Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Canada’s soured Afghan mission
If you want an idea of just how much the Afghan experience has soured for Canada, look no further than a furore over allegations that officials may have committed war crimes by handing over prisoners to local authorities in 2006 and 2007.
The accusations flying through Parliament — not to mention a cartoon portraying the Prime Minister as a torturer — cannot have been what Ottawa expected when it committed 2,500 troops to Kandahar in 2005 on a mission that has turned out to be much bloodier, longer and expensive that anyone had calculated. At best, Canada’s dreams for Afghanistan are on hold: the Taliban is still strong, corruption is rampant and there is little sign of the major development that Ottawa hoped for.
Canada also stationed troops in Kandahar to underline that the old-style vision of its soldiers as peacekeepers was out. “We’re not the public service of Canada … we are the Canadian forces, and our job is to be able to kill people,” said Rick Hillier, then chief of the defense staff, describing the Taliban as “detestable murderers and scumbags” in 2005.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper took a similarly uncompromising line in 2006 when he went to Afghanistan and announced “there will be some who want to cut and run, but cutting and running is not my way”.
Fast forward three years and the government has long since stopped trying to sell the merits of a mission that has lost 133 soldiers so far and, according to Parliament’s budgetary officer, will have cost over C$18 billion by the time it ends. For all the talk of not cutting and running, Ottawa says the troops will be home by end-2011 and dismisses talk of an extension.
Indeed, you’d barely know Canada was involved in its biggest conflict since Korea. Virtually the only time the mission makes the headlines is when a soldier is killed and this, as foreign diplomats note, is a rather odd way to persuade people to support the war. A few years ago officials held regular briefings, but those have long since stopped. Ottawa is now content to issue regular progress reports which reveal precious little progress.
The government learned too late that there is no way to make killing people look pretty (especially in an era of instant communications), that counter-insurgencies are particularly vicious, and that it is hard to maintain enthusiasm for a far-off conflict when people at home don’t feel threatened by the enemy you’re fighting and see little signs of progress
“I can understand why it would be difficult to perceive any sense of success,” said Brigadier Jon Vance, who until recently led Canada’s Afghan contingent. “In the Second World War . . . the (battles) were often linear. You could measure progress by how far across the map you moved on a day, how much of the enemy army did you destroy. You could celebrate crossing the Rhine, landing on a beach, liberating a town. It’s very difficult to do that (here).”
Canada became involved in Afghanistan almost by accident, committing soldiers in 2002 . In 2005 the then Liberal government committed to a mission in Kandahar, but only for a year. The Liberals were replaced in 2006 by the Conservatives — strong backers of the military — who twice pushed through Parliamentary votes extending the mission.
Failure, as they say, is an orphan. In 2007, former top Liberal defense official Eugene Lang co-authored a book saying it had been Hillier who pushed for the Kandahar assignment. Last month Hillier denied this, saying he would have been happy to stay in Kabul. He made the comments as he promoted his own autobiography, in which he savaged NATO as a faction-ridden rotten corpse that had botched the Afghan adventure.
The finger-pointing and backbiting increased dramatically last Wednesday, when diplomat Richard Colvin testified to a Parliamentary committee. Despite widespread reports of prisoner mistreatment in Afghan jails, Ottawa has always insisted it had no firm evidence that the detainees it transferred were being abused. After all, handing over prisoners in the knowledge they could be tortured is a war crime.
But Colvin, based in Afghanistan for much of 2006 and 2007, said he had sent 17 memos warning of the danger of torture. Even though Canada’s Conservative government is notoriously attack-minded, many were startled by the ferocity of its attempts to demolish Colvin’s reputation on the grounds that his evidence was weak and he had been duped by the Taliban. Media commentators rounded on the Conservatives while cartoonists accused Canada of turning a blind eye to abuse. One even portrayed Harper as a torturer preparing to give Colvin electric shocks.
Needless to say, the mission is becoming less and less of a good news story. No one talks much about the chances of it succeeding. Harper, who was in India when Colvin testified last week, had his first chance to appear in Parliament on Monday to answer questions about detainees. He chose instead to meet the Canadian lacrosse team.
The story looks set to continue for a few weeks as the Parliamentary committee hears from others involved in the case. One thing is clear — Canada has learned some painful lessons and it will be a long time before Ottawa again sends thousands of troops to fight abroad.
((Canadian soldiers conduct a patrol in southern Afghanistan; Reuters photo by Finbarr O’Reilly. Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin testifies in Parliament; Reuters photo by Chris Wattie))