Monday, April 07, 2008

The mission has changed... again.


Haroon Siddiqui nails it nicely when he suggests that the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan is no clearer now than it was before the Bucharest NATO conference.
On Afghanistan, Stephen Harper and St├ęphane Dion have got what they wanted. But Canadians haven't got any more clarity on our mission there than before the NATO summit.

The Prime Minister got an extension of our military deployment. The Liberal leader got out of his political quagmire, appeasing those in his caucus opposed to a commitment made by a Liberal government in the first place.

But the mission is no less muddled just because France is sending a battalion to the relative safety of eastern Afghanistan.

I would point out that the safety of eastern Afghanistan is indeed "relative" when compared to Helmand or Kandahar. It would be wrong to suggest it is a peaceful and safe area by most standards. Still, the mission remains muddled and, in fact has changed again.

Nicolas Sarkozy, not Harper, was on to this when he challenged NATO to define what would constitute success. He got no answer.

Part of the problem is NATO itself, an alliance still searching for a mandate in the post-Cold War era. Afghanistan is just a way station to where it might end up.

NATO's senior members, such as Germany and France, want it to be more than an American auxiliary force. Newer ones from Eastern Europe are happy to be American client states, which seems to be Harper's vision for Canada as well.

Hence his vociferous support for the war on Iraq, America's blind backing of Israel, the American proposal to have Georgia and Ukraine join NATO and America's war in Afghanistan.

On the latter, his comments in Bucharest were instructive.

He conceded that NATO had underestimated the challenge. He admitted that the Taliban couldn't be defeated: "That's not realistic."

It may be that there are two balls in play here. The core European NATO members have done two assessments: one which employs the metric for success in Afghanistan, no matter what is done and another which measures the support of their own individual populations for a war which seems to be going nowhere. These are democracies which will quickly turn over a government if the population sees no progress.

The other item is the moving goalposts. For Harper to say that defeating the Taliban is "not realistic" changes the whole picture and leaves NATO (and Canada) without a conclusive strategy. The original purpose was to eliminate the Taliban (which has become a poorly applied collective definition for any group which is offering up resistance).

Never mind that various connected groups have been saying from the start that the original goal was unrealistic. From the start Hillier's "murderers and scumbags" comment suggested a level of hubris which was unjustified and a thoroughly unprofessional lack of respect for a resourceful enemy.

In the rush to be Bush's best friend and NATO's failure to properly assess the threat in southern Afghanistan, somebody missed a critically salient point.

The Taliban's confederates, al Qaeda, started all of this with an attack on the United States. They didn't appear as an invasion force; they didn't show up overhead with waves of bombers; they didn't launch missiles from a remote location. They mounted a suicide guerrilla attack using improvised and commandeered resources.

Did anybody think they would not continue to operate in that manner?

Scott picks up on the lament of John Manley who is apparently complaining that the Harperites have cherry-picked his report for convertible hard-points which they can translate into milestones to continue the mission while ignoring other recommendations which are critical to achieving success in the grander scheme.

Manley is quite correct. What did he expect? He was fighting two things.

First is the fact that he was dealing with a government which is motivated by one thing: its lust for a majority. Nothing much else matters and by handing that government a document which contained both tangible and intangible recommendations, of course the Conservatives were going to focus on the tangible. They consider the rest airy-fairy and irrelevant.

Secondly, had Manley actually produced an in-depth and critical analysis of the mission and the state of Afghanistan instead of his previous thoughts regurgitated in a piece of fluff, for which a second year university student would have received a failing grade, there might have been more pressure on the Harperites to pay attention. He could have tied the continuation of the mission to some of his less tangible ideas making them distinct conditions. Harper would have then had to either accept or reject them at his peril.

So Manley has nobody to blame but himself. And we are starting to see in the Afghanistan mission the same thing the Americans have been witnessing in the Iraq fiasco. With each failed effort the purpose of the overall mission is redefined. In the end we will have completely forgotten the Utopian vision originally intended for Afghanistan.

Unless somebody finds weapons of mass destruction in Balakh province.

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