Some months ago, I reminded readers of Policy Options that Afghanistan was a deeply troubled place with a reputation for defeating its invaders. That did not guarantee that Canada’s participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was doomed. Far from it. However, it was no light burden that we had assumed when the Paul Martin government consented to a commitment to provide both a Provincial Reconstruction Team and a small battalion-sized battle group to Kandahar province on the frontier with Pakistan.

In the winter of 2001-02, American invaders, largely com- posed of special forces and dissident Afghans, routed the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar and sent most of its leaders into exile in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. As usual in Afghan history, conquest seems easy. Resolute and professional troops have usually profited from Afghanistan’s deep poverty and bit- ter tribal rivalries to replace any regime. Only then does the trouble start. Whether based on democratic consent or brutal savagery, any regime has no influence beyond its current geo- graphical or tribal base. Afghanistan is as much a feudal king- dom as England was at the time of William the Conqueror or Scotland under Queen Mary. Its infrastructure of roads, tax collection, courts, schools and hospitals is even more primitive. Like our feudal ancestors, Afghans reserve their loyalties for the family and the clan, dividing even small villages into mutually suspicious factions.

Hard-hearted reactionaries might argue that people in such a state should be left to evolve as slowly and as brutally as our own faintly remembered European ancestors. That would seem to be the likeliest outcome if Jack Layton’s NDP prevails and Canadian troops pack up and race for waiting aircraft, like the Americans fleeing Saigon in 1975. Recognizing deep down that his own Liberal government put Canada into this humili- ating situation, Stéphane Dion argued for an only slightly more dignified retreat when Canada’s current Kandahar commit- ment runs out in February of 2009, 20 months and perhaps another 40 or 50 dead Canadians from now.

If Stephen Harper is defeated in the next general election and the Liberals return to power, Dion will be able to exercise his option. Unless they forget their pre-election posturing, the Canadians will then come home from Kandahar, their mission an obvious failure, the Taliban triumphant and NATO officials in Brussels trying to spin some illusory success out of Canada’s humiliation. If that is going to be the outcome, Layton’s poli- cy makes significantly more sense since it spares the Canadian lives which will be sacrificed and the Canadian bodies that will be mutilated in an additional 22 months of active service, not to mention the sub- stantial costs to Canadian taxpayers of continuing to finance a failure.

For a failure Afghanistan will undoubtedly be. Whether Canadi- ans leave now or in less than two years, the Taliban will be patiently waiting. They know the pattern. After the US Army lost two helicopters and 18 sol- diers to General Siad Barre’s Somali guer- rillas in downtown Mogadishu, the US packed up and went home, leaving total chaos behind it. Islamic guerrillas added that lesson to the textbook they had already built from the Vietnam experi- ence. After committing almost every imaginable blunder, it appears likely that the United States will flee a similar mess in Iraq, abandoning hundreds of thou- sands of people who foolishly put their faith in American idealism and generosi- ty. This time, the lesson to al-Qaeda will be even more direct and vastly more encouraging. The same steadfast, divine- ly rationalized ruthlessness that drove the Soviet empire from Afghanistan in 1990 will have defeated the United States. Canada’s simultaneous abandon- ment of ISAF will be our contribution to betraying the frail hopes of Afghan women, children and democrats.

Canada’s extensive military histo- ry includes plenty of hard knocks like Hong Kong in 1941 or Dieppe in 1942, not to mention Fish Creek and Cut Knife Hill in 1885 or Ridgeway in 1866, but never before have Canadians lost a war. Thanks to ourselves and our allies, we ended on the winning side in 1918 and 1945, and against the Boer republics in 1902. The War of 1812 cer- tainly saw some stinging British defeats but Canada triumphed just by fighting off repeated American invasions.

If we abandon Afghanistan, the Canadian Forces will suffer our first unequivocal military defeat. Yes, the usual political and military spin doctors will line up to hide the truth and muster all manner of alibis. Like Americans after Vietnam, we will be told that we don’t need to know the aftermath and we probably won’t even ask. For a decade or so, our media will avoid send- ing reporters to so dangerous and hos- tile a place. Viewers and readers will accept a diet of positive and comforting stories. Critics will be dismissed as whin- ers and misery-makers. If the current controversy over the merits of bombing German civilians is any model, our new War Museum will be instructed to ”œspin” Afghanistan as a positive experi- ence. Deep down, we will still know the truth. Defeat will be real enough.

