Get real: That’s the road to Afghan peace
Get real: That’s the road to Afghan peace
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Op-Ed / Asia

Get real: That’s the road to Afghan peace

Canadians face a tough balancing act in Afghanistan in the coming year. With combat troops set to withdraw by July of 2011, the remaining Canadian military trainers and civilian workers will face steep challenges in their efforts to strengthen Afghan security forces and support the Afghan government. The question is: Are Canadians ready to face the alternative if even this limited mission fails?

Canada has already borne tremendous sacrifices. With 154 soldiers killed and another 1,500 injured since it entered the war in 2002, Canada has marked the third-largest number of NATO casualties after the United States and Britain. Hundreds of soldiers and civilians have worked heroically to stabilize the southern province of Kandahar, logging in countless frustrating days away from their families while battling both ruthless insurgents in the field and the politics of policy drift in the NATO alliance.

Yet, a decade into the war, the job is still not done and there is a strong risk that Canadian blood and treasure may have been spent in vain. Although NATO troops have penetrated Taliban territory in the south, local government institutions remain underdeveloped and insurgent elements have moved swiftly to fill the void. NATO partners have failed to reverse the devastating effects of the Taliban’s brutal campaign of intimidation and assassination. The roads may be nominally safer, but the population remains well out of reach of the counterinsurgency campaign in Kandahar.

It should be little wonder, then, that Canada has maintained its decision to call its combat troops home and that other NATO countries are likely to follow suit. The U.S. confirmed at the NATO summit in Lisbon that it, too, will withdraw almost all of its troops by 2014. The agreed-on exit strategy sounds simple enough: Build support by protecting civilians, shore up security with stronger Afghan security forces, pound the Taliban into submission, then cut a power-sharing deal with them that allows the government of Hamid Karzai to stagger on while ramping up the rhetoric that only Afghans can solve the country’s challenges.

The problem is, none of this is working, and a hasty exit risks further aggravating the growing instability in South Asia. And that’s a risk that neither Canada nor the rest of the world can afford to take.

There is no question that 2014 is a more sensible date for a full coalition withdrawal than July of 2011, and that the extra time is needed to stabilize the country. But there are already indications that the Taliban are prepared to ride out the next three years. They sense that NATO has given up, seeking only an exit with honour. History has shown, however, that political settlement in war is rarely reachable unless there’s a genuine balance of power between opposing forces.

But NATO sees a peace deal as a precursor to withdrawal. Like most other NATO members, Canada is basing its exit strategy on the hope that Mr. Karzai’s policy of reconciliation and reintegration will result in political stabilization. As Canada paves the way for its own withdrawal, however, it must realize that the serious shortcomings of the Karzai government and of the intervention overall in Afghanistan jeopardize the success of genuine reconciliation.

With corruption rife at every level of the Afghan government, the Karzai administration is in no shape to secure a peace deal. After two massively fraudulent elections, Mr. Karzai himself has lost all credibility. He has talked a good game on rolling out a program of national reconciliation, but he’s no longer able to build consensus among political elites. Afghan powerbrokers and insurgents alike recognize that the only thing consistent about Mr. Karzai’s reconciliation policy is its inconsistency, and that doesn’t augur well for NATO’s hoped for political settlement.

Simply put: Shortcuts and backroom deals just won’t cut it. Instead, Canada and other NATO members must focus their efforts on reforms that can give Afghans stability, security and rule of law. More attention and resources, not less, must be focused on building governmental capacity and combatting corruption. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has taken an important first step with his announcement in Lisbon that Canadian money will not go toward shoring up Mr. Karzai’s government if it fails to curb corruption. But this will require a more determined focus on institutional development. It calls for profound reforms and fundamental change, both in the way Kabul operates and in the way Kabul is supported.

In the coming months, Canada and other NATO partners are likely to face a critical choice between supporting constitutional review or standing by silently as the Afghan government implodes. The alternative for Afghans is constitutional change – giving power back to the people rather than centring it in Kabul – or a return to full-scale civil war. After so many years of sacrifice on the battlefield and financial generosity at home, Canadians must recognize that their continued engagement in Afghanistan must rest not on wishful thinking but on a policy grounded in reality.

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan

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