Call it the big chill. Thanks to the manley panel and a blast of bipartisanship, a deep freeze is closing down the possibilities for a national debate on Afghanistan.
Last week, the Liberals, after fumbling and fuming, finally signalled that they seek a parliamentary consensus with the Tories on the war, and Stéphane Dion is hinting that he will no longer insist that Canada end its combat role by 2009.
This, plus the mainstream media’s love affair with the Manley report has discouraged a broader consideration of options. And no one is more upset by this than the conflict resolution experts who made deputations to the Manley panel and are now complaining about narrow range of the recommendations in the resulting report.
“I find it a curious thing that there is such silence in the Manley report on the question of reconciliation,” says Ernie Regehr, senior adviser at Project Ploughshares. He and a number of others who offered insights to the panel can’t fathom why the issue of negotiations with insurgents – beyond Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s few initiatives – has so little traction.
“When the panel does mention reconciliation, what they are really promoting is a kind of amnesty, discussions with those elements in the Taliban that reject violence,” he says. “But that is not a serious attempt to deal with people who have genuine grievances against the current order.”
The fact is, Regehr says, one of the things that makes Taliban recruitment in the south possible is that “there is not a social stigma against joining the rebels, because the feeling is that the government is not theirs in any event.” It, in fact, largely represents the Northern Alliance, one side in the ongoing Afghan civil war that was installed in Kabul after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 — thus leaving a major Pashtun-speaking political force in the south out in the cold, he argues.
The Afghan resistance will remain entrenched, Regehr and others believe, as long as the mission remains the wrong one, in the wrong hands. True, the Manley document likes to assert (in several places actually) that the NATO-led mission is “under the express authority of the United Nations.”
But many say that’s not exactly true, pointing out that this international project is a NATO-style operation with only nominal use of UN expertise or technique. What’s needed, they argue, is a “multi-dimensional” United Nations-led peace process of mediation, reconciliation, political dialogue, a reliance on local institutions and customs and the negotiated disarmament of armed factions – similar to interventions that ended vicious civil wars in Cambodia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other countries.
With more than 100,000 peacekeepers in the field, including military and civilian personnel in 17 missions around the world, the UN has had an excellent record “that is much ignored,” says Walter Dorn, a prof at the Canadian Forces College in suburban Toronto and author of the forthcoming Global Peace Operations 2008.
In his scenario, a UN-hosted force would be deployed to provide security during a period of negotiations for a peace settlement. Such a force should, he says, include troops from Muslim countries so as to make the mission less of “a George Bush-initiated operation that looks to locals like an invasion.”
Dorn warns that, though Canadians could play a civilian administrative role, our soldiers would have to be excluded from an expanded UN force in Afghanistan because their presence in a NATO combat force on in the field has already tainted them as biased toward one of the sides in the civil conflict.
“In fact, UN forces would be more effective on the ground, because they will have more elements of impartiality. They are not the enemy, and obviously, it would require a large number of soldiers to protect themselves, but I think they would be seen as less of a target than the NATO force.”
But conflict-resolutionists have another bone to pick with Manley. Some think the NATO force doesn’t really have UN endorsement at all. That’s the view of former Canadian Ambassador for Disarmament Peggy Mason, chair of the Canadian Peacebuilding Coordinating Committee. The UN, she says, didn’t actually authorize NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to fight a military campaign against the Taliban in 2001.
“The Security Council did no such thing then, nor have they done so since. Despite the actions of the ISAF in the south, they have never been given a counter-insurgency mandate by the UN Security Council.”
Indeed, she continues, the Security Council resolutions “make clear the distinction” between the security assistance mandate conferred by the UN on the ISAF and the separate U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom counter-insurgency force in the Afghan south.
“Everybody in the debate equates security with the combat role, when in fact it is the exact opposite,” she says.