Thursday, December 18, 2008

"The growing storm"

Paul Wells of Maclean's magazine is back from Afstan. Excerpts from an even-handed and clear-headed article:
There is progress in Afghanistan, but the danger is increasing
Even soldiers who eagerly await the arrival of U.S. reinforcements worry about what will happen when they arrive. Many—though certainly not all—believe the level of violence will skyrocket in the short term and that the heart of the carnage will be the country’s south, including Kandahar, where most of the soldiers in the Canadian deployment are already stationed. It may be salutary violence; perhaps this war needs to get worse before it gets better. But one U.S. general put it this way.

“If you put three brigades in the heart of the Pashtun south, the insurgents are gonna come from Baluchistan [across the porous border in Pakistan], they’re gonna come from far and wide. And you’re going to see a level of violence that we have not seen in a long time. This is not the Taliban that we all know and love. You know, one little IED [improvised explosive device] takes a wheel off a vehicle, everybody gets bumped up but they’re all okay. You’re going to be seeing world-class IEDs. You’re going to be seeing [rocket-propelled grenade] fire that is incredibly accurate. You’re going to be seeing mortar fire that is incredibly accurate. And my belief is, you’re going to see new weapons introduced into the theatre.”..

Development work has markedly accelerated and there have been tentative steps toward better coordination. Roads are being paved, schools being built. Canada is distributing $1.2 million worth of wheat seed to 5,000 farmers so they might not have to plant opium poppies. Our government is financing the rebuilding of Sarpoza prison, the site of a spectacular and deadly prison break in June, into perhaps the most secure and humane prison in Afghanistan. The professionalism and imagination of the Canadian public servants I met at the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar were a tonic for a journalistic refugee from the inanity of the coalition-government brinksmanship in Ottawa.

Canada’s civilian work in the south is led by Elissa Golberg, a loquacious career civil servant whose title—she is the first official “Representative of Canada in Kandahar”—is sewn in short form onto her body armour, as “THE ROCK.” Soldiers are told to treat the Rock with the deference a general officer would get. She frets over her colleagues’ safety, but she spends more time bumping along the dangerous roads around Kandahar than most other civilians.

Golberg has more discretion over her budgets than do many cabinet ministers in Ottawa. While she must account for her spending decisions, she is well clear of the leaden cloud of so-called “accountability” that most of today’s Ottawa interprets to mean, “Don’t do anything and you won’t get into trouble.” In Kandahar the cost of inaction is far too visible for such nonsense. Golberg will talk your ear off about wheat seed. Her enthusiasm is infectious.

One constant guideline for the Canadian civilians in Kandahar is to resist doing by themselves what they can goad or entice the Afghan government to do. This takes discipline. The Canadians have considerable resources, whereas getting and holding the Afghans’ attention can be like trying to push string uphill. There will not always be Canadians in Kandahar, and before they leave they hope to instill some of the habits of a democratic government in Afghanistan’s administration. Too much still rides on the personal attention of the local governor, who can be dedicated or corrupt. Rules and processes need to evolve so Afghans can depend on their government for basic services even if a third-rater is in charge.

And yet this whole conversation about government services is slightly surreal because the roads are booby-trapped and the country is racked with insurgent violence. Every single NGO we met in Kandahar identified “security”—the local euphemism for war—as its primary challenge. Here too, last year’s standoff between allies and insurgents seems to be holding, but at a higher level of carnage...

...some Western authorities think even a U.S.-reinforced NATO contingent and a swiftly improving Afghan army and police corps won’t be enough to end the standoff with the insurgents. That has some senior NATO officers mulling a dangerous and controversial option: recruiting and arming local tribal militias to help out. There is no formal plan along these lines, but we heard the option discussed at senior levels of the NATO leadership.

We also heard it contested, especially in the south, where tribal affiliations are infernally complex. Arming or paying one faction could have repercussions nobody could predict or control. “On a scale from smart to dumb,” one officer said, holding his hands apart in front of him, “arming the tribes is over here.” He nodded at the “dumb” end of his scale.

If anything, it was harder after this trip to measure the room for optimism in Afghanistan than it was a year ago. The civilian and military resources Canada and its allies are deploying far exceed anything we have put to the task before. Reinforcements are on the way. But the challenge is growing too...


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