BRUSSELS–As Canadian and other NATO troops in Afghanistan nervously await the widely expected Taliban spring offensive, there are two distinct views on what the best course is for the future.
Here at the headquarters of NATO, as well as the European Commission, the consensus – hope, really – is that the allied troops can hold off the Taliban and buy the time needed to establish the security to do the development work to win over the Afghans in the troubled south.
It is this hope that Canada and the other allies are echoing.
The other view, found principally in Pakistan, is that there is no military solution, certainly not without a massive infusion of troops, for many years – two commitments that few or no allies are prepared to make.
This assessment goes beyond the familiar formulation that no foreigners have ever conquered Afghanistan; not Alexander the Great in 4th century B.C., not the British in the 19th century, not the Soviets in the 1980s.
The Pakistanis believe the allies did have a chance to get it right after toppling the Taliban in 2001 but have since blown it, and are now further hobbled by:
- Blindly backing the corrupt, incompetent and unpopular government of Hamid Karzai.
- Failing to distinguish between Al Qaeda, which has global terrorist designs, and the Taliban, which is fighting against the foreign presence in Afghanistan and for a greater share of power for fellow Pushtuns, who are 60 per cent of the population but are under-represented in Karzai's Kabul.
The Taliban are appealing to Afghan nationalism and financing their "jihad" from a cut of the $4 billion a year opium trade.
On a tour of Pakistan, I was surprised by how vehemently President Pervez Musharraf and his administration are attacking NATO's over-reliance on military tactics.
They are also angry at being blamed for the allied failure in Afghanistan.
A Western diplomat in Islamabad told me that "there's huge resentment here about Western criticism" that Pakistan is harbouring the Taliban and Al Qaeda and that the Pakistani army's Inter-Services Intelligence unit may be covertly helping them.
"I have seen nothing that'd indicate an ISI involvement," he said.
"They are in no mood to listen to Western lectures."
No sooner had Dick Cheney visited Musharraf last week than the latter snapped publicly: "Pakistan does not take dictation from any side."
Pakistan has also started taking decisions in its own interest, such as doing deals with tribal groups in South and North Waziristan bordering Afghanistan.
Whatever their impact on the Afghan war, the accords did help reduce attacks on Pakistani soldiers and also the public anger.
This will, no doubt, help Musharraf win the election this year for a second five-year term.
These developments have international significance.
While the Pakistani public has been anti-American, Musharraf has been a staunch U.S. ally. But now he, too, is distancing himself from Washington.
NATO is thus losing its one indispensable ally in the war in Afghanistan.
Under the circumstances, I asked some people what advice they had for Canada.
Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, spokesperson for Musharraf:
"If you think you can eliminate the Taliban, look at the results so far. Rethink your strategy."
Tariq Azim, information minister:
"Is your role to blindly go on with a policy that has clearly failed? Canada has always had independent thinking."
Owais Ahmad Ghani, governor of Baluchistan province:
"The foreign presence in Afghanistan was initially popular. But due to indiscriminate bombings and other mistakes, you've lost the high ground and turned the public against you. The current policy will continue to radicalize society and increase violence. There's no military solution, take it from me – I am a tribal person.
"Initiate backdoor political and diplomatic moves with the resistance groups who are not hard-core Taliban. Develop a level of accommodation.
"Then introduce a development package, and purchase all the opium for pharmaceutical purposes. Deny the land for opium cultivation. Unless you stop the narcotics, the Taliban won't come to the table."
These sentiments partly echo those of Stéphane Dion, who has said: "The Taliban will not be defeated solely through the barrel of a gun." And of German Defence Minister Franz-Josef Jung, who said: "I do not think it's right to talk about more and more military means."
To sum up: Stay in Afghanistan but change course.
The respite Canada needs from violence to do the good deeds it wants to do is not likely to come from more military operations.
Throwing another $200 million at humanitarian work, as Stephen Harper just has, may soften his image at home, but not do much in Afghanistan without a fundamental shift in thinking and tactics.
Haroon Siddiqui appears Thursday and Sunday.firstname.lastname@example.org