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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)

Doug Saunders

We're killing the Afghans we should be speaking to Add to ...

How is the Afghan war going to end? We generally avoid this question, even though the Canadian departure is months away, and other forces will be gone within three years. After that, a bathetic descent into an awkward and ambiguous future.

So there is a desire, increasingly, to go out with a bang. The death of Osama bin Laden has created a new sense that the war can be won outright, if enough force is applied.

"If I were Mullah Omar, I would certainly be worried," Major-General Richard Mills of the U.S. Marines said after the Abbottabad raid, referring to the leader of one branch of the Afghan Taliban. "It shows that the Americans are focused - once we've targeted you, we're going to maintain our focus on you until the mission's accomplished."

As if to drive home that point, commanders announced plans to increase targeted attacks against senior Taliban commanders in Afghanistan, in order to create a patch of scorched earth upon which democratic governance can thrive.

When I hear such lines coming from a military official, I often think of a British diplomat who would raise his eyebrows, bide his time, and then sidle up to journalists and explain that, no, this is not the way things really work in Afghanistan. Not at all: The Taliban and al-Qaeda aren't connected that way, and to treat them the same is to risk disaster. And he'd have the fieldwork and research, from the most impressive advisers in the country, to prove it.

Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, until last year the British ambassador to Kabul, was one of a small group of foreign officials in Afghanistan who produced truly informed and independent thinking. On the occasions when I spoke with him in Kabul, or in off-the-record gatherings in Britain, he had a rare ability to gauge the conflict from a rational distance, free from the deluge of optimistic propaganda and Byzantine PowerPoint models.

He has now placed those views on the record, after quitting the public service, in his memoir Cables from Kabul. It is a shockingly frank record for a man who was a top diplomat just months ago.

He is especially withering toward Canadian military leaders in Kandahar, whom he describes as breathy optimists who speak in "the hopeful vocabulary of stabilization and the eager-earnest syntax of counterinsurgency" but whose political sense is awful, leading them to let callow amateurs acting as puppets for drug lords run the province, and to turn the prison into a site of atrocities.

But far more importantly, it is a broadside against the sort of military thinking which leads us to think that Mr. bin Laden's death and the future of Afghanistan are linked. He argues persuasively that there is no al-Qaeda-Taliban continuum, and that a bold blitz against the latter could make our departure far more fraught.

"The chances of acceptable governance filling, in any lasting way, the spaces being created by those tactics are not good," he writes. "Such a military-focused approach risks making Afghanistan safe not for better governance, but for the warlords and narco-Mafias whom the Taliban originally targeted when they took power in the mid 1990s. Once again, the poor Afghan people could be the losers."

This is far from being the view of a lone diplomat. A new book by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, researchers who have lived in Kandahar since 2006 and have published their substantial research as An Enemy We have Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan 1970-2010, offers a rigorous and detailed description of this problem.

They note, first, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda have almost nothing to do with each other any more, beyond some money being channelled to one faction of Taliban fighters. The Taliban, extremely distrusting of foreigners, tend to hate al-Qaeda, which has no Afghan leaders.

But, they warn, this could change if the senior leadership of the various Taliban groups is obliterated: "The new and younger generation of Afghan Taliban is more susceptible to advances by foreign jihadist groups including al-Qaeda … Current policies pursued by domestic and international actors - led by the United States - are a key factor driving the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda together."

Since all leaders now agree that the war's end will entail negotiations with the Taliban - on the precondition that they renounce violence and any links with al-Qaeda - we ought to be ensuring that we are speaking with leaders who are willing and capable of doing that. Instead, we are killing them. It's time to listen to those who understand the problem on the ground.

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Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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