the opposition is to oppose.  But the major critiques raised were so incredibly lame that they did not serve to educate the public but confuse them--that Harper was opposed to development (no, the Taliban were and they voted with their weapons); that Canada would only be there for a short time and then rotate out (since when has anyone ever rotated systematically in an alliance in and out of harm's way); and that the Afghan effort was too much, preventing Canada from peace-keeping elsewhere (as if the only roadblock to a Mideast peace or serious efforts in Darfur were the absence of Canadians wearing blue helmets).  So, we can blame the main opposition party in part because it was so lame in its opposition.

Second, we can blame the government for not saying enough.  Harper largely hid from the mission for much of the time, not unlike Merkl and others.  The mission was better received in countries where politicians stood in front and explained it, even when there were high casualties (see Denmark and its minority coalition government).  Moreover, the insistence that the civilians get their talking points from back home meant that the reporters in Afghanistan didn't talk to them much.  If only the military would speak about what they were doing, then the media would not wait around for the Ottawa-approved messaging.  So, no wonder that Canadians do not see the civilian effort too clearly.

Third, what are the metrics for success? This has been a problem that everyone has talked about endlessly, including myself.  One example: Canada put much effort into the prison in Kandahar, and apparently the warden and the jailers treat their prisoners far better than they used to.  But the prison is a sieve where hundreds escape every few years.  So, has the effort to improve corrections been a success or not?  Well, given that the starting point was so incredibly low, yes, there has been much success, but it does not look like anything that we would find acceptable and the optics of the semi-routine breakout are awful. 

So, the Canadian public is confused.  As are all the others.  The fog of war is especially opaque when it comes to counter-insurgency campaigns in countries that never made it past the 1300's and then suffered through more than thirty years of war.

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