One of the most-discussed items on The Globe and Mail's website yesterday was my colleague Paul Koring's thoughtful look at the last decade of Canada's mission in Afghanistan.
I've been asked to write some thoughts about this milestone, 10 years after Canadian troops landed in Kandahar, and in some ways my own opinion feels about as worthy as any of the several hundreds comments on Mr. Koring's analysis. War and violence have a way of splintering our understanding of events into countless shards of individual experience; any reporter covering the police beat will tell you that every witness at the scene of a shooting has a different take on the incident.
That problem gets magnified in a country like Afghanistan, awash with gunfire and explosions, seen from a distance through the flawed instruments of the media. We end up with wildly divergent views of the battlefield. It's also distressing for a journalist like me, who spent years trying to explain Afghanistan, to see that the newspaper's message boards still light up with chatter about 9/11 conspiracy theories and other misinformed views.
But even if you don't wear a tinfoil hat, you probably have entrenched opinions about the Afghan mission; this informal survey is not scientific, but suggests that the war divided Canadians into camps. Some think we were right to go into Afghanistan and should join future combat missions, while others disagree vehemently. Few respondents came down somewhere in the middle, but that's probably where my own opinion is located. I could see the argument for military action in Afghanistan in 2001, and nothing in my reporting over the last decade suggests to me that the whole idea of humanitarian intervention is wrong.
I was standing in Benghazi as Colonel Moammar Gadhafi's tanks rolled into eastern Libya last year, before NATO took action. Ideas such as the " responsibility to protect" doctrine seem a lot less abstract in those circumstances, when you're looking around at people who will probably die if the international community fails to intervene. (Some of the BBC's brave reporting from Syria this week has the same effect.)
Nobody seems sure that things will work out smoothly in Libya, but it's already clear that Afghanistan is headed down a darker path. The foreigners were promising all kinds of things when they deployed their troops, but the core elements of the international agenda in Afghanistan – peace, democracy, rule of law, good government – have not been realized, despite the huge sacrifices. As Mr. Koring correctly says: "In war, the outcome matters."
This week, the United Nations reported that civilian deaths increased for a fifth consecutive year in 2011, and the best that can be said about the violence statistics is that the trends are leveling off, which roughly corresponds with the end of the military surges.
Counterinsurgency theory suggests that at a certain level of saturation by security forces in a particular area should eventually quell an uprising, but if that's true then the magic number was never achieved in Afghanistan. The rest of the NATO agenda was probably best summarized in a quote at the very end of this multimedia package, from retired Colonel Pat Stogran, who said: "Claims by ministers and mandarins of great accomplishments are impossible to verify. At best there is a thin veneer of progress.... ."
I saw big changes, which you could call "progress," on my most recent visit to Kandahar last summer. The influxes of foreign troops and money had visibly strengthened the presence of pro-government forces. But the retired colonel was right: those advances felt thin, and dangerously brittle. He's not the only officer raising such concerns, and we should listen to these naysayers. Their advice may help Afghanistan avoid anarchy or civil war in the next decade.