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Debating Afghanistan: The case for withdrawal

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Yesterday, I discussed the need for an open discussion about Canada's future in Afghanistan, focusing primarily on recent requests from our NATO partners to extend our commitment to the Afghan mission. I was careful to remain personally neutral on the issue, though the article largely supported the argument to prolong the Afghan presence. However, as is the case in every debate, there are key arguments supporting the opposing point of view. In regards to the future of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan, there are serious concerns that need to be addressed and troubling developments that can not be ignored.

Following Hillary Clinton's interview on CTV, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff appeared with Tom Clark to debate the future of Canada's presence in Afghanistan. Ignatieff directly responded to Clinton's request for an extended role, telling Clark that "any renewal of a combat mission is just out of the question." Ignatieff also addressed the possibility of 'non-combat' training roles.

"If it's in Kandahar, we're right in the line of fire. If it's in Kabul it's another question. Who are we training? what kind of training? There's training that's essentially indistinguishable from combat. Canadians require precise answers to precise questions...We can't sit here playing around in the dark."

When the discussion moved to his personal views on probability of the mission's success, Ignatieff shared his concerns about the government of Afghanistan.

"I have expressed my skepticism about the core issue, which is the Karzai government. Who are we fighting for here? Are these people capable of cleaning up their act and giving Afghanistan the honest government that it so desperately needs?"

"We can't sustain in Afghanistan unless we've got a partner we can trust, and Canadians can trust. I can't as a responsible political leader, even in opposition, ask my fellow citizens to support further action in Afghanistan unless I can say 'we've got some people out there you can stand with; that you can trust, that will deliver', so the question you asked earlier about training; Training with whom? For what purpose? Is the Afghan Army the kind of instrument, serving the kind of government that Canadians can support? These are the kind of fundamental questions we have answers to, because this is about Canadian lives, this is not just an interesting political debate. If we get the wrong people might die in vain, and I as a responsible political leader don't want that to happen"

The questions put forth by Ignatieff precisely address the current frustrations affecting NATO forces; The credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Back in 2006, reports began to surface that Afghans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Karzai government; They openly criticized him for "being too docile in his dealings with corrupt governors and police chiefs and for maintaining ties for the country's former warlords." Reports also discussed growing suspicions about Ahmed Wali Karzai, younger brother of president Karzai, and his role as the "head of a group involved in opium and heroin trafficking that smuggles drugs to the West."

But it's not Karzai's past that has created a renewed tension between himself and the West, it's his recent accusations that cast serious doubt on the true commitment of the Afghan government.

On April 1, Karzai lashed out at the the United States and United Nations, accusing them of perpetrating fraud in the 2009 Afghan presidential election.

"There is no doubt that the fraud was very widespread, but this fraud was not committed by Afghans, it was committed by foreigners," Karzai asserted. "This fraud was committed by (deputy United Nations special representative) Galbraith; This fraud was committed by (chief election observer for the European Union) Morillon and this fraud was committed by (international) embassies."

The New York Times notes that Karzai also accused the NATO coalition currently fighting against the Taliban "of being on the verge of becoming invaders - a term usually used by (Taliban) insurgents to refer to American, British and other NATO troops fighting in Afghanistan."

Two days later, during a Parliamentary meeting on April 3, Karzai stepped up his anti-West rhetoric, warning those in attendance, "if you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs spoke to the media following Karzai's remarks, saying that such accusations are a "cause for real and genuine concern."

After eight years of war and 141 Canadian soldiers lost on the battlefield, Karzai's inflammatory remarks are not just a 'cause for concern;' They are a cause for NATO to rethink its commitment to the Afghan government. Success in Afghanistan cannot be realized without honesty, co-operation and integrity from all parties involved. The West cannot create a democracy in a Country who's government has no interest in adopting such a system. No amount of time and effort spent working with the Afghan military will completely curtail the rampant corruption within the ranks.

The United States may feel Karzai's statements are a 'cause for concern,' but for the Canadian forces, it just may be the cause for a total withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

But isn't that already the plan? Upon closer examination, the answer seems to be no.

The 2011 withdrawal from Afghanistan, as it currently stands, will not be a complete withdrawal. Prime minister Stephen Harper has been artfully disingenuous when commenting about the details and scope of the 2011 pullout date. Harper's doublespeak was evident following his remarks that his government is "very much planning to have the 'military mission' end in 2011." This carefully worded sound byte was later undercut by Ben Rowswell, Canada's representative in Kandahar. Rowswell revealed that the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, which includes hundreds of soldiers, will in fact remain in Afghanistan beyond the 2011 deadline.

Canadians are being mislead by Harper in regards to our post 2011 role in Afghanistan, which is precisely why Parliament needs to have a frank discussion on the matter. Has the Harper government already assigned troops to 'non-combat' roles post 2011, as detailed by Rowswell and recently requested by Clinton? If so, why hasn't Harper been honest about it with Canadians? If no commitments have been made, is Harper planning on opening the door to a new role for Canadian soldiers after the 2011 withdrawal date?

If Harper is committed to a 'complete' troop withdrawal, he needs to publicly, and definitively say so. Our soldiers deserve better than to have their future secretly decided by a Conservative government with an aversion to accountability, and Canadians deserve to know the details pertaining to the upcoming troop withdrawal. After eight long years in Afghanistan, and facing allegations of complicity in torture, the Harper government owes Canadians an honest explanation.

---

UPDATE April 8: A new poll released by the CBC shows Canadians are overwhelmingly opposed to extending the Afghan mission. 

UPDATE April 11: Canada will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2011 

UPDATE April 12: Afghan president Hamid Karzai threatens to block NATO offensive

UPDATE April 25: Afghan mission needs credible partner: Former envoy

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