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Afghanistan: Wrong Mission for Canada

The coolly reasoned case made by a leading expert in international law.

Michael Byers 6 Oct

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Tipping point nearing.

We are approaching the five-year mark of Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan.

Joint Task Force 2, Canada's special-forces unit, has been active in that country since shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. We know that JTF-2 soldiers transferred detainees to U.S. custody in January 2002, participated in an attack at Tora Bora in December 2002, and transferred detainees to U.S. custody again during the summer of 2005.

The first deployment of regular soldiers came in January 2002, when 750 infantry from the Princess Patricia's Regiment were sent to Kandahar as part of an U.S. counter-insurgency task force. Four of these soldiers were killed, and eight others injured, in a "friendly fire" incident in April 2002.

Then, over a two-year period from August 2003 to October 2005, some 6,000 Canadian soldiers were rotated through Kabul as part of a UN-authorized, NATO-led "international security assistance force" providing security and stability for Afghanistan's new government.

In late 2005, the focus of Canada's military effort reverted to the counter-insurgency mission in Kandahar. The U.S. government, bogged down in Iraq, and with an eye to next month's mid-term elections, was keen to reduce its troop levels. NATO responded by scaling up its presence from 9,000 to around 20,000 soldiers, with most of the new troops coming from Britain, Canada, Denmark and The Netherlands.

Originally, the plan was to expand NATO's responsibilities to include southern Afghanistan by early 2006. But the transition was delayed by concerns, in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere, over the tactics employed in the counter-insurgency mission. For the better part of a year, Canada's soldiers operated as part of the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom, where, despite being placed in charge of ground operations in Kandahar, they remained under more general U.S. operational control. In the end, the French and Germans refused to deploy into the south.

Kandahar is the stronghold of the Taliban, the nearby mountains bordering Pakistan provide a refuge for Al-Qaeda, and the agricultural lowlands are dominated by drug barons. Canada's soldiers face ever-increasing risks as these various forces copy their Iraqi counterparts by using roadside explosives and suicide bombs while, at the same time, coalescing into organized groups of guerrilla fighters. To some extent, the risks have been exacerbated by heavy-handed U.S.-led tactics, especially the use of air power against villages when Taliban or Al-Qaeda members are believed to be present. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent civilians have died in such strikes, prompting angry family members and friends to join the insurgency.

Beyond 'first sign of trouble'

In March 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: "Canadians don't cut and run at the first sign of trouble."

Yes, indeed. But surely we're beyond the "first sign of trouble" now?

At least 39 Canadian soldiers have lost their lives in Afghanistan, along with one diplomat. There have likely been additional losses among our special forces, who operate behind a veil of secrecy that extends to the reporting of casualties. Then, there are the hundreds of seriously wounded Canadian soldiers, with lost limbs, blindness, brain damage or other forms of severe psychological harm.

These numbers are sobering. And let's be honest: whatever our political inclination, we all have a tipping point at which we'd call for Canada's troops to be brought home. Nobody -- not even General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan -- is willing to argue that the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan would be worth the lives of 1,000 Canadian soldiers.

On that basis, it's time to assess where our national tipping point should be. Let's begin by considering the arguments in favour of the mission.


First, it's argued that the mission is necessary to protect Canadians from the threat posed by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This is a serious argument, but it can be exaggerated. The Taliban do not pose a threat to the existence of Canada. They're not about to invade. Nor are they developing weapons of mass destruction and missiles capable of reaching North America.

The Al-Qaeda elements sheltering behind the Taliban do not pose an existential threat to Canada either. They certainly provide moral and perhaps technical support to aspiring terrorists elsewhere. But if the threat were truly serious, Washington would not have shifted its focus to Iraq. Nor would General Musharraf be allowed to conclude deals with pro-Taliban militants along the border of Afghanistan, while denying NATO forces access to that region.

Clearly, we do have a national interest in containing Al-Qaeda. Yet even if that interest was worth 39 Canadian soldiers' lives, it's not clear that the counter-insurgency mission is making progress towards this goal. After five years of efforts by American, British and Canadian troops, southern Afghanistan has become significantly more dangerous.

