‘Peace in our time’, Afghan style?

Military interventions are hard to evaluate, especially ones in really broken lands.

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on June 22, 2020

OTTAWA, CANADA — I would imagine that few Canadians are paying attention to what is happening in Afghanistan these days. What with the continuing rolling lockdowns over COVID-19 and the demonstrations and riots over accusations of systemic racism in police forces and other institutions, that particular nation is not on the country’s radar.

That is too bad as there is a lot happening there and very little of it is good. Despite an ongoing ‘peace process’ directed by the Trump administration with the Taliban as the primary interlocutors, terrorist attacks occur on a daily basis in that forsaken land. Some are particularly heinous, such as an Islamic State in Khurasan attack on a maternity hospital in Kabul on May 12 in which terrorists killed infants and young mothers. This incident led the international charitable group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to close its operations in the Afghan capital.

I do not have the words to describe a raid of this nature. Big, brave ‘holy warriors’ slaughter babies and their mothers. I know that terrorists often scrape the bottom of the barrel in their ‘exploits’ but this has to be a new low, even for ISIS which holds may records for the depths to which they descended in their self-styled ‘Caliphate‘.

Can we really apply older models to current realities? Maybe it is best to sit the next one out. That would be problematic, probably immoral, and politically unpalatable.

Alas, this act is the rule, not the exception. Every day Afghan forces, police, and civilians die at the hands of the Taliban and ISIS. Every day. I cannot recall the last 24 hour period in which there was not an attack. The situation is simply that bad in Afghanistan.

And what of the ‘peace partner’, the Taliban? Well, they have categorically refused to talk with the elected Afghan government (even taking into account issues with the state of democracy in that nation), refused to stop attacks during Ramadan, and even denied that Al Qaeda (AQ) has a presence in Afghanistan. And these guys are our choice for defining the future for the Afghan population?

Canada, of course, was among the first to join the U.S. in sending troops to hunt down the actors behind the attacks in New York and Washington. Yes, progress has been made here and there but at what cost. Photograph courtesy of Department of National Defence

Lack of ‘progress’

The bottom line is that Afghanistan is nowhere near ‘peace’ and it is unlikely to get any closer in the foreseeable future. We would all agree, I think, that that country’s citizens have suffered from enough violence over the past forty years and yet it is set to continue indefinitely. You have to feel for them.

All this has called into question the point of Western involvement, at least from a military standpoint, since 9/11. Canada of course was among the first to join the US in sending troops to hunt down the actors behind the attacks in New York and Washington. Yes, progress has been made here and there but at what cost (this is by no means a slur against the diplomats, aid workers and soldiers who went to help).

For what it is worth I do not think we had a choice in September 2001. A NATO ally, neighbour, and longstanding friend had just suffered from the single greatest terrorist attack in history and sought help in bringing those responsible to justice (the fact that went off the rails is not really the point… er… Guantanamo Bay…). We did what we needed to do.

We had to go in to get Usama bin Laden and AQ because, well, because. The longer we stayed there, however, the more we overstayed our welcome.

But we have already heard from senior US officials that it is uncertain what we achieved all this time. This perceived lack of ‘progress’, married with a president who seems to want to get out of all kinds of commitments, is driving these so-called peace talks.

Here is the problem. Military operations that include open-ended occupation are a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation. We had to go in to get Usama bin Laden and AQ because, well, because. The longer we stayed there, however, the more we overstayed our welcome. Civilians died in ‘collateral damage’ airstrikes. Corrupt officials took advantage of us. All the efforts to build civil society and a semblance of democracy were hit and miss. And, perhaps most importantly, our mere presence leads to more, not, less terrorism as violent extremists use our actions to recruit others.

I do not have the answers to any of this and I am not sure anyone else does. We will likely face similar conundrums in the coming years and I wish I could say we will do things better next time. I am sure there are examples of successful military deployments historically but I fear they are few and far between. Anyway, can we really apply older models to current realities?

Maybe it is best to sit the next one out. That would be problematic, probably immoral, and politically unpalatable. Back to the ‘damned if you do…’ situation. Sigh. Anyone else have any good ideas?

Phil Gurski
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One thought on “‘Peace in our time’, Afghan style?

  1. Hi Phil,

    Good article. Yes, I agree with you… we the West, led by the US, had no choice but to go into Afghanistan after 9/11. There was no alternative. The question of whether we could actually win was never asked, nor should it have been. Sometimes you just have to fight. In retrospect if we had ‘got’ Osama Bin Laden early, say at Tora, Bora then we could have left soon after. The failure to get Bin Laden, forced us to stay until we did in May, 2011. By then the mission had become distorted and we couldn’t abandon the Afghan government. Leaving was no longer easy, or a quick possibility. If there is a tragedy here, it was not getting Bin Laden early enough. Successful military interventions are the ones that have simple objectives (kill or capture Bin Laden), are resolved quickly allowing for a quick exit. We didn’t/couldn’t do that. Interventions that have vague, unrealistic, or unachieved objectives tend to get stuck and mission creep sets in… like putting little girls in school, eradicating polio, building democratic institutions, drug interdiction etc.

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