PM trying to rewrite the Afghan narrative

Proche-Orient : mensonges, désastre et cynisme

Who can argue when Stephen Harper says Canada is doing a lot for Afghanistan? A mission now costing a fortune in blood and money is making that country marginally safer, more stable and modern.
That's not only as it should be, it's the least to expect. When foreigners topple a local government they assume the burden of cleaning up the mess.
Measured today, the price of that effort is 55 Canadian lives and more than $6 billion. So the Prime Minister has a sizable stake in the progress telegraphed home this week.
Those messages are important to Harper.
Afghanistan hasn't been good to Conservatives lately and the Prime Minister needs the sweet smell of a success to wash away the bad taste left by careless controls over the treatment of prisoners.
To that end, history will footnote Harper's second Afghanistan trip as markedly different from the first.
Gone is jarring U.S. jingoism, replaced by a typically more modest and soothing Ottawa narrative about "helping the country to build a democratic, economically viable future of lasting peace and prosperity."
Up to a point, the Prime Minister has a point.
Given the inherent advantages enjoyed by insurgents everywhere, the military is doing well in countering the Taliban while even the much-maligned Canadian International Development Agency is playing a useful role in, among other things, providing the micro-financing that makes poverty a little less grinding.
But the overarching question for this government, and ultimately this country, is where do these bits and pieces fit in the complex puzzle of a fissured and, in many ways, still feudal state? As clearly as it is in Harper's political interest to boast that the export of Canadian values is booming, Afghanistan remains trapped by opium economics, regional politics and a culture steeped in violence.
The distance between our values and their reality is enormous. To bridge it will require resources and compromises that will test Canadian patience as well as generosity.
It's those demands - along with the pressing need to re-energize a flagging party - that took Harper to Afghanistan this week. Wisely or not, this Prime Minister chose to make a Liberal mission his own and now is stuck with convincing an ambivalent nation to stay what promises to be a long and torturous course.
What makes that so difficult is what made it so easy to "sell" the first operation to a country reeling from 9/11. Bringing down the Taliban made obvious sense to Canadians who then knew even less about Afghanistan than they do today.
True, a minority still cling to the lingering war-to-end-all-wars fantasy of a clear-cut military victory. But many more now grasp that factors beyond Canadian, NATO and even U.S. control will decide Afghanistan's future.
Two stand in particular relief. One is Pakistan, the other, poppies.
There can be no lasting or even temporary peace without the blessing of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf or his successors. And there will be no meaningful development as long as warlords, a corrupt central government and peasant farmers profit most from an economy high on narcotics.
Demonizing the Taliban and torching cash crops are feel-good Western reflexes that only exacerbate the problem.
So, too, are opposition proposals to fix a withdrawal date and to skew the three Ds of defence, diplomacy and development to the latter rather than the former.
Much more innovative political and economic remedies are needed if Afghanistan is to accelerate away from its dark past. Canada's part in that process is to improve the security that is both a chip in the inevitable power-sharing negotiations and a precursor to the long-term development that civilian agencies deliver so much more capably than armies.
Politicians dislike plunging voters into those layers of perplexing nuance as much as admitting that some events are beyond their influence. They prefer, instead, to speak in bromides while advancing anecdotal shards in the hope they will be mistaken for the whole story.
In reinforcing that pattern this week, Harper skimmed lightly over the hardest truths for his government and for Afghanistan. A ruling party that now "owns" the mission has no alternative than to point to modest successes and shout loudly about creating a model state from chaos.
Canadians have done a lot for Afghanistan and the Prime Minister is right to recognize the human sacrifice and good works.
But that's a far cry from having the political permission to stay as long as necessary to do what may not be possible.
James Travers's national affairs column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. jtraver @

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