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Withdrawal from Afghanistan a risky strategy

June 8, 2012
Times Colonist
Kenneth Christie

The announcement by Prime Minister Stephen Harper that there will be no Canadian boots on the ground in Afghanistan after 2014 should come as no surprise - from a political perspective, anyway.

Support for the war has declined dramatically over the past 10 years. It is the longest foreign conflict that Canada has been involved in since the end of the Second World War. The fatigue with loss of life, slow and halting progress, the financial burdens and venal corruption of what some term a "narco-state" has ensured that this exit strategy is not one that will cause great criticism. The reasons for getting into the conflict seem to have disappeared.

Osama bin Laden is dead; the Taliban appear diminished. The argument that leaving Afghans to run their own affairs and assume responsibility for their security holds strong currency in the minds of politicians and voters. Harper has backed up his words by saying that "the longer a foreign intervention stays, eventually the less likely its success becomes."

From a human security perspective, however, the withdrawal is highly problematic.

Canada, which has always been one of the strongest proponents of the concept, should hope that freedom from fear and freedom from want, the two pillars of the perspective, have been strengthened in Afghanistan with their national presence. There is little evidence to support this view on the ground.

Yes, there have been some gains. Women are now represented in parliament and girls are attending school. The economy appears to be improving.

And yet, these gains are overshadowed by many elements of what still remains a "failed state." The tribal social structure has changed little; the government is not seen as widely legitimate and is heavily involved in corruption.

President Hamid Karzai's strange pronouncements that the burning of Qur'ans by U.S. soldiers were satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies, and his description of the Taliban and NATO as "two demons - let's pray for God to rescue us from these two demons" - does nothing to instil faith in his leadership abilities and skills, and only serve to undermine the planned withdrawal.

Most military officials seem to doubt whether the Afghan army is capable of maintaining and protecting the security of people within the country or even containing an anticipated resurgence of the Taliban once the withdrawal begins. There is still the problem of its neighbour, Pakistan, which has provided safe havens to Afghan insurgents and has been accused of "passive acceptance" in the conflict.

Canada's contribution of $110 million a year to support the military and police appears generous, but one wonders how much it will assist in this protection of the vulnerable or go to line the coffers of state officials.

It's a risky strategy to aggressively retreat because it sends the wrong messages. When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving a weak government, the country disintegrated into civil war with thousands dead and led to the Taliban assuming control. The strategy by NATO aims to avoid that scenario by fostering reconciliation between enemies and arming and training proper security forces to take over. If this happens and it avoids chaos, it would be some sort of victory.

However, the signals are mixed and complicated. It didn't help that a deranged American army sergeant killed 16 civilians (nine of them children), then was shipped out to face justice in the U.S. Burning the Qur'an in public has not helped the case either. Waves of violent protest followed; Afghan soldiers attacked NATO troops. Levels of distrust are at an alltime high.

The traditional conservative structure will take years to erode in Afghanistan and while the NATO mission may have eroded some aspects, it will take much longer to dismantle many of the attitudes which are ingrained in the local population. On May 22, 125 girls and three teachers were admitted to hospital because of a suspected poison attack by conservative radicals on a school in the Takhar province. This was the second attack of this kind in two months and does little to instil faith in the governance or security structures.

Unless Canada and its allies in NATO find increasingly innovative ways to protect such vulnerable individuals from fear and want, it appears likely that Afghanistan will self-destruct once more and the implications of this will simply be more conflict, more death and the absence of genuine human security.

Kenneth Christie is a professor and head of the Human Security and Peacebuilding program at Royal Roads University.