Troops will not win the hearts and minds of Afghans

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I am among the 219 Canadian individuals and organizations who submitted their views to John Manley on Canada’s future role in Afghanistan.

But after reading his report I am disappointed.

"Foreign invasion is not a solution for the disastrous situation of Afghanistan. As our history demonstrates, we don’t want occupation," said Malalai Joya, 29, the youngest female member of Afghanistan’s parliament, when interviewed in December 2007 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

"Six years of Western military occupation clearly show that these armies have not come to provide us with security. The U.S. and its allies, including Canada, are supporting the sworn enemies of our people. If they continue this wrong policy, one day they will be faced with the massive resistance of our people, as our history shows," Ms Joya warned.

But John Manley and his panel did not bother to interview Ms Joya before writing their report. It seems that her views – the authoritative product of history, culture and immediate lived experience — were not the views Mr. Manley was looking for.

Instead of recommending that Canada’s mission steer a new course toward an internationally supported political solution that could achieve peace and stability, and allow us to bring our troops home sooner, Manley’s group wants Canadian forces to continue on without a set time limit, staying until the Afghan police and army are able (if ever) to take over their own security duties in southern Afghanistan.

What Manley did not tell Canadians up front is that such a recommendation is nothing more than an open-ended strategy that actually avoids commitment to concrete and practical objectives, such as peacefully resolving the conflict that is making progress in any other area impossible to achieve.

It has become painfully clear that NATO countries cannot trust the local Afghan army and police with sophisticated equipment for fear that it will fall into the hands of the Taliban, or that the local officers themselves will desert regular government forces and join the Taliban. This very real possibility makes any suggestion that the above objective is achievable is a blatant falsehood.

A Rand Corporation study stated that NATO needs 20 soldiers per 1000 inhabitants to wipe out the Taliban, which translates to about 500,000. The NATO coalition currently has only 30,000 to 50,000 — enough to kill civilians on a daily basis, but not enough to control even a small part of Afghanistan. Canada maintains more than 2,500 troops in the country, mainly in the dangerous southern province of Kandahar.

The recent death of 26-year-old Richard Renaud from the Quebec City area marks the 77th time a Canadian soldier has died in Afghanistan since the mission began in 2002. In addition, one diplomat – Glyn Berry –” was killed, bringing the current death toll to 78.

Asking NATO to post 1000 more soldiers in Kandahar to help our troops may reduce Canadian causalities, but will not bring anyone closer to solving the problem.

In November 2007, the Washington Post reported that American intelligence analysts acknowledge there have been some battlefield victories in Afghanistan, but they highlight the unchallenged Taliban expansion into new territory, an increase in opium poppy cultivation, and the weakness of President Hamid Karzai’s government as signs that the war effort is deteriorating.

Manley did not mention in his report – even for the record –” that repeated opinion polls have shown that the majority of Canadians do not support Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

Forty-seven per cent of Canadians want our troops brought back from Afghanistan as soon as possible; in Quebec the number who want the mission to end immediately is even higher, at 57 per cent.

Polls have shown that only 17 per cent of Canadians want our troops to continue in their current combat role, while 31 per cent said that Canadians should remain in Kandahar, but turn combat responsibilities over to another NATO country.

The Manley report mentioned the suffering of the Afghani people only in passing.

Yet in 2007 alone, more than 6,000 Afghani people were killed, according to reports by the Associated Press. This brings the number of Afghani deaths to about 40,000 since 2001.

The British-based international aid agency, Oxfam, has warned that urgent action is needed to avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan where millions face "severe hardship comparable with sub-Saharan Africa."

Oxfam further cautioned that aid-spending on Afghanistan has been only a small fraction (about 3 per cent) of the military expenditure, and that most aid money received is diverted into high salaries for officials and administrators.

For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development has spent more than US$4.4 billion in Afghanistan since 2002; but Oxfam said that figure is dwarfed by U.S. military spending here, which reached a staggering US$35 billion in 2007 alone.

This conflict cannot be resolved through blunt military force. Canada should bring its troops home by February 2009 and should call for an urgent UN peace conference on Afghanistan.

Our MPs have the moral and political responsibility of treating the lives of Canadian men and women serving in Afghanistan with the same value they place on the lives of their own families.

Instead of sending people with weapons and heavy artillery, Canada should send an army of peace-makers, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses. We should send mine-clearing equipment and have a plan in place to build the best training centres, universities, and hospitals.

Let us try to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Anyone who knows the character of Afghanis will know that this a win-win situation, one well worth taking the risk.

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