In The Media

Sajjan furor masks big questions, concerns about Afghanistan's future

by Lee Bethiaume (feat. Ferry de Kerckhove & Stephen Saideman)

The Canadian Press
May 9, 2017

OTTAWA — Lost in the furor over Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan's claims to have been the "architect" of a decade-old battle in Afghanistan are fears that country is again on the edge of failure.

Liberal MPs used their superior numbers in the House of Commons on Tuesday to vote down a largely symbolic non-confidence motion brought against the embattled defence minister.

The Conservatives sponsored the motion after Sajjan exaggerated his role in Operation Medusa, a key battle involving the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2006.

While the minister apologized, the Tories accused him of misleading Canadians on other issues, such as the urgent need for Super Hornet aircraft and cuts to tax benefits for soldiers deployed to Kuwait.

The vote was hardly a nailbiter, despite the NDP voting with the Conservatives, as 168 Liberal MPs joined Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in supporting Sajjan.

Green party Leader Elizabeth May and Independent MP Hunter Tootoo also supported Sajjan, resulting in a final vote of 171-122.

Yet for all the debate that led up to Tuesday's vote, one thing that was noticeably missing was any mention of the situation in Afghanistan now.

That is despite the fact the country's future remains as uncertain as ever, as the threat posed by the Taliban — and now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — continues to grow.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was warned shortly after taking office in November 2015 that the progress had been made in bringing peace to Afghanistan was in danger of being rolled back.

That was despite the U.S.-led coalition having spent billions of dollars on security and reconstruction and having had more than 3,000 military personnel killed, including 158 Canadian soldiers.

"Insecurity has increased significantly," reads a secret briefing note prepared for Trudeau and obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information law.

Afghan security forces were "sustaining unprecedented casualties and significant territorial losses", the briefing note added, as the Taliban "expanded its footprint" across the country.

The situation has since grown worse, with U.S. generals warning in recent weeks that they need thousands of additional troops to break what has become a stalemate with the Taliban.

The insurgents launched a brazen attack on an Afghan military base late last month that killed more than 140 Afghan soldiers, while analysts say almost half the country is contested or under Taliban control.

ISIL has also made inroads, while the number of civilian casualties reached a record high last year, as the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 injured.

Afghan security forces have also incurred "shockingly high" losses, the inspector general found, with 807 soldiers and police officers killed in the first six weeks of 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump is reportedly contemplating whether to send 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, while the British have said to have been asked to contribute as well.

There are currently about 13,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 8,400 of them American.

Yet even with additional soldiers and billions in promised funding over the next few years, including $465 million from Canada through 2020, experts say there is a very real danger of failure.

"It comes back to the old hard stuff that troops can't fix: governance," said Carleton University political science professor Stephen Saideman, who wrote a book on Canada's experience in Afghanistan.

Former Canadian diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove said despite the sacrifices made in Afghanistan over a decade, there seems to be a "collective amnesia" when it comes to the South Asian country.

"I think Canadians are very happy not think about it and the present government, the last thing they want to do is talk about Afghanistan," he said.

If Western efforts in Afghanistan fail, not only will it mean years of sacrifice were for naught, but there are fears that ISIL and other extremist groups will again use the country as a base for terrorist attacks.

But while U.S. military officials hope the addition of more troops will help pressure the Taliban to negotiate for peace, de Kerckhove said it's time for the U.S. to follow Canada out the door.

"What we have built in Afghanistan will not last," he said. "What will last is what Afghans build for themselves."

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