February 2007: War or Peace?

Are Canadians near national tipping point in Afghanistan
February 1, 2007

Last fall we passed the five-year mark of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Our Joint Task Force (JTF), Canada’s special-forces unit, has been active in that country since shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. JTF soldiers transferred detainees to U.S. custody in January 2002, participated in an attack at Tora Bora in December 2002, and transferred more detainees to U.S. custody during the summer of 2005.

The first deployment of regular soldiers came in January 2002, when 750 infantry from the Princess Patricia’s Regiment were sent to Kandahar as part of a U.S. counter-insurgency task force. Four of these soldiers were killed and eight others injured in a “friendly-fire” incident in April 2002. Then, over a two-year period from August 2003 to October 2005, some 6,000 Canadian soldiers were rotated through Kabul as part of a UN-authorized, NATO-led international force. In late 2005, the focus of Canada’s military effort reverted to the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar. The U.S. government, bogged down in Iraq, was keen to reduce its troop levels in Afghanistan. NATO responded by scaling up its presence from 9,000 to around 20,000 soldiers, with most of the new troops coming from Britain, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Originally, the plan was to expand NATO’s responsibilities to include southern Afghanistan by early 2006. But the transition was delayed by concerns—in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere—over the tactics employed in the counter-insurgency mission. For the better part of a year, Canada’s soldiers operated as part of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom where, despite being placed in charge of ground operations in Kandahar, they remained under more general U.S. operational control.

In the end, the French and Germans refused to deploy into the south. Kandahar is the stronghold of the Taliban. The nearby mountains bordering Pakistan provide a refuge for al-Qaeda, and the agricultural lowlands are dominated by drug barons. Canada’s soldiers face ever-increasing risks as these various forces emulate their Iraqi counterparts by using roadside explosives and suicide bombers, while at the same time coalescing into organized groups of guerrilla fighters.

The risks have been exacerbated by U.S. air attacks against villages where Taliban or al-Qaeda members are believed to be hiding. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians have been killed in such strikes, prompting angry family members and friends to join the insurgency.

In March 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that “Canadians don’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble.” But surely we’re now well beyond the first sign of trouble. As of mid-November, 42 Canadian soldiers had lost their lives in Afghanistan, along with one diplomat. Then there are the hundreds of seriously wounded Canadian soldiers with lost limbs, blindness, brain damage, and other forms of severe physical and psychological trauma.

These numbers are sobering. And let’s be honest: Whatever our political inclination, we all have a tipping point at which we would call for Canada’s troops to be brought home. Nobody would argue that the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan would be worth the lives of 1,000 Canadian soldiers. On that basis, it’s time to assess where our national tipping point should be.

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Let’s begin by considering the arguments in favour of the mission.

First, it’s argued that the mission is necessary to protect Canadians from the threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But the Taliban do not pose a threat to Canada. They are not about to invade us. Nor are they developing weapons of mass destruction or missiles capable of reaching North America. The al-Qaeda elements sheltering behind the Taliban do not pose a threat to Canada, either. They certainly provide moral and perhaps technical support to aspiring terrorists elsewhere, but if the threat were truly serious, Washington would not have shifted its military focus to Iraq. Nor would General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan be allowed to negotiate deals with pro-Taliban militants along the border with Afghanistan, while denying NATO forces access to that region.

Clearly, we do have a national interest in containing al-Qaeda. But, even if that interest was worth 42 Canadian soldiers’ lives, the counter-insurgency mission is not making noticeable progress toward that goal. After nearly six years of efforts by American, British, and Canadian troops, southern Afghanistan has become significantly more dangerous, not less.

Second, it is argued that the counter-insurgency mission is needed to restrict the production of opium. Illegal narcotics are certainly a concern, but, despite the presence of Canadian troops, opium production has not declined. Instead, it has increased dramatically.

Third, it is argued that the counter-insurgency mission is needed to protect the Afghan people. But, again, are we actually achieving this goal? Some of the most important posts in the Afghan government are held by former warlords who have been accused by international human rights organizations of heinous crimes, and of siphoning off billions of dollars of foreign aid.

Fourth, it is argued that NATO’s credibility is at stake. But, if that’s the case, why have so many NATO members refused to step up to the plate? There are 26 NATO countries, but Canada, with its relatively small population and military, has made the third-largest contribution to the counter-insurgency mission. And how much does NATO’s credibility matter? Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO is simply a collection of countries which may or may not choose to cooperate in any given venture.

