Op-ed

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Great speech, let's get on with the venturing to noble and good causes

by Brett Boudreau

The Hill Times
June 12, 2017

As expected, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has set out a powerful treatment of Canada’s foreign policy priorities—albeit one that is long on examples of ‘what we’ve done in the past,’ and short on ‘things that we will do in the future.’

That Canada “must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the post-war multilateral order” is a significant, purposeful, and muscular approach to deal with “clear strategic threats,” at least if resources and actions match the rhetoric, which they now most assuredly do not. Here is a question: On what shall we devote, spend and risk our “unique experience, expertise, geography, diversity and values,” and where to “venture, in noble and good causes”?

On a list of challenges worthy of some of that newfound Canadian chutzpah, here’s one—the unfinished mission in Afghanistan. There, 39 nations (Canada not included) are contributing forces under the NATO Resolute Support banner to train, advise and assist the Afghan military to be increasingly effective, sustainable, affordable, organized, equipped and capable of defending their country and their population.

Why go back? Afghanistan is the petri dish of international terrorism, home to 20 of 98 designated terrorist organizations—as well as three violent extremist groups—the highest concentration in the world. It remains the world’s largest producer of opium poppy, supplying up to 90 per cent of the world’s heroin. Women fight bravely for their rights in a fast-modernizing nation. And, it borders the only state in the nuclear club that has the hallmarks of a failing state. It remains the largest and most active NATO operational mission, and NATO is asking for help there. The main objective of preventing that country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack our homelands remains valid. What more imperatives do we need? 

It is perfectly fair to ask why there is any greater chance now of better outcomes than when NATO had 10 times the military forces deployed there. Recent high profile attacks aside, for the first time in the 15-year intervention in that country, many signs suggest the tide has turned in favour of the Afghan government and against malign actors.

Most importantly, there is a dedicated, reliable partner in Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and a functioning if sometimes fractured National Unity Government. Ghani’s four-year plan is helping professionalize and build Afghan defence and security forces including increasing their offensive capability by doubling the size of the Special Forces and growing the Air Force. These combat capabilities can’t be matched by the Taliban or any other group on the battlefield anywhere in the country.

Afghans are a proud people who want to defend their own country. They are taking the fight directly to the enemy and are taking casualties: they are not looking to us or anyone else to do their fighting for them. Building their offensive capability is what will break the stalemate. This will help set conditions to be able to provide security for more of the population and to incentivize reconciliation. In fact, the first peace treaty since the war with the Taliban in 2001 was signed last Fall with the armed group Hezb-i-Islami, and this has spurred new dialogue with other groups, actors and stakeholders.

Ghani is also tackling endemic corruption with a vengeance. Last year he fired 1,000 procurement officials at once to wrest control of military contracts from criminal networks and recently switched out many senior and mid-level military leaders, replacing them with younger, proven combat leaders. This year, attention will focus on the more problematic police forces of the Ministry of Interior. 

Shortly, it is expected that the U.S. will announce a refreshed Afghanistan policy, its first on the subject since the new Trump administration. This time, the review is uniquely informed by a collection of officials in senior appointments throughout the national security structure all of whom have fought in or held senior command in Afghanistan. This includes SACEUR Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, National Security Adviser Lt.-Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Secretary of Defence James Mattis, and Gen. John Nicholson, NATO’s most experienced Afghanistan field commander.

The yet-to-be-announced strategy should be expected to be comprehensive and address how to deal better with critical issues such as Pakistani sanctuaries, reconciliation, regional dynamics, and political and economic reform. NATO Defence Ministers meet later in June and already Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has indicated NATO “will contribute more.”

What does more look like? The need remains in part military, to be sure. Troop numbers make headline news but the number of forces requested is in the low thousands. The need at best is an ‘uptick’—when all in, still around 10 per cent of the military forces employed at the height of ISAF—and signals an enhanced training mission, not a return to combat for NATO. A more focused approach includes having nations commit to taking full responsibility to train specific capabilities like infantry, engineers and sergeants-major at academies.

The real niche for Canada, though, is where the Afghan need is greatest and our skill set and capability could make for a massive prospective contribution. We are a country blessed with excellent officials in fields such as agriculture, utilities, natural resources, financial institutions, police and border security. If our path is indeed “one that … upholds our broadly held national values … with a sense of having done the right thing,” then we should bring more ‘non-war’ physical assets such as these to a fight that so many Allied nations think is worth contributing forces to, instead of just cash for disbursement to organizations actually working on the ground there. 

There are those who suggest when it comes to Afghanistan, that “Canada has done enough.” If we fail there, we embolden terrorists globally, we undermine the credibility of NATO, we give up on stemming the flow of hardcore drugs and we lose influence in this geo-strategically critical region.

If we are meant as a nation to “step up” and “risk,” then let’s go big—bigger than having 450 Canadian soldiers indefinitely sitting in a Latvian caserne periodically being let out to attend community events, international military skills competitions, or rousing inter-mural hockey games. This may send ‘fair warning’ to Putin not to invade the Baltics, but it does not seem to make our streets much safer from fanatics intent on killing us.

Brett Boudreau (Col, Ret’d) is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, and recently spent a month in Kabul with NATO’s Resolute Support Mission.

Image credit: Jake Wright

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