I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.
It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Winston Churchill, 1939

If Churchill were alive today, he might have a comparably apt depiction of Afghanistan. And indeed all those engaging with the problems and challenges of the country have grave difficulties describing the problems and challenges with which they grapple.

We are attempting to deal with a society and its peoples whose level of civilization is not, to put it politely, twenty-first century. Or for those elements of the society that are technologically modern in twenty-first-century terms, their motivations and cultural parameters may be still very “foreign” to any Western observer living in contemporary times. Often we just don’t know “where they are coming from.”

But the United States (and Canada to the degree that it elects to continue its involvement post-July 2011) must address this non-twenty-first-century society within the limits imposed by twenty-first-century moral/ethical constraints projected onto our military/combat forces. Often it is not an easy fit.

It is not as if Afghanistan is the dark side of the moon; Western combat forces have come and conquered (the Great Alexander’s Greeks; British Raj) and come and been defeated (British Raj; Soviet communists). A combat experience in Afghanistan is militarily memorable; winning will be unforgettable. Losing may bring to mind the brutal Kipling poem about combat in the country (“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, And the women come out to cut up what remains, Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”) Life and death in Afghanistan are far removed from the White House lawn in Washington or Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

There are direct and brutal answers to guerrilla terrorism, ones that don’t accord with politically correct sensibilities and dare not speak their names, but also avoid the onus associated with defeat. The Mao Zetung aphorism that guerrillas are the fish swimming in the water of the people has a solution: poison the water. Although it isn’t widely known, the Japanese destroyed the Philippine resistance during the Second World War by systematically torturing possible guerrillas; it didn’t matter whether they were engaged in resistance or not — eventually real “names” emerged of individuals that then were caught, tortured and executed. Or, regarding the US effort to win “hearts and minds” in Vietnam, one observer commented that the population leans to the side employing the greater terror. Being the “good guy” may not get you the support you hope.

These observations are not designed to prompt a conclusion that good guys must finish last, but rather that the role we have imposed on ourselves may not lead to victory. You may be convinced that “we cannot kill our way to victory”; however, in any war there are irreconcilables who cannot be convinced of our rectitude and must be killed to resolve the problem of their intransigence. Then there are others who enjoy fighting as the ultimate “sudden death” sport, and still others who have no alternative futures more attractive than fighting foreigners (or the government, if they run short of foreigners).

Why are we there? Afghanistan qualified as the “good war.” That is, in contrast to the spurious rationales for invading Iraq, even the Iraq skeptics could agree that there was a reason for US forces to be in Afghanistan. It was the sanctuary and training ground for al-Qaeda terrorists that perpetrated 9/11. Eliminating this threat and its supporters was a legitimate response to the murder of 3,000 in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. With a speed and techno-combat effectiveness that stunned the doubters (who arm-chair-warriored US forces as equivalents to the Soviet 1980s war machine that came to grief in Afghanistan), Coalition forces destroyed the Taliban military and overthrew its government. Our operations were sanctioned by UN resolution and conducted under a NATO mandate. The success was compromised by failure to capture or kill either the al-Qaeda leader (Osama bin Laden) or the Taliban commander (Mullah Omar) — a frustrating failure that persists to this day.

Coalition forces destroyed the Taliban military and overthrew its government. Our operations were sanctioned by UN resolution and conducted under a NATO mandate. The success was compromised by failure to capture/kill either the al-Qaeda leader (Osama bin Laden) or the Taliban commander (Mullah Omar) — a frustrating failure that persists to this day.

The ultimate objective is simple: But that doesn’t mean that it is easy. The US also has a “never again” mantra — never again will we permit Afghanistan to become a safe haven for terrorists. For the record, we are committed to the full spectrum of human rights and democracy: free, honest elections; clean government; the Charter of Rights and Freedoms liberties; open market capitalism; and, in a Canadian nutshell, peace, order and good government. Thus it would be nice to have young women fearlessly seeking educational and political self-fulfillment in bikinis; it would be delightful if little boys could fly their kites without fear of Taliban restriction; it would be gratifying if wheat crops replaced opium poppies. But the bottom line remains: we demand as the payback for our blood and treasure a country unable to nurture, train and export terrorists.