Is there an alternative? Canadians know that there is. We can learn from our past military history. From the Bible to the memoirs of living veterans, there is a rich literature of our experience in so-called asymmetric wars against insur- gent forces. We must of course recognize the political role of romantic exaggera- tion in partisan struggles. In any war, victory is always as much an issue of will power as of killing power. The David- and-Goliath fantasy of semi-armed civil- ians overcoming organized force is irresistibly captivating precisely because it defies practical experience.

The great equalizer between the strong and the weak is a four-letter word: will. If a hockey or football player, a cor- porate executive, a boxer or a soldier doesn’t really care about winning, any coach can predict defeat. This was utterly obvious to Canadians in the two world wars, and it drove Canadians during the hard and danger- ous early years of the Cold War. Our soldiers fought and died in Korea because defeat was both unthinkable and utterly unacceptable.

Out of that commitment came Canadian Forces that slowly and often painfully evolved to join the best in the Allied ranks. The cost in lives was high ”” an estimated 66,000 in the First World War, 44,000 in the Second, 312 in the Korean War. Canadian losses were magnified by inexperienced officers and defective weapons like the Canadian-built Ross Rifle in 1915-16, the highly flammable Sherman tank of 1943-45 and our home- made ship-borne radars in the Battle of the Atlantic. Canadians learned their fighting skills the hard way, on the job. Whether on the sea, in the air or on the land, Canadians got better and better at fighting. Often, they sustained them- selves in their cruel ordeal by the realiza- tion that they could not go home until they had won or, as a more agonizing alternative, they were either dead or so damaged that they could fight no more. Currently, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan stay for only six months. Whatever their prior training in Canada or the United States, any sol- dier still has much to learn ”œin the- atre” and some of that learning is evident in the casualties each ”œrota- tion” suffers in its early weeks. After six months, close to the top of their form, they go home to Canada, taking hard- won experience with them, perhaps to share with future rotos but seldom to apply to the wily Taliban.

In Vietnam, Americans rotated home after 12 months, to the day, of their arrival. Units had to replace bat- tle-hardened veterans with raw recruits. Efficiency and unit cohesive- ness suffered. An army that stripped itself of its best soldiers was an army of survivors, not of warriors. Contemporaries blamed rotation on the draft and swore that an all-volun- teer army would never again make such a mistake. It did, and so do we.

True, some of Canada’s NATO allies spend only three months in theatre. Veterans of Afghanistan know that such allies are both unaggressive and undependable. In their provinces, the Taliban are free to roam beyond rifle range and eyeshot of the ISAF base.

Is Canada’s six-month term compatible with victory? The question must be asked, primarily because Canada ”” like NATO overall ”” does not have enough troops on the ground to perform the difficult job of challenging the Taliban. Clever dodges have failed against a resolute and patient enemy, convinced that its willpower far exceeds that of US and most NATO politicians and voters. Numerical weakness helped persuade the British in Helmand province to negotiate local treaties with allegedly ”œliberated” com- munities. Signing a treaty to assume responsibility for local security allowed the British to reassign their hard-pressed troops, while villagers could live in peace and safety. Sadly, the Taliban were not consulted. With infidel defenders gone, the Taliban returned to exercise the authority and power they had wield- ed before 2002. So-called collaborators were tortured, murdered or driven into exile, abandoning all they had ever owned. The British and their neighbour- ing Canadian and American allies were compelled to recapture regions that had seemed safe to ignore in favour of other threats.

The biggest challenge for Afghanistan and for ISAF is the border with Pakistan. Tribal links bind the Pashtun on both sides of the border and align them against governing regimes in both Kabul and Islamabad. Since he took power, General Pervez Musharraf claims to have lost 4,000 soldiers in a failing bid to do what the British never managed in all the years of the Indian empire: control his North-west Frontier province. Like the Americans, NATO reckons that it is preferable to respect the Musharraf regime rather than risk provoking an Islamic fundamentalist uprising in Pakistan. When control of Pakistan’s 50 nuclear warheads is at issue, moderation seems highly rational.

