Nov 03, 2005

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Canada ignores its troops in Afghanistan

In coming months, Canadian and international forces, despite their high-tech military equipment and air superiority, will remain vulnerable to massed human wave assaults.
Canadians have not been paying sufficient attention to our armed forces deployed in Afghanistan over the past three years.

Since four deaths in the friendly fire incident of April 2002, Canadian media have paid scant attention to the Canadian contingent based in Kabul at Camp Julien. The Canadians have helped the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) by providing effective reconnaissance patrols in the hills surrounding the city; by de-mining operations and the disposal of terrorist bombs (improvised explosive devices or IEDs); by collecting and destroying abandoned Soviet-era ordnance; and by supporting NGO workers in delivering CIDA-funded aid for the construction of schools, wells, and better public sanitation.

Canadians have also helped train elements of the new Afghan National Army (ANA), but NATO assessments of the ANA's military and policing capacity remain bleak at best.

Camp Julien sat astride the southern approaches to the city and enabled the Canadians to impede smuggling of weapons or explosives that could be used for insurgent attacks. Casualties were light. But the mission is now very different. Camp Julien has been mostly dismantled and its equipment sent to Kandahar - the Taliban's former stronghold. Only 250 Canadian troops remain in the country but by February 2006 the number will grow to more than 1,500 as Operation Archer succeeds the now completed Operation Athena.

In coming months, Canadian and ISAF forces, despite their high-tech military equipment and air superiority, will remain vulnerable to massed human wave assaults - in part because they cannot be extracted quickly on short notice. The Canadian Forces have no strategic airlift of their own and must rely on Russian or Ukrainian rented planes. An emergency exit from Kandahar, under fire, would have to be done using scarce allied airlift that might be unavailable.

On the bright side, the September elections for the new Afghan National Assembly were held successfully in most of the country, including Kandahar. Further, Bin Laden's No. 2 commander, Zayman al-Zawahiri, observed this past summer that the Taliban had made political errors in Afghanistan and failed to create any solid political base. But remnant Taliban forces in eastern and southern Afghanistan itself, supporters in western Pakistan and the remnant al Qaeda forces thought to be operating in the border regions alongside them, have increased the scale and skill of their continuing insurgency. The insurgents have never seemed short of weapons, ammunition or bomb-making materials and U.S. casualties have spiked this year.

Most of President Karzai's budget is now provided by the United States with few alternative sources of independent revenue. Between one-third and one-half of the Afghan economy is based on the production of opium, and the country provides some 85 per cent-90 per cent of the world's illicitly marketed supply. ISAF governments have been stumped thus far in their effort to devise an alternative to the opium economy.

Until the ANA is fully functional and able to keep the Taliban confined to the border regions near Pakistan, the nearly 20,000 U.S. and 11,000 other ISAF forces will continue to provide the basic protection for the government in Kabul. But none of Canada's NATO allies wish to take on the counter-insurgency role currently being executed by U.S. forces in the eastern provinces. If the U.S. intervention in Iraq continues to drag on without improvement, there will be growing pressures on the Pentagon to disengage entirely from Afghanistan and redeploy most of their 20,000 soldiers now in Afghanistan to Iraq. U.S. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld's coalition of the willing in Iraq has been shrinking over the past year. Ukraine, the Netherlands and Spain are withdrawing their contingents from Iraq. Italian, Polish and Japanese authorities are similarly inclined. U.S. trouble in Iraq does not bode well for the prospects for success in Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are trying to create an ANA with far too little training.

U.S. use of torture against detainees, the alleged disrespect shown to Koranic texts during interrogations of prisoners at Guantanamo and the recent burning of Afghan insurgents' bodies, have all raised doubts about U.S. strategy and led to suggestions that Canada should end its Afghan mission.

In addition to moral concerns, realist logic may move Ottawa in this direction. Renewed Israeli-Palestinian fighting could also trigger dangerous threats to the Canadian-ISAF contingent. The Pakistani military government, already in possession of 50 atomic bombs, is under some substantial threat of a theocratic or military coup d'etat. At least six radical Islamic parties want President Mussharaf out. The recent earthquake in Pakistan may well damage him further.

To the west, Iran's theocratic regime seems determined to acquire a nuclear deterrent force. Israeli leaders are convinced that Tehran's virulently anti-Semitic leaders are irrevocably hostile to Israel and might even go so far as to provide agents of Hezbollah with atomic devices so they can try to detonate smuggled bombs inside Israeli cities.

Israeli fears of surprise atomic terrorist attack indirectly through Lebanon have raised the risk of possible Israeli or U.S. military intervention to try to destroy all Iranian nuclear research, weapons and missile sites. Vice-President Richard Cheney explicitly warned U.S. journalists in January 2005 that there was a substantial risk of an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran if the international community was not able to convince authorities in Tehran to abandon their nuclear weapons program. Scott Ritter, an implacable critic of Bush and a former chief weapons inspector for the UN, warned in late March that such an attack might take place any time this year. Talk of another Osirak-type raid, only on a far larger scale, has been circulating for many months.

But some deeply buried sites in Iran would have to be attacked with nuclear weapons (or by commando forces able to seize and destroy them conventionally). The nuclear option is obviously the most worrisome for Canadian officials. Neither pre-emptive nor preventive war has been endorsed by Ottawa, and quite sensibly so.

Trying to help the Karzai government to establish democracy is commendable, but is it wise? A stable government in Kabul would be the best defence against the reoccurrence of Taliban rule, or a descent into anarchy in which terrorists could operate with impunity. On humanitarian grounds, the Afghan civilian population are deserving of great assistance after decades of war and worsening poverty. But Canadian and European leaders need to think clear-headedly about worst-case risks and probable costs. Defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan may take a generation and far more than 10,000-15,000 ISAF troops. Who will pay for it?

The Taliban leaders are learning that little is gained by simply taking over small towns. They will emulate Iraqi insurgents and concentrate their efforts on car and truck bombings, assassinations and kidnappings to paralyze the government in Kabul and inflict attrition on ISAF personnel. Unless the Karzai government is able to successfully win over much of the population that is sympathetic to the Taliban (or loyal to regional warlords), the insurgency in Afghanistan is likely to get worse - perhaps intolerably so for the ISAF governments. This is one of the key short-term issues needing careful thought: do we and our ISAF allies have the political will to endure the losses from a long counter-insurgency campaign?

Douglas Ross, executive director of Canadian-American Strategic Review ( and a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, visited Camp Julien in late May.

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