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February 17, 2010

Afghanistan, 100 months of occupation

Reuel S. Amdur

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Canada is fighting in Afghanistan, says University of Ottawa Professor Nasir Islam, because we cannot afford not to, since the great bulk of our exports goes to the United States.

Islam, Professor of Governance and Public Policy at the University of Ottawa, made this caustic assessment in response to a question of why Canada should be involved since the United States created the problem by supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda for the sake of régime change.  Previously there was a Communist government.

Islam was part of a panel of speakers at St. Paul University in Ottawa on February 2. 

The program was sponsored by four Green Party candidates.  Other than Islam, the speakers were Jawed Ludin, the Afghan ambassador; Paul Maillet, a retired colonel who was Director of Defence Ethics in the Department of National Defence and who is now a Green Party candidate; University of Ottawa Professor Nipa Banerjee, who teaches international development and who was head of Canada’s aid program to Afghanistan from 2003 to 2006; and Carleton University Professor Akbar Manoussi, also a Green Party candidate.

Ambassador Ludin said that last year was Afghanistan’s bloodiest, both for Afghan civilians and for the military, Afghan and international.  He sees 2009 as the climax but predicted that 2010 will see the tide change due to the Obama surge.  As well, the situation in Pakistan has changed for the Taliban, he argued.  Yet, the issue of security overshadows everything else in his country.

Be that as it may, he acknowledged that it is not possible to eliminate the Taliban militarily and that it will be necessary to negotiate.  Unfortunately, he said, in the past when Taliban have responded to an invitation to lay down their arms, they were arrested.  He did not want to say by whom. 

Acknowledging that Canada’s military role will end next year, he claimed that the international community cannot afford simply to leave.  As for the military role, Afghanistan is prepared to take over at the end of this year.  In passing, he commented that the media had “blown out of proportion” the problems with the recent election.

Professor Banerjee addressed the issue of the effectiveness of aid.  She did not speak about the issue of corruption, which has been a concern, but she addressed effectiveness in terms of three principles: predictability of donor commitments, alignment of aid with Afghan priorities, and accountability of donors for what they were doing.  She noted that foreign aid currently represents 45% of Afghan GDP. 

On the issue of predictability, she reported that financial information from donors “has been less than satisfactory,” in part because of lack in some cases of matching financial years.

With regard to alignment with local priorities, she found “little convincing evidence.”  100% of the country’s development budget and 35% of operating or recurrent expenditures are financed by foreign governments.  “Donors display their own agenda,” often “for their own forces’ protection in specific geographic areas.”  And, “Often high priority poverty stricken rural areas remain underfunded because of donor unwillingness to deliver in difficult terrains.”  The Afghan government has but limited discrimination on use of development funds.

On the issue of accountability, “Donors continue to express sensitivity about providing full information” about programs they manage, constituting “a major part of total aid funds.”  She spoke of “a lack of accountability” for spending relating to the Provincial Rehabilitation Teams.

Col. Mallet focused on how we talk and think about the Afghan situation.  General Rick Hillier spoke of the insurgents as “killers” and “scum-bags’.  Of course, one gives no recourse for killers and scum-bags.  War implies violence and killing, but we can instead think in terms of peace-keeping, neutrality, and relief of suffering. 

In foreign affairs, there are three elements: diplomacy, development, and defence.  Maillet said that we need to re-balance our emphasis among the three. 

Dialogue, he said, is “the only alternative to guns and bombs.”  Canada should, he proposed, work to create “safe spaces” for the diplomatic route with the Taliban and al-Qaeda. 

We should move to a more neutral approach.  He finds it particularly inappropriate to “drop 200 pound bombs in asymmetrical warfare.”  He agreed with the ambassador that the war is unwinnable militarily.

Professor Islam said that Canada would take its position on Afghanistan by “waiting for the United States and then following whatever the U.S. says.”

Since the U.S. is now talking about negotiating with the Taliban, “Canada will resent this but it will follow.”  At that point in the discourse, the moderator Dr. Qais Ghanem reminded the audience of Prime Minister Harper’s jibe at Jack Layton when Layton proposed negotiations.  “Taliban Jack,” he had jeered. 

Islam pointed a dim picture of the situation in Afghanistan. 

A third of the districts are “high risk,” and in many of these the Taliban have formed a shadow government and are collecting taxes.  The surge, he predicted, threatens to expand the theater of war, leading to more casualties.

He pointed out that the country has never been conquered and that it would be almost impossible to hold.  The recent London Conference came to this same conclusion and instead decided on a strategy of dividing the insurgency in the hope that that would lead to some conclusion.

He said that asymmetric warfare is extremely expensive for the powerful force. 

It costs over half a million dollars to keep a single soldier in the war, only a fraction of that for a Taliban.  Islam denied that the Taliban are mercenaries, and with few exceptions they are Afghans. 

He argued that we should not underestimate their staying power. They have a powerful ideology: jihad to death to paradise. 

Islam noted that the Taliban leaders are in Pakistan.  Should they be brought back to Afghanistan to work out a settlement?  He pointed to India’s fear of the threat that they might then present to her. 

On foreign aid, Islam called it “a disaster in Afghanistan, and all over as well.”  He was pessimistic on the issue of sustainability of donor support, about which Banerjee spoke.  With the massive debts facing donor countries in the current recession, donor fatigue becomes a real threat.  There is rather a need to work on developing the economy, he said. 

Professor Manoussi addressed the fate of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran.  Pakistan keeps them in camps, with little aid.  Iran, by contrast, allows them to live in the local communities, though it limits their mobility. 

He said that there are 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 2.5 million in Iran. Two million fled the Russian invasion.

Iran takes responsibility for the refugees, providing health care, food, and some education.  Many work in low-wage jobs. In spite of the health care provided, poor health continues to be a problem.

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