Afghanistan is now Obama's war

The U.S. President is ramping up the war as the Canadians prepare to pack up

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Whether Afghanistan is a war of necessity or a war of choice, it is now Barack Obama's war. And it is still Canada's mission, for as long as we choose to remain there.

Obama took full ownership of Afghanistan with his speech at West Point, announcing a surge of 30,000 American troops, bringing the U.S. contingent there to nearly 100,000 - a tripling of their presence on his watch. He then, in his outstanding Nobel Peace Prize address, made the case for good wars as opposed to bad ones; read Afghanistan vs. Iraq.

With all the other things on his plate - the economic crisis, the U.S. deficit, health care and climate change, Afghanistan might well prove to be a bridge too far.

Heaven knows, it has always proven to be inhospitable to foreign occupiers, from the British in one century to the Soviets in the next. We have all read our Rudyard Kipling in school, and many have seen Charlie Wilson's War, on how the Americans financed the insurgency against the Soviet occupation.

There's no doubt that Obama took many months to weigh his options, and tried to find a viable middle ground in announcing a surge on the one hand, and a drawing-down date of mid-2011 on the other.

So where does Canada fit in with Obama's plan, given the Harper's government's intention, and Parliament's vote, to withdraw our force of about 2,500 in Kandahar and end our mission in February 2011?

This is a very good question, but not one that has been asked very often. In the Canadian news cycle, the focus for the last month has been exclusively on the issue of handing over detainees to Afghan authorities, whether the Canadian government was warned by its own officials on the ground, notably embassy intelligence officer Richard Colvin, that they were likely to be tortured.

In all the fuss and furor over this, you'd think Canadian troops were operating a prison like Abu Ghraib, the notorious Iraqi prison where some American soldiers dishonoured their uniform and their country. There is no doubt that detainees, whether Taliban or civilians, would be better treated at the hands of their Canadian captors than by their fellow Afghans.

Even when the chief of defence staff, General Walter Natynczyk, learned he hadn't made a full disclosure to the parliamentary committee, he got the information out within an hour, leaving no gaps in his story, only a mistake.

And if the tick-tock of the story pointed to the Harper government orchestrating or being aware of a coverup, then that would be another story, certainly enough to justify an inquiry.

But that isn't the case, and the story so far has very little traction outside Ottawa. If you asked Canadians if they thought our soldiers should be handing over detainees knowing they would be tortured, the answer would be, of course, no.

But there is no evidence of that, and no credible suggestion of it. Then again, our troops are trained to engage the Taliban in counter-insurgency. Are they supposed to treat them as the enemy in mortal combat, then turn around and read them their Charter rights as applicants for refugee status in Canada?

In any poll down at Tim Horton's, you would find unstinting support for the troops, mixed with growing opposition to the mission. Most Canadians regard the Taliban as the guys trying to kill our guys, with some significant success. The death toll of Canadians in Afghanistan, mostly from roadside bombs and suicide attacks, stands at 133 and counting. More soldiers will come home in hearses travelling down the section of the 401 re-named the Highway of Heroes before we are out of Afghanistan.

But the detainee story is nothing beside the future of the mission, not only for Canada but for all the other NATO and other countries, 44 in all, serving in the UN-sanctioned mission.

With typically Canadian narcissism, the major question in Ottawa following Obama's troop announcement was why he called several European leaders to ask for their help in Afghanistan, but had his vice president, Joe Biden, call Stephen Harper instead. Duh. That's because he was not asking Harper for anything.

This is the don't ask, don't tell policy. Obama isn't asking Canada to extend our stay, and Harper isn't telling whether we will. The Americans understand that we are serious about leaving the neighbourhood, and Obama doesn't want to embarrass either Harper or himself by asking for help when the answer is no.

There are obviously other roles in which Canada will play a part, particularly in terms of building a civil society that will require a security perimeter.

We are talking about a landlocked country the size of Texas or Manitoba, the fourth poorest country on Earth, whose largest cash crop is illegal - poppies account for two-thirds of the economy, and finance the insurgency. Maybe part of the solution is to pay Afghan farmers more to grow other crops.

 
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