The stink of our failure

Christie Blatchford

Afghanistan - une guerre masquée

KANADAHAR, AFGHANISTAN -- I left Kandahar yesterday for the fourth time in 18 months. For the first time, I left filled with shame.
On the micro level, it was because a story that unfolded before a trusty colleague of mine, Steve Chao of CTV, was fresh in my mind. Mr. Chao was at Patrol Base Wilson, a Canadian base in the Taliban heartland of Zhari district, last weekend, and was interviewing a local Afghan National Police chief when, off in the distance, came the telltale smoke of a roadside bomb.
A U.S. private security truck escorting a tanker had been blown up, and its men and the ANP travelling with them were now under fire. The police chief, Colonel Gulam Rasool Aka, impeccably starched and dressed and to all appearances a good policemen (there are more of these than you would think), was on the phone to his guys taking fire. As Mr. Chao watched, a Canadian came out of a command post to ask what was going on. Col. Aka told him and asked if the Canadians could help; the man said, "Keep me informed," and disappeared back into the CP.
For all the problems that bedevil the ANP, and they are legion, not being able to rely on their Canadian allies traditionally has not been one of them.
Now, on this day at least it was, and though there may be good reason why and there's no doubt the Canadians cannot ride to the rescue of the alternately beleaguered and inept ANP every time, it still grated because I remember a time, last year, when Canadians were everyone's go-to boys.
But in a broader way, I left with the stink of failure in my nose.
The Canadian mission in Afghanistan is not failing, though its progress is measured some days in millimetres (my late father had a far better term for such a fine unit) and it is far from perfect.
Like those of the other donor nations whose dollars flood this place, Canada's effort in this country has suffered from a surfeit of good will and a lack of hard-nosed resolve to make funds contingent upon action on the internal corruption that is rife in Afghanistan and the fledgling government of President Hamid Karzai.
Rather, what stuck in my nostrils was a failure of nerve: Canada, I fear, has lost its collective stomach for this exercise. It's too tough, too hard, too damn slow, and the cost - 70 lives down and, as an Ottawa-datelined story I read yesterday jauntily noted, "and counting" - is too great.
The signs are everywhere.
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has pledged to quickly bring a motion to the House of Commons formally setting February, 2009, as the day Canada's combat role will end here. The NDP's Jack Layton is still demanding Canadian troops withdraw now, and has added the twist that Canada should take the lead in "peace talks" here.
Since the only group at war with Canada in Afghanistan is the Taliban and the warlords and narco-criminals who are their allies of convenience, I guess Mr. Layton means peace talks with them. Presumably, as the pundits are saying, Mr. Layton considers the Taliban's recent negotiations with South Korea - why, only two of those foolish but innocent hostages were murdered after all - is evidence of their new respectability.
And more tellingly, those in Ottawa skilled at reading the tea leaves of the Stephen Harper government suggest that the Conservatives have lost their appetite for this particular battle.
I hope they are wrong, but in light of what new Defence Minister Peter MacKay was last weekend telling CTV's Question Period, it's hard to remain optimistic. Mr. MacKay said that Canada's NATO allies have been reminded they "cannot count on our troops" after February of 2009, though he was quick to reassure Canadians that "the aid work and the diplomatic effort and presence will extend well beyond that."
Well, that is just a glorious crock.
The critics of this mission like to say there has never been an honest debate about it in Parliament, the suggestion that if only there had been, fighting troops would never have been sent here because the Canadian people always prefer to see their soldiers in peaceable roles. That may or may not be true, but that's certainly what public-opinion polls indicate and it's what Canadian politicians appear to mostly believe.
But if you thought the previous debates were a farce, the coming one may make them look full and forthright.
The truth is that in the south, including Kandahar province, which is the Canadian area of operations, there is barely an aid effort now, and that's with Canadian troops here in force.
That's not because Canadian soldiers haven't tried, or are overarmed mouth-breathers unable to grasp the delicate nuance of reconstruction and development work, the bleating of some NGOs notwithstanding. Soldiers are damned capable, better in my mind than the earnest folks at the aid agencies who claim to know best how to deliver help. And the troops have made a genuine difference in myriad small ways, which is how development really happens on the ground.
But the real aim here is to build the capacity of Afghans - in government, in its institutions such as the army and police and in politicians and district leaders - and that is painfully slow and barely visible work, especially when the good folks keep getting killed off and beheaded by those with whom Mr. Layton would conduct negotiations.
And it can't be done on any real scale until there's what everyone here calls security, by which they really mean someone has to regularly kick the snot out of the Taliban and their allies until they are reduced, as appears to be happening in Kandahar province, to suicide and roadside bombings and fleeting attacks, and eventually fewer of those, too.
That takes soldiers, and soldiers who are willing to fight, and suffer losses, and occasionally emerge with bloody noses. Canadian soldiers, including, most remarkably, the families of those who have died here, remain willing and committed. The Brits and Americans aside, none of Canada's NATO allies have shown much eagerness to step up to the plate, nor has anyone else.
So the truth of it is, if Parliament decides that, as Mr. MacKay put it, "our current configuration," meaning combat troops, will end in early 2009, no one should draw comfort from the promise that "the aid work" will continue merrily on. It won't. Neither is it likely another country will step up to fill the vacuum left by departing Canadian soldiers, and even if one does, they won't be as good at the hard work - of killing and being killed, as well as talking and building - as Canadians are. And Afghanistan will slide deeper into the chaos that as always is on a low boil, burbling within.
That's why I left Kandahar yesterday feeling ashamed. Where failure itself is often honourable, failing to stay the course is not, and that's what's in the air.

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