Pivotal year comes again
Canadians are intimately involved in the stick-and-carrot strategy ramping up in Afghanistan, a bold – some say desperate – attempt to salvage something from nine years of fighting.
It has been a costly venture, the brunt of the human suffering borne by Afghan civilians. Canada’s toll since 2002 includes 139 soldiers dead, along with four civilians. It’s estimated that by the end of our planned military withdrawal about a year and a half from now, the mission will have cost Canadian taxpayers $18 billion.
What we’ve purchased with that sacrifice remains very unclear. Lists of schools and other development projects to Canada’s credit make an unconvincing answer in the absence of assurance that any shadow of this will remain five years after our troops come home.
Now the message, though we’ve heard similar prognostications before, is that 2010 will be the turning point that will decide whether some political deal can be done that respects the new constitution with human rights. It’s a two-pronged strategy devised by U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, head of NATO forces in Afghanistan. The idea is turn up pressure on the enemy in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, boosted by U.S. President Barack Obama’s 30,000-troop surge (along with another 7,000 from other NATO countries) while at the same time offering “reintegration,” using enticements such as jobs and education, to so-called moderate elements of the insurgency.
This, it is hoped, will be enough to coax some of the Taliban leadership to engage in peace talks that could bring “reconcilable” factions into the government. So we have the generals declaring on the one hand that there’s no military solution in Afghanistan while Canada’s top commander there, Brigadier-General Daniel Menard, speaks enthusiastically about new offensives and is optimistic the back of the insurgency can be broken because ordinary Afghans will decide “they’ve had enough.”
We can only hope some of this turns out to be right, though there are lots of critics eager to dismiss it as elaborate face-saving on the part of the 42 NATO countries involved.
Canada officially supports the strategy, while remaining cautious about investing in the reintegration idea. No doubt part of the reason for this hesitancy is that it’s a long political climb-down from the government’s position that all the fighters opposing our presence in the country are “terrorists” – or “detestable murderers and scumbags,” in the memorable words of then Canadian chief of defence staff, Gen. Rick Hillier – to the position that large numbers of those fighters might end up in the Afghanistan army and police force even as their leaders take their places in government.
The situation is complicated and messy. It always was, but when our government’s domestic communications strategy consists of easily memorizable talking points there just aren’t any blank spaces left on the sheet for complications.