* Does Afghanistan need another 40,000 troops?

 No thanks! I recently attended an Ottawa Peace Festival 2009 panel discussion in Oct 09, entitled “Afghanistan and Canada – Is there an alternative to war”. The panel expressed a lot of frustration, uncertainty, and a strong sense that we are on the wrong course. They were, however, unable to articulate an alternate strategy in compelling terms.

As a former Colonel in the military, it struck me that 40,000 combat troops only equals more killing, more civilian casualties, more property damage, and without a general Taliban or Al Qaeda surrender. The only result could be a request for even more troops in a year or so. Remember the Canadian Manley report and the statement that “all we need is 1000 more troops”. That was more than 20,000 US troops ago and the military situation is worse now. Even from a military perspective, there are so many variables, that any US military statement insisting on certain mission failure or defeat if additional troops are not sent, is beyond irresponsible.

The bottom line is that we have been committed to this war. We are part of the global community and the security of others is our security. The question we face is about how Canada can best contribute. What lines we should never cross? As a start point, we must take full responsibility for what we are doing there. Any level of harm, that we now dismiss as collateral damage, is just not acceptable. We should not be doing anything that we are not prepared to do or allow in downtown Vancouver or Washington. This means no heavy or standoff weapons or tactics that may take any possible chances with the lives of civilians or non-combatants. Heavy weapons, such as indirect fire weapons, airpower, and tanks, are not morally defensible in urban or settled areas. The results are predictable and tragic. Any civilian casualties or damage we cause must be investigated with a view to exposing the truth, accepting of full responsibility, and making full restitution. This means taking care of people just as we would back in our country. The same as we look after our wounded and veterans. People are human beings deserving of equal care and respect everywhere. The global community has a moral obligation to protect people who are undergoing such suffering.

To state the obvious and often repeated manta, even by military experts; there is no military victory possible here. So why is the main effort, the largest commitment of our “blood and treasure”, the one with the least prospect of success? To say we need a change of strategy is the understatement of the decade.

I realize that it is easy to criticize, but hard to suggest better alternatives. So what is possible in this tragic situation?

On one hand, there is a military saying that “amateurs talk of tactics and professionals talk of logistics”. Insurgents need a population to live and hide in (either through coercion or support), and they need lines of supply money, food, replacements, weapons, and training. Who funds and supplies these insurgents? Which regional states are involved? These are the main culprits here, and should be a bigger focus of effort, resources and attention, than we accord to any terrorist in the field. If logistics stop, the insurgency dies.

On another hand, the people who suffer most in war are invariable civilians and non-combatants. We need to change the role of the foreign military from war fighting to population security. We can build national security forces. We need to go into villages and stay there until replaced by national forces, one village at a time. We do not have to continue be complicit in the killing and suffering and collateral damage.

On yet another hand, if the region wants western withdrawal then the mid-east transnational community has to take full and effective responsibility for ending the violence and building peace. The region as a whole has to engage and show firm leadership. We need Arabic or Persian peacekeepers.

And finally, it is clear that an all-party settlement is the best solution, given the impossibility of a military solution. However, the warring parties must do their part. Warring parties eventually or periodically reach points of exhaustion and for their reasons become open to cease fire or peace talks. When those moments occur we must have the safe spaces ready and waiting and welcoming. Facilitating and encouraging such opportunities, talking to both sides, is a key role for outside intervention. We cannot afford to miss even the slightest overture from either side.

So what is possible? A strategy of insurgent support denial, regional engagement, civilian protection and settlement facilitation.

1. A strategy that reduces arms and supplies of the insurgents and reduces the population support that they live in.

2. A strategy that involves the increased support and direct engagement of the transnational mid east community to protect civilians, end the fighting, and rebuild Afghanistan.

3. A strategy that actively protects civilian populations. The ethic of care is central to who we are as human beings and to any chance of a lasting peace.

4. A strategy that talks to all sides and facilitates the creation of safe spaces for the negotiation of a settlement and ceasefire and a stopping of the violence and killing.

I realize that much of this is a “statement of the obvious” and very difficult in execution. I realize that some of this is already being done, but some real clarity and fundamental changes to the current strategy are desperately needed now.

