If Obama asks us to stay in Afghanistan, can we refuse?

For years, Canada has been asking others to step up to the plate

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Under beware of what you wish for, Canada has long asked the United States and other NATO partners to step up their commitments to the mission in Afghanistan.

Welcome Barack Obama, who wants to double the U.S. commitment to 60,000 troops on the ground there. The problem for Canada is that after asking for reinforcements as a condition of prolonging our stay there for another two years, Stephen Harper announced during last fall's campaign that we would be leaving the country in 2011.

So, while a liberal Democrat makes one campaign promise to shift the military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, and even to Pakistan, a Conservative Canadian leader is saying we've done our part and are leaving the neighbourhood. Huh?

Do you think this is going to be on the agenda when the prime minister and the president have their first working session in Ottawa next week? They've already got a full agenda with the recession and their economic recovery plans, trade and protectionism, energy and the environment. But Afghanistan looms large, as Obama's first major foreign policy move, and his first deployment as commander-in-chief.

And there's a lot that can go wrong in a war that is not going well. It is far from clear that a doubling of U.S. troop strength will improve things on the ground, and could even make things worse in the sense that they will be an inviting target for the Taliban insurgency. U.S. air power, while impressive, also has a history of inflicting collateral damage on civilians, which doesn't win over the hearts and minds of local populations.

Obama is in the midst of a 60-day review of the U.S. Afghan mission, and his special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is currently in the region making his own assessment. For our part, the 2,500 Canadians continue their challenging mission in southern Kandahar province, home base of the Taliban. We have now suffered more than 100 deaths in the country since 2001, and we've been in the south since the summer of 2005.

The geographical, economic, political and ethnic challenges of Afghanistan are no mystery. It is a landlocked country the size of Manitoba, mountainous, rural, remote and bereft of agricultural products and natural resources. It is the fifth poorest country on Earth, and the average Afghan lives on $1 a day. Its major cash crop is poppy, which supplies most of the world's heroin and accounts for two-thirds of the country's output. The country has been called a failed narco state.

Corruption is rampant in the government of Hamid Karzai, and the growing unpopularity of the regime in the capital is hindering development and aid efforts in the provinces. Attempts at building a civil society, or any kind of society, are hampered by local officials skimming off billions of dollars in aid and materials for themselves.

The country is less a nation that a collection of tribes led by regional warlords, who are among the beneficiaries of the poppy trade, as are the Taliban. Then, Afghanistan is notoriously inhospitable to foreigners, as the Soviets learned in the 1980s, and as we all learned in our Rudyard Kipling, in his famous poem of the Khyber Pass. As one Afghan who has settled in Montreal in the carpet business recently put it to me: "Every Afghan boy of 15 knows how to use a gun." And as another Afghan expatriate put it, "the Americans and Canadians may own the watches, but the Afghans own the time."

And then there is Pakistan, where the northwest frontier with Afghanistan is not only porous, but as lawless as the Wild West without a sheriff. These hills are both a sanctuary and a staging ground for the Taliban and Al-Qa'ida. Osama and the boys have been hiding out there for years. The central government in Islamabad is aligned with the West, while the powerful intelligence service is known for sympathizing with Islamic fundamentalists. And this is a country with dozens of nuclear weapons, and a volatile relationship with India.

The Americans have conducted incursions into Pakistan, presumably with the consent or at least knowledge of Islamabad. Obama, as a candidate, occasionally mused about hunting down Osama in the hills. And oh yes, on the western border of Afghanistan is Iran, the biggest troublemaker in the region, which has nuclear ambitions of its own.

The U.S. forces there come under the U.S. central command and the new commander, General David Petraeus, has had significant success with the surge in Iraq, to the point where the Americans are now taking more casualties in Afghanistan.

And this is the place where Obama wants to draw his first line in the sand as U.S. commander-in-chief. The mission is as challenging as the terrain. But if he asks us to stay on there, how can Canada, having asked the Americans to step up, refuse the first thing a new U.S. president asks us as America's closest ally, largest partner and best friend?

 
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