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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

What did NATO expect in Afghanistan, anyway? Add to ...

Almost eight years after the United Nations first authorized an international military force for Afghanistan, the "overall situation is deteriorating," reports the top commander of those forces, U.S. General Stanley McChrystal. Without momentum against the insurgency in the next year, there could be an outcome "where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." Still more troops, and a different political and military strategy, will be required to avert "failure."

If so, it will be for the United States alone to increase troops and implement a new strategy. Canada will end its military effort in 2011. Italians are already clamouring for their mission to end, after losing six soldiers. Germany certainly isn't going to up its ante. The Dutch, Danes and British have been doing a lot of fighting, along with the Canadians and Americans. They certainly won't be doing more. Nor will the Australians, who valiantly agreed to come to Afghanistan despite not being a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Americans alone must implement Gen. McChrystal's strategy, the outcome of a hard-nosed analysis of the challenge of winning in Afghanistan. However, executing even this refined strategy will be next to impossible.

What is winning? NATO has never been very clear about this, in part because all sorts of high-minded goals were advanced to sell deployment politically in the alliance's member countries: improve the lot of women, educate more young girls, root out corruption, implant democracy, raise living standards.

Afghanistan remains a postmedieval country, at least many parts of it do, including rural Kandahar province, where the Canadians have been fighting a slowly losing battle, in the sense that the Taliban now control more territory than three or four years ago. Canada's casualties now number 131, with many others wounded.

Afghanistan was, and remains, one of the world's poorest countries. As such, it has absorbed the largest amount of Canada's foreign aid, without much of a dent being noticed. Attitudes toward women in the south and other rural areas are so deeply entrenched that no amount of Western liberalism will change them.

Corruption? The recent elections were marred by all manner of electoral fraud, according to just about every observer. The only issues were how much fraud and whether the outcome should be reversed.

What did NATO expect in a country with no tradition of electoral democracy but a long history of warlords, intimidation, bribery and decentralization? Of course President Hamid Karzai's regime and its allies stuffed ballot boxes and bribed voters. That's the way things get done in Afghanistan - through what we would call corruption, but what many Afghans would say is the way things have always been, with tribal strongmen extorting money and power for themselves in exchange for distributing crumbs of it to those dependent upon them. It ain't pretty, but it's the Afghan way.

Gen. McChrystal and President Barack Obama (in his five weekend television interviews) now define the mission as preventing al-Qaeda from re-establishing footholds in Afghanistan. This important goal is long removed from the early and persistent ones that were based on hopes and myths rather than realizable objectives. If keeping al-Qaeda out is the goal, Gen. McChrystal argues that more troops are needed. Becoming much closer to the people should animate policy.

This is easier said than done. One reason that soldiers patrol in convoys and governments place caveats on where and when their forces go is because they don't want troops killed. That's why the Americans used drones to fire missiles at suspected insurgent targets rather than sending ground troops, killing many civilians in the process.

As for cutting off the insurgents' supplies of money, how does this get done when the sources are in Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan and the poppy fields of the south? How do you patrol a Pakistan-Afghanistan border that is almost completely porous?

Gen. McChrystal's diagnosis is compelling: a weak state, a corrupt government, Pakistani support for the insurgents, money from the drug trade, extortion and intimidation, no working system of justice, endemic poverty, a police force no one trusts and an Afghan army that must grow to 240,000 from a targeted level of 134,000 by next fall.

Many years, not one or two, would be required to turn around any of these factors, let alone all of them.

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