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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)


It's time to leave Afghanistan Add to ...

There’s an excruciating twist to the slaughter of 16 Afghan civilians by a (presumably deranged) American soldier on the weekend. It happened in the Panjwai district of Kandahar, the very place where Canadian troops devoted so many years of effort – and so many lives – to winning hearts and minds.

So much for that.

The killings were senseless, tragic. But it’s just the latest in a series of incidents that have enraged the country. The infamous Koran-burning a few weeks ago set off a wave of violence. It was a mishap – a couple of U.S. soldiers had been instructed to dump some books into a rubbish incinerator, and had no idea there were Korans among them – but Afghans believe that it was a deliberate act of sacrilege. Before that, they were outraged when U.S. soldiers were caught on video urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. In every case, the Americans offered profuse apologies, to no avail.

Everyone’s blaming the Americans for poisoning the mission. But it’s naive to believe that such incidents are preventable. No matter how extensive the cultural training and how disciplined the troops, bad stuff will always happen in a war zone. Kids get killed. Someone goes off the deep end. The reasons for outrage are never hard to find.

The other story from Afghanistan is the rise of so-called green-on-blue incidents, in which Western soldiers are shot dead by Afghan security forces. These incidents are now alarmingly common. In the past few weeks, six U.S. soldiers have been murdered by their Afghan allies, including two NATO officers killed inside the ultra-secure Interior Ministry in Kabul. France suspended training operations after an Afghan soldier shot four French soldiers in January; it’s threatened to withdraw its troops altogether because the danger is too great.

Canada’s Afghan training operation, which is supposed to extend for two more years, is basically an effort to show support for NATO. No one can seriously imagine it will make a difference in the long run. To start with, the objective – to help train as many as 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police officers to replace the coalition forces, enforce public safety and defend their country – is a fantasy. The Afghan security forces are plagued by incompetence, corruption, illiteracy and drug consumption. Defection rates are high, and loyalty is low. Nine hundred Canadians can’t fix that.

It’s entirely possible that the men we train will never fight the Taliban at all. But they might well wind up fighting one another in a protracted civil war. No one thinks the Afghan forces will remain loyal to President Hamid Karzai when the coalition leaves. In any event, Mr. Karzai is supposed to step down in 2014 after the next election, and no one has a clue what happens after that. “Many people who know Afghanistan well … have warned from the beginning against this plan to train up an armed force,” writes Ann Jones, an experienced reporter there. In her view, the problem with spending billions to train an Afghan National Army is that you never know who they’ll shoot.

I admire our soldiers in Afghanistan, including all those who’ve served there and the ones who’re there now. They are highly trained, principled and idealistic. It’s not their fault they couldn’t make the country safe for girls to go to school. They were given an impossible job to do. They’ve done it with courage, heart and passion. But enough’s enough. Time to bring them home.

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