Two Afghanistan experts painted a sobering picture of the conditions there yesterday, arguing support among Afghans for NATO forces is plummeting, the U.S.-driven policy of poppy eradication is wrongheaded, and the war might not be winnable in its present form.U.S. scholar Barnett Rubin and Gordon Smith, Canada's former ambassador to NATO, delivered their withering comments to a Commons committee only days after Canada's top military commander, Gen. Rick Hillier, touted progress being made there.
Hillier, the chief of defence staff, this week predicted Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan will soon see a rise in attacks from the Taliban. But he insisted on using the term "surge" rather than "offensive."
He also noted many Afghans are moving back into their homes in districts west of Kandahar following a Canadian-led NATO offensive last fall.
But Rubin, who has been to Afghanistan 29 times over more than two decades, said yesterday many Afghans are growing frustrated with the pace of Western efforts to stabilize the country.
"They're not at all happy. Support for both the international presence and the government has plummeted in the past year or so," he told the foreign affairs committee.
He said Afghans aren't seeing the results of promises by the United States and NATO, which took over the mission in 2003, to increase security, establish democracy and improve the economy. "The main complaint that I hear from Afghans is ... that we haven't delivered what they think we promised."
Rubin recently published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine warning Afghanistan "is at risk of collapsing into chaos." In it, he blasts the U.S. for underestimating the influence of Pakistan, which he accuses of providing "safe haven" to theTaliban.
Smith, meanwhile, threw cold water on Hillier's suggestion that Canadian troops are facing a weakened enemy.
There is evidence Al-Qa'ida-affiliated militants, who often fight alongside the Taliban, are actually gaining strength, said Smith, now executive director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria.
"The Al-Qa'ida problem has not gone away," he told MPs. "It's important that we not forget the original motivation for going to Afghanistan, and that was to deal with Al-Qa'ida."
Smith recently released a critical report of his own, titled Canada in Afghanistan: Is it Working? He questions whether NATO can achieve its stated goals, even within 10 years. Canada has committed to maintain its military presence until 2009.
He argued NATO needs to hike its troop commitment, while using development aid more effectively and opening negotiations with theTaliban . Smith also said NATO must create a market so Afghan farmers can sell their opium for legal use in medical products like morphine.
Both Rubin and Smith suggested Canada needs to have a new debate about its role in Afghanistan. Liberal MP Keith Martin welcomed their remarks.