Second, it's argued that the counter-insurgency mission is needed to restrict the production of opium. Illegal narcotics are certainly a concern. But despite the presence of Canadian troops, opium production has increased dramatically.

Third, it's argued that the counter-insurgency mission is needed to protect the Afghan people. But, again, are we actually achieving this goal? Today, the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is less than 45 years, and 1,600 mothers out of 100,000 die during childbirth (compared to six out of 100,000 in Canada). What's more, some of the most important posts in the Afghan government are held by former warlords. Some of them stand accused -- by international human rights organizations and other, elected members of the parliament -- of heinous crimes, and of siphoning off billions of dollars of foreign aid.

Fourth, it's argued that NATO's credibility is at stake. But if that's the case, why have so many NATO members refused to step up to the plate? There are 26 NATO countries, and Canada -- with our relatively small population and military -- has made the third-largest contribution to the counter-insurgency mission.

And how much does NATO's credibility matter? Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO is simply a collection of countries that may or may not choose to co-operate in any given situation. When the United States intervened in Afghanistan in 2001, it chose not to call on NATO for help.

Fifth, it's argued that Canada's credibility would suffer if we withdrew from the counter-insurgency mission. It's certainly true that, within NATO circles, we'd be expected to provide reasonable notice. And so we should. But does anyone regard France or Germany as less credible because they refused to deploy into southern Afghanistan? Does anyone regard Spain or Italy as less credible because they chose to withdraw from Iraq? As Senator Roméo Dallaire has explained, the biggest blow to Canada's credibility today is occurring elsewhere, as we allow a genocide to continue in Darfur.

Sixth, it's argued that Canada's credibility in Washington would suffer. This is a serious argument. But it's also the same argument that was advanced by those who thought Canada should join in the Vietnam War. It's the same argument that was advanced by those who thought Canada should join in the 2003 Iraq War. All of which goes to show that Canadians are better judges of the Canadian national interest than Americans. As long as we provide reasonable notice, Washington has no reason to complain.


Let's turn to the arguments against the counter-insurgency mission. What are the costs -- above and beyond the all-important cost in lost and shattered young Canadian lives?

There are financial costs. In August 2006, the Polaris Institute estimated that the counter-insurgency mission would cost Canadian taxpayers around $4 billion over two years. That, of course, works out to $2 billion per year. This compares to the $1 billion, over ten years, that Canada is providing for reconstruction and development in Afghanistan, which works out to $100 million per year -- or five per cent of what we're spending on the military mission.

These financial costs also constitute opportunity costs. Four billion dollars could provide a massive amount of development and humanitarian assistance, and not just in Afghanistan.

Wisely spent, this money could save millions of lives, especially in disease and famine-ridden sub-Sahara Africa.

Opportunity missed: Lebanon. Another form of opportunity cost concerns the other missions that the Canadian Forces cannot fulfil because of their current engagement.

Take Lebanon, for instance. On August 11, 2006, the UN Security Council imposed a ceasefire on Hezbollah and Israel. It authorized a peacekeeping operation of 15,000 soldiers with a robust mandate to "use all necessary action in areas of deployment of its forces and as it deems within its capabilities, to ensure that its area of operations is not utilized for hostile activities of any kind."

Many of the peacekeepers have been provided by France, Italy and Spain. Belgium, Finland, Norway and Poland are sending smaller contingents, with Germany and Denmark providing maritime support. Canada is conspicuously absent. Yet Canada has a clear national interest in maintaining the ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel, since the Middle East conflict has the potential to escalate into a highly destabilizing war with Iran involving attacks on nuclear facilities. Moreover, far more Canadians have personal connections with Israel and Lebanon than with Afghanistan. Last but not least, Canadian soldiers are uniquely suited to peacekeeping in Lebanon. In addition to their considerable experience and training for such missions, the Canadian Forces have the necessary language skills to communicate with Israelis (most of whom speak English) and Lebanese (most of whom speak French).

Opportunity missed: Darfur. Violence-wracked Darfur is another place Canadian peacekeepers could usefully be deployed. Since 2003, more than 200,000 people have been killed, countless women have been raped, and several million people have been forced from their homes. The agents of this destruction -- the Janjaweed (who ride camels and horses) and the Sudanese military (which pushes crude barrel bombs out of the back of cargo planes) -- would be no match for a well-trained, well-equipped Western military.

