The Impediments To Peace In Afghanistan

Why is achieving peace still out of our grasp?  How long does it take defeat an insurgency by a relatively small group of religious hard-liners? Given some of the significant problems that exist, can we succeed?  Beyond a different language and culture, here are a few of the challenges that we face.

Time – In a Washington Post article, a Taliban commander tells villagers “The Americans may have all the wristwatches but we have all the time.”   Does Canada have ten or twenty years to apply to a war that does not affect our national security or interest most Canadians greatly?   The poor Afghan villager has to decide whether the foreigner protecting his village will be there next year when the Taliban comes calling.

Attitude – Unfortunately we are engaged in both a guerrilla war and an anti-terrorism exercise, which has a public relations component and tests our intelligence.  Do Canadians understand the complexity of this type of war?  The people who have studied Mao in China, General Giap in Vietnam or other conflicts, explain that the insurgent destroys, assassinates, and terrifies the population to win.  The intent is to prove that the existing government is not capable of providing a civil society.  Countering the insurgency (COIN), experts indicate that the goal is not necessarily killing insurgents but protecting the population and assets and allowing the citizens to have hope for a better tomorrow. “The more force you use, the less effective you are,” according to an army manual on the subject.

Pakistan – Pakistan works with the United States officially to defeat the Taliban because it is given no choice.  It also “allows” the Taliban to hide in its mountainous areas because it cannot control the Federal Administrated tribal areas (FATA), a 1200 km strip on the north west border of Pakistan.  Pashtun tribes control this mountain country where the army goes at their own risk.  Pakistan has often manipulated Afghanistan in the past to their benefit and would do so in the future.
So, to take on the Islamist mujahadin in a serious way would cause extreme grief to Musharraf’s army.  Pakistan’s support for the Islamists by a succession of Pakistan leaders, including Benazir Bhutto, has blown back in their faces.   Pakistan, that “stable” country with nuclear weapons may become a radical Islamist state within a short time.

Opium production – Afghanistan provides 90% of the world’s heroin from the growing of poppies.  As a cash crop, it works very well for the farmers in this desperate land.  But its illegal nature and resultant profits for middlemen causes corruption in the government of Afghanistan to the highest levels.  Additionally, those profits from transformation to heroin and transportation to foreign lands provide funding to the warlords and the Taliban to hire soldiers, which weakens the central government.

The poppy is drought tolerant and the governments for the past 20 years have been poppy tolerant. The receipts at the farm gate vary from perhaps $600 million to over $1 billion a year.  This return from poppies is ten times that of wheat production.  Poor farmers can get credit to finance fertilizer, build wells to irrigate, hire farm labour to weed and other annual living expenses if they grow poppies.  In a broken state, this is incredibly attractive.  The local middlemen make over a billion dollars, with the wholesale value delivered to world cities is roughly $50 to $70 billion per year.  As in every situation, the farmers get the smallest piece of the pie.

The United States – Working with the Americans as the leader in this adventure has certain benefits and problems.  A small investor like Canada would normally follow the lead of the big investor.  The quality of that leadership and commitment will determine the success or failure.  So far, the leadership and commitment of resources by the US, NATO and ourselves has been inadequate.  The reliance on substantial airpower necessitates collateral damage that turns some Afghans against us.  Will that change?

Secondly, our investment makes us an active participant in the US global domination process. Will the US decide to take on Iran as the next diversion after Iraq?  For many Canadians, interference in the affairs of other nations is counterproductive in the long term.  Thirdly, the return on this investment of one billion dollars a year is at least zero, if not negative for Canada.

The key question for Canadians to ask themselves is – why are we in Afghanistan?  Is our present path working?  Can we succeed? How much are we prepared to expend in lives and money?  As a “liberal” society, are we really prepared for the contradictions between our beliefs and the reality of life in a feudal / tribal society when the rubber hits the road?  Some examples – the Taliban hangs a young boy for having American dollars in his pocket.  A government judge recently sentenced a young journalism student to death for downloading a file from the internet on the oppression of women by some Islamic societies.  Prisoners are tortured after being turned over to Afghan authorities… Need I say more?
More on the options available in the next article

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