Fifth, it is argued that Canada’s credibility would suffer if we withdrew from the counter-insurgency mission. It’s certainly true that, within NATO circles, we would be expected to give reasonable notice of a withdrawal—and so we should. But does anyone regard France or Germany as less credible because they refused to send their troops into southern Afghanistan? Does anyone regard Spain or Italy as less credible because they chose to withdraw from Iraq? As Senator (and former General) Romeo Dollaire has argued, the biggest blow to Canada’s credibility today is occurring elsewhere, as we allow a genocide to continue in Darfur.

Fifth, and finally, there’s a seldom-expressed but ever-present argument that Canada’s credibility in Washington would suffer. This is the same argument that was advanced by those who thought Canada should join in the U.S. war in Vietnam, and in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Which goes to show that Canadians are better judges of Canada’s national interest than Americans. As long as we give reasonable notice of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington would have no reason to complain.

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Let’s turn now to the arguments against the counter-insurgency mission. What are the costs, above and beyond the all-important cost in lost and shattered young Canadian lives?

There are financial costs. Last year the Polaris Institute estimated that the mission would cost Canadian taxpayers around $4 billion over two years. This compares to the $1 billion over 10 years that Canada is providing for reconstruction and development work in Afghanistan—5% of what we’re spending on the military mission.

These financial costs also constitute opportunity costs. Four billion dollars could provide a massive amount of development and humanitarian assistance, and not just in Afghanistan. Wisely spent, this money could save millions of lives, especially in disease- and famine-ridden sub-Saharan Africa.

Another form of opportunity cost concerns the other missions that the Canadian Forces cannot fulfill because of their current engagement. Take Lebanon, for instance. Last August, the UN Security Council imposed a ceasefire on Hezbollah and Israel. It authorized a peacekeeping operation of 15,000 soldiers with a mandate to use all necessary means in areas of deployment to ensure that hostile activities were not resumed.

Most of the peacekeepers have been provided by France, Italy, and Spain, with Belgium, Finland, Norway, and Poland sending smaller contingents, and Germany and Denmark providing maritime support. Canada is conspicuously absent, even though we have a clear national interest in maintaining the ceasefire.

Far more Canadians have personal connections with Israel and Lebanon than with Afghanistan. Canadian soldiers also are uniquely suited to peacekeeping in Lebanon. In addition to their considerable experience and training for such missions, the Canadian Forces have the necessary language skills to communicate with Israelis (most of whom speak English) and Lebanese (most of whom speak French).

Darfur is another place where Canadian peacekeepers could gainfully be deployed. Since 2003, more than 200,000 people there have been killed, countless women have been raped, and millions of people have been driven from their homes. The agents of this destruction—the Janjaweed (who ride camels and horses) and the Sudanese military (which pushes crude barrel-bombs out of the back of cargo planes)—would be no match for a well-trained, well-equipped Western military force.

Last May, the African countries admitted they were not up to the task. The African Union urged the commencement of a UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur at the earliest possible time. In response, the UN Security Council asked Secretary-General Kofi Annan for recommendations on all relevant aspects of such a UN operation in Darfur, including additional force requirements and potential troop-contributing countries. Annan’s office immediately stressed that any force deployed in Darfur would have to include soldiers from developed countries.

Three months later, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1706, formally authorizing the creation of a peacekeeping force for Darfur. It has held off deploying the force while last-ditch efforts were made to obtain the Sudanese government’s consent, but let’s be clear: Resolution 1706 authorizes a strong intervention in Darfur, with or without the consent of Khartoum. In the circumstances, a declared willingness by Canada to deploy one or two thousand highly-trained infantry and the Canadian Army’s fleet of Griffin helicopters that are not being used elsewhere could be just what is needed to muster the political will for the deployment to move forward.

Some have argued that Canada’s national interest is not engaged in Darfur, at least not as much as it is in Afghanistan. But this argument overlooks two critical points. First, Canada does have an interest in protecting fundamental human rights everywhere, and there is no more fundamental right than being protected from genocide. Second, the degree of national interest that we have in any given situation must be balanced against the likely costs, including the loss of Canadian lives. And, as noted earlier, neither the Janjaweed nor the Sudanese military can be considered a serious fighting force.

