What in God's name are we waiting for?
We have to get our combat forces out of Afghanistan now.
Two more Canadian soldiers died there Sunday, bringing the total to 129 Canadian fatalities. Near as I can tell, we are suffering, on a per capita basis, higher fatalities than any other NATO combatant. Why? Because we volunteered for Kandahar, the most dangerous province in the country. (Click here for a Star map with hometowns and biographies of the 131 fallen.)
Photos: Department of National Defense; Canadian Press.
On Sunday, Major Yannick Pepin, 36 (above left), became the highest-ranking Canadian to die in the Afghan conflict. Also dead is Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, 31 (above right). Over the next few days, IEDs claimed the lives of Pte. Patrick Lormand, 21 (middle) and Pte. Jonathan Couturier, 23 (bottom). Pepin and Drouin died when their armoured vehicle was destroyed by an improvised explosive device (IED). Both men were stationed at Valcartier, Que. Just two weeks ago, Major Pepin was eulogizing the deaths of two Canadian soldiers on behalf of our total contingent of 2,500 troops. Now he is dead also.
IEDs have been by far the biggest killers of Western troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They are incredibly cheap, easy to install, and allow the enemy to be nowhere near the scene of destruction. We are not fighting the Taliban, as Capt. Nichola Goddard (right) so bravely did in a firefight that cost her life while defending her subordinates in 2006. We are fighting these cheap, ubiquitous discs. A cowardly way for the enemy to fight, you might observe, but IEDs work wonders for the Taliban. They take our lives and give us nothing to shoot at. The enemy suffers no casualties; we don't lay a glove on him.
Canada's latest Afghanistan fatalities, Major Yannick Pepin and Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, begin their journey home Sunday witnessed by 1,000 troops from Canadian and other NATO units.
"It is only through the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of remarkable Canadians like Corporal Jean-Francois Drouin and Major Yannick Pepin that Afghanistan will once again flourish and stand on its own," Stephen Harper said in a statement early yesterday.
The Prime Minister is wrong. Afghanistan will not once again flourish and stand on its own. Period.
Afghanistan has never flourished. Looking to the past millennium of its history, it has been no-man's land ravaged by successive invaders and temporary occupiers, all eventually repulsed. Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam, a prolonged failure that helped bring on the demise of that empire. Unlike postwar Europe, Afghanistan has no traditions of law, commerce, education, and civil governance recognizable to Westerners to rebuild. It never had them and very likely never will.
Unlike the Iraqi deserts, Afghanistan offers only hostile terrain. There are, in the hundreds of Afghani mountains and thousands of caves, countless places for the enemy to hide. The Taliban, expert at using Afghan civilians as human shields, ensures that almost every Western airstrike slaughters innocent civilians. Thus we are hated by the civilian populace. There is no "winning of hearts and minds" to be had in Afghanistan, and without the support of the domestic population we are further inhibited in tracking down the Taliban. Vietnam redux. With their sanctuaries in neighbouring Pakistan - pretty close to a failed state itself these days, and much of its leadership and citizenry supportive of the Taliban - there is no realistic prospect of Islamabad assisting us in any meaningful, sustained way in the fight. Its sporadic efforts to do so are reluctant and ineffectual payback for billions of dollars of U.S. military and humanitarian support, much of it pocketed by the Pakistani military and political leadership.
In nine years, we have accomplished squat by way of nation-building in Afghanistan.
The Taliban is stronger than ever. Early, vaunted "liberation" of Afghan women was short-lived; women are once again repressed, the natural order of things in this exemplar of failed states. Corruption is rampant in the regime of Hamid Karzai, whose chief opponent in the recent, botched, election, Abdullah Abdullah, is every bit as corrupt as Karzai. Another Vietnam parallel. About half of the country is controlled not by Kabul but the same regional warlords expeditiously used by the U.S. to expel al Qaeda before the Americans quickly moving on to Iraq. We have not captured Osama bin Laden or eradicated al Qaeda. We have the blood of innocent Afghan villagers on our hands, from the U.S. air strikes we have called in that have done immense "collateral damage." We have suffered friendly-fire deaths from trigger-happy U.S. jet fighters. And at this writing we have lost 129 troops and suffered injuries to scores of Canadian soldiers that, in many cases, will be debilitating for a lifetime.
Afghan civilians after a U.S. air strike.
And for what? We got into Afghanistan for an ill-conceived reason, to placate a Bush government no longer in office for our decision not to join the Americans in Iraq. (Authors Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang give the background in The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar.) Bush didn't appreciate our efforts. Our chief motive for deloying to Afghanistan has been for nought. And Barack Obama, in interviews on Afghanistan, has repeatedly needed to be reminded by interviewers that Canada has troops there, after the president has thanked the British, Dutch, Italians and so on.
We and our NATO allies, since Canada first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002, have never had a coherent plan for "winning." Nobody can tell you convincingly what winning is, exactly. Our humanitarian efforts, such as they are, have quickly been negated by Taliban squads that promptly destroy the clinics and schools we build. To the extent we have protected certain villages and farms, we have enabled them to increase Afghanistan's principal export, opium, to record levels. We can take our share of credit for Afghanistan being Europe's largest opium supplier.
