Shhhh....we're nation building: Canada has assumed a critical role in rescuing one of desperate parts of the world. So why is Ottawa keeping so quiet about it?
Within a week of winning the Jan. 23 general election, Stephen Harper talked with Peter Harder, the country’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, and, as Harder recalled in a speech a week later, told him “to stay the course” in Afghanistan. Coming from a politician who had pledged to beef up the Canadian military so it could better “project Canadian values abroad,” Harper’s expression of support for Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was not surprising. A reversal of the former Liberal government’s strategy in the violence- and problem-plagued country would have been unthinkable given Canada’s international commitments and the Conservatives’ robust defence and foreign affairs policies.
Nevertheless, while it seems that there’s currently broad political support across all party lines for Canada’s Afghan strategy, Ottawa has so far been fairly taciturn about why exactly our troops are there —especially compared to the kind of cheerleading we’ve seen from the White House when it reminds U.S. voters, almost daily, why American troops are far away and in danger. By comparison, how many Canadians can claim to be aware of the full nature of the country’s multi-pronged approach to the strife-ridden state—an approach that involves far more than the 2,000 Canadian troops now being deployed in the dangerous Kandahar region?
It’s a role that easily can be described as nation building—though it’s somewhat understandable that, given the imperialist connotations the phrase carries these days, politicians have been reticent to call it that. While Canada’s burgeoning military presence—and the attendant risk to our soldiers—deserves a high profile, we’re also spending hundreds of millions of dollars on development assistance to Afghanistan. The country is now our largest aid recipient, and Ottawa has launched scores of other programs designed to help rebuild what is commonly referred to as a failed state.
The engagement embodies Ottawa’s relatively new “3-D” approach to international engagements—diplomacy, defence and development. The approach was formally enunciated in the former Liberal government’s International Policy Statement, made public April 19, 2005. You might have missed the announcement that day, since it was the same day the Vatican elected the new pope, overwhelming all other news coverage. But the policy, and its Afghan manifestation, are of paramount importance to Canadian foreign policy. Indeed, the Afghan mission, and a similar 3-D engagement with Haiti, mark the first big tests of an international policy that, if successful, will set an expensive and risky template that could last for decades.
The lack of public awareness notwithstanding, Canada’s role in Afghanistan has been growing since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Canadian troops (most famously, members of the elite Joint Task Force 2) fought in the American-led war to oust the al Qaeda–friendly Taliban from power. Canada was also a signatory to the Bonn Agreement of December 2001, designed to help reconstitute a government in Afghanistan. Ottawa ramped up its development aid, increased its military presence, opened an embassy in Kabul, and launched programs aimed at, among other things, fostering democracy and rebuilding the economy.
On Feb. 1 of this year, Canada signed the Afghanistan Compact, the successor to Bonn. The new accord establishes a framework for “international community engagement” in Afghanistan over the next five years. The conference at which the agreement was reached took place in London, and it was there that bureaucrat Harder revealed details of his chat with politician Harper. Harder’s little-publicized speech also reminded the international community of the extensive role Canada has played in Afghanistan for more than four years and of its vital goal. “None of us can afford to allow terrorists to ever again find haven in Afghanistan,” he said. “None of us can afford to ignore the desire of the Afghan people to rebuild their country.”
Harder reminded the international audience that nine Canadians have died in pursuit of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, including eight soldiers and one non-combatant, Glyn Berry, the political director of the Canadian provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Kandahar, who was killed by a suicide bomber on Jan. 15. “Three Canadian soldiers were seriously injured in that heinous attack,” Harder said. “Canada is not, however, a fair-weather friend. Kandahar remains for us, in Glyn Berry’s own words, ‘the right place to be.’” The reconstruction team of which Berry was a part is an important manifestation of Canada’s 3-D strategy. The PRT comprises about 250 soldiers who work with civilian police, diplomats and aid workers to reinforce the authority of the Afghan government in and around Kandahar, and to stabilize the region. “To achieve these goals, the PRT conducts security patrols, contributes labour and resources to local reconstruction efforts, supports local governance institutions, and facilitates reforms in the security sector,” according to National Defence documents.
In addition, there are all the programs funded by the foreign aid that Canada has been pouring into Afghanistan since 2001. Prior to that year, Canada typically sent about $10 million annually to Afghanistan for basic human needs. Before the Taliban’s ouster, there were rampant shortages of food and medicine (made worse by the Taliban’s blockage of aid workers who were Christian or female).
Since then, Canada has spent or committed a total of $616.5 million, until 2009. The money means, according to CIDA statements, that Canada has taken “a lead role” in several initiatives, including: helping the Afghan government collect and store 10,000 heavy weapons; providing savings and micro-loan services to 140,000 clients; and helping with the destruction of landmines and ammunition stockpiles.
And there’s the Mounties. Supt. Philip Campbell at the RCMP’s headquarters in Ottawa says there are three Mounties in Afghanistan, two serving with PRTs and one involved with the UN mission in the country. “We’re a small cog in a big wheel,” Campbell says humbly.
And it is big—and expensive. In addition to the $616 million in funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Canadian Forces say they spent $1.34 billion on Afghan operations to the end of last year, and estimate they will spend an additional $374 million on operations Athena and Archer by the end of this year, for a total of more than $1.7 billion. National Defence spokesperson Cathy Huth explains these figures are “incremental costs” that are above what the Department of National Defence would have spent for personnel and equipment had they stayed in Canada, rather than being deployed to Afghanistan.
