Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989-1993. He was a member of the Independent Panel on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan, 2007-2008.
There is rarely good news from Afghanistan – the almost forgotten war. The Mongols, the British, the Soviets and now the Americans have learned the lesson from the “Graveyard of Empires” the hard way. After 17 years of conflict, more than US$100-billion in expenses, thousands of allied, primarily American, casualties plus tens of thousands of Afghan military, police and civilian deaths, the situation is grim and the prospects are even grimmer.
When Canada’s Manley panel visited Afghanistan in late 2007 and met the then-president, Hamid Karzai, we were profoundly disillusioned. He brushed aside, unconvincingly, concerns about endemic corruption and other deficiencies of his administration to the point that a few of us concluded that our report could be both short and negative. However, other briefings by diplomats, senior U.S. and Canadian military officers and more impressive members of the Karzai administration prompted a more balanced assessment and a recommendation that, subject to explicit undertakings, Canada should continue to support the effort. We were also encouraged by evidence on the ground that some programs, especially those educating Afghan girls, were actually working.
In retrospect, the panel’s initial instinct might have been more prudent. Afghanistan today is a crumbling hulk beset by unending violence and pervasive corruption. The Taliban now control half or more of the country’s territory. More and better had been expected from the highly educated and experienced president, Ashraf Ghani, but he has not been able to exercise authority over his own government let alone on the warring tribal factions in northern Afghanistan.
The U.S. Department of Justice openly describes the Afghan government today as “lawless, weak and dysfunctional.” As reported by The Globe and Mail, the United States’s special inspector-general for Afghan reconstruction, John Sopko, lamented that billions of dollars of Western, primarily U.S., aid has been wasted through mismanagement and lax oversight.
Regrettably, most of the waste has been with funds allocated to the World Bank and other multilateral agencies, many of which are better known for muddled management than effective results.
Canada has contributed about $1-billion in economic assistance to Afghanistan since 2002 but there are serious questions about how well it has been spent, as there were when the Manley panel reported. At that time, more than two-thirds of Canada’s $600-million annual allocation was channelled either through multilateral agencies (half) or to programs managed by the Afghan government (one-third). That is precisely why the panel recommended that more in future be given to “direct, bilateral assistance that addressed the immediate, practical needs of the Afghan people.”
U.S. President Donald Trump had been determined to “get out” of Afghanistan on day one of his administration but was persuaded by Defense Secretary James Mattis, among others, not only to remain but to send upwards of 4,000 additional U.S. troops ostensibly to compel the Taliban to negotiate a political settlement. Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Trump also cracked down heavily on U.S. aid to Pakistan because it continues to harbour and support key Taliban leaders.
Just last month, General Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar – the province Canadian troops fought valiantly to protect – was assassinated. For the Americans, Gen. Raziq had been a staunch bulwark against the Taliban. It might have been worse. The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Austin (Scott) Miller narrowly escaped a similar fate by leaving the room where the attack occurred only moments before.
Attempts at ceasefires have failed repeatedly, as have attempts at political dialogue with the Taliban, who are confident that time is on their side. The latest effort is led by a former U.S. ambassador in Kabul, an Afghan-American, Zalmay Khalilzad, who seems to have the ear of Mr. Trump. Because he is not directly in the loop, President Ghani is reportedly upset and his political hand is now weaker than ever.
It is never easy to ignore the sacrifices made to establish a semblance of democracy and stability in Afghanistan, but Mr. Trump is instinctual by nature and not known for patience. Americans are decidedly weary of war without victory. Democracies generally have little stomach for protracted, inconclusive military engagements and Afghanistan now holds the record for longevity. The Trump administration is undoubtedly looking for an exit of some kind before the 2020 elections.
After years of futility and paltry dividends, a fig-leaf, political settlement may be the only practical option. Ultimately, any stability that may be achieved is one that the Afghans themselves decide, for better or worse, to establish.