Some people might call the opportunities in Lebanon and Darfur unsuitable for Canadian troops because they constitute “mere” peacekeeping. For almost a decade, Canada’s generals, along with a growing collection of politicians and pundits, have claimed that peacekeeping is passé and that counter-insurgency wars are the new reality. Yet the turn-away from peacekeeping has been a matter of choice rather than necessity.

In January 2002, the Globe and Mail reported that Canada decided to send its troops into a combat mission under U.S. command in Afghanistan, rather than participate in the British-led international force, because it was tired of acting as mere peacekeepers, according to a senior UK defence official. Since when have the generations of Canadian soldiers who risked their lives patrolling the world’s conflict zones become “mere” peacekeepers? Yes, peacekeeping does require diplomacy and restraint, but it also takes courage.

The myth that peacekeeping is for wimps originates in the United States, where it found its ultimate expression in Condoleezza Rice’s October 2000 comment that “we don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” Every time I read about the continuing death and destruction in Iraq, I think of that comment, and wish the world had more properly trained and experienced peacekeepers.

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Wrapped up in the distinction between the peacekeeping opportunities in Lebanon and Darfur and the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan is the additional matter of reputation costs--most notably the cost to Canada’s reputation for independence and objectivity, and thus our ability to lead and persuade internationally on a wide range of issues.

Where would we gain the most in terms of our international reputation: continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan, or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur?

There may even be a security cost to the counter-insurgency mission. Recently foiled terrorist plots in London and Toronto were reportedly motivated, at least in part, by anger at the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan. Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier hasn’t helped matters by publicly characterizing the insurgents as “murderers” and “scumbags.” One wonders how Muslims around the world felt when they heard language like that being used by Canada’s top military leader.

General Hillier’s language points to another problem. The counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan could, over time, lead to the development of a Canadian Forces that is focused almost entirely on the training, equipment, and ethos of conducting such military operations with or for the United States. The long-term consequences would be significant, especially for Canadian foreign policy.

And let’s be clear: our current policy orientation is leading inexorably to a much longer engagement in the counter-insurgency mission. In August 2005, Canadian Major-General Andrew Leslie said that helping Afghanistan break out of a cycle of tribalism and warlords was a 20-year venture. In March 2006, Rick Hillier said: “From NATO’s perspective, they look at this as a 10-year mission, right? Minimum. There’s going to be a huge demand for Canada to contribute over the longer period of time.”

It’s even possible that Canada’s involvement in the counter-insurgency mission is contributing to a decline in this country’s commitment to strong rules of international humanitarian law. In 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were ordered by their American commander to lay anti-personnel landmines around their camp. When the Canadians refused, citing Canada’s obligations under the 1997 Ottawa Landmines Convention, the mines were laid for them by American soldiers who are not subject to the same restrictions.

The Canadian government argues that the Landmines Convention has not been violated, since the prohibition on the use of anti-personnel mines does not extend to reliance on mines laid by others. This is a strained interpretation, however, and one that hardly reinforces Canada’s claim to be the leading proponent of the total elimination of such deadly devices.

Also in 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan captured several suspected insurgents and transferred them to U.S. custody. The transfer was made even though the U.S. Bush administration has publicly refused to convene the tribunals required by the Geneva Conventions to determine whether individuals taken captive should be treated as prisoners of war. Canada, by choosing to hand over the detainees anyway, was also guilty of violating the Geneva Conventions. Our guilt was deepened later by revelations of the torture of detainees by Americans in Abu Ghraib, Guantanomo, and in other U.S. detention sites around the world.

The full scope of the Geneva Conventions obviously no longer applies to Canada’s operations in Afghanistan, because our soldiers are there with the full consent of that country’s government. But Canada is still bound by Common Article 3, which applies to armed conflicts. It stipulates that persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have surrendered and laid down their arms, are absolutely protected from violence to life and person, including cruel treatment and torture. Canada, in transferring detainees to a foreign military that commits violations of precisely this kind, has been risking complicity in breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

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These concerns about international humanitarian law lead into my final point, which concerns the effect that the counter-insurgency character of our mission in Afghanistan might have on how Canadians think of themselves. We like to think that we are global citizens uniquely placed to promote a more peaceful, just, inclusive, and law-abiding world—but how can engaging in search-and-destroy missions with and for the United States foster or even preserve this self-image?

Wouldn’t stopping genocide be more consistent with how Canadians have traditionally preferred their country to behave?

Have we reached our national tipping point on our counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan? Having done my best to assess the arguments for and against continuing this mission, the conclusion seems to me to be obvious.

(Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.)