Saturday, October 11, 2008

C$18.1 billion later

The report is out. Every Canadian household is paying C$1,500 to support a military operation that, by any yardstick, is failing fast — or not so fast, given the seven years that the US, Canada and NATO have been in Afghanistan. Kevin Page, the Canadian parliamentary budget officer who inked the report on the cost of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, admits that the C$18.1 price tag expected by 2011 could even be higher, as some agencies have provided what is, at best, inaccurate accounting, while others (which shall remained unnamed because of their unofficial role in Afghanistan) are probably even more opaque.

Inarguably, the US was distracted in Afghanistan by its ill-timed misadventure in Iraq in 2003, but even if that strategic blunder hadn’t occurred, Afghanistan today would likely still be a mess, with a resurgent Taliban, a porous border with tribal areas in Pakistan and poppy cultivation booming. In fact, seven years on, Iraq or not the dire warnings by Pentagon officials that next year could be “even worse” for Afghanistan would not be unfeasible.

The quagmire is not for lack of good intentions — it’s just plain bad planning and atrocious communication within the coalition. No clear end goals have been set, other than “bringing democracy,” “fighting terrorism” and “rebuilding the country” — all noble goals, except that there are no benchmarks to determine success and the one condition that could make the above possible — negotiating with the Taliban — has been ruled out by the US and most other countries. So the catchphrases remain broad objectives that cannot be met, and even on the rare occasions when clear benchmarks were set, as the Department of National Defense and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) established for their Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar, those remained local and were not part of a comprehensive, country-wide effort, which means that whatever objective was met failed to have an influence at the strategic level, where the “rehabilitation” of the country lies.

The bungled intervention and failure to deliver on initial promises has now made matters even worse and embittered a large part of the Afghan population whose hearts and minds the West was so intent on winning in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001. This long string of failures, added to costly mistakes by NATO and the US, has cost countless Afghan lives, given the Taliban time to regroup and turned an insurgency into a regional catastrophe by sucking in Pakistan in a way that al-Qaeda and the Taliban would never have dreamed of seven years ago.

While, compared with the trillion-dollar war the US has waged in Iraq, C$18.1 billion might not seem much, for a country like Canada, whose military is but a tiny fraction of the US’, the bill is a heavy one, especially when one takes into account that Canada’s participation in the Afghan fiasco probably has undermined, as I argue in my book Smokescreen, Canadian security and made it a likelier target for retaliation, either against its troops in Afghanistan or Canadian interests worldwide, including at home. Furthermore, Canada’s image as a peace-loving country, with a rich tradition of peacekeeping, has also been tarnished and given many of its critics ammunition in their accusations that Ottawa is at best a puppet of the US, at worst a willing participant in the US empire.

Close to 100 Canadian soldiers have died serving in Afghanistan. Its security has been undermined. Afghanistan is still a mess and will remain so by 2011, when Ottawa has said it will bring the troops back home (as might many others, which means that the only thing the Taliban has to do is wait another two years before it can fill the vacuum left by departing troops). Had Canadians known how things would turn out, few are those who would have accepted to foot the bill with their taxes.

But it’s not too late to set clear goals and do what the coalition should have done years ago — negotiate. Only by doing this would the West have a shadow of a chance to turn things around, avoid further misery and, perhaps, make 2011 a year by which real progress can be observed. Only by doing this and setting clear goals can the C$1,500 that every Canadian household will have paid (not to mention the lives lost on both sides) be an investment rather than a waste.

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