It's been a very long time since Afghanistan, to use Prime Minister Stephen Harper's words during his recent trip to that country, was a "source of global terror."
Once the Taliban were ousted a decade ago, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan faded. Since then, regional threats to world security have come not from Afghanistan but from Pakistan's Taliban and other militant jihadi groups. The fight inside Afghanistan was about local control – what kind of country would emerge? – not international terrorism.
At best, handfuls of al-Qaeda operatives have been in and out of Afghanistan in recent years. It was not the Taliban that threatened the West, but al-Qaeda. Its operatives have mostly been located in Pakistan (where Osama bin Laden was discovered and killed) with other terror cells and related groups spread across North Africa, the Middle East and parts of southeast Asia. Afghanistan, in other words, long ago ceased being an epicentre for terror.
Canada has been around Afghanistan for a decade. It is now withdrawing from fighting to a role of helping to train the Afghan army and police for the next three years, NATO's theory being that after three years, Afghans will be able to take care of security themselves.
The Afghan mission has cost Canada hundreds of personnel killed and wounded, plus billions of dollars. The government intends to spend another $2-billion over the next three years in the training mission. Afghanistan has become the largest recipient of Canadian foreign aid.
Hamid Karzai won a rigged presidential election, and then Afghanistan held a parliamentary election that was also criticized for interference by his ruling clique. All attempts over nine years to build some kind of solid, functioning, credible state have failed, in whole or in part. The centralized state preferred by foreigners was never going to work in an ethnically split, highly decentralized country.
Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun, would like to open a dialogue with elements of the Afghan Taliban willing to talk, but the non-Pashtuns who dominate the parliament do not favour such talks. Those Taliban remotely interested in talking have set as a precondition the removal of foreign forces, read NATO. Their removal, of course, might well create the conditions for a civil war, or at least more low-intensity fighting.
The President complains regularly (as recently as Tuesday), and with reason, about NATO air strikes killing Afghan civilians. In a counterinsurgency about winning the hearts and minds of the population, the deaths of some of the population as "collateral damage" intended to kill "militants" is utterly counterproductive. It undermines NATO's credibility as a helping friend and that of Mr. Karzai, who looks like a patsy for the bombers.
Canada and other countries are supposed to build up the army and the corrupt police in the next three years. In Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars, he reports U.S. military officers telling the President that the problems of the army and police could likely not be solved even with a decade-long project costing tens of billions of dollars. So who are we kidding?
It is a well-tested rule of counterinsurgency that the perception of time is always critical. If insurgents believe their adversaries – in this case the United States and the rest of NATO – have no stomach for the fight, they will eventually win at least some of their objectives.
Countries such as Canada have lost their stomach for the fight, preferring the role of trainers. (The Dutch pulled out in 2010.) The Americans, in increasing their military presence, simultaneously announced a timetable for beginning to withdraw. Blowing and sucking at the same time, in other words. In every NATO country, the public wants out.
Foreign aid, such as Canada's, is supposed to be an elixir for a hard-pressed people and a stagnant economy. Undoubtedly, some of the money does some good; and just an undoubtedly, some (most?) of it winds up in the hands of warlords and big businessmen. Foreign aid can accentuate corruption.
The widely respected (and Canadian-supported) International Crisis Group's latest report on Afghanistan says: "The exit strategy sounds fairly simple: Try to pound the Taliban, build support by protecting civilians, lure disillusioned Taliban over to the government, expand access to basis services and create resilient security forces. The problem is that none of this is working."