To the Prime Minister of Canada; We need to reclaim our two Nobel Peace prizes for peacekeeping and neutrality. We need to stop our complicity in killing. We need do more to protect and care for the victims and the people of Afghanistan. We need to be an uncompromising part in advocating and facilitating an all-party settlement.

To President Obama; Please do not compound the mistakes we have made in the past. Please have the courage to walk the path of non-violence, diplomacy and reconciliation. Please have the courage to put the ethic of care and the lives of the Afghan people first. Please have the foresight to engage in a diplomatic offensive such as the world has never seen.


4 thoughts on “* Does Afghanistan need another 40,000 troops?

  1. Worthy ideas, Paul! I think your expertise can provide the answer to a specific question I have. I recently saw somewhere that any comments by our current government as to withdrawing troops by 2011 are irrelevant unless and until notice is served to NATO, in the proper time frame and by the correct means, that Canada is going to withdraw, and NATO accepts that notification. Can you shed any light on this? Thanks & best from Ellen

    Hello Ellen. Thanks. I am not sure what notification procedures are to NATO and how binding they are. I do know that Canada can unilaterally withdraw if it wishes, and however it wishes to notify NATO or anyone else, is Canada’s decision. This is all a matter of government policy. NATO puts together a “consensus of the willing” for such operations. NATO Nations who do not wish to participate do not do so. The conditions of participation are a participating nation’s decision.

    To me this is a question of government will. Governments and politicians make promises that are usually in the face of an unknown future and things change, and so do promises. I expect that the twisting and turning will start soon and we will be caught in a humanitarian dilemma. The government will start to define withdrawal as withdrawal from the combat role, to a protection role or whatever. This government has a habit of abandoning Canadians in prisons or places abroad. I think we need to put the Afghan people first. It is a tragic thing to be involved here, but this is a question of doing the right thing, and the ethic of care for others.

    Sorry if I could not be of more help. Paul

  2. Hello Paul; Thanks, This is a well thought analysis of the present dangerous situation in Afghanistan and your wishful recommendation for the future. I am very sure that majority of Canadian will support your ideas that corresponds to our strong historical support for justice and our global respect for human rights. The Green Party of Canada should be proud of having you in our team.


    Akbar Manoussi
    President, Green Party of Canada, Ottawa-Vanier
    Chair, Clean Energy Education, Willis College of Business, Health and Technology
    Professor of Business and Management


    Absolutely correct in every detail. Thank you so much for putting this into words. The fact that you are an ex-officer in the Military lends extra weight to your judgement. As Churchill said, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war”. Life is sacred and the statistics of the innocent casualties which are listed in our media with barely a second thought break my heart. Regards….PJ


    Dear Paul. The only solution to the Afghanistan situation is a withdrawal, pure and simple. We can’t “win” as there is nothing to win. … the death toll of Afghan citizens and NATO soldiers continues to rise at accelerating rates. So why is there a question about what we should do here, …… Perhaps it is time we thought about our actions as a nation again and stand up for peace. Doug P – Three time federal candidate and two time provincial candidate.


    Hello Doug. A lot of suffering I agree, and far too easy to look the other way when the going gets tough. To comment on a few points you raised, the issue of this being “winnable” or of “defeating anyone” is certainly the big mistake the west makes, given the historical and religious context. In my experience, the key is to manage expectations and think long term, as much as seven generations to use an aboriginal term.

    I believe that the way forward should involve some type of a “direction-engagement-results” strategy. This concept is used in advancing anti-corruption and integrity frameworks in governance, particularly in failed or developing countries where corruption is very serious. The direction component involves defining success as a commitment to changing the direction of governance or security or poverty, to one that is slightly more hopeful and may make life better for future generations. We think long term. Engagement means doing what one can at all levels to advance this. This may mean selecting many “early participation” projects that are feasible, small, involves a lot of people, and whose collective effect begins to make a difference. The saying “I may be one and only one, but will not refuse to do what one can do” begins with everyone. The big projects run in parallel with this. Only much later should we begin to concern ourselves with measuring or defining results.

    The key is to be going in some direction of their choosing that is hopeful and has a future. Then have a lot of patience and compassion, and above all do not give up on these people. Bosnia was a hopeless disaster at the time and now life is getting better. I believe that however we can save lives and contribute here is important and we should not refuse to do so. Regards Paul.

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