The Department of Foreign Affairs was not able to provide any figures for what it has spent on its diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan. But spokesperson Kim Girtel says the department increased the size of its diplomatic presence in Kabul by almost 50 per cent last September, to a total of 20 Canadians. “Strengthening our presence in Kabul reflects an economy of effort and a consolidation of expertise that enables effective Canadian leadership,” Girtel states. “Why are they there? They are there for the same reason [the soldiers, the PRT and CIDA are]. They are there to help Afghanistan become stable, democratic and self-sustaining. It’s the same goal and purpose.”
So, while the soldiers may get most of the public notice, Canada’s personnel deployment in Afghanistan involves much more than uniformed troops. “Our diplomats, our development officers and our civilian police have helped Afghanistan rebuild, retrain, restart,” Harder said in his speech. “These unheralded men and women are on the front lines of the future of Afghanistan. Their dedication to service merits our utmost respect.”
They clearly have a big job ahead. Although its economic outlook has improved markedly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the country is still, for the time being, a basket case. “Despite the progress of the past few years, Afghanistan remains extremely poor, landlocked, and highly dependent on foreign aid, farming, and trade with neighboring countries,” according to an annual assessment by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. “It will probably take the remainder of the decade and continuing donor aid and attention to significantly raise Afghanistan living standards from its current status, among the lowest in the world.” Indeed, the CIA calculates the country’s unemployment rate at 40 per cent, with 53 per cent of Afghans living below the poverty line.
Still, Canada’s nation-building efforts in Afghanistan have provoked detractors on the left. For instance, researcher and analyst Anthony Fenton of Vancouver, whose work has appeared in several left-wing journals, including Regina’s Briarpatch magazine, says Canada should pull all its troops and end development projects that, he argues, are designed less to help indigenous people rise above poverty than to
“foster better conditions for neo-liberalism and the type of globalization that powerful countries are pursuing.” Fenton believes Canada’s image as a benevolent peacekeeper is a lie; the truth, he believes, is that Canada is creating conditions that will leave Afghanistan open to being exploited by multinational corporations.
Douglas Goold, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Canadian Institute of International Affairs, rejects the arguments, and believes they come only from the far-left political fringes. But, he admits, it’s hard to make any broad claims about Canadian public opinion since there has been “very little” in the way of public debate over Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan. “So, does that mean we should have a debate about this in Parliament?” he asks. “It absolutely does. We need to explain to Canadians and to debate in Parliament why we’re there with such a presence.”
In the end, Goold is convinced that the case for being there will win out. “This is a country of strategic importance that is tremendously unstable, that can cause a lot of damage to the rest of the world through terrorism or other means,” he explains. “To the extent that we can help it establish a better infrastructure, establish more stable institutions, end the drug trade, which directly or indirectly affects all of us, then I think that’s a good thing.” (Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium.) “My sense of when I was there was, regrettably, that Afghanistan is a failed state that is going to keep on failing. The problems are so vast. They’ve had 30 years of warfare, the country’s basically ruined. The illiteracy rate is as high as 75 per cent. They’ve got drug lords. They have very limited control of outlying areas beyond Kabul. For all the will in the world, and all the money in the world, it’s going to be very hard to turn that around.”
In other words, Harper may inevitably find himself faced with some hard choices as both our funding and our troop commitments are scheduled to sunset over the next few years—funding commitments are good to 2009, and Canada’s command of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Kandahar is good for about nine months. And without a clear understanding from voters of why we’re there and what the plan is, his options may be limited by public ignorance.
If Canada relents, says Goold, it’s proof that our work in Afghanistan was less about actually trying to rebuild the country, and strictly about offering a make-good gesture to an ally, the U.S., which was disappointed in Canada’s failure to join the “coalition of the willing” in the invasion of Iraq. There are some who believe Afghanistan’s future hangs in the balance. Sima Samar, an Afghan doctor who served as the country’s deputy prime minister after the Taliban fell, is urging Canadians to stay for the long term. “Helping Afghanistan is not just about helping the Afghan people,” she said, on a visit to Canada in February. “It is helping humanity, including Canadians. If we have problems in Afghanistan, the other parts of the world will not be safe also.”
That’s how Canada’s top soldier, Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier, put it to the Western Standard in a November interview. When western countries, such as Canada, neglect the opportunity to rebuild failed states, such as Afghanistan, Hillier said, “the instability that results will cause the growth of all those things that we see all the time in failed states: organized crime; the potential for pandemics to develop; refugee columns that pour out of those countries; and a place where terrorism can grow. [Those] results will indirectly affect our nation because of the impact it has on international stability.”
For now, that seems to be the view in Ottawa, too. Our current military presence in Afghanistan is larger than any deployment since the Korean War, our aid package is our most generous, and our overall diplomatic and development commitment unprecedented. Peter Harder said in his speech that Canada will continue “moving forward” and will not be dissuaded by difficulties and deaths. “The struggle for stability is not a choice,” he declared.
That may be. But if Canadians aren’t fully on board when the going gets tough—even if it’s just because they’re unaware of the depth of our commitments in Afghanistan—who’s going to tell them it isn’t?