The Afghan war is not going well.
Canadian and allied casualties mount daily, improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers proliferate, and the Taliban seem to be extending their reach across the country from south to north and east to west. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border continues to be open to reinforcements and weapons for the Taliban, and the hunt for al-Qaeda's top figures remains frustratingly slow, despite some successes.
The recent Afghan presidential election is still unresolved, with the allegations of fraud now being proved. President Hamid Karzai looks to be the winner, but his government is, at best, likely to remain ineffective and corrupt.
The war's unpopularity is clear in the opinion polls, each death in the field continues to get extensive coverage and ministers and the senior leaders of the Canadian Forces have clearly been told to say as little as possible about any matters of significance.
That is not wholly true. The Canadian government has repeatedly stated that it will live up to the terms of the February, 2008, House of Commons motion declaring that Canada will begin to pull its combat troops out of Kandahar in July, 2011, and complete that process by the end of the year.
There have been grumbles about this from officials of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, fearful that others allies, less stalwart than Canada in fighting the war, might follow Ottawa's lead. U.S. President Barack Obama has appeared understanding of Canada's decision, not least during Prime Minister Stephen Harper's recent visit to Washington, but American pressure on Canada to change its position will surely increase if a Canadian withdrawal seems likely to spur other allies to pull out as well.
At the same time, the federal government has made it clear that Canada will not quit Afghanistan completely. In Washington on Sept. 16, the Prime Minister said that "Canada is not leaving Afghanistan; Canada will be transitioning from a predominantly military mission to a mission that will be a civilian humanitarian development mission after 2011."
The fighting soldiers will come home, but Canada has more than infantry and tanks in Afghanistan. There is a helicopter squadron, which is of great usefulness, and the 300-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar, helping to improve the local infrastructure and train Afghans. There are diplomats and aid personnel. And there are officers and soldiers in the Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams working directly within the kandaks (battalions) of the Afghan National Army while others, mainly RCMP and other police, give advice to the Afghan National Police.
What, if anything, of these resources will remain after 2011 when the battle group returns to Canada? What do we want to do? What goals do we hope to achieve? How can the government build a consensus in Parliament and the country for its future course, whatever it might be?
Mr. Harper created the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan in the late summer of 2007, giving the task of leading it to former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley. After wide but quick consultations, the Manley commission delivered in January, 2008, its sensible recommendations, which formed the basis of the government's motion in the Commons in February.
In a shrewd gesture of bipartisanship, the government largely accepted the Liberal Opposition's amendments to its motion, and the result was Parliament's decision to extend the mission to 2011.
Now the clock is ticking toward the inevitable Canadian withdrawal. Can we not replicate the Manley commission to help us prepare the plan for the post-2011 years? This could not happen if the country had been plunged into a general election this fall, but, with some luck, we may avoid this until after the Vancouver Olympics.
A commission set up now could hear witnesses, including Canadian diplomats and aid officials, senior officers from the Canadian Forces, academics, representatives of non-governmental organizations and others. It could talk to foreign diplomats and politicians and visit Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Such a commission could consider the key questions:
- What are Canada's national interests in Afghanistan eight years after the 9/11 attacks? What do we want to achieve there?
- We all probably recognize that Kabul is not going to be the capital of a Western-style democracy, but can we realistically help to create a better life for a people who clearly want their daughters to be able to go school? Can we help to build an Islamic republic that is a just society?
- What are the possibilities of Pakistan's sliding further into chaos, of its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of fundamentalist terrorists? And what are the implications of this for the Afghan war and for future devastating attacks on the West?
- How best can Canada continue to play a useful role in Afghanistan and the region? Do we want to keep our trainers and mentors in the field, knowing that this will mean Canadian soldiers will be fighting alongside Afghans? Do we want to keep the Provincial Reconstruction Team there, understanding that this will require some troops to protect it and allow it to do its job? How can we improve the distribution and effectiveness of our aid? What can be done to expand our diplomatic efforts? Will civilians alone be able to do the job Canada wants done?
The reality is that NATO and our friends, engaged in their own planning, need to know Canada's intentions no later than mid-2010. A new Manley commission would allow for a careful consideration of what should and can be done.
Too much Canadian blood has already been spilled for us to simply walk away without carefully considering what we leave behind. Canadians want to help build a more peaceful Afghanistan. The real question now is how best to do that.
J. L. Granatstein is senior research fellow at the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.