While it’s been mentioned repeatedly, it really hasn’t sunk in with the Canadian public that our military role in Afghanistan is about the change.
In some ways for the better, in other ways more complicated.
When (if) we withdraw our fighting troops by 2011, we won’t be around to witness and/or participate in the outcome of the new phase of the “war” that is only just beginning.
While Canada would far prefer to be rebuilding and salvaging Afghanistan – building schools, digging wells, encouraging prosperity, peace and security – this is impossible while the Taliban escalate and expand violence.
Good news for our troops is that with the influx of 17,000 more U.S. troops, as promised by President Obama to augment the 40,000 U.S. troops already there, along with some 30,000 allied troops, the pressure on the Canadians will be eased. (As if to confirm that Afghanistan is “his” war, Obama says he’s sending 4,000 extra troops to train Afghan troops).
Already Canada’s scope is narrowing. That is, our 2,800 troops won’t have to be responsible for an area that is too large to control effectively and consistently.
Ever since our combat role expanded in the Kandahar region, a succession of battle groups (Princess Pats, RCR, Van Doos, all supported by armour) has been stretched thin. They may pacify one area of Taliban insurgency, and then see the enemy return when they pull out.
The 17,000 fresh American troops that include 12,000 Marines and infantry will enable the Canadians to narrow their area of responsibility – a welcome, and almost unprecedented occurrence.
In past wars, Canadian soldiers (and navy and air force) have traditionally been asked to punch above their weight, and take on jobs with fewer numbers than others would be asked to do. Vimy Ridge in 1917; Caen in 1944; Kapyong in 1951, and then in the defensive phase of the Korean War, to hold much more ground than their numbers warranted.
So it’ll be a bit of a luxury, perhaps, for our troops not to be stretched as thin as they have been. It’ll also be a relief to have the Americans sharing the fighting as necessary. Americans aren’t picky about who they shoot at, and their “rules of engagement” are less stringent than ours.
No matter how many soldiers are committed to Afghanistan, it doesn’t solve the problem of the Taliban using Pakistan as a both a base and a sanctuary. Invading Pakistan to root out Taliban fighters is not an answer, and would only undermine Pakistan’s precarious government.
Three main Taliban groups are said to be uniting to oppose the Americans. More serious is that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is believed to be riddled with Taliban supporters.
The core Taliban group is commanded by the xenophobic, reclusive and religiously extreme Mullah Muhammad Omar.
Another network is run by the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who allegedly got $600 million of CIA money to fight the Soviets, and who has the reputation of fighting rival Mujahadin groups that threaten his power – a Pakistani-backed loose cannon if there ever was one.
A third group is led by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Pushtan and former CIA “asset” in the Mujahadin war against the Soviets, who was once offered the prime minister’s job in post-Taliban Afghanistan. He’s apparently the one U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson dealt with to fund to fight the Soviets, and is said to be more principled than Hekmatyar and less fanatical than Omar.
How the future will unfold is anyone’s guess. But this new phase should be more satisfying to Canadian troops, as they’ll have a more concentrated role – and allies who’ll fight alongside of them.