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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Afghanistan’s latest casualty is naiveté Add to ...

Shoot the messenger. It’s one of the oldest reactions to criticism.

So it was this week in Afghanistan – the forgotten conflict, now in its 11th year. According to The New York Times, one of the few news organizations that still bothers to cover the war there, Afghanistan’s political leaders went bonkers over this month’s report by the International Crisis Group.

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The ICG’s report, the latest in a long series from and about Afghanistan, says that the country is not ready for anything like fair elections in 2014, and that if systems are not put in place to ensure fairness, the already fragile and corrupt government structure could degenerate into “extensive unrest, fragmentation of the security services and perhaps even a much wider civil war.”

There’s little new in this sombre report, but Afghanistan’s politicians and media went into rhetorical overdrive to condemn it, accusing the ICG of doing Western spy work and trying to start a war among Afghans. (They might well do that themselves without any outside help, thank you.)

The ICG is an international organization renowned for objective, tough analysis of trouble spots around the world. Its head is Louise Arbour, the former Canadian Supreme Court justice, and Canada has contributed yearly to the ICG budget precisely because governments have valued its analysis work. (Graeme Smith, the former crackerjack Globe correspondent in Afghanistan, has just signed on to join the ICG in Kabul.)

Canada no longer has a combat role in Afghanistan. Canadian troops are still there training the Afghan army, which, in theory, will guarantee security after the last North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces hand off at the end of 2014. But after the combat troops departed, Afghanistan all but dropped off Canada’s map. The hockey “analyst” who told us about the Canadian dead lost interest; the correspondents who fell in love with our troops moved on to other stories; and the military itself was hardly anxious to provoke a post-facto review of what this country and its NATO partners actually achieved there, for all the expended lives and treasure.

If you read the early reasoning, Canada went to Afghanistan in part to promote democracy, by beating back terrorists and installing new institutions. All these years later, the ICG says: “It is a near certainty that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. Voting rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed.”

Moreover: “Prospects for clean elections and a smooth transition are slim …There are alarming signs [that Afghan President Hamid] Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy.”

We should not be surprised, given Afghanistan’s history and culture, that its elections are tainted by corruption and fraud. It was naive to think otherwise. Similarly, it was naive to believe that if enough “scumbags” were killed, security would be solidified.

As the ICG notes, security deteriorated after mid-2011, when more responsibility was transferred from NATO to local forces. This August was the “second-deadliest month on record.” Targeted killings of civilians and government officials have been rising since 2009 as the Taliban and its allies have shifted tactics. “It has become increasingly clear that [NATO-led] ISAF is unable to dislodge the Taliban from its strongholds in the south and east,” says the ICG.

As for the Afghan army Canada is helping to train, attrition rates continue to be high, literary levels are extremely low (as they are for the whole country) and there are “serious concerns about operational capabilities.” Hardly a surprising finding.

It is possible, one supposes, for the electoral process to become fair, for a transition to take place to a properly elected democratic government that will negotiate with the insurgents for peace and stability after NATO departs. Certainly, there will be no negotiations as long as NATO remains, because neither the Americans nor the Taliban want talks.

Afghans will eventually have to sort out things for themselves, whatever that will mean.

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