Getting there has not been half the fun. In the years following its virtual annihilation, the Taliban has regrouped and returned. It doesn’t control anything, but it influences a good deal. Supposedly, it has expressed the judgment “You have the wristwatches; we have the time.” In short they propose not to throw us out, but to wait us out. They believe that someday — without ever having lost a battle — we will declare defeat with weasel words proclaiming “time to turn the page” and slink away into the night.

Our objective is the obverse: foster an Afghan government that exercises sociopolitical control throughout the country with Afghan security forces (police and army) that are sufficiently powerful and effective to sustain it in power. This task is hardly akin to rocket science or brain surgery; for decades, the US army has trained every variety of human being into reasonably effective soldiers. Afghan males, accustomed to handling weapons since before they were toilet trained, are personally courageous, natural light infantry immured to hardship. We have organized governments and provided economic assistance throughout the globe ever since the Second World War. Ostensibly, it should be easier than a moon landing, even if it ends by costing as much.

We have the resources on the ground: Over the past six months, the US has “surged” sufficient combat forces to manage the requirement. Additionally, we are sending the full panoply of civilians to lead, instruct, cajole and hector their Afghan analogues across the spectrum of government, administrative and economic affairs. There are times, however, that the effort appears akin to attempting to make bricks without straw — and without clay. The horses that we lead to water often prefer not to drink.

But, in many aspects, this objective ultimately is relatively simple; if necessary, sit on our bayonets, regardless of the discomfort, and pay the costs to maintain our bottom line. Our problem has come when we moved beyond the minimal into “nation building,” which is our current endeavour. Coalition combat losses have been comparatively small (fewer than 1,000 US combat deaths in nine years — when we suffered over 4,000 in Iraq over seven years and 2,500 dead on D-Day alone in 1944). However, historical perspective is not our strong point; we are now a “short-haul” society; no longer are we doing long-term commitments. We have forgotten how long it took to pacify the American West from Amerindians who frequently were as resilient and elusive as any Afghan militant. If we had handled the Indian Wars as we are now attempting to handle Afghanistan, the US frontier would still be at the Mississippi River, and all territory to the west would be “Indian Country.”

After much delay on consultations, Obama reinforced our military commitment. We have again “surged” some of our finest combat units and defenestrated General Stanley McChrystal, a combat commander who spoke unfortunately blunt opinions about the powerful, replacing him with an even more technically proficient officer (General David Petraeus), who will also speak truth about the powerful but do so sotto voce. We should be able to accomplish our Afghan objectives — but not if we hold to the semi-commitment to start removing surged forces in July 2011.

But the coalition tires: Working hard to prove the Taliban judgment correct, the Coalition has frayed at the seams. Many NATO members participated early in the operation, prompted by solidarity with the US after the 9/11 tragedy and believing that their presence would be a peacekeeping/”Boy Scout” type of operation. But a decade of grinding has eroded what was always a marginal commitment. Afghanistan is a long way away from our NATO allies; Afghan human rights are an abstraction when body bags are a reality; there is no domestic ethnic lobby group urging sustained commitment; there is no defining imperative for countries outside the US equivalent to the burning towers in Manhattan that still scar the retinas of many Americans. The muttered undertone is “We’ve done enough; if the Americans want to stay, we won’t stand in their way.” So Europeans and others are coming home; 2011 (the 10-year mark) appears to be the line of departure.

And it is hard to gainsay them. Ten years of attempting to support a government that appears epitomized by self-serving politicians and deeply rooted corruption is enough. NATO nations have many other plaintiffs for their limited funds (domestic rat holes to attempt to fill rather than foreign burrows) — and a happy escape from explaining casualties inflicted by an enemy that appears as implacable as he is vicious.

The casualties question: There is a throw-away line to the effect that “one death is a tragedy; a thousand deaths is a statistic.” None of the losses by Coalition members are demographically significant; Canadians probably lose more people in road accidents every year than over the past decade in Afghanistan. To provide some perspective, there were 516 Canadian combat deaths in the Korea War; 45,300 in the Second World War (from an 11.1-million population); and 64,944 in the First World War (from a 7.2-million population). But 150 dead over nine years is regarded as insupportable. Moreover, all of the individuals are volunteers — willing, often eager, for the Afghan experience. There are no bitter draftees, driven like thousands of sheep to a Vimy slaughterhouse or floating by the hundreds in the waves off Juno Beach at D-Day Normandy.

