Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Soldiers aren't enough

I have, on occasion, written posts about Afghanistan that try to explore how many troops NATO would really need there if we wanted to stabilize the situation. I write these posts not because I really, really want to see 150,000-250,000 men and women put in harm's way, but because I think it's incumbent on those of us who aren't calling for immediate withdrawal (which is most of the Canadian spectrum, actually) to understand exactly how paltry our means are, when compared to the ends we've set ourselves.

We want a Taliban-free Afghanistan. Excellent. I agree 100%, notwithstanding the reality that the Taliban now have an apparently-permanent home in Pakistan. But Canada is only willing to put 2,000 soldiers there, and NATO is only willing to put 35,000 soldiers in. By contrast, the USSR put 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan and still lost. And even if we could put in, say, 500,000 soldiers (conjured out of the ether, I suppose) there's no evidence that, on it's own, would help matters. Example from the Prospect today, though they're talking about Iraq:
In 1972 the British had 42,000 troops in Northern Ireland (equivalent to the United States having 750,000 troops in Iraq) to mediate the simmering conflict between Catholics and Protestants. Yet, even with much greater intelligence and situational awareness then the United States has in Iraq (they all spoke English after all), the heavy-handed tactics of the British forces resulted in an escalation of violence. Today, the United States could put a soldier on every street corner in Baghdad, but unless there was a political reconciliation process it would not make a bit of difference. Through no fault of their own, our soldiers and Marines lack the training, language skills, and cultural knowledge to operate in the ways that are being proposed.
Now, maybe we're not as plain ignorant of cultural issues as the Americans are in Iraq. Are we as knowledgeable as the British were in Ireland? I doubt it.

The first rule of foreign policy should be "the ends need to be within the means". Here, Stephen Harper has managed to be completely incompetent, by pretending that the status quo is working, despite all the evidence. (And yes, to say "stay the course" is to claim that no changes are necessary.) To dishonestly claim that all we need is for the existing NATO countries to take the leash off their soldiers will not help matters. To claim that all we need is for the US to leave Iraq and send those troops to Afghanistan - even if it were likely, which I doubt - still might not be enough.

And if we aren't willing to change the means we're putting in to Afghanistan, then we need to change our ends. That could mean anything up to and including leaving altogether, but the point is not which choice we make so long as it's actually achievable.

I tire of the Harper/Bush comparisons, but in one sense at least, they've sung from the same hymnal: They've used the rhetoric of war without actually governing as if they were at war.


Technetium said...

"Here, Stephen Harper has managed to be completely incompetent, by pretending that the status quo is working, despite all the evidence."

Do you actually think the Prime Minister has been completely incompetent? To use such an extreme term as complete incompetence suggests a rhetoric that looses your arguement credibility.

And to paint it as obvious that the evidence suggests our current strategy is not working, and that it requires pretending to do so, is contumelious towards myself who struggles to weigh the evidence for and against.

Then again, I'm not your primary audience =)

Thanks for the post, and I always look forward yours on Afghanistan.

john said...

Second point first: While many voices argue that Afghanistan can yet be rescued, I haven't seen any credible voice argue that NATO hasn't suffered serious, substantial reversals in the last year+. That isn't to say all is lost, but that the current course doesn't lead to our objective being achieved. The sources that Olaf cites here more or less all agree on that point.

As for Harper's total incompetence, he continues to act in public as if the status quo is working. At least, he's not calling for the kind of change in course that is required. To knowingly and continually pursue a course that's not working while claiming the opposite is incompetence. It's also delusional, crazy, dishonest, etc. But people who pursue crazy paths that work are lauded, Harper won't be.