Except for veterans who have served in Afghanistan over the past decade, the only others who have witnessed what really happens are embedded journalists like Rosie DiManno, who never couches the truth but often uses it like a sledge hammer in her newspaper column. This morning, her page-two opinion piece is another one of those “in-your-face” checks on Harper’s decision to extend the Afghan mission as a training exercise. She talks to the soldiers who will be assigned the duty to prepare them for the reality. The public needs to heed her words. NATO obeyed its European and North American masters and went to battle in Afghanistan. For what? To prove they could? To feed the military industry’s hunger for more testing grounds? To farm opportunities for future mining operations? To exercise power in a preview of world order discipline? Whatever the underbelly of their ambition truly was, NATO has backed itself into a heck of a mess. And the Brits, Dutch and Canadians have paid the biggest portion of the sacrifice for their underlying purpose until the Americans arrived. Now U.S. numbers of casulaties and wounded climb and will for some time to come. Along with Rosie’s view is The Star’s national affairs columnist, Thomas Walkom, another cool head under fire. He says Stephen Harper’s decision to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan has more to do with Washington intrigue than training. Plenty of Afghans sign up for the military training Canada plans to offer. But an alarming number desert – and no one knows where they go. Isn’t that a scary thought? How do these two opinions affect our veterans? Today’s veterans not only advocate for themselves. They advocate for the veterans that will add to their numbers on future missions. Our country and the public has a much larger responsibility in what happens to our armed forces than we have ever acknowledged or accepted in times past. These are our sons and daughters, and we no longer have the right to rely on blind faith when it comes to their futures and their lives. I wish the formatting of this blog allowed me to present both views side-by-side. It doesn’t, so I am presenting one after the other. BONNIE
From the TORONTO STAR, November 24, 2010. By Rosie DiManno.
The non-governmental agencies are in their element, many underscrutinized in their aid and development budgets, as literally billions of donation dollars flow through the capital. Little of that largesse has substantially improved civilian life. But the humanitarian hyenas drive around in chauffeured SUVs, usually reside in highly secured compounds with extensive domestic staff, and enjoy a lively social whirl in restricted clubs where Afghans are rarely found — beyond serving alcoholic drinks they’re not permitted to imbibe.
Planet ISAF is equally insulated behind high UN and NATO walls, though officials in tandem with Afghan ministry representatives conduct weekly media briefings where not much of significance is ever discussed. The Kabul bureau for journalists is a surprisingly soft gig as most reporters rely ever more on stringers to bring back the goods, take all the risks.
Though International Security Assistance Force convoys venture out daily, the city’s security responsibility has for the past year been Afghan-led. Unlike their ISAF counterparts, barely visible from within their heavily armoured vehicles, Afghan security forces — national army and police — are dangerously exposed in mini pickup trucks.
If the Afghan National Police, in particular, is loathed by the citizenry as hooligans and extortionists, a considerable number in cahoots with insurgency elements, one can almost understand their treason and criminality: Pay is negligible, dangers omnipresent, command-and-control corrupt. For many Afghans who enter the police training program, the true objective is a year or two of shakedown opportunity, after which they can return to their villages with a useful nest egg.
I am not a cynic about Afghanistan’s potential to rise from the ashes of civil war, chronic misrule and international neglect. Its rich mining resources alone should provide economic buoyancy if ever properly administered rather than exploited by covetous multinationals. Even the corruption that exasperated donor nations endlessly drone on about — while their own NGOs and development contractors take their cut — is, in fact, a time-honoured alternative system of governance, arguably the only quasi-capitalism that works here.
The country has always been a suzerain for warlords; the original Taliban, for all their piety, were nothing less than another criminal gang, built on vast Pashtun tribal loyalties, armed and schooled in proxy sacking by Pakistan.
For Canadian combat troops and their support divisions in Kandahar, these past six years, Kabul was that mile-high mirage in the distant rear, redoubt of bureaucrats, la-la DMZ for pretend soldiers. Not one I ever met pined to be posted there. Even those sickened of life outside-the-wire, the perilous patrols and wearying village shuras, had no stomach for a politically massaged Kabul assignment.
In the pecking order of combat virility, even deployment as force protection for Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar city was viewed dimly: that place with the pool, surf and turf dinners and circle-the-wagon ramparts.
Ottawa has spent these past half-dozen years decrying the no-fight no-front caveats imposed by NATO troop contributors, and rightly so. The heavy lifting through the worst of the insurgency fell to Canada, Britain and Holland — latterly, Americans — while the likes of Germany, Sweden and Italy carved out relatively safe havens.
