Monday, March 02, 2009

Afstan: What is Prime Minister Harper up to?

A post by Damian Penny:

Lowering expectations on Afghanistan

A gaffe is when a politician inadvertently tells the truth, and Stephen Harper did just that on CNN:

Western forces alone can never defeat the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and President Barack Obama better realize that in shaping his strategy there, says Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In an interview aired Sunday on the U.S. news network CNN, Harper said he's "delighted" the U.S. president is sending more troops to the country in the short term.

Many of them will be deployed in the Kandahar region, where more than 2,000 Canadian soldiers already on the ground can use the help.

But in the longer run, said Harper, it's the government in Kabul that will have to run its own country and be responsible for its own security.

"We're not going to win this war just by staying," he told interviewer Fareed Zakaria.

"Quite frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency. Afghanistan has probably had -- my reading of Afghanistan history (is) it's probably had an insurgency forever of some kind.

"What has to happen in Afghanistan is we have to have an Afghan government that is capable of managing that insurgency."

The Globe and Mail, smelling blood, jumps on the "we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency" comment:

Canada, allies will never defeat Taliban, PM says


Although Mr. Obama has made clear that he regards military success as only one dimension of eventual success in Afghanistan, he has never suggested defeating the insurgency can't be done.

Rather, he has exhorted allies to do more militarily.

"We must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan," Mr. Obama said during his major foreign-policy speech in Berlin during the election campaign. "The Afghan people need our troops and your troops, our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda."

And just before his trip to Ottawa and the announcement he was sending 17,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said the war in "Afghanistan is still winnable," although he made clear that solving "the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism" cannot be accomplished "solely through military means."

However, with a NATO summit next month and Mr. Obama keen to secure more military commitments from increasingly reluctant European allies, Mr. Harper's assessment that defeating the insurgency is impossible may reinforce the split in the alliance.

Canada is one of the very few allies so far willing to send soldiers to southern Afghanistan, heartland of the Taliban where the insurgency has been growing. For Ottawa to be taking the position that foreign troops can't deliver victory may make Mr. Obama's task harder.

For some Globe readers, Harper's downbeat assessment of Afghanistan is proof that he's a crazy Republican neocon warmonger. Go figure. How many Canadians realize that President Hopenchange is much more hawkish than their "right-wing" Prime Minister?

My quick reaction at
Three headlines March 2:

NATO can't defeat Afghan insurgency, PM says

Canada, allies will never defeat Taliban, PM says

Afghan insurgency will never be defeated: Harper

Harper really did, for reasons I don't understand, accentuate the negative. And then he put it all on the US (and everyone blamed Bush for being unilateral!):
The United States must come up with a viable Afghan exit strategy before asking Canada to rethink its plan to pull out of the country in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says. [Star story]
In fact though what Harper said is essentially the same as Obama (Globe story) [see Damian P.'s quote above]...

It's the bloody emphasis. Hardly the way to keep up support for the mission here. Maybe Harper is playing some deep strategic Canadian political game, but it beats me.

And he seems to be using "we" to refer only to foreign forces. Surely the Afghan gov't forces are also part of the "we"--and if large enough and capable enough can eventually contain and roll back the Taliban (if not completely "defeat" them). The exit strategy (along with strengthening that gov't generally), in which military victory as such is irrelevant.
Today in the Commons' Question Period Laurie Hawn, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, said the "soldiers will be home in 2011" and the "military mission [not just the "combat" mission] will end in 2011". He also said that humanitarian and development work would continue. No mention of an ongoing role for the CF in training the Afghan security forces.

Update: Please read Terry Glavin's comment, with which I whole-heartedly agree. Brilliant.

Upperdate: A post by Raphael Alexander:
The Schadenfreude Of The Left On Afghanistan


Blogger Terry Glavin said...

I say this not to be mean to Harper, who has at least demonstrated something occasionally resembling a backbone on the issue, but I have to say, he really needs to develop some grey matter on the subject as well.

There is absolutely nothing remarkable or even especially newsworthy in what he had to say. No one has ever suggested that America or NATO alone can defeat the 'insurgency' in Afghanistan, and merely stating the obvious in this regard is a bit like noticing that the sky is blue on a cloudless day. But what really insults the intelligence is way the major media have handled this story, like it's some sort of "gotcha" moment.

There is also a bit of a paradox involved in all this. I don't think this prime minister has ever really believed in the mission, but rather saw it solely through the lens of Canada-U.S. relations and our role as an American ally in global affairs.

And for good or ill, this is the worst possible way to mobilize support here in in Canada for what is a UN sanctioned engagement of the soldiers of 39 UN member states, not all of whom are even NATO members.

I wince every time some well-meaning American thanks us for being there, as though our only purpose in Afghanistan is to be a friend to America. I wince every time a pro-mission Canadian politician talks about our efforts there as though we were merely engaged in some American project - an impression Harper has once again left, with his latest comments. I do appreciate that in fact, everyone is now turning to America for leadership on the Afghan file, precisely because there has been such a leadership vacuum among the ISAF countries.

But still. It goes down like broken glass.

To give Harper his due, he did attempt a more nuanced and even negotiable position on the 2011 date, but as has happened before when he's tried to speak plainly about this, some Conservative point-person gets up in the House of Commons or otherwise rushes to the closest microphone to assert, No! Our soldiers are leaving in 2011!

The Conservatives really need to get their act together on this stuff. Their guy isn't just another politician. He is this country's prime minister.

6:14 p.m., March 02, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have no idea how long we should stay there. I do know that our men and women over there are doing yeoman service,and I support both them and the mission but Harper said they have to start helping themselves and I believe that also. It would sure be nice to hear once in a while how the overall strategy is going from our government or the military. We sure do not get anything reliable from the MSM. One cannot make a fair judgement if they do not have accurate facts and we have an abundance of lack going around these days when it comes to facts.

2:59 a.m., March 03, 2009  
Blogger Alex said...

"It would sure be nice to hear once in a while how the overall strategy is going from our government or the military."

The short answer: we're essentially fighting a holding-action.

What we need to do is clear out the Taliban long enough to rebuild the Afghan military and police forces, build a decent transportation infrastructure, and build up local confidence in the ability of their government to protect them. Unfortunately, we do not have the manpower to do that.

The whole situation is made even worse by the ability of the Taliban to operate essentially unopposed in Pakistani territory - due to that little detail, we also need to look into ways to either control the border or to fight them on the other side of it. Either way, the mission is essentially a stalemate at this point. The only thing that's likely to shift the situation in our favor is the American "surge". Putting more boots on the ground will mean we can actually hold large chunks of territory, instead of constantly bouncing around from one skirmish to another.

3:22 a.m., March 03, 2009  

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