Don't follow U.S. back to Afghanistan

DAVID BERCUSON  –  Sep 2, 2017

02 Sept 2017

The reversal by U.S. President Donald Trump of his position on Afghanistan, and his commitment to send an additional 4000 soldiers there to “kill terrorists” and not to “nation build”, should not move Ottawa to change its position not to send any more Canadians to Afghanistan.

Between the late fall of 2001 and the summer of 2011, Canadians served in Afghanistan, suffered more than 165 killed, and kept their fingers in the dyke in Kandahar province – barely – but could accomplish little by way of “fixing” Afghanistan because Afghanistan is probably unfixable by outsiders. We in the west don’t like to believe that some of the world’s greatest and most persistent geo-political issues do not lend themselves to Western forms of resolution. Unfortunately, that is the reality we must accept.

The Israeli-Palestinian problem is one example. If we look at the micro level in places such as Kashmir, or northeast India, or the southern Philippines we will see conflicts that have been ongoing for years if not centuries because the long-ago movement of peoples, religions, ideologies, and so on, have pushed some outside their “natural” boundaries and sloughed over into nearby territories where they ran into conflict with indigenous peoples, ideologies and religions who were not compatible or didn’t want to be compatible.

Afghanistan is such a place. As long ago as Alexander the Great – long before the arrival of Islam – the different tribes who lived in that essential power vacuum between Persia and India, and later between India and Russia, provided foreign invaders with a less-than-warm welcome. It is not true, however, that Afghanistan is the place where empires go to die. In fact, Britain won the second Anglo-Afghan war quite handily. But victory, as defined by the then developing western concept of statecraft, was intended either to occupy, hold, colonize and assimilate the indigenous, or to hold on as long as politics made it necessary, and then give it up in return for other concessions elsewhere.

Such practices didn’t work in Afghanistan because it was, and is, essentially “too far up the line” and its people too independent to allow either forms of occupation to work. Over time, the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians, the British, the Russians simply had to decide at some point that Afghanistan was simply not worth the effort. They all fought in Afghanistan with one hand behind their back, and it wasn’t enough. Then again, two hands was not worth the price. That was as true of the United States and NATO as it was of any of their predecessors.

It is true of Canada, and also true of Donald Trump.

The renewed effort of the United States in Afghanistan will fail because it is not a serious effort to defeat the Taliban and win the war.  Such an effort would mean a half a million troops and a ready willingness to end Pakistan’s role of continuing to this day to be the Taliban’s number one supporter and haven.

Why then should Canada go there? To support the Americans? To show the flag? That is what we did the first three times we were there. Yes, we were there once, but this time we have neither the troops nor the treasure to do anything even in a token way. We have deployed a handful of troops to the Baltic, another handful to the middle east, and we are running the danger of fracturing our military as we did continuously during the peacekeeping operations of the Cold War and post-Cold War period.

If we are serious about projecting Canadian power where it matters, and where our most important ally – the United States – takes notice, we should resist the temptation to send a few hundred Canadians hither and thither without any mass and with no chance of making any tactical or strategic difference.

If the Afghan government and the bulk of the Afghan people don’t want to be ruled again by the Taliban, they will find a will and a way to avoid it.

Militarily, Canada is a small country and must pick its military engagements with great care and with an eye firmly fixed on serving its own national interests.

– David Bercuson is Research Director of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.