Sunday, September 10, 2006

Canada's Afghan Quagmire

You know a military operation is in trouble when: (a) the generals start lying; and (b) the operations start reminding you of seemingly endless Israeli operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

How do we know the generals are lying to us? Because they are contradicting themselves left and right. Read the newspapers. Just in the past week we have been told: The current offensive in Panjwayi district is going extremely well; but the enemy is putting up much fiercer resistance than expected. We have the Taliban surrounded; but they are bringing in reinforcements to replace the fighters we have killed We have the physically 600 Taliban fighters cut off; but they are just "psychologically surrounded". We are winning; but we need more troops to win the fight. Canada has no troops to spare for missions in Darfur or Lebanon; but we will be sending 500 more troops to Afghanistan.

How are Canadian operations beginning to resemble Israeli operations in Gaza? On Friday the Globe and Mail reported that Canadian troops "used an armoured bulldozer to carve a new road across a dry canal and smash a gap through a mud wall," and that they were "hacking at mud walls with pickaxes to open firing holes and cutting down trees with chainsaws to clear their gunners' view of the terrain." In short, they are destroying civilian buildings and infrastructures as well as orchards, and using the same tools – bulldozers, pick axes and chains saws – as Israelis have been using in their operations in Gaza and the West Bank.

So we know this mission is in serious trouble.

But why should this surprise us? It has been a very long time since a foreign army has won against a locally based guerrilla force. (And an even longer time since a foreign army won any war in Afghanistan.) The French lost in Algeria and Vietnam. The U.S. lost in Vietnam and Somalia. The U.S. is unable to win in Iraq. The Russians are unable to win in Chechnya. The Israelis were unable to win in Lebanon, and seem unable to impose their will in Gaza or the West Bank either. Local fighters are simply too difficult to stamp out, and have much more staying power and much more ability to withstand casualties than do foreigners. (The case of Israel and the Palestinians is particularly tragic in this sense. Since both are local, both have incredible staying power, and thus the conflict just goes on and on and on, with neither side being able to defeat the other.)

The above holds true no matter the "morality" of the local guerrillas. All that counts is that they think they are right, and that they have support of a significant segment of the population (15-20% will do.)

One case where a guerrilla war did come to an end, is Nicaragua. This is because both sides were local, no foreign troops were on the ground (although, of course, the Contras were funded and trained by the U.S.) And because both sides agreed, in the end, to something less than total victory – that they could live with a negotiated political compromise. Bosnia is a similar case.

So, Canada should clarify its objectives in Afghanistan. If it wishes to fight for decades, in order to forestall a Taliban victory, well then, - stay the course. But prepare for higher and higher costs in both dollars and lives. And be prepared to be hated by more and more Afghanis as we continue to destroy their homes and farms in order to save them.

If Canada wishes to get out with some honour, it should give the Afghan government a dead line for when they must take over the bulk of the fighting, and when we reduce our commitment to only support and training, and at the same time it should encourage a negotiated end to the conflict, even if that means a coalition government that includes the Taliban.

Or if Canadians don't like option one – fighting for decades; and we don't think option two – the Afghani government successfully fighting the Taliban while working out a negotiated settlement – is possible; then we are left with option three – packing up and going home as soon as possible, before the number of Canadians and Afghanis killed, in a losing cause, just gets higher.

Some people call this cut and run. Others will call it cutting your losses. Its the smart – and even moral – thing to do, when you don't have a better option.

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