As a federal election looms, Afghanistan observers are awaiting the late-January report of John Manley and his cherry-picked panel on Canada’s role beyond February 2009, when the current mandate expires.
In the meantime, there’s widespread unease among analysts on both sides of the border about the way operational decisions are deep-sixing political goals and and about the possibilities of a widened conflict.
The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies has released its 2008 report calling for a strategic overhaul of the NATO mission, warning that the war is heading in the “wrong direction.”
At the University of Western Ontario, Peter Langille, a peace studies professor and defence analyst at the University of Western Ontario is concerned that firepower and armoured vehicles are trumping efforts to build connections with locals. It’s “common knowledge’’ in the ranks, he says, that the Canadian Forces have downgraded operations by infantry foot soldiers in favour of artillery and armoured vehicles.
“We don’t have as many boots on the ground as the government would like us to think,” he says.
The Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies estimates that of the 2,500 Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, only about 450 are currently on foot or in armoured vehicles, and another 100 are engaged in big-gun artillery. The rest are playing support roles.
Langille claims Canadian soldiers have been shooting off thousands of rounds of ammunition from their M777 155-millimetre howitzers at suspected insurgents, risking the lives of civilians, rather doing foot patrols and village visits.
These big guns can fire from a distance of 30 to 40 kilometres but do not have pinpoint line-of-sight accuracy.
Described as “area weapons,” they may hit anything or anybody within a 300-metre radius of their target.
He suggests the Canadian Forces are acting out of frustration with the refusal of other NATO countries to provide combat reinforcements. “By the time [the Canadians] chose to deploy tanks and heavy artillery, they had to know they were going to lose [the war]. So they chose systems to lose the fewest people.”
University of British Columbia political scientist Michael Wallace also deplores the overemphasis on armour. In a report for the Rideau Institute in June, he targeted DND’s decision to deploy Leopard 2 tanks in Afghanistan.
Besides being vulnerable to insurgents’ weapons, he says, they demonstrate how easy it will be for the mission to go off the rails.
“The problem is not the technical details of the tanks,” he tells NOW. “The problem is a combat strategy that seeks maximum isolation between the Afghan population and Canadian soldiers, whether it is fast-moving LAVs, tanks, or helicopters. The message is, if we need to use these on a long-term basis, we’ve lost, no matter what the relative body count.
“The way societies get modernized is not by force, because that generally backslides,” he says, referring to colonizing nations confronting tribal cultures. “Countries modernize by creating incentives for people to be modern.” One parallel, he says, is the British discovery that they couldn’t break Scotland’s equally tight clan system until after the 18th century, when it became economically advantageous for rural Scots to move to the cities.
But could Canadian reliance on armed vehicles signal an even more ominous trajectory? After all, DND has acquired 120 of them, and very few are now on the ground in Afghanistan.
Not surprising, says Eugene Lang, co-author of The Unexpected War: Canada In Kandahar and a former chief of staff to defence ministers. To field the 20 now in use, he says, 100 are needed for training. “Half the fleet is probably in maintenance at any given point in time.”
UBC’s Wallace, however, believes the reality is far scarier. One possibility, he says, is that the Canadian military will move into other theatres of war, such as the volatile northwest border region of Pakistan, where insurgent forces are scoring victories over the Pakistani army.
This is all the more likely given the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. “If things really go pear-shaped in Pakistan, I can see the Americans wanting us there. The population of Pakistan is larger than Russia’s. What a mess it would be.”
The other possibility? “The government wants to prepare for a large expansion of the Afghan mission but doesn’t want to announce it until it has a majority government.”
In the interim, however, DND sure is sending out some strange signals. Take what happened in the foreign affairs committee November 27. There, according to committee minutes, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Leonard Edwards declared the Afghan mission’s much-vaunted “three Ds” mandate – development, diplomacy and defence – dead as a doornail.
When NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar opined that this sounded suspiciously like a policy shift, Edwards waved him off, replying that the change is only a matter of government branches working in one effort. “We don’t have a three-D strategy; we have a one-D strategy – we’re all working together,’’ he said.
If this smells of repositioning, Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s musing at a December NATO meet in Edinburgh has a similar scent. Trying the soft sell with reluctant NATO allies, MacKay reportedly suggested they might take over development and infrastructure-building in southern Afghanistan, thus “freeing” up Canada’s effort there.
Could all this be a prelude to shedding the already tattered development portion of the mission? DND won’t comment and refers calls to Foreign Affairs, which denies there’s anything to be read from current events.
According to the department’s Kristina Davis, the feds will continue to honour Canada’s $1.2 billion development assistance commitment until 2011. “Our civilian officials and military personnel are helping the Afghan government build the institutions required to achieve stability and good governance.”