Now, we’re no different from the shirkers. Make no mistake. Dress it up as both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff might like: If this new stay-in plan is put to effect as advertised, Canadian troops, highly valued for their combat skills, will be little more than decorative tassels on the Afghanistan uniform, their primary value to pick up the mentoring slack left behind by other bolting allies so that Americans can carry on their terrorist-tracking pursuits.
President Barack Obama is interested in Afghanistan only so far as preventing it from becoming once again a refuge for Al Qaeda and its assorted adjuncts, the ganglia of insurrectionists entrenched along the lawless border with Pakistan. While there is growing concern over Iran’s influence in Afghanistan, the U.S. objective is quite narrow and geopolitical; an exit segue it can live with.
It was NATO that always had the much grander vision for Afghanistan, if not the resolve or political commitment, not the troop contribution or — for far too long — the vigorous rules of engagement, to even begin imposing order on so large and complicated a battlefield. With its shrinking ambitions for Afghanistan, NATO has confirmed its irrelevancy and inefficacy in the 21st century — the true reason for taking up this cause in the first place, and never mind building schools, emancipating women or laying down a democratic footprint. If Afghanistan has any future, it will be on the blood of Americans or via an ignominious rapprochement with the Taliban.
(Here’s adding insult to injury: The New York Times has reported that those promising secret talks between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war were actually being conducted with a Taliban imposter.)
So Canada is on board to shunt some 950 troops to Kabul next summer to run training programs until 2014. Having visited such instruction camps in Afghanistan, I’ve got news for you: The ANA, an institution respected by the citizenry, doesn’t need us for inside-the-wire training purposes; only for outside-the-wire command-and-control tutoring, which Harper insists we won’t provide. And the ANP, as constituted, is incapable of even A-B-C coaching. Better off opening up the cantonments and returning to Afghan men (and women) all those weapons collected in disarmament drives. At least then they’d have a chance of defending themselves against the next wave of marauders and power-hungry zealots.
As for Canadian soldiers turned into military metrosexuals: They make a nice latte in Kabul, guys.
From the TORONTO STAR, November 24, 2010. By Thomas Walkom.
The problem has to do with defection. Plenty of Afghans sign up for the army and police. In fact, NATO says the country’s security forces are well on the way to reaching their overall target of 305,000 by next year. Lt.-Gen. William Caldwell, the American in charge of NATO training efforts, told reporters in March the alliance was so overwhelmed by recruits that it could barely handle them. But, having signed on for training and $165 (U.S.) a month, these new recruits don’t always stay.
And what they do afterwards is simply unknown. “We really don’t know where they go, to be completely honest,” Caldwell explained at another news conference, in August.
According to NATO documents, the alliance figures it has to train 23 recruits for every ten soldiers that stay with the Afghan National Army. Some are killed. But an alarming number quit or desert. About 20 per cent of the army bail out every year. Among members of the Afghan National Civil Order Police, which is supposed to perform the crucial task of patrolling the countryside, the annual attrition rate is about one in four.
At his August news conference, Caldwell noted that in one recent month, almost half of this elite counter-insurgency police force had quit, deserted or been killed. He called desertion and other forms of attrition the “greatest threat” to NATO’s aim of creating a professional Afghan army capable of taking over the war against the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai blames private security contractors who, he says, scoop up trained soldiers by offering better pay. But the possibility that NATO is training and arming its own enemies remains a constant nightmare for the alliance.
In July, an insurgent who had successfully enlisted in the Afghan army killed three British soldiers. That came just a few months after an Afghan police officer shot and killed five other British soldiers. Earlier this month, seven members of a 16-man police station south-west of the capital, Kabul, defected to the Taliban. The remaining nine officers were killed.
NATO says it tries to weed out infiltrators by insisting that recruits be fingerprinted and undergo retinal scans. It also demands that each recruit produce two letters of recommendation from local dignitaries. But, given Afghanistan’s lack of comprehensive data banks against which to measure retinal images and fingerprints, such high-tech identifiers are of dubious value. Nor is it ever entirely clear which side the country’s various local dignitaries support. Indeed, as the United States has discovered to its great embarrassment, in a land where even photographs are rare, it’s hard to know who anyone is — including the enemy.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that peace talks with the insurgents have hit a snag after a man thought to be a top Taliban negotiator was revealed as an imposter. At one point, NATO even ferried the man it believed to be Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, the Taliban’s number-two leader, to Kabul for secret peace talks. But, it seems, the alleged Taliban envoy wasn’t who claimed to be. After having been given an unspecified but large sum of money, he disappeared.
Who knows where the real Mansour is? Since so few know his face, he could be anywhere. He may even be learning how to handle heavy weapons in a NATO training course.