There is subtle but increasing pressure by the U.S. for Canada to extend its Afghan mission beyond early 2011, the quit date Harper offered as an election promise early in the last campaign in a failed bid to secure votes in Quebec.
An Afghan poppy field. Afghanistan is Europe's principal supplier of opium. Poppy production has increased to record levels since NATO forces arrived.
After nine years in Afghanistan, we represent a certain stability and expertise, notably in Kandahar. Notice that most of our NATO allies, conspicuously Italy and France, have tried to keep their troops as much as possible out of harm's way by deploying them in the north, far from Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the southeast. (The British are concentrated in neighbouring Helmand, epicentre of the poppy trade).
That there is no effectively coordinated effort among the NATO allies is basically inevitable given that this is not the work NATO was created to do. NATO is a mutual-defense pact to protect Western Europe from Soviet invasion. It has scant experience fighting outside of Europe, the Balkans being the only theatre this obsolete alliance has tried its hand at since the Cold War ended. Europe is united now in many ways, from currency to weights and measures. But it lacks an integrated, continental military to call its own. That likely will be the last thing Europeans will agree to merge. At this moment, German forces are taking heat for calling in a U.S. air strike that killed scores of Iraqi civilians. The heat is coming from the U.S., of all places, which struggled mightily to engage Germany in Afghanistan in the first place.
U.S. public opinion, never strongly supportive of the Afghan mission, has recently turned sharply against it. Gordon Brown, the British PM, has been excoriated at home for a mounting death toll of British troops in Helmand.
Our goal should be to quit Afghanistan this year. With no prospect of "success," and the only certainty being still more Canadian deaths over the next 16 months or so until Harper's vaguely identified time for withdrawal, there is no justifiable reason for keeping Canadians in harm's way another day.
Here's Chuck Hagel, until recently a Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, and a Vietnam veteran, on the futility of Afghanistan, in a recent Washington Post op-ed:
"The Sept. 11 commission pointed out that the attacks were as much about failures of our intelligence and security systems as about the terrorists' success.
"The U.S. response, engaging in two wars, was a 20th-century reaction to 21st-century realities. These wars have cost more than 5,100 American lives; more than 35,000 have been wounded; a trillion dollars has been spent, with billions more departing our Treasury each month. We forgot all the lessons of Vietnam and the preceding history.
"We cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only 'winning' or 'losing'. Iraq and Afghanistan are not America's to win or lose. Win what? We can help them buy time or develop, but we cannot control their fates. There are too many cultural, ethnic and religious dynamics at play in these regions for any one nation to control. For example, the future of Afghanistan is linked directly to Pakistan and what happens in the mountains along their border. Political accommodation and reconciliation in this region will determine the outcome.
"Bogging down large armies in historically complex, dangerous areas ends in disaster...Threats to America come from more than Afghanistan. Consider Yemen and Somalia. Are we prepared to put U.S. ground troops there? I doubt we would seriously consider putting forces in Pakistan, yet its vast Federally Administered Tribal Areas and mountainous western border harbor our most dangerous enemies today. We must shift our thinking, now, to pursue wiser courses of action and sharper, more relevant policies."
And here's the Post's George Will, no one's idea of a dove, on the need to get ground troops out of Afghanistan - now:
"The U.S. strategy is 'clear, hold and build'. Clear? Taliban forces can evaporate and then return, confident that U.S. forces will forever be too few to hold gains. Hence nation-building would be impossible even if we knew how, and even if Afghanistan were not the second-worst place to try: The Brookings Institution ranks Somalia as the only nation with a weaker state.
"Afghanistan's recent elections were called 'crucial'. To what? They came, they went, they altered no fundamentals...Creation of an effective central government? Afghanistan has never had one. U.S...The Economist describes President Hamid Karzai's government -- his vice presidential running mate is a drug trafficker -- as so 'inept, corrupt and predatory' that people sometimes yearn for restoration of the warlords, 'who were less venal and less brutal than Mr. Karzai's lot.'
"[Admiral Mike] Mullen, [chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff], speaks of combating Afghanistan's "culture of poverty." But that took decades in just a few square miles of the South Bronx....
"Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.
"So, instead, forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters."
Soldiers, their families, many MPs and others will argue that quitting now is a disservice to the fallen. One hears this refrain in every war that is going badly. We must double-down or at least stay the course. Otherwise we betray the fallen.
If the fallen were betrayed, the treachery traces to the muddled thinking of the Liberal government that first deployed our brave troops in a dubious cause. To stay for the sake of winning a "victory" for the dead would make sense if there was a victory to be had. There isn't one. Now that we grasp the futility, the only moral option is to bring our troops home now. We have given a full measure of devotion to this hopeless cause. Enough is enough.
Nicholas Kristof (NYT): The Afghanistan abyss.
David Frum (National Post): Afghanistan remains a war worth fighting.
Christopher Hitchens (Slate): Remember, we're in Afghanistan to fight the long war on Islamic terrorism.
Anne Applebaum (Washington Post/Slate): Obama must make the case for winning in Afghanistan.
Joe Klein (Time): Why are U.S. troops in Helmand province?
Ansar Rahel and Jon Krakauer, (NYT op-ed): To save Afghanistan, look to its past.
For the purposes of this blog, the inception of the Great Recession in the U.S., the epicentre of the crisis, is taken as the start date for the global slump. The U.S. has been in recession since December 2007.