Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Soldiering On

The latest edition of the Canadian Legion Magazine (the Legionnaire) has an article on Canada's current role in Afghanistan. It is remarkable in two regards. The first is the good spirits and professionalism of Canadian soldiers serving in a military conflict where military victory is not attainable. The second point is the 'disconnect' between personnel inside the wire i.e. the 'base wallahs' at Kandahar and those outside the wire on the sharp end.

After hearing a long-service soldier address our men's group the other night, it is evident that an even greater disconnect exists between Ottawa and the forces in Afghanistan about what are realistic goals in Canada's involvement.

First some history. Canadian involvement, recently, dates back to the late 60's when a Canadian military mission, based in Pakistan was tasked with mine clearance or mine ameloration operations to assist Afghani refugees. Afghanistan, even to-day, being one of the most heavily-mined places on earth. The Canadian mission - from what the speaker said, was successful in educating Afghan refugees in Pakistan about mines and how to identify and dispose of them. This mission ended when government funding was withdrawn and the Afghans were left to their own devices.

As a military man, our speaker seemed informed, but had a 'biased' view of recent Afghan history. This is a commonly held one; that the Taliban are, somehow, a 'foreign' and 'evil' force in Afghanistan. Left out of his history are the facts that the Taliban were the only force to bring anything like stability to Afghanistan in the past 30 years. Given the fact that the country had been virtually destroyed in a series of wars and was 'isolated' from support by both 'sides' in the 'cold war'. The accomplishments of the Taliban are remarkable. However it is their religious fundamentalism that gets the attention. And that aspect gets them the 'blame', for lurid Islamic radicalist attacks on the 'free world' and their own people, that takes pride of place in explaining what Canadians are doing there at all.

What we're doing there, apparently, is 'fighting' so that the Afghans, or some Afghans, will have a chance to set-up and cement in place a western-style democracy where nothing like that has existed, ever, before. Somehow this can be done, when a socialist-style workers paradise - supported by an equally powerful neighbour fell to Islamic goatherds, supported by another power, in only 5 years. What we're also doing there is spending 20 billion dollars on the military - most of which will be attrited in Afghan service. This is part of what we're told, is our committment to NATO. It's also part of our support for America's 'war on terror'.

Canada's active combat role came after two years in a non-combat NATO role - the original intention, to re-build Afghanistan. Canada's post was initially outside Kabul, but when US forces were faced with an intractible and growing Taliban resurgence in the southern and eastern provinces, Canada responded by taking responsibility for Kandahar province. Once the Taliban realized we were there to fight, they obliged and since then the Canadian 'mission' has been involved with supression of insurgents, or development activites relating to suppression of insurgents. Canadian influence has been extended to some areas of the province near the capital, but, in essence, Canadians continue to fight over territory they were fighting over when the mission started, or within gun range of it. US Marines were reintroduced into the border regions - areas that had not been to amenable to Canadian or Afghan control.

We are told, by the Americans, and Canadian leaders, that troops are too-thin on the ground to 'take and hold' territory. The best we've come up with is to put out Afghan army and police units - stiffened with small Canadian units in little forts - to see if the Taliban can be held down. This has resulted in on-going attacks and cavalry 'rescues' which themselves risk attack. Supply and replacement has to be a real operational problem as Canada suffers from a dearth of helicopters. Even the main base is regularly rocketed. And Kandahar City, only an hour away, has been like 'Dodge City' at times this past year with jailbreaks, assassinations and even a fairly large military operation to take back a land grab.

Canada is committed to a presence in Afghanistan until 2012. It was recently reiterated after an announcement of a notable increase in US forces, that Canada would be sticking to this withdrawal date. Something tells me that those who 'support the troops' will be heard from if the Afghjan government is still fighting insurgents at that time. We're not getting Canadians killed so we can adhere to a calendar are we? If peace , security and freedom in Afghanistan are worth fighting and dying for in 2008, it's highly unlikely they'll become unworthy in 3 years time. Leaving before that gives the impression they weren't 'worth' anything at all.

And so things continue. Winter is taking hold in the Panjwai and Arghanderab. The Afghans generally hunker down in the winter which provides an opportunity for NATO to 'get active'. Last year that was the case, and it just might have had something to do with the 'active' summer the Taliban have given our troops in return.

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