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AFGHANISTAN: Canadian Forces Stray Further From Peace Mission

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Mar 22 2006 (IPS) - In a bid to boost support for Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently made a surprise two-day visit to his country’s troops in the volatile southern province of Kandahar.

“Canadians don’t cut and run at the first sign of trouble,” he told a press conference last week.

Harper was referring to the increased number of attacks experienced by the 2,200 Canadians – three dead and eight wounded – since their military switched last month from a NATO-led peacekeeping mission in the capital Kabul to Kandahar, where they are now serving with the U.S.-led counterinsurgency force, Operation Enduring Freedom.

Some observers are concerned that Canada is heading in the direction of the United States, whose tough tactics and firepower in the field have alienated local people. Recently, Canadian soldiers killed an unarmed taxi driver who drove too close to their armed vehicles.

Dr. Seddiq Weera, an adviser to Canada’s education ministry and the Independent National Commission on Strengthening Peace in Afghanistan, suggests that the potential for diplomacy and mediation has not been exhausted.

“It is a failed mission for Canada to invest in military solutions and neglect the peace and reconciliation measures addressing the underlying causes of the war,” he told IPS.

While four years of international support have been “crucial” in terms of gaining some stability and building political institutions and democracy, Dr. Weera believes that, “The way the war on terror is being fought in Afghanistan is making al Qaeda stronger.”

Weera maintains that the international community should not have boycotted the Taliban and the grouping around warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar at the November 2001 Bonn peace talks, which culminated in the installation of the Hamid Karzai government.

The National Commission, he says, is not receiving the funding and technical support required to draw in the disgruntled parties that opposed the Northern Alliance, which came to power with the assistance of the U.S. These forces are now shut out of the current political process, Weera explained.

After speaking with former Taliban supporters willing to join the mainstream, he reports that, “It became to clear to me that they are enraged by acts of discrimination, as they claim, by their former enemies who hold key positions in the Karzai government.”

Former Canadian disarmament ambassador Peggy Mason, now a senior fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Relations at Carleton University in Ottawa, wonders why the 2,200 Canadian soldiers are serving under the U.S. forces rather than waiting for the NATO peacekeeping force to arrive in Kandahar and replace the U.S.-led coalition forces this summer.

While Europeans in the non-U.S. NATO force stationed in Kabul put development and humanitarian assistance on the front burner, she says, the U.S. coalition forces prioritise counter-terrorism in the countryside.

But Mason is no advocate of withdrawing Canadian forces. “To me, the best case scenario would be to get the coalition forces out immediately, to make it absolutely clear that this is a new beginning, that we are bringing the [NATO] security force to work with the people. The story has not been put to the Canadian public yet that the Americans have screwed up in Afghanistan. It parallels Iraq.”

Mason adds that her call for a country-wide NATO peace support operation should only be done “within the context of a revived, country-wide peace process” in Afghanistan.

One complicating factor is a shortage of NATO troops available from Europe to replace the U.S. forces slated to join their colleagues in Iraq, says Paul Rogers, a British peace studies professor at Bradford University and a columnist for the Open Democracy website.

“I think the dynamic that is likely to emerge is heavily dependent on whether the anticipated Taliban ‘spring offensive’ turns out to be substantive – as I think it will be,” he said. “If so, NATO member states’ reluctance will almost certainly increase, with U.S. troops unable to leave, whatever the Pentagon’s preference.”

Looming large in any Canadian engagement with the U.S. is the matter of ongoing reports of abuses and mistreatment of prisoners at the U.S.-controlled Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

Following a contentious debate in its parliament regarding the contribution of troops to Kandahar, the Dutch government has proposed the creation of a NATO-managed detention centre in Afghanistan.

Michael Byers, the Canada research chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, is disappointed that Canada has not backed this effort.

Byers is not sure the solution (offered by a December agreement between Canadian Forces and the Kabul government) of transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities will work because of their own human rights shortcomings and the possibility that U.S. troops could still gain access to these suspects.

Aarin Bronson, senior public affairs advisor for the for the Department of National Defence, told IPS that specially trained Canadian Forces personnel may conduct initial questioning and screening of persons under their custody to obtain “information of immediate tactical value”.

“Detainees will be treated humanely at all times. Any questioning activities will be conducted in accordance with Canadian law as well as with all relevant international laws and conventions including the Third Geneva Convention governing treatment of Prisoners of War,” he said in an interview.

But Dr. Walter Dorn, professor of security studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, questions the viability of the Canadian Forces in Kandahar combining counter-insurgency with development work.

“Mixing mandates removes mission clarity and reduces international support,” he told IPS. “It also confuses the Canadian public, the population in the mission area and even the soldiers themselves.”

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