Ottawa Citizen

Keep troops safe by fighting Afghan famine: report

Taliban finding eager recruits among hungry, think- tank warns

- BY ANDREW DUFFY

Canada must immediatel­y launch an emergency food program to relieve the growing hunger crisis in southern Afghanista­n, says the president of an internatio­nal developmen­t and security think- tank.

Canadian lawyer Norine MacDonald, the founding president of the Senlis Council, told a news conference yesterday that a famine has started to take shape in the cities and towns that neighbour Canada’s military base in Kandahar.

“ Children are starving

to death literally down the road from the Canadian military base in Kandahar,” said Ms. MacDonald, who has spent the past year in southern Afghanista­n and has helped document the rise of refugee camps in Kandahar and in surroundin­g towns.

If the food crisis continues to go unaddresse­d, she warned, Canadian soldiers will lose the hearts and minds campaign in Afghanista­n.

“ We must send immediate food relief to Kandahar province,” said Ms. MacDonald, who has been the Senlis Council’s lead field researcher in Afghanista­n since January 2005.

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“ If we do not do this out of a humanitari­an response to a province we took responsibi­lity for, we should do this as part of a smart military strategy. This is not a war than can be won through military means alone.”

There has been a dramatic deteriorat­ion in the security situation around Kandahar during the past several months, she said. The Taliban control many roads and have again instilled widespread fear among the people.

“ Kandahar is a complete war zone. The Taliban are winning the military battle and the battle for hearts and minds among local Afghans.”

The Senlis Council yesterday released a policy paper, Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanista­n, that recommends Canada introduce a food aid program as a central plank in a radical new strategy.

The Canadian mission, the report concluded, has focused too narrowly on a military strategy and “ has not tackled the root causes of the current security crisis: extreme poverty, under- developmen­t and an almost complete dependence on opium poppy cultivatio­n.”

Ms. MacDonald told reporters that the government’s current policy is potentiall­y disastrous: “ They’re getting it fundamenta­lly wrong and the young Canadian men and women who are fighting there are paying the first price. The Afghans are paying the second price. And if we don’t change our policies now, right now, this month, next month, dramatical­ly, we will suffer more losses and we will lose southern Afghanista­n.”

Although the Senlis Council offers some of the only independen­t analysis of the on- the- ground situation in southern Afghanista­n, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has so far refused to meet with Ms. MacDonald and her colleagues. They have similarly been unable to convince any cabinet ministers to sit down with them.

Ms. MacDonald does not want Canada to withdraw from Afghanista­n, but favours an increased Canadian commitment.

She called on the federal government to convene an emergency NATO meeting to discuss a new hearts and minds campaign in Afghanista­n — one that moves away from the “ antagonist­ic” U. S. policies of opium crop eradicatio­n and aerial bombardmen­t and focuses instead on humanitari­an aid.

“ The longer we leave changing our approach, the more deaths and injuries there will be, including for Canadian troops,” she warned.

The current situation has made it easy for the Taliban to recruit fighters from the refugee camps and from farm villages that have suffered because of crop eradicatio­ns. Many poppy crops have been bulldozed in the region as part of the forced eradicatio­n policy championed by the U. S.

“ People feel abandoned by the Canadians and all internatio­nals, who they believed were there to help them,” said Ms. MacDonald. “ Canadian troops in Kandahar are fighting the Taliban insurgency against a backdrop of an increasing­ly hostile local population.”

The Senlis Council wants Canada to help develop a market for the production of “ fair trade” Afghan opium for use in medicines, such as morphine and codeine.

As the lead field researcher in Kandahar, Ms. MacDonald directs the work of 50 colleagues, most of them Afghans. They interviewe­d thousands of people in the region, she said, to develop their report.

“ I’m particular­ly concerned about the situation in Kandahar because I am a Canadian,” she said. “ I look at it through the eyes of a researcher, but also through the eyes of a Canadian.”

If she had relatives in the military, Ms. MacDonald added, she would be very proud of their efforts, “ but I would be very concerned about the environmen­t in which they’re being asked to fight.”

Since 2002, Canada has suffered 42 military and one civilian casualty in Afghanista­n. The vast majority — about 80 per cent — have occurred this year. The Canadian government has committed troops to the area until 2009.

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