That leaves a highly porous border, over which arms, explosives, sup- plies and reinforcements have been flowing at least since the 1980s war with the Soviet Army and, really, for centuries. The Taliban already have a stock of weapons, bombs, supplies and manpower in Afghanistan, but they are steadily replenished, refreshed and modernized by a busy traffic across the Afghan-Pakistani border.

This is such an enormous problem that neither ISAF nor its American pred- ecessors have wanted to address it. The Afghan-Pakistani border is mountain- ous, gashed by swift-running streams and thousands of steep paths known only to local people. Closing the border would require vastly more soldiers than either NATO or the Karzai regime can currently deploy. Border defence detachments would be vulnerable to hit-and-run raids from the Taliban and sympathizers. They would have to be backed by round-the-clock aerial and elec- tronic surveillance. Much of the task might be borne by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) but backup support would be needed from piloted fighter- bombers, prone to ”œblue-on- blue” or ”œfriendly-fire” accidents, such as Canadians have already twice experienced since 2002.

Yet no guerrilla war in his- tory has been won so far with- out the winner imposing effective constraints on the guerrilla army’s supply of arms, ammunition, explosives and volunteers. Canada’s soldiers know how to do their part if Canadians let them do so. Our example would far outweigh any number of resentful speeeches in Brussels about negligent NATO allies.

Additional troops for such a frontier force could be more available if Canadians quit treating Afghanistan as a half-hearted but dutiful involvement in a disaster and set their hearts and minds on success. Canada maintains three mechanized brigades at Valcartier, Petawawa and Wainwright and a com- bat training centre at Gagetown outside Fredericton, NB. True, years of budget cutting and other government and mil- itary priorities reduced those brigades, manpower, efficiency and training stan- dards. It also left them with worn-out and often inferior equipment. Each brigade has been stretched to provide a mere battalion-strength unit for its rota- tion to the Kandahar battle group. The last regulars, from the largely French- speaking 5th Mechanized Brigade, leave this August. Thereafter, like the Americans in Iraq, National Defence is looking to the Land Forces reserves.

However, given a serious commit- ment to success, Canada’s land forces should be able to rotate a full brigade group to Afghanistan or even an under- strength division. This would be an exhausting commitment for Canada’s soldiers and for their families, but war is not a game, and the experience of fighting and overcoming some of the best fighters in the world would become a source of pride and achieve- ment for the army. Retreat from failure, in contrast, would be an enduring shame for all Canadians and a debili- tating humiliation for their soldiers.

Many Canadians, and certainly some of their political representatives, obviously hate to acknowledge that Canada is engaged in a war in Afghanistan, even if most of those same Canadians agree that we should protect an elected government from a cruel and ruthless conspiracy. It is not hard to make a case for protecting freedoms most of us believe should be universal, such as the right of young girls to attend school, the right of women to work and the ability of ordinary people to count on justice under an honest and respon- sible government.

Most Canadians also understand that gross imperfections, founded on centuries of tyranny and poverty, aggra- vated by two generations of warfare, cannot be cured easily or fast. At the same time, the naive assumption that Canadians have a right to impose our values and institutions on Afghans with or without their consent smells like other relics of 19th-century colonialism.

We are in Afghanistan not to rule the country but at the invitation of its own government through the United Nations, to defend its first imperfect experience of an elected government.

A consistent demand from oppo- nents of Canada’s commitment to ISAF has been that reconstruction replace fighting in Afghanistan. On the face of it, this may seem reasonable. Part of the rapid American success in 2001 was due to a US pledge of billions of dol- lars of development aid to a country shattered by generations of war. Sadly, that pledge vanished when the US switched its energies to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Ottawa could, of course, try to replace the American promises with our own resources. That would be better evi- dence than parliamentary speeches that Canada and its NATO allies have an enduring commitment to the Afghan people. Media reports cite Afghan regrets that the NATO-led development falls far short of reconstruction aid in the Soviet era, with its bold (and shame- lessly publicized) public works initia- tives to bring electricity and electronic communications to Afghan cities.

