Even when they're preparing for combat, our soldiers are nice guys. Last week, before the deadly offensive to retake a stronghold in the Afghan district of Panjwai (a place they've taken and retaken several times now), they made sure to give everybody lots of notice. They didn't want civilian casualties. So they dropped leaflets and sent radio bulletins warning people to leave. Unfortunately, the bad guys got lots of notice too. And instead of fleeing, they used the time to organize ambushes and hit our troops extra hard. The final score: 200 enemy dead (NATO's count) and four dead Canadians, not counting the soldier we lost the next day to friendly fire. You decide who won.
"Any time you broadcast plans as openly as we did to an enemy force they will take the opportunity to do something with that time," said Maj. Geoff Abthorpe. "As Canadians, I think we like to go in a little softer-handed."
Our military is touchingly concerned about civilians. The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith reports that it has budgeted $500,000 to buy tractors, wool blankets, rice, beans, and tea for the locals inconvenienced by the fighting. Was there ever a more kind-hearted fighting force than ours?
The truth is that our troops are in an impossible bind. Playing Mr. Nice Guy could cost soldiers' lives. But killing off civilians is bound to alienate the locals, in spite of the free tea. Nor will it sit well with the tender-hearted folks back home, who are bound to be upset by front-page photos of any woman or child inadvertently mowed down by coalition troops. In a war like this, civilian casualties are inevitable. But try explaining that to us.
There are some other uncomfortable truths that are a bit tough to explain to the folks back home. For example, even though Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada declared on this page yesterday that "we are not losing," most Afghans would disagree. After vanquishing the Taliban, the United States left a security vacuum that allowed the fighters to flood back. Today, flush with opium money and in cahoots with drug lords, the Taliban control much of the south. The fighting has been much stronger than NATO forecast. The local police and army are completely unable to provide security, and people have lost faith in the central government. "Anyone other than me would join the Taliban," protested one tribal leader, who said corrupt police had released the men who'd murdered his sons and brothers.
We like to think we're in Afghanistan to nation-build. We like to think our soldiers are there to spread human rights and justice. We all want little Afghan girls to go to school, just as we all, presumably, want the children of Darfur to stop being slaughtered, although we don't seem to care quite so much about them. But fixing a broken country is extremely hard. It is certain to require vastly more blood and treasure than we and our fellow NATO nations are willing to commit. Britain's top army officer says his forces are barely able to cope with the conflict - let alone the nation-building part.
When the Americans tried nation-building in Iraq, we scoffed and called it imperial hubris. So what exactly is so different about us?
There's only one reason for Canadian troops to be in Afghanistan, and it isn't social work. It's to stop al-Qaeda from regrouping to the point where it can again launch attacks against the West. This is a very good reason. It may even be good enough. But I wish someone would explain how we will achieve this when al-Qaeda and its leaders have set up shop across the border in tribal Pakistan, where we can't get at them. There they are producing a supply of new jihadis as fast as we can knock them off. Pakistan's government is no help. In fact, it has just signed a peace accord with the pro-Taliban forces there, promising to withdraw the army from that region if they behave. No one believes they will. In effect, the deal creates a sanctuary for the bad guys.
Our military leaders know there will be no peace until the Taliban's outside support networks are destroyed. But it is impolitic for them to say so, since no one has a clue how or when or by whom this might be done. Meantime, as the coffins come home, they are re-examining the strategy of being Mr. Nice Guy. "We're getting our noses bloodied, so it's time to hit back a lot harder," declared Maj. Abthorpe the other day. Let's just hope there are no kids in the way.