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Canada's ticket home from Afghanistan

George Abraham
Filed on June 16, 2008

DAYS after the Canadian government announced a new resolve for its nation-building mission in Afghanistan, the Taleban struck back with an unsparing message followed closely by a daring break-in at a Kandahar prison freeing about 400 of their kinsmen.

Six years of operating largely in the shadow of the much larger and better-equipped American forces has given way to a more independent and Kandahar-centred approach that has obviously not fallen on deaf ears in Taleban quarters. The ragtag group's riposte was swift and precise: "I ask the Canadian people to ask their government to stop their destructive and inhumane mission and withdraw your troops," a Taleban spokesman Yousuf Ahmadi, said from somewhere in Afghanistan.

"Our war will continue as long as your occupation forces are in our land," said Ahmadi, perhaps speaking to a core concern among many Canadians that they are being seen in large swaths of the Afghan nation as part of foreign military forces that have invaded their land. With 2,500 troops in the devastated country, Canada's forces have a modest footprint, but are bearing the brunt of the Taleban counter-offensive in their former stronghold of Kandahar.

Last week, the Canadian government announced that it is in Kandahar province that its diplomacy, development and defence (3-D) strategy will fail or succeed. Labelled "Setting a Course to 2011," the Harper government policy document closely mirrors recommendations made by a blue-ribbon panel headed by a former deputy prime minister, John Manley. Besides announcing three Maple Leaf signature projects, including the rebuilding of a dam and canal system in Kandahar, the document promises "measurable improvement" in the province between now and 2011.

"Our ultimate goal remains the same to leave Afghanistan to Afghans, in a country that is better governed, more peaceful, and more secure," said Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister David Emerson. (Emerson took over the foreign affairs portfolio after Maxime Bernier quit in disgrace last month.) "What is new is that we will significantly concentrate Canadian efforts and resources on the areas most likely to help us reach that goal," Emerson explained.

With growing calls from both citizens and observers such as Daniel Byman (of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution) for governments to define "What is Victory," Canadians are increasingly looking for an exit strategy that is both honourable and worthy of their sacrifices. Besides the billions being invested in military strength and development assistance, 85 Canadian soldiers and a diplomat have died in Afghanistan since 2002. The Taleban spokesman tried to rub salt into the Canadian wound over these deaths by insinuating that the government was deliberately minimising casualties and the real toll that their engagement was taking in Afghanistan.

If Canada has to have a realistic chance of exiting Afghanistan in 2011 which is the extent of Canada's parliamentary mandate security in Kandahar province will be a key factor. A Nato meeting of defence ministers in Brussels last week discussed expanding the Afghan National Army from its current strength of 50,000 to 80,000 by 2011. As part of its mission in Kandahar, Canadian forces mentor five battalion-size (kandaks) groups of the national army, with the ultimate objective of enabling them to undertake standalone operations.

Following the Nato meeting, Defence Minister Peter McKay said of the Afghan army: "When they are able to secure their borders, protect their own sovereignty, that's our ticket home."

That sounds simple enough and perhaps achievable over the next three years, but Mr. McKay was quick to caution against hasty conclusions, pointing to two specific challenges the calibre of these new Afghan soldiers and the waffling of the new Gilani government in Pakistan.

"How many we will actually hope to train, total kandaks, by 2011, is yet to be determined. It's kind of a moving target, because it's hard to quantify the professionalism," the defence minister emphasised. But, he was equally forthcoming about his misgivings about Pakistan's new government and its commitment to stopping insurgents from running circles around attempts to seal the Pakistan-Afghan border. "That border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is still a sieve. And you have insurgents being plucked out of those incubators, those refugee camps in Pakistan, and they are still flooding into the country."

Cutting deals with the Taleban, McKay said, is short-sighted and not in the interest of either Pakistan or Afghanistan. He appeared to suggest that Islamabad was buying peace with the Taleban at the expense of coalition forces trying to deliver security in Afghanistan. "With a new government (in Islamabad) there was hope that this was going to lead to greater, more robust participation on their part. It hasn't quite turned out that way," a clearly frustrated Canadian minister said, calling on allies to step up diplomatic pressure on Pakistan.

George Abraham is an Ottawa-based commentator. Reach him at diplomat01@rogers.com


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