In May 2006, African countries recognized that they weren't up to the task. The African Union urged the commencement of a UN peacekeeping operation in Darfur "at the earliest possible time." In response, the UN Security Council requested that Secretary General Kofi Annan provide recommendations "on all relevant aspects of the mandate of the United Nations operation in Darfur" including "additional force requirements" and "potential troop-contributing countries." Mr. Annan's office immediately indicated that any force deployed to Darfur would have to include soldiers from developed countries.

Three months later, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1706, formally authorizing the creation of a peacekeeping force for Darfur. It did hold off deploying the force while last-ditch efforts were made to obtain Sudanese consent, but let's be clear: Resolution 1706 authorizes a muscular intervention in Darfur with or without the consent of Khartoum. In the circumstances, a declared willingness to deploy one or two thousand highly trained infantry and the Canadian Army's fleet of Griffin helicopters -- which are not being used elsewhere -- could be just what is needed to create the political will for the deployment to move forward.

Some have argued that Canada's national interest is not engaged in Darfur, at least not as much as it is in Afghanistan. But the argument overlooks two critical points. First, Canada does have an interest in protecting fundamental human rights, and there is no more fundamental right than being protected from genocide. Second, the degree of national interest that we have in any given situation must be balanced against the likely costs, including lost Canadian lives. And as I've said, neither the Janjaweed nor the Sudanese military constitute a serious fighting force.


Some people might decry the opportunities in Lebanon and Darfur as unsuitable for Canadian troops because they constitute "mere" peacekeeping. For almost a decade, Canada's generals, along with a growing collection of politicians and pundits, have asserted that peacekeeping is passé and counter-insurgency wars are the new reality. Yet the turn away from peacekeeping has been a matter of choice rather than necessity. In January 2002, The Globe and Mail reported that "Canada decided to send its troops into a combat mission under U.S. control in Afghanistan rather than participate in the British-led multinational force because it is 'tired' of acting as mere peacekeepers, according to a senior British defence official."

Since when have the generations of Canadian soldiers who risked their lives patrolling the world's conflict zones become "mere" peacekeepers? Yes, peacekeeping requires diplomacy and restraint, but it also takes courage. The myth that peacekeeping is "for wimps" originates in the United States, where it found its ultimate expression in Condoleezza Rice's October 2000 comment that "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten." Every time I read about the death and destruction in Iraq, I think of this comment, and wish the world had more properly trained and experienced peacekeepers.


Reputation. Wrapped up in the distinction between the peacekeeping opportunities in Lebanon and Darfur and the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan is the additional issue of reputation costs, most notably the cost to Canada's international reputation for independence and objectivity, and thus our ability to lead and persuade on a wide range of issues. Where would we gain the most in terms of our international reputation: continuing with a failing counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan, or leading a humanitarian intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur?

Security. There may even be a security cost to the counter-insurgency mission. Recently foiled terrorist plots in Toronto and London were reportedly motivated, at least in part, by anger at the presence of Western troops in Afghanistan. Canada's Chief of Defence Staff, Rick Hillier, hasn't helped matters by publicly characterizing the insurgents as "detestable murderers and scumbags." One wonders how Muslims around the world feel when they hear language like this being used on Canada's behalf.

Foreign stance. General Hillier's language points to another problem. The counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan could, over time, lead to the development of a Canadian Forces that is focused almost entirely -- in its training, ethos and equipment -- on counter-insurgency missions conducted alongside or for the United States. The long-term consequences of this would be significant, especially for Canadian foreign policy.

And let's be clear, our current policy orientation is leading inexorably to a much longer engagement in the counter-insurgency mission. In August 2005, Canadian Major-General Andrew Leslie said that helping Afghanistan break out of "a cycle of warlords and tribalism" was a "20-year venture." In March 2006, Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier said: "From NATO's perspective, they look at this as a 10-year mission, right? Minimum. There's going to be a huge demand for Canada to contribute over the longer period of time."

