Queen's University — Since 1873
13th November 2009

Withdrawal, but no escape

International co-operation needed for Canadian success in Afghanistan

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Canada will end the military mission in Afghanistan “as we’ve known it”—according to Prime Minister Harper—in Dec. 2011. The logistical planning to withdraw Canadian troops has already begun.

Meanwhile, the consequences of the withdrawal process are uncertain. This choice may help pave the way for further disengagement. But at the same time, it may act as a wake-up call for allies and the Afghan government to better stabilize the war-prone region and establish a healthier share of the burden among the contributing nations. We just don’t know yet.

Whatever happens, this step won’t allow Canadian politics and the strategic community at large to escape from the debate on the reasons and objectives for Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.

The wider question of Canada’s role in international security affairs, especially of its armed forces in international crisis management operations remains. At the same time, this withdrawal will most likely fuel this debate.

Canadians will be tempted to believe this “civilian engagement for peace” is uncontroversial at home and poses no risk to the remaining Canadians.

Can this country escape from the rock-strewn roads of Afghan peacemaking? Thumbs down: Canada will change the major focus of its engagement but will remain embedded in Afghanistan’s future.

It will have to discuss its objectives there and—generally speaking—must answer the question of Canada’s place in the world.

There have to be causes and some exposures to the strategic realities for triggering such a debate. And there’s a good deal of them.

The first point of contact with the strategic reality is the intricacies of the situation in Afghanistan.

Questions on reasons for the Canadian engagement won’t disappear by giving up the explicit combat role and focusing solely on the civilian side of the training operation of Afghan soldiers and police officers.

Canada has to set its remaining engagement in the broader framework of the activities of the international community and the Afghan government. It remains especially dependent on the security provided by NATO, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.

No Canadian success is possible without sufficient achievements of the international community and the Afghan government.

Prime Minister Harper says Canada will end its military mission in Afghanistan in Dec. 2011.
Prime Minister Harper says Canada will end its military mission in Afghanistan in Dec. 2011. (Supplied)

This must lead to ongoing Canadian attempts to influence the actions of others, which must be based on a proper and realistic understanding of the necessities on the spot. Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the Kandahar province—a 330-person institution that combines the expertise of diplomats, correction officers, development officials, the police service and the military—represents the second major challenge for the debate. Should the PRT be abandoned, even though it’s regarded as the flagship of a modern, integrated approach to stabilize crisis-prone regions?

Should Canada ask partner countries or the Afghan Army to protect the area? The final decisions, it appears, aren’t made yet. Defence Minister Peter MacKay said keeping this PRT after 2011 “is a possibility.” This decision goes beyond closing a single institution of 330 people—it would represent the abandonment of a “strategic concept.” The third spur for a strategic debate is the following: withdrawal won’t prevent violence against Canadians. The risk will be lowered. But Canada may still suffer from some casualties until the point of final withdrawal and beyond. This raises the question: “What for?”

Is the overall strategy of the international community the right one and how can Canada further influence the flow of events?

Soon, Canada will realize the military disengagement will be accompanied by significantly less influence in the alliance. This contradicts the country’s understanding of its place in the world that Canadians have just developed. As Erin Anderssen said, Canadians have developed “a full-blown, if heartbreaking, romance with their soldiers.” Should the army go back to the humble 1990s, or as General (ret.) Rick Hillier portrays it, the “decade of darkness”?

I’m not in the position to determine what “strategic role” Canada’s willing and going to play in the future. That’s up to the participants in the upcoming and certainly complex strategic debate.

For the narrower debate on Afghanistan, there’s a missing dimension in most of the debates on a possible withdrawal of the international community from Afghanistan as a whole—the possible or likely consequence.

One scenario—that appears to be the worst-case—is the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban regime, the establishment of a malicious regime and the strengthening of the Taliban factions in neighbouring Pakistan.

Those who argue the Taliban focuses on local power in Afghanistan are likely misled. The breaking of the agreement with the Pakistan government by the Taliban, the flux into the Buna region and the many bombings in Pakistan indicate the Taliban’s “lust for power.” This includes Pakistan too.

With this scenario in mind, Canada’s strategic analysts and politicians should decide on a more robust engagement again. Peter Schmidt is a professor of Political Studies and the Director of Research of the Institute for Strategic Future Analysis located in Hamburg, Germany.

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