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November 11, 2009

Afghanistan, what's next?

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

Dr. Mohamed ElmasryIn Afghanistan, death and destruction are the order of the day-any day, every day-but the Nov. 3 killing of five U.K. soldiers is significant.

An Afghan policeman shot the British soldiers, and wounded six others, as well as two Afghan policemen. The incident happened in the southern Helmand province where British troops are training Afghan police officers.

The attack occurred as the soldiers relaxed in the sun on the roof of the joint checkpoint overlooking a shared British-Afghan compound. The attacker fled, setting off a manhunt.

Equally significant is the shameful propaganda spin by the British and American media. They called the Afghan policeman “rogue” and highlighted Mohammad Hanif Atmar’s, Afghanistan's interior minister, saying that the attack appeared an “isolated incident.”

But Afghan officials in Helmand know better. They were honest enough to warn that whether the policeman was a rogue actor or not, the episode could be, and likely will be, repeated.

“As much as we are losing the territories, we will face this kind of trouble, and also as much as there is distance between the government and ISAF [the 100,000-man NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] and the local people, we will have to face this kind of event,” said Haji Muhammed Anwar Khan, a local elder and a representative of Helmand in Parliament.

In fact, the incident came one month after an Afghan policeman fired on American soldiers during a joint patrol in Wardak Province, killing two.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told parliament that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the Nov. 3 attack and might even have infiltrated the police. “It appears that they [the shot soldiers] were targeted because they were engaged in what our enemies fear most: they were mentoring and training Afghan forces,” he said. However, a statement on one Taliban website denied responsibility, though it applauded the attack.

All these incidents of Afghan army personal and policemen firing on foreign troops after being trained call into question the Western strategy of preparing Afghans to take a broader role in protecting the puppet regime in Kabul. Moreover, they underscore fears that pressure for rapid results will make it harder for trainers to ensure adequate vetting of recruits.

Nevertheless, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan has placed closer collaboration with Afghan forces at the centre of his military operations and called for more ambitious training targets.

“We will not let this event deter our resolve to building a partnership with the Afghan national security forces to provide for Afghanistan’s future,” he said and pledged a full investigation.

So, where do we go from here?

Early in the conflict I signed a position paper entitled Canada’s Role in Afghanistan: A Third Option, prepared by McMaster University Centre for Peace Studies, Afghanistan Working Group, Canadian-Afghan Peace Partnership, Physicians for Global Survival (Canada), Civilian Peace Service Canada, and others.

The paper’s recommendations, made in April 2006, are still valid today.

“The centrepoint of our recommendations is that there should be a sincere, informed effort to begin peace dialogues with the armed opposition –the Taliban and the Party of Islam. We made preliminary probes along this line last year, reaching high-ranking people in each of these parties. They were genuinely interested in such dialogues, bringing talking points to the discussion. Some of their goals in the conflict were, one might think, legitimate-for example, releasing prisoners from Guantánamo Bay and Bagram. Some were central to the conflict-for example, wanting to be included in the political process of governance. Some were discussable-for example, wanting religious schools in all provinces. No doubt some of their conflict goals might be seen by us as illegitimate, but this is the nature of many serious peace dialogues ending violent conflict.

“Bringing about peace dialogues is not a role for Canadian Armed Forces. It is a role for the Minister of Foreign Affairs and his department in consultation with the government of Afghanistan. However, if peace dialogues should go ahead, Canadian forces would play a role protecting a delicate and dangerous process.

“We think that Canadian Forces should expand peace support operations, and wind down counter-insurgency operations. It is clear that many European allies adopt this approach, in contrast to the U.S. approach of war fighting, which is looking more and more questionable, both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Even Lt.-Gen. Andrew Leslie, Chief of the Land Staff of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan said, ‘Afghanistan is a 20-year venture.… Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you’re creating 15 more who will come after you.’ I understand from Major Brent Beardsley of the Canadian Defence Academy that our forces are trained to make the switch from war-fighting to peace support easily.”

Sadly, the extremely right-wing Harper government in Ottawa will not pay attention the voice of reason in the above report, and keeps sending young Canadians to their death in Afghanistan, in turn helping U.S. and U.K. troops to cause more death and destruction. Shame!

Dr Mohamed Elmasry is Professor Emeritus of Computer Engineering, University of Waterloo. He can be reached at

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