Written by Scott Taylor
Last Friday marked the 10th anniversary of George W. Bush’s fateful decision to invade Afghanistan. There was no United Nations resolution sought to sanction this military action. In the heady post-9/11 aftermath, Bush declared war on terrorism. As the Taliban regime was harbouring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, America was invading Afghanistan in self-defence.
As one would expect when the world’s mightiest superpower wages war against a primitive, impoverished and illiterate gaggle of fighters, Taliban resistance was crushed almost instantly. Using anti-Taliban mujahideen known as the Northern Alliance in conjunction with US Special Forces and the full weight of American air power, the Taliban forces— totalling no more than 30,000 fighters at their zenith—were either killed, captured or put to flight into neighbouring Pakistan. The cost of toppling the Taliban regime was just seven American soldiers killed in 2001. While some US military units (and a Canadian battle group) continued to pursue Osama bin Laden in southern Afghanistan in 2002, the White House was busy setting its sights on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. To fill the vacuum created by the removal of the Taliban, the UN authorized the deployment of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. In those optimistic, insurgency-free early days, both the objectives and timeframes for ISAF’s commitment were overly ambitious. Essentially, the international troops, including the Canadian contingent, were to provide a secure environment while the appointed interim government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai could organize and conduct federal elections in 2004.
The ISAF troops were also able to provide assistance to the Afghans in developing their own self-sufficient security and military forces, and it was believed that all would be complete by 2005. Despite the fact that Karzai won the 2004 election, by 2005 it was understood that this was not reflected in actual popular support. The billions of dollars in foreign aid failed to buy Karzai’s popularity, and without ISAF troops to prop up his regime, the derisively dubbed “Mayor of Kabul” would have been
readily deposed by the former warlords who constitute his cabinet.
Even at that stage, the Taliban and other insurgent groups posed little more than a nuisance threat to Afghan security. Left virtually without interference, the Taliban had begun regrouping their support base in southern Afghanistan, and the drug lords began harvesting record crops for export throughout the countryside. However, short of successfully staging an election, proclaiming a democracy and opening up a few schools for girls, NATO leaders realized that Afghanistan was nowhere near being left to its own devices. Hence, the decision was taken to massively increase the levels of NATO troops that, in the absence of competent Afghan security forces, were used to subdue and control the theretofore-unsupervised provinces.
As Canadians will recall, that re-rolling of ISAF led to the drastic increase in casualties due to hostile action from 2006 onwards. To quell the angst of the Canadian public, who suddenly began to question why we were still fighting a war we thought was long over, newly elected Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Kandahar to announce that “Canada will not cut and run.” For the past five years, the death toll in Afghanistan has steadily climbed, the violence has increased, and the insurgency has not only intensified but spread into areas previously considered safe—including a number of recent brazen attacks in Kabul itself. Canada concluded its combat mission in Kandahar this past summer, but we will continue to deploy some 900 military personnel to assist in the training of Afghan military forces.
The current goal is to establish an Afghan national army and paramilitary police force of 352,000 by the year 2014, at which time the last of the foreign troops will hopefully be withdrawn. Given the fact that the August 2009 election process in Afghanistan failed to produce a legitimate result, the Karzai regime— regarded as one of the most corrupt and despised on the planet—has continued to rule without a democratic mandate. One has to wonder whether the international community will even bother attempting to stage another presidential election before the projected withdrawal date in 2014. Even so, there is no way of predicting what sort of Afghan administration those 352,000-strong national security forces will be propping up. There is also no way for Afghanistan to independently maintain such a massive standing military when their gross domestic product still ranks among the world’s poorest.
I’ve made the point many times before, but the last thing Afghanistan needs is thousands more illiterate recruits taught how to fire assault rifles. If Canada is serious about reconstructing Afghanistan, then it should canvass the Afghan-Canadian diaspora for qualified trades persons and teachers so they can establish a vocational training program in their home country. Surely a legion of plumbers, carpenters and electricians would be far more beneficial to Afghanistan’s future than an equal number of partially trained, foreign-funded military recruits.