Can Canada reconcile its defence, diplomacy, and development objectives in Afghanistan?
· photography by Martin Adler
A hundred and twenty years before Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan, a British prime minister identified the issue at the heart of current attempts to defeat the Taliban and reconstruct the country. In the midst of the “Great Game” between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia over influence in Central Asia, William Gladstone urged his fellow citizens to “remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own.”
Preserving the sanctity of life, however, is difficult when the enemy strikes unexpectedly, blends into the local populace, and enjoys growing support. Last October, for example, some twenty Afghan civilians were killed during two separate NATO attacks. First, a 2 a.m. helicopter strike on Taliban fighters destroyed several huts in the village of Ashogoh. The same day, a rocket accidentally struck a house during a firefight between NATO troops and the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai has summed up Afghanistan’s vulnerable position, stating, “We can’t prevent the terrorists from coming from Pakistan, and we can’t prevent the coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our children are dying because of this.”
Karzai’s comment encapsulates the challenge Canada now faces in Afghanistan. We must win local support for reconstruction efforts while also making war. These two tasks are not easily reconciled. As Afghan legislator Shukria Barakzai has warned, killing civilians will undermine NATO’s mission in Afghanistan (to say nothing of harsh treatment of detainees).
Although this poses a dilemma, it’s no reason to leave – a point on which a near consensus has emerged. While the Liberal Party supports moving forces out of Kandahar province (where the heaviest fighting is) in 2009, all national parties save the New Democrats agree that the humanitarian costs of withdrawing completely from the country outweigh the many challenges of staying. Indeed, successive Canadian governments have ultimately justified the mission in similar terms. Unlike Gladstone, we are trying to help the Afghans build a viable and independent state. With the official debate over Canada’s presence resolved for the time being, the question remains: how do we go about building peace while we’re still at war?
At the outset of our involvement in Afghanistan, shortly after 9/11, a senior official from a Canadian aid organization had a call put out to the Department of National Defence to find out if we were at war. With strict rules about neutrality in place, his agency wanted to determine what its involvement would be. An officer put the agency on hold, only to return and say that he’d have to get back to them.
In part, this confusion reflects the changing nature of international conflict. Canada’s long-held (and somewhat mythical) view of peacekeeping does not apply when the peace must be built before it can be kept. The use of a neutral blue helmet force to separate two warring armies simply doesn’t work in countries like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Afghanistan, where fighting over territory is often only one part of a loosely defined and highly complex struggle between organized crime rings, warlords, and, increasingly, insurgents. In such cases, poverty and instability lead to a vicious cycle of underdevelopment and violence. It takes more than soldiers to address the problem.
Recognizing this, Canada has shifted to a robust form of peace-building that brings defence into closer contact with diplomatic and development activities. Paul Martin introduced this approach first in speeches, then in his 2005 international policy statement, under the name “3D.” The Conservative government has since replaced this with the term “whole-of-government,” but the underlying philosophy remains the same. The Department of National Defence (DND), Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT), and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) must now work together to execute a common strategy.
Reconciling military, diplomatic, and humanitarian objectives may be a more effective way of stabilizing failed and fragile states, but it also creates inevitable trade-offs and requires a high degree of collaboration. 3D is simply easier on paper than it is in practice.
When diplomat Glyn Berry, whose job was to facilitate relationships between a wide range of Afghan groups, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar on January 15, 2006, it was a striking blow to Canada’s strategy in Afghanistan. In many ways, Berry personified 3D. Working alongside development specialists and protected by the military, he was part of the effort to rebuild the country. Since Berry’s death, non-military personnel have largely been confined to secure bases in Kandahar. His replacement, Gavin Buchan, would like to “go out every day and talk to people on the street...but we’re not there yet and we’re not going to be there in the foreseeable future.” If Buchan and other diplomats are unable to do their jobs, and if development workers are similarly constrained, how can Canada claim to be implementing 3D?
This question is behind much of the criticism of our mission in Afghanistan. Analysts have noted that funding has been heavily weighted toward the military, at both the national and international levels. According to a 2006 report by the Senlis Council, the total defence expenditure for all parties in Afghanistan has outpaced development funding more than tenfold, and the ratio is similar for Canadian spending, although exact figures are hard to come by. On these grounds, it is difficult to dispute former foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy’s claim that the mission “has become one big ‘D.’?”