The Slide from Kandahar to Kabul

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 2 months ago

Rosie DiManno is one of my favorite reporters and columnists.  In her latest she heaps great scorn and opprobrium on the Canadian withdrawal from Kandahar (quoting at length).

There are two occupying armies in Kabul: NGOs and ISAF.

The non-governmental agencies are in their element, many underscrutinized in their aid and development budgets, as literally billions of donation dollars flow through the capital.

Little of that largesse has substantially improved civilian life. But the humanitarian hyenas drive around in chauffeured SUVs, usually reside in highly secured compounds with extensive domestic staff, and enjoy a lively social whirl in restricted clubs where Afghans are rarely found — beyond serving alcoholic drinks they’re not permitted to imbibe.

Planet ISAF is equally insulated behind high UN and NATO walls, though officials in tandem with Afghan ministry representatives conduct weekly media briefings where not much of significance is ever discussed. The Kabul bureau for journalists is a surprisingly soft gig as most reporters rely ever more on stringers to bring back the goods, take all the risks.

Though International Security Assistance Force convoys venture out daily, the city’s security responsibility has for the past year been Afghan-led. Unlike their ISAF counterparts, barely visible from within their heavily armoured vehicles, Afghan security forces — national army and police — are dangerously exposed in mini pickup trucks.

If the Afghan National Police, in particular, is loathed by the citizenry as hooligans and extortionists, a considerable number in cahoots with insurgency elements, one can almost understand their treason and criminality: Pay is negligible, dangers omnipresent, command-and-control corrupt. For many Afghans who enter the police training program, the true objective is a year or two of shakedown opportunity, after which they can return to their villages with a useful nest egg.

I am not a cynic about Afghanistan’s potential to rise from the ashes of civil war, chronic misrule and international neglect. Its rich mining resources alone should provide economic buoyancy if ever properly administered rather than exploited by covetous multinationals. Even the corruption that exasperated donor nations endlessly drone on about — while their own NGOs and development contractors take their cut — is, in fact, a time-honoured alternative system of governance, arguably the only quasi-capitalism that works here.

The country has always been a suzerain for warlords; the original Taliban, for all their piety, were nothing less than another criminal gang, built on vast Pashtun tribal loyalties, armed and schooled in proxy sacking by Pakistan.

For Canadian combat troops and their support divisions in Kandahar, these past six years, Kabul was that mile-high mirage in the distant rear, redoubt of bureaucrats, la-la DMZ for pretend soldiers. Not one I ever met pined to be posted there. Even those sickened of life outside-the-wire, the perilous patrols and wearying village shuras, had no stomach for a politically massaged Kabul assignment.

In the pecking order of combat virility, even deployment as force protection for Canada’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar city was viewed dimly: that place with the pool, surf and turf dinners and circle-the-wagon ramparts.

Ottawa has spent these past half-dozen years decrying the no-fight no-front caveats imposed by NATO troop contributors, and rightly so. The heavy lifting through the worst of the insurgency fell to Canada, Britain and Holland — latterly, Americans — while the likes of Germany, Sweden and Italy carved out relatively safe havens.

Now, we’re no different from the shirkers.

Make no mistake. Dress it up as both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff might like: If this new stay-in plan is put to effect as advertised, Canadian troops, highly valued for their combat skills, will be little more than decorative tassels on the Afghanistan uniform, their primary value to pick up the mentoring slack left behind by other bolting allies so that Americans can carry on their terrorist-tracking pursuits.

President Barack Obama is interested in Afghanistan only so far as preventing it from becoming once again a refuge for Al Qaeda and its assorted adjuncts, the ganglia of insurrectionists entrenched along the lawless border with Pakistan. While there is growing concern over Iran’s influence in Afghanistan, the U.S. objective is quite narrow and geopolitical; an exit segue it can live with.

It was NATO that always had the much grander vision for Afghanistan, if not the resolve or political commitment, not the troop contribution or — for far too long — the vigorous rules of engagement, to even begin imposing order on so large and complicated a battlefield.

With its shrinking ambitions for Afghanistan, NATO has confirmed its irrelevancy and inefficacy in the 21st century — the true reason for taking up this cause in the first place, and never mind building schools, emancipating women or laying down a democratic footprint. If Afghanistan has any future, it will be on the blood of Americans or via an ignominious rapprochement with the Taliban.

(Here’s adding insult to injury: The New York Times has reported that those promising secret talks between Taliban and Afghan leaders to end the war were actually being conducted with a Taliban imposter.)