Earlier in Policy Options, I suggested a proposal to enhance Afghan infra- structure by building a railway across Afghanistan. Nothing did more to trans- form the rural economy of mid-19th- century Canada than the advent of the Grand Trunk Railway and its competi- tors. Subsistence and sometimes starva- tion agriculture was replaced by a prosperous farm economy based on the exchange of surplus products for manu- factured necessities. While Canada has a current investment in the production of railway motive power and rolling stock, the Chinese have gained enormous experience in railway building in Africa and in mountainous regions like Tibet. A Chinese-built line from Iran to its own border with Afghanistan might be seen as a national benefit in Beijing, as well as an enduring asset for Afghans. How else can the products of these industri- ous but impoverished people be moved to markets? At present, a spavined don- key can probably carry a farmer’s annu- al poppy harvest over the hills to his nearest warlord, but a railway could move bushels of wheat, sacks of pome- granates or sides of lamb to serious mar- kets of a hungry region, and carry back the liberating resources of modernity. Instead of picking fights with Beijing, imagine engaging the next world superpower in solving the problems of its troublesome neighbour!

A US Marine Corps general, Charles Kruhlak, gained fame for his con- cept of ”œthree-block war,” with soldiers fighting guerrillas in one city block, recovering casualties in the neighbour- ing block and reconstructing the homes in a third. This sounds sweetly idealistic to those who find warlike violence deeply upsetting.

Although Kruhlak’s idea has not worked in practice, it has been too seductive for politicians and their uni- formed acolytes to ignore. Civil- military cooperation (CIMIC) in Afghanistan has become a major Canadian commitment, and its advo- cates preach to the converted. Great efforts have also been devoted to con- strain Canadian soldiers from acting in violent self-defence. Distinguishing a malevolently murderous terrorist from an apolitical but weary Afghan is prac- tically impossible for a frightened sol- dier with little or no knowledge of local lore or languages. CIMIC detachments absorb significant numbers of combat soldiers as escorts and contribute a heavy share of Canada’s casualties. If a lack of soldiers cripples efforts to repel the Taliban, is CIMIC a contribution to victory or only a sop to the consciences of Canadian politicians?

Reconstruction is working in Afghanistan, but essentially in provinces remote from the dangerous southern border. One of the reasons for an active occupation of provinces like Kandahar, Helmand and Khost was to deter Taliban infiltration farther north. Reconstruction, in the form of rebuilt schools, hospitals and housing as well as teachers, doctors, nurses and builders, has been a consistent Taliban target. So are ”œcollaborators,” whether it is the family of an Afghan soldier or police officer, a teacher or even a child happily flaunting the red school bag or the can- dies he received that morning from a kindly Canadian soldier. Imagine the terror of an Afghan mother as she sees her child trip happily through the neighbourhood, displaying his gifts from Canada. She knows that some of her neighbours are outraged at this ”œcol- laboration” with the infidel invaders. What will the Taliban do when they come tonight after the Canadians have gone back to their distant base? What has CIMIC wrought?

The single-minded pri- ority of ISAF and the Afghan security forces must be to deter Taliban incursions into Afghanistan. When the Taliban no longer control territory, even at night, Canadians and their NATO allies will finally have done the job ISAF undertook in 2003. They can come home victorious. They will bring with them an under- standing and appreciation of some of the toughest enemies Canadians have ever had to fight. They will have earned the appreciation and respect of millions of Afghan people and, especially, of fel- low Canadians from coast to coast.

Victory is possible in Afghanistan and it will come all the sooner when the Taliban grimly conclude that Canadians and ISAF will stay until the rebels make their own peace with the Karzai govern- ment or its legitimate successor.

Defeat, with all its agony and humil- iation, is also possible in Afghanistan, as it is in the minds of more than half of Canada’s members of Parliament. Whatever the ”œspin” invented by politi- cal opportunists, Canada has never yet had to swallow such a military disaster and we really don’t have to. If we could beat Hitler in 1945 and outlast the Soviet empire, we can help force the Taliban to make terms. Shouldn’t we be ashamed even to think of doing less!

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