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CANADA: Afghan Strategy Sharpens Ideological Divide

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, May 24 2007 (IPS) - United Nations-style peacekeeping is getting a bad rap these days within Canada’s military, 60 years after then Prime Minister Lester Pearson came up with the idea of mediating the Suez Crisis following the British-French-Israel attack on Egypt.

Afghan boys watch Canadian soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment Battalion Group conduct a patrol in the mountains near Kabul. Credit: Canadian Department of National Defence

Afghan boys watch Canadian soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, Royal 22nd Regiment Battalion Group conduct a patrol in the mountains near Kabul. Credit: Canadian Department of National Defence

The Globe and Mail’s Michael Valpy reports that a little more than a year ago, Colonel Michael Hanrahan, the Canadian Armed Forces’ top expert on peacekeeping, was offered a job as chief of staff of the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations. “His Ottawa superiors nixed the idea. There is, in fact, not a single Canadian officer in the U.N.’s peacekeeping headquarters,” Valpy noted.

At the start of this year, 56 Canadians were serving with U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world, which altogether total 72,784 military personnel. In August 1991, 1,149 Canadians in blue helmets were engaged in U.N. operations, then consisting of 10,801 soldiers.

A switch from a focus on peacekeeping to ramping up and reequipping the Canadian military in recent years under successive Liberal and Conservative governments is being praised by one prominent historian, Jack Granatstein. The downside of Pearson’s action, which led him to win a Nobel Peace Prize, is that “Canadians began to fall out of love with the true purpose of a military – to be ready to fight wars,” he has written.

Sean Maloney, a younger historian and author who has been “on the ground” with NATO forces four times in Afghanistan, told IPS he was one of the first academics to challenge “the myth” of Canadian peacekeeping and “soft power” of the former Liberal government.

“To sit here as these people did [and say] the U.N. and peacekeeping as expressed at the U.N. can solve all of Canada’s overseas problems, and that is what they have suggested, they are wrong,” he said.

In an article for Policy Options, published by the Montreal-based Institute for Research on Public Policy, Maloney wrote that “the cosmetic policies of the ‘responsibility to protect,’ U.N. peacekeeping mythology and the Africanist tilt within the foreign policy and development elites have further distracted us from the primary problem our society faces: the challenge of radical Islam both internally and on the international stage, specifically in Afghanistan.”

But Walter Dorn, an associate professor at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, who recently returned from a year-long assignment with the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping, where he studied the application of monitoring technologies, counters that a pure emphasis on military force in the post-9/11 world is not working.

He says that even after six years of “producing as many enemies as we are killing” in Afghanistan, it is not too late for the U.N.-supported NATO counterinsurgency mission, in which 2,500 Canadian soldiers are involved, to switch gears.

But it would mean abandoning the tough guy combat tactics which have led to civilian casualties, Dorn told IPS. He has positive words for the military contribution from the Netherlands within NATO, with its avoidance of offensive action, significant casualties on either side and a focus on reconstruction.

“The Dutch strategy in Afghanistan is much better in the long term. It creates more friends than enemies instead of vice-versa. But even the careful Dutch work is being jeopardised by the aggressive approach by other nations, especially the U.S. forces operating independent of the NATO chain of command under the U.S. ‘war on terror’, executed under Operation Enduring Freedom. It is hard to make new friends when your declared allies are shooting up the place.”

But the “war on terror” justification that lies at the root of the current Canadian contribution to the NATO mission in Afghanistan appears to be fraying at the edges politically, amid confusion in Parliament over the handing over of insurgent detainees to possible torture under Afghan authorities and a dip in support for the Conservative federal government.

In a recent surprise trip to Afghanistan, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited a school and stressed development aid and reconstruction rather the combat role of the Canadian presence.

“We know that Afghanistan’s future will not be secured through military means alone,” Harper told Canadian reporters.

A self-described optimist, Dorn told IPS that there is every possibility that a switch from brute force counter-insurgency to peace-building – witnessed recently, for instance, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo under U.N. auspices – is still feasible in Afghanistan if realism prevails. He observed first-hand while on U.N. business how a sophisticated combination of diplomacy and limited force in the DRC has culminated in the laying down of arms, refugees returning home, and an internationally recognised election.

“We can’t expect a corruption-free regime in the medium term in Afghanistan,” he said. “The most we can expect is a Pakistan-type government, which has, admittedly, plenty of corruption, abuse, cronyism and Taliban sympathisers. In the long term, there is hope Afghanistan might be more like India.”

Maloney strongly challenged this assertion, pointing to the failure of the U.N. blue helmets to halt genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in Bosnia, for instance, as well as the violent internal conflicts amidst the chaos of Somalia. “My argument is that [the United Nations] has had its day,” he told IPS.

One of the toughest critics of U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency efforts past and present is former U.S. National Security Council adviser Edward Luttwak. The conservative senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and former Pentagon consultant notes that the Taliban appears to have the cooperation of local inhabitants.

In an interview, Luttwak pointed out that the ancient Romans managed with a small number of legionnaires to cruelly stamp out rebellions by destroying entire villages to set an example for the rest of their imperial subjects pondering resistance. But the Soviets did not dare cross that ethical line in Afghanistan, nor will NATO and the U.S. forces, he said.

“In other words, every empire knows how to [do counter-insurgency]. No democracy can do it. I mean, no democracy should do it,” Luttwak said.

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