So Canada is on board to shunt some 950 troops to Kabul next summer to run training programs until 2014. Having visited such instruction camps in Afghanistan, I’ve got news for you: The ANA, an institution respected by the citizenry, doesn’t need us for inside-the-wire training purposes; only for outside-the-wire command-and-control tutoring, which Harper insists we won’t provide. And the ANP, as constituted, is incapable of even A-B-C coaching. Better off opening up the cantonments and returning to Afghan men (and women) all those weapons collected in disarmament drives. At least then they’d have a chance of defending themselves against the next wave of marauders and power-hungry zealots.

As for Canadian soldiers turned into military metrosexuals: They make a nice latte in Kabul, guys.

Rosie is tough on the Canadian boys, or more precisely, the Canadian political establishment which is spearheading the “strategic redeployment” to Kabul.  A few observations are in order concerning Rosie’s commentary.

First, if Canadians believe that they will somehow be spared the onslaught of militant Islam because of proximity to the U.S., they can think again.  The U.S. cannot single-handedly defeat the transnational insurgency of radical Islam, and the regional AfPak insurgency is a significant and important element in the global campaign.

Second, Rosie hits an important nail on the head when she discusses the fact that it was always NATO which had the grand visions of nation-building in Afghanistan.  The U.S. had heretofore been primarily hunting and killing the enemy (although to be clear, that changed lately due to the influence of population-centric counterinsurgency dogma with McChrystal and Petraeus).  That NATO has now abandoned their lofty dreams of creating Shangi-La on the Asian continent is a pitiful testimony to what never could have happened anyway.  Not that woman’s rights or education for children isn’t a laudable goal, but there  is only so much the U.S. can do, and there is poverty and malfeasance of leadership on every continent.  All of those problems are not correctable.  Defeating the insurgency is possible, but a focus that has been lost in all the talk of creating legitimate governance.

Third, note how Rosie described the disconnectedness of the NGOs and ISAF to the population or countryside of Afghanistan.  Nothing could ensure loss any more than this.  For all the talk of knowing the population, we seem to know more about the huge bases we’re on than the people we are supposed to be winning.

Finally, of course it’s true that basic training in Kabul is a small part of the whole.  But this contribution by Canadian forces is pro forma.  The ANA needs to see good NCOs in action.  Instead, they will see good NCOs garrisoned at huge bases.  And as a certain Marine I know has remarked before, there is a difference between a garrison Marine and a grunt.  The ANA needs to be embedded with grunts.  Instead they get the garrison boys.  So much for Canada’s contribution to the campaign.


  1. On November 29, 2010 at 9:52 am, Paul Edson said:

    Perhaps a better title would be: “The Usual Corruption that accompanies contracting out a war.” Corruption develops in any execution of an occupation, (some will insist that it be called humanitarian assistance); the nature and form of the corruption will vary. It happens as a result of the size of the resource transfer. Remember the police slogan, “follow the money” to find the culprit?
    There is no one size fits all solution to this problem. It can be…kept to manageable size by good leadership, but never eliminated.
    Focus by the 5th estate can be helpful as long as this focus clearly understands that absolute unvarnished and un-exaggerated reporting is needed and no games are played to gain market share by the reporting media.
    Good luck General Petraeus, you will need luck in addition to your considerable skills. I must add that the State Department needs to understand they must “run a big business” when engaged in nation building and not confuse the role and requirements of diplomacy and management of a business.

  2. On November 30, 2010 at 6:15 pm, Corsair8X said:

    Either way, my country’s contribution was done. After all, we were going to leave outright. And to be honest, I wish it were that way. Canada stood firm while the US got distracted by Iraq. We didn’t hide out in the cushy north, we contributed. And I think there was some frustration at how the US got distracted over nothing. And we triedto tell you it was nothing. But off the US went.

    Now the US is back – and it isn’t getting better. It’s mismanaged. But it was a goat rope the moment the US decided to look elsewhere. The politicians realize that the population is sick of it. I’m not even sure our politicians even trust the US to ever figure it out.

    I’d rather we be a dot on the horizon with this. Because you point out, this is nothing. Maybe even less than nothing. And, there should be some shame on our part for not just leaving. We are either in or we are out. But this? Well, this isn’t noble at all I think. In this we may be no better than those nations that played it safe inthe beginning. Because that’s all we are doing now.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Canada and was published November 28th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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