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Canada Has Been Right On Afghanistan All Along

Canada Has Been Right On Afghanistan All Along
Winning the Afghan war the Canadian way
November 2, 2009
By Pamela Wallin
Published: National Post
Also Published In Embassy Newspaper

Winning The Afghan War The Canadian Way

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama distanced himself from the Bush era and the Iraq war. One way he did this was by embracing the socalled “good war” in Afghanistan, and promising to ramp up the mission in that country.

As Commander in Chief, he moved ahead with phase one of an Afghan “surge,” sending in some 20,000 new U.S. troops to belatedly bolster the NATO alliance that had been unable or unwilling to put enough boots on the ground or planes in the air.

But the decision as to whether the President proceeds with his promised Phase Two of the surge (anywhere between 10,000 and 80,000 new troops) will prove a pivot point in his Presidency. And prolonged delay could be both disastrous and deadly.

Experts warned that the American surge would provoke and intensify Taliban activity, and that allied casualties would increase as a result. That’s why you have a Phase Two: When they bring out their big guns, we bring out ours.

U.S. General Stanley Mc-Chrystal, Obama’s man on the ground, is quick to point out his case for a phase two is not just a predictable call for more reinforcements. In fact, focusing too heavily on force or resource requirements, he says, “misses the point entirely.”

The General, it seems, wants to put a little more “Canada” in the U.S. handbook on how to win hearts, minds and even wars.

Americans often resist socalled “nation building,” which in this case means helping the Afghans get ready to run their country, not just defend it.

It is what Canada does so well.

For the better part of eight years, our soldiers and civilians have risked their lives to put some two million young girls in schools; to vaccinate seven million more children; and to see that more than 80% of people now have access to at least some basic health care. We are building the country’s largest dam to supply clean drinking water and training up a police force, and encouraging a fledgling free media. And Canadian sponsored micro-finance means war widows can work to support their families.

And when it comes to doing battle, Canada is again showing the way with new, intelligent counter-insurgency strategies.

Instead of clearing an area and moving on, Canadian troops, in complements of about 100, are now setting up in “platoon houses,” and living in the villages to provide security once the enemy has been forced out. This is genuine interaction — and connection — with the local population.

The change in tactics is boosting morale among our troops, as well as the locals

who are desperate for security. The Afghans are willing to take on responsibility for keeping their citizens safe — the most basic definition of a state. We are making them ready and able through training and mentoring.

While their spirit may not be broken, their political and governance systems are.

Canada’s focus on governance will help Afghans shape their own future, though not necessarily to build a democracy as we know it.

We all agree their recent election fell far short of our Western democratic standard. Then again, national votes are more about what we want than how Afghans traditionally operate.

That’s why the allies have been decentralizing their efforts to deal with other levels of government, working more closely with provincial and district leaders.

Let’s not let perfection become the enemy of progress. Given Afghanistan’s brutal history, two elections in eight years — even with the taint of corruption–is a forward step. And the allies need the U.S. surge to secure the extraordinary effort and underreported success of our military and civilian volunteers so far.

All the more troubling then that, at this crucial moment, we have some calling for Canada to cut and run — to retreat.

Only an intellectual coward would hold up deserter status as a rallying cry, or conjure irrelevant comparisons to Vietnam, which are little more than headline-grabbing cheap shots that side-swipe our Canadian military and embolden our enemy. And retreat would mean a much more costly and constantly expanding frontline here at home.

I am not only embarrassed but angry with such ill-considered rhetoric. Soldiers have spilled blood for the cause we said we believed in when we sent them into battle.

Let’s remember we are in Afghanistan because we chose to be there. We responded to the attacks of 9/11 that killed our citizens, and joined our allies in the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom. And it is simply not good enough to claim that we can somehow “support our troops,” but not the mission.

Even President Obama says that this remains a war of necessity.

And as we wrote in the report of the Independent Panel on Canada’s role, the imperatives are obvious: “Our presence in Afghanistan is fully justified whether considered from the point of view of international law, humanitarian needs or Canadian and global interests in security. If we are not willing to lend our military resources when asked to do so by the United Nations, in a mission coordinated by NATO, in a country whose democratically elected government wants us and whose citizens desperately need us, then we wonder where and when we would do so.”

Three governments, two of them Liberal, agreed.

It is important that before our soldiers are dispatched to foreign soil — to make peace or keep it — the Parliament speaks. It has, with votes in 2006 and again in 2008 when the country agreed to sustain the mission and maintain a combat role until 2011.

Even when we were dangerously under-equipped, Canada has been punching above its weight. Not only have our troops risked their lives to save ours –not only have they given Afghans hope and security — not only have we invested millions in the next generation of Afghans so that they can govern and defend themselves — but we have, in the process, earned the respect of our peers and a place back at the international table.

Why would we retreat in the face of such progress?

Despite genuine concerns, few Canadians want to revert to our status as spectator nation because our troops have shown us how our military resources and humanitarian spirit can be harnessed and effectively deployed to shape a participant role for Canada for the 21st century.

We need resolve. The situation is indeed dire. The neighbourhood is dangerous and unpredictable. And there is no decisive victory at hand.

All the more reason for a little strategic patience — and a very strategic surge.

-Pamela Wallin serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and is Deputy Chair of the defence and national security committee. She was a member of the Independent Panel on Canada’s role in Afghanistan.