Complicit in crime. It's even possible that Canada's involvement in the counter-insurgency mission is contributing to a decline in this country's commitment to strong rules of international humanitarian law.

In 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were ordered by their American commander to lay anti-personnel landmines around their camp. When the Canadians refused -- citing our obligations under the 1997 Ottawa Landmines Convention -- American soldiers, who are not subject to the same restrictions, laid the mines for them. More recently, Canadian forces in Kabul and Kandahar have benefited from the protection provided by anti-personnel landmines laid by Soviet forces during the 1980s. The Canadian government argues that the Landmines Convention has not been violated, since the prohibition on the "use" of anti-personnel mines does not extend to reliance on mines laid by others. This is a strained interpretation, and one that hardly reinforces our claim to be the leading proponent of the total elimination of these devices.

Also in 2002, Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan captured detainees and transferred them to U.S. custody. The transfers took place despite the fact that U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had publicly refused to convene the "status determination tribunals" required by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, to investigate whether individuals captured on the battlefield are prisoners of war. Canada, by choosing to hand the detainees over in these circumstances, also violated the Third Geneva Convention. But the transfers did not undermine the prohibition on torture, since there was -- at that time -- no reason to believe that U.S. forces would mistreat the detainees.

Today we know better. The photographs from Abu Ghraib were only the first pieces of a growing body of evidence indicating that, at best, the U.S. military failed to educate its soldiers about international humanitarian law. At worst, the revelations -- including a series of leaked legal memoranda that seek to justify torture -- suggest a policy of law-breaking that extends all the way up the chain of command, to the Secretary of Defence and perhaps the commander-in-chief himself.

The full scope of the Geneva Conventions no longer applies to Canada's operations in Afghanistan, because our soldiers are there with the full consent of the sovereign government in Kabul. But Canada is still bound by a provision, "Common Article 3," that applies to armed conflicts that are "not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties." It stipulates that "persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms," are absolutely protected from "violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture." Common Article 3 also proscribes "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment." Canada, by transferring detainees to a foreign military that has recently committed violations of precisely this kind, has been risking complicity in breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

We've also been taking chances with the 1984 Torture Convention. Article 3 of this treaty decrees that "no state party shall expel, return or extradite a person to another state where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture." Given what we now know about practices at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, the possibility that our detainees will be tortured in U.S. custody is real -- as real, perhaps, as if we sent them to Syria.

What's more, the UN Committee on Torture has stated that the term "another state" in Article 3 of the Torture Convention encompasses any additional country to which a prisoner might subsequently be transferred. For this reason, transferring detainees to Afghan custody instead of U.S. custody cannot relieve Canada of responsibility, since Kabul may be expected to comply with a U.S. request for a further, onward transfer. Yet that's precisely what Canada has been doing since December 2005, when Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier signed a detainee-transfer agreement with the defence minister of Afghanistan.

Under the agreement, Afghanistan committed to the humane treatment of any individuals received, and to allow representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit them. At the same time, the agreement explicitly envisages that some detainees will be transferred onwards to the custody of a third country, and does nothing to guard against that country being one in which detainees are at risk of being tortured or otherwise abused. Professor Amir Attaran of the University of Ottawa has accurately described the document as a "detainee laundering agreement," for it enables Canada to move its detainees indirectly into U.S. custody without the scrutiny and approbation that might attach to direct transfers.

Canadians' self-image. These last concerns about international humanitarian law lead into my final point, which concerns the effect that the counter-insurgency character of our mission in Afghanistan might have on how Canadians think of themselves. We like to think that we are "global citizens" uniquely placed to promote a more peaceful, just, inclusive and law-abiding world, but how can engaging in search-and-destroy missions with and for the United States foster this self-identity? Wouldn't stopping genocide be more consistent with how Canadians have, traditionally, preferred their country to behave?

Have we reached our national tipping point with regard to the counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan? Having done my best to assess the arguments for and against, the conclusion, to me, is obvious.

This article is taken from a speech Michael Byers delivered October 5 to Members of Parliament and Senators as part of a "Breakfast on the Hill" lecture series organized by the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of War Law: Understanding International Law and Armed Conflict (Douglas & McIntyre, 2005).  [Tyee]

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