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POLITICS: Canada Ponders its Future in Afghanistan

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Jan 11 2008 (IPS) - As the Conservative government of Stephen Harper awaits a panel report on Canada’s military role in Afghanistan beyond February 2009, when the current mandate expires, there is widespread unease among analysts on both sides of the North American border that operational decisions are deep-sixing political goals and about the possibility of a widening conflict.

Canadian forces on patrol in Afghanistan. Credit: Canadian Department of National Defence

Canadian forces on patrol in Afghanistan. Credit: Canadian Department of National Defence

In a mid-December analysis, Julianne Smith of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies called for a strategic overhaul of the NATO mission, warning that the war is heading in the “wrong direction”.

She called for “massive investment in rural development to give local farmers an alternative to growing poppies” and for a more coordinated strategy overall, noting that “Allied efforts on the ground currently resemble a patchwork quilt”.

NATO’s Afghanistan mission totals 41,700 police and soldiers, 15,000 from the United States, 2,500 from Canada, and the remainder from other Alliance member states.

Peter Langille, a peace studies professor and defence analyst at the University of Western Ontario, is concerned that heavy firepower and armoured vehicles are undermining efforts to build a connection with locals. It’s “common knowledge” in the ranks, he says, that the Canadian Forces have downgraded operations by infantry foot soldiers in favour of artillery and armoured vehicles.

“We don’t have as many boots on the ground as the government would like us to think,” he said.

The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies in Toronto estimates that of the entire Canadian contingent in Afghanistan, only about 450 are currently on foot or in armoured vehicles, and another 100 are engaged in big-gun artillery. The rest are playing support roles.

Langille claims Canadian soldiers have been shooting off thousands of rounds of ammunition from their M777 155-millimetre howitzers at suspected insurgents and risking the lives of civilians rather doing foot patrols and village visits.

These big guns can fire shells a distance of 30 to 40 kilometres but do not have pinpoint line-of-sight accuracy, says one artillery expert. Described as “area weapons”, they may hit anything or anybody within a 300-metre radius of their target.

Langille suggests the Canadian Forces are acting out of frustration with the refusal of other NATO countries to provide combat reinforcements. “By the time [the Canadians] chose to deploy tanks and heavy artillery, they had to know they were going to lose [the war]. So they chose systems to lose the fewest people,” he said.

University of British Columbia political scientist Michael Wallace also has concerns about the overemphasis on armoured vehicles. In a report for the Ottawa-based Rideau Institute last June, he targeted the Canadian department of National Defence’s decision to deploy Leopard 2 tanks in Afghanistan.

Besides being vulnerable to insurgents’ weapons, he says, they also demonstrate how easy it will be for the mission to go off the rails.

“The problem is not the technical details of the tanks,” he stated. “The problem is a combat strategy that seeks maximum isolation between the Afghan population and Canadian soldiers, whether it is fast-moving LAVs, tanks, or helicopters. The message is, if we need to use these on a long-term basis, we’ve lost, no matter what the relative body count.”

“The way societies get modernised is not by force, because that generally backslides,” he said, referring to colonising nations confronting tribal cultures. “Countries modernise by creating incentives for people to be modern.”

One parallel, he says, is how the British discovered they could not break the equally tight clan system in Scotland until after the 18th century when it finally became economically advantageous for rural Scots to move to the cities.

But could Canadian reliance on armoured vehicles signal an even more ominous trajectory? After all, the Defence Department has acquired 120 of them, and very few are currently on the ground in Afghanistan.

Not surprising, says Eugene Lang, co-author of “The Unexpected War: Canada in Kandahar”, and a former chief of staff to defence ministers. To field the 20 now in use, he says, 100 are needed for training. “Half the fleet is probably in maintenance at any given point in time.”

UBC’s Wallace, however, believes the reality is far scarier. One possibility, he says, is that the Canadian military will move into other theatres of war, such as the volatile northwest border region of Pakistan, where insurgent forces are scoring victories over the Pakistani army.

The stakes may have been raised with the assassination of Pakistani opposition politician Benazir Bhutto.

“If things really go pear-shaped in Pakistan, I can see the Americans wanting us there. The population of Pakistan is larger than Russia’s. What a mess it would be,” continued Wallace.

The other possibility? “The government wants to prepare for a large expansion of the Afghan mission but doesn’t want to announce it until it has a majority government,” he added.

Meanwhile, the federal government is signaling some changes in the approach to the mission.

At a House of Commons committee on Nov. 27. Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Leonard Edwards declared the Afghan mission’s much-vaunted “three Ds” mandate – development, diplomacy and defence – to be dead.

When the New Democratic Party Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar noted that this sounded suspiciously like a policy shift, Edwards waved him off, replying that the change is only a matter of government branches working in one effort. “We don’t have a three-D strategy; we have a one-D strategy – we’re all working together,” he said.

Also, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was quoted in the Globe and Mail suggesting that NATO countries reluctant to provide combat reinforcements to the conflict might instead take over development and infrastructure-building in southern Afghanistan, thus “freeing” up Canada’s effort there.

Could all this be a prelude to shedding the development portion of the mission? The Defence Department won’t comment and refers calls to Foreign Affairs, which denies there’s anything to be read from current events.

According to the department’s Kristina Davis, the feds will continue to honour Canada’s 1.17-billion-dollar development assistance commitment until 2011. “Our civilian officials and military personnel are helping the Afghan government build the institutions required to achieve stability and good governance,” she said.

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