Saturday, June 28, 2008

Our precarious position in Afghanistan

The Taliban made the news yesterday, as they and other militants seemed to be closing in on Peshawar, an important city in northwest Pakistan. The provincial government is now considering arming the locals as a first line of defense, and the Pakistani army is also fighting back, but it can't be very encouraging that the Taliban felt strong enough to even attempt a takeover.

Meanwhile, there has been little letup in the violence in Afghanistan. A new US report credits the Taliban for their "resilience", and predicts a possible increase in attacks during the year to come.

Without knowing all the facts on the ground, it's hard to say, but it sure seems as though things are going backwards in Afghanistan. Few of the underlying problems seem to have been solved; the central government and national army remain ineffectual, the poppy crop was bigger than ever last year, and there still seems to be too few foreign troops to clamp down on the Taliban.
As I said last month, I do believe Canada has a role to play in Afghanistan. I think it is a worthy cause, and the Afghan people deserve a new beginning. Unlike Iraq, the mission there is characterized by a truly multi-national force. The problem is that this multi-national force is not nearly large enough to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

Our 2500 soldiers in and around Kandahar have responsibility for a vast region that is infested with insurgents and other troubles. Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban, and they retain a base of support there. I have full confidence in the abilities of our soldiers to do their jobs, but when confronted with the facts on the ground, one could be forgiven for thinking the entire enterprise hopeless.

This page has a very nice rundown of important statistics, graphs, and maps showing insurgent activity and progress on humanitarian/reconstruction projects. What do they tell us? They tell us that vast regions of the country are still classified as "extreme risk", that opium cultivation has never been higher, and that casualties for Afghan security forces have risen each year since 2002.

I think it's fairly obvious that a much greater international committment to Afghanistan is needed if any substantial progress is to be made, not just in terms of military forces, but also financial and humanitarian assistance, since much of the violence is ultimately fueled by the country's poverty and general lack of education among its people. It's a mistake to think we are only fighting the Taliban; they are but a sympton of what 30 years of constant war have done to Afghanistan. We are fighting to repair the damage of those 30 years, and that's no easy task.

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