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Operation Backfire

Our soldiers are making enemies of those they are supposed to be helping.

By Murray Dobbin, 16 Oct 2006, TheTyee.ca

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Hillier addresses troops.

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Hillier addresses troops.

[Editor's note: Last in a three-part series.]

While the media in Canada continues to soft-peddle the country's disastrous "mission" in Afghanistan, a cursory examination of the facts reveals that the two men most responsible for this continuing nightmare are simply not up to the task of developing a strategy worthy of the name. Stephen Harper and General Rick Hillier, his "butt-kicking" military chief, have demonstrated a level of ineptitude that should have Canadians extremely worried.

This military engagement will go down in Canadian history as one of the most shameful betrayals of Canadian soldiers in our history. Canadian troops are dying because neither their supreme commander nor their prime minister has the courage to acknowledge what is actually happening. They are dying so Stephen Harper can prove himself to George W. Bush. Hillier and Harper keep asking Canadians "support our troops. " But they insist our troops pursue a strategy ensuring more of them will die.

A quick survey of what is happening in Afghanistan puts the lie to every positive statement coming out of the government. First, the notion that we will still be doing development work and nation-building, once Afghanistan is "stabilized" is a cruel hoax. With the approximately 40,000 troops (half of whom are not allowed to fight) now stationed there, this simply will never happen. When the Soviet Union was finally driven out of this country, after 10 years of brutal conflict and 15,000 dead, it had 100,000 troops in the country, a functioning Afghan government working in co-operation with it, and an additional 100,000 Afghan troops fighting with it.

Fatally flawed

It is no wonder, as reported by CCPA defence analyst Stephen Staples, that Canadian soldiers are six times as likely to die in Afghanistan as American troops are in Iraq. No wonder, either, that the Senlis Council, a Brussels-based security and development policy group, assailed Canada's approach as continuing "to unquestioningly accept America's fundamentally flawed policy approach in southern Afghanistan, thereby jeopardising the success of military operations in the region and the stabilisation, reconstruction and development mission objectives."

As a result of this "war on terror" mind-set, General Hillier has shown no interest in counter-insurgency strategy. As continued deadly attacks reveal, the much touted "Operation Medusa" turns out to have been a complete waste of resources, and Canadian and Afghan lives. In addition, it alienated thousands of Afghans whose "hearts and minds" must be won to give this mission any meaning at all. Hillier's response to the mounting Canadian deaths was to send 15 Leopard tanks to bolster the troops. That is exactly the wrong thing to do according to Gavin Cameron, a specialist in counter-insurgency wars at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, who notes, "If you see tanks in your streets it's hard not to think about it as an army of occupation."

No one in the Canadian military will criticize Hillier for such a wrong-headed strategy. But Captain Leo Docherty, of the Scots Guards, the former aide-de-camp to the commander of the British task force in southern Afghanistan resigned in disgust in September, describing a similar campaign in southern Helmand province as "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency. All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British."

Creating refugees

Canadian soldiers are making refugees of the people they are supposed to be helping. According to the Senlis Council, there are between ten and 15 refugee camps in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, each with up to 10,000 people, all the result of Canadian and British conventional war tactics. They are receiving "little or no help from relief agencies."

The third factor in this endless misery has to do with reconstruction. Canada has now spent over $4 billion on its Afghan mission – 90 percent of which has been used in the military conflict. But even the development aid that has been spent in Afghanistan by other Western nations is often resented for the way in which it is spent -- and wasted.

According to University of Manitoba professor John Ryan "a recent report for the Overseas Development Institute, by Ashraf Ghani, the chancellor of Kabul University and former Karzai finance minister, has stated that in 2002 about 90 percent of the $1 billion spent on 400 aid projects was wasted."

Problems abound, not least the gross disparity in pay for Afghan civil servants ($50 a month) and Afghans who work for Western aid organizations ($1000 a month). The government can barely hold on to its staff. Also, says Ryan: "Where the Afghan government could build a school for about $40,000, an international aid agency undertook the task of building 500 schools, at a cost of $250,000 each."

Contracts for reconstruction are handed out to donor country corporations who take huge fees up front and then hire layer upon layer of subcontractors who make sure they make their profit - leaving sub-standard construction behind. Says Ryan: "The result is collapsing hospitals, clinics and schools, rutted and dangerous new highways..."

Morphing Taliban

The Afghanistan conflict is no longer just a fight against the old Taliban. The Taliban has morphed into what many now suggest is a formal jihad, a general call to arms of all Afghans to rid the country of foreigners. Last May, according to the Toronto Star's Chris Sands, clerics in Kabul mosques were calling on worshippers to join the Taliban's fight against the Karzai government and NATO troops. The war is now everywhere, even in Kabul.

Even worse, says Star reporter Mitch Potter: "Money, as much as any concept of jihad, is the driving force today behind an unholy alliance of religious radicals, drug-running militias, smuggling cartels — and, in many cases, apolitical young Afghans simply looking for work — who have enlisted in the confrontation with foreign troops." And what is Stephen Harper's response to this reality? "[Canadians] want a Canada that ...punches above its weight." It is reminiscent of George Bush's adolescent musing about Iraqi insurgents: "Bring 'em on."

Lastly, Harper chose to ignore evidence available at the time that the U.S. was losing interest in Afghanistan and was totally pre-occupied with Iraq. He also ignored the caveats that European members of NATO had placed on what their troops could do in Afghanistan - the same caveats that now leave the NATO commander unable to send more troops into the south. In addition, Pakistan is doing virtually nothing to end the safe haven for the Taliban. The U.S. has now handed its messy war over to NATO. But despite repeated, desperate pleas for more NATO troops for the south, almost none have been forthcoming.

Crazy to negotiate?

On September 1st the NDP's Jack Layton, calling for Canada to withdraw from its southern Afghanistan mission, stated: "We believe that a comprehensive peace process has to bring all combatants to the table." For this he was vilified in the media. Now the situation is deteriorating so quickly that even hard-liners -- including Bill Frist, the hard-right U.S. Senate Majority Leader -- are now calling for negotiations with the neo-Taliban resistance.

There is an alternative policy that would bring Canada credit. According to retired international affairs prof Jack Warnock of Regina, Canada should "Withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan and withdraw from all projects being sponsored by the U.S. government and NATO. [and then] Work within the UN General Assembly to develop a new project for Afghanistan ... completely separate from any US or NATO project." Unrealistic? Not compared to the current policy of desperation and denial.

Vancouver-based journalist Murray Dobbin writes the State of Nation column for The Tyee. Find his previous columns here.

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