Still, a society with total media exposure and every casualty depicted as the boy or girl next door has each death played as the loss of a friend or colleague. The consequence is an erosion of popular commitment, especially for an amorphous cause that doesn’t appear to have an end date and in support of leaders whose virtues are ambiguous at best.

Leadership will be defining: Bluntly, we and others must ask whether US leadership will stay the course. And that question, equally bluntly, really is whether President Obama has the personal will to sustain the US commitment to Afghanistan “for as long as it takes.” The studied ambiguity over US force withdrawals beginning in July 2011, depending on the operational circumstances at the time, is hardly reassuring. Will we be seeing an “Afghanization” akin to the “Vietnamization” of the war that rationalized our withdrawal (and then quickly ended in the fall of Saigon)?

It is not that we haven’t manned barricades for generations against ambiguous foes: much of the “boomer” generation garrisoned Europe for 45 years wondering if NATO could hold against Soviet tank armies smashing through the Fulda Gap. And we have committed tens of thousands of troops on the Korean Peninsula for now more than 60 years, first in combat and then as a surety that it not happen again.

Nor is it a question of the capability of our armed forces. It is not blind braggadocio to state calmly that we cannot be militarily defeated in Afghanistan. We can, however, defeat ourselves.

And herein lies the Obama enigma. The US has never had a president with so opaque a personal resumé or so scant a record of public accomplishment prior to his election. His connection with the armed forces (despite invoking his Second World War veteran grandfather) is an abstraction. He has never performed military service, does not appear ever to have owned a fire arm — and may never even have fired one. Obama’s speeches to military audiences are mechanical — he “knows the words but not the music” — and leave the impression that he has mastered an intellectual exercise rather than expressed a visceral sentiment. He is stirred by US domestic issues, not by foreign affairs security concerns.

And the Vietnam Precedent: Critics of US and/or Coalition involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are eager to pull the Vietnam experience out of the dustbin and make it predictive. It proved irrelevant in Iraq (remember the critics’ cries of quagmire?) but there is a parallel element in Afghanistan: pure frustration with its national leadership. Will Afghan president Hamid Karzai morph into Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem? Historians will remember that intensely anti-communist Diem was elected president (under questionable circumstances) and skillfully manoeuvred to maintain power between 1955 and 1963. His regime, however, was corrupt (a brother was particularly tainted); he alienated other religious groups (he was Catholic); and he finally lost US supporters. We looked the other way when a military coup killed him and his brother, resulting in a grab-bag of feckless military officers in mufti running the country into the ground. Fast-forward. The Karzai government is corrupt; his Afghan support base is limited; he refuses “good government” admonitions from his foreign supporters who tire of his tantrums. It is not difficult to visualize a Karzai corpse in our future. But would a successor be any more resolute?

A Canadian codicil: Ottawa has managed its Afghanistan experience with remarkable skill. It defused US pique for not joining the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq in 2003 by having already adhered to the UN mandate/NATO umbrella for Afghanistan, participating immediately in force stabilization/peacekeeping operations in Kabul after the Taliban was ousted. Moreover, Ottawa seized the Kandahar nettle (albeit perhaps not realizing how sharp it was going to be) and didn’t sit in quiet garrisons. Politically, the Canadian government orchestrated a bipartisan approach. Since the Liberals initially committed Canadian Forces, it would have been a bit disingenuous to denounce the Tories for continuing support. The upshot was an adroit compromise: a politico-technical review of Afghan circumstances led by impeccably credentialed former deputy prime minister John Manley leading to across-the-political-spectrum agreement in January 2008 that Canada would withdraw its forces in July 2011. That arrangement took Afghanistan off the political table for the October 2008 election — to the relief of both Liberals and Tories. It also gave Washington more than fair warning of Ottawa’s plans. In the interim, the government has reendorsed its withdrawal plans. A trial balloon for continued CF combat presence supporting Canadian trainers for Afghan police remains afloat — perhaps awaiting a final decision after the next election. Canada has played its cards well; the question will be whether it wants to remain in the game.

Photo: Sean M. Maloney

David T. Jones
David T. Jones, a former minister counselor at the US embassy in Ottawa, follows Canada-US relations from Washington.

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