Back when Stephen Harper led the Canadian Alliance, he wanted Canada to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Mercifully, the country stayed out of that fiasco. But when Mr. Harper became prime minister, he inherited commitments by previous Liberal governments to participate in the war in Afghanistan.
That war, and Canada’s commitment to it, has now stretched for a decade. Beyond 2014, Mr. Harper said at the recent NATO summit, there will be a “firm and final” end to all Canadian participation – except for a $110-million cash contribution from 2015 to 2018, something sought by NATO and especially the Obama administration.
NATO is getting out of Afghanistan militarily because its various publics long ago gave up hope that anything good could come from further engagement, because its member countries are all fiscally stretched, and because, as Mr. Harper astutely observed, “the longer a foreign intervention stays eventually the less likely its success becomes.”
Here is the wisdom of experience. It is, of course, too bad that such wisdom did not inform Mr. Harper’s judgment and that of other NATO leaders at an earlier stage of the Afghan mission. Yes, there are far more girls attending school in Afghanistan, there is some life in the economy and the Taliban have been pushed out of power. So some positive developments have occurred in the past decade.
But against this progress, and weighed against the treasure spent in Afghanistan, what do we really have? A country that still resembles a narco-state, corrupt in almost every way, with a President of limited legitimacy and an insurgency somewhat diminished, it is true, but essentially biding its time until the latest iteration of a foreign invasion leaves, having done little, if anything, to change the essentially tribal, post-medieval nature of Afghanistan.
When the United States and its remaining NATO partners leave Afghanistan militarily, the largest and most powerful institution in the country will be the Afghan army. It is likely, therefore, that the army will take political power as it fights the ongoing civil war that is at the root of the conflict in Afghanistan.
In the early, bravado years of this war, the conflict was justified as necessary to remove the Taliban from power and kill a bunch of “scumbags,” as a famous Canadian general once put it.
That mission was effectively accomplished, which led to the more difficult question: What next? The question remains a decade later.
It is almost always easier to enter a war than to leave it, especially when the enemy can flee the country and when the deeper conflict is not so much about defeating the enemy, in this case the Taliban, as it is about containing internal ethnic and religious differences.
These conflicts have always characterized Afghan society. The scumbag-chasers and those who thought as they did were intellectually ill-equipped to handle the pressures that arose from these conflicts. The application of military means to an essentially political problem produced what could be expected: some temporary military progress but no essential change in the underlying dynamics of the political structure.
Of course, Afghanistan has an elected president, Hamid Karzai, and ministries and a parliament, none of which existed under the Taliban or the Soviet-supported regime. These gains, however, are fragile, and kept in place in large part by foreign assistance.
NATO is supposed to funnel about $4-billion a year to Afghanistan after its soldiers and trainers leave, principally to assist the Afghan army. If the past is any guide, portions of these funds will be swallowed up by corruption and graft. Moreover, Afghanistan will be surrounded by neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and Iran, with proximity and interests that exceed those of the departed NATO countries.
Canada lost 158 people, with many more wounded, and spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan. Those who served did the best job they could under trying circumstances. They did their duty, as their superiors defined it.
Sands are already closing over their sacrifices, as they are beginning to close over the NATO mission, whose ambitions have been reduced to leaving with some modicum of order rather than any sense of that elusive concept, victory.