Why We Are In Afghanistan
Sean M. Maloney, PhD
The assassination of Canadian diplomat Glyn Berry and the grievous
wounding of Pte. William Edward Salikin, Cpl. Jeffrey Bailey and Master Cpl.
Paul Franklin by a terrorist suicide bomb cell in Kandahar Sunday is a
personally shocking but not unexpected event. I have recently returned from
Kandahar, where I spent a month with the Canadian-led Provincial
Reconstruction Team. As a military historian, I usually don't deal with
diplomats and aid workers but the nature of Canada ' s war in Afghanistan
put me in contact with Glyn and his counterparts: we had many fruitful
conversations on our progress in the region and the new relationship between
National Defence, Foreign Affairs, and the Canadian International
Development Agency. I also had extensive contact with the soldiers from
Patrol Company, who I accompanied on numerous patrols throughout Kandahar
Province: theirs is a dangerous job in an unforgiving environment and
Canadians need to know how professional and dedicated their soldiers are in
the face of this. Those dangers were driven home for me personally when I
arrived on 4 December right after a coalition patrol in Kandahar was hit
with a suicide bomber, and then again on 12 December 2005 when I changed my
plans at the last minute to attend a briefing. The G-Wagon I would have been
traveling in on a long-range patrol was blown up by a Taliban road side
bomb, seriously wounding Pte. Ryan Crawford and Capt. Manuel Panchana-Moya.
In the current election campaign, questions have been raised: why,
exactly, is Canada in Afghanistan? What is it that demands that Canadians
are placed in harms way in that country?
Canada has been engaged in Afghanistan militarily since 2001. This
engagement has taken many forms and has evolved over the years, yet the
objectives remain the same. Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a training base,
recruiting centre, and safe haven, hiding behind the Taliban shield after
Osama Bin Laden ' s organization was forced to de-camp from the Sudan in
1996.. The parasitical relationship between Al Qaeda and the Taliban "
host " nation ensured, along with the rugged terrain and relative
remoteness of Afghanistan, a substantial amount of security from any
potential intervention. Al Qaeda facilities in Afghanistan were diverse and
numerous, including biological and chemical weapons laboratories and
multi-national terrorist training camps. Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, which
Canada participated in immediately after the attacks on New York and
Washington, was designed to pierce the Taliban exoskeleton so that special
operations forces could attack the Al Qaeda " meat " underneath.
Coalition operations ripped out the Al Qaeda infrastructure, in the main by
working alongside the Afghan people, many of whom resented the use of their
country as a base for international terrorism and who were willing to take
up arms to eject them.
Canada, along with the other coalition partners, committed to
ensuring that Afghanistan could no longer be used as a safe haven and base
area for international terrorists or their sympathizers. This, of course,
was easier said then done. The remnants of the Taliban and their Al Qaeda
support networks continue to operate from Pakistan and are committed to
re-taking Afghanistan. The critical battleground, once the Taliban were
physically removed from power and put to flight, are the peoples of
Afghanistan. Back in 2002-03 the danger lay in the possibility that anarchy
would reign in a power vacuum, and armed groups with no popular legitimacy
would plunge the country into an inter-tribal or inter-ethnic civil war
similar to what happened in 1993, which lay the ground work for the original
Taliban intervention in 1996. Skillful use of mili tary force and capacity
building by Canada and her allies has, from 2002 to today, borne fruit. The
Taliban, as a movement, enjoy almost no popular support outside of the
front-line Pashtun-dominated provinces that border Pakistan: even there,
their influence is shaky at best and they know it. The danger now lies in
the possibility that the Afghan people may become disenchanted with the slow
government reconstruction process, one which has many problems including
corruption, and turn on the government or even side with elements of the
Taliban out of mutual convenience.
Glyn Berry, working in the Provincial Reconstruction Team, was part
of a Canadian effort to stop this slide back from the successes of 2001-02.
The Canadian PRT in Kandahar is structured to help the Afghan government
build its ability to govern and police this disparate and strategically
critical province. At the same time, the PRT works with the Afghan people to
convince them to support counterinsurgency efforts conducted by military
forces against Taliban urban terrorist cells and guerilla fighters in the
Closer to home, Canada ' s credibility within the Western
coalition of forces is at stake. The failure of Canada to lead an effective
multinational coalition into Zaire in 1996 damaged Canada ' s reputation
amongst the ABCA countries, countries who are the mainspring of the effort
in Afghanistan. Canada ' s commitment to lead the military effort in RC
South in Afghanistan will be part of the long road back from the debacles of
the early and mid-1990s. That process started with Kosovo in 1999 and has
continued throughout our time in Afghanistan.
If we fail in Kandahar, we may fail in Afghanistan. And we cannot
afford to fail in Afghanistan: it is the closest thing we have to a regional
or campaign victory in our global war against the Al Qaeda movement.
Afghanistan has critical psychological properties: it is widely called the
Graveyard of Empires- and with good reason. Al Qaeda never anticipated we
would come after them there. We have a moral and psychological success as
much as a material one, but that success remains to be consolidated. The
Canadian effort is a critical part of that consolidation. Al Qaeda was
emboldened by the international community ' s failure in Somalia,
particularly when coalition forces took casualties and departed. We have to
prove that Canada can stick with the Afghanistan project, despite the
casualties. The Afghan people have put their trust in us and we are partners
with them in this enterprise. Glyn Berry knew this and was committed to the
effort to capacity build in Kandahar. And that is what he gave his life for.
-Dr. Maloney teaches in the War Studies Programme at the Royal
Military College of Canada and is the author of the recently-published
Enduring The Freedom: A Rogue Historian in Afghanistan.