One of the blessings of Toronto is that you can find experts in this city on almost every international issue. Returning from a recent trip to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I met Karamatullah Ghori, a retired Pakistani diplomat whose last posting was as ambassador to Turkey and who now lives in Scarborough, to be near his daughter and grandchildren, and writes essays and books.From his Canadian Pakistani perspective, what does he make of our mission in Afghanistan?
"Why are you there?" he shot back. "What's the Canadian interest that's at stake in Afghanistan? When did Afghanistan, or even the Taliban, declare war on Canada? There was one mention of Canada by Osama bin Laden, way back when.
"The alibi is that we are there to prevent the spread of terrorism. In fact, it is by being there that you are creating enmity against yourself."
Can the Taliban be defeated?
"No, they can't be. There's no end to the supply of razakars (willing fighters). For an Afghan, there's no greater calling than taking on a non-Afghan occupying his land, especially a white man who is not a Muslim."
The British and the Soviets may have discovered that but, I ventured, the Taliban may be doing well not because of their DNA but the sanctuaries they allegedly enjoy in Pakistan.
"This is being alleged on the flimsiest of evidence," Ghori said. "Where's the proof?
"The Americans and now the Canadians are asking Pakistan to do what they themselves have not been able to do" - prevent the insurgency in the first place and, failing that, to contain it.
Ghori then tossed a question at me: "What's your red line?"
Meaning? "How many casualties can Canada take? A hundred? Two hundred? Three hundred? What's the ceiling?"
Don't know. Can't know. Perhaps don't want to know.
But we must know, I suppose, as also the answer to his central question: What's Canada's interest in Afghanistan?
Perhaps nothing more than a desire to please the Americans and also to protect our trade with it. Or, to indeed do good in Afghanistan, as the Afghans do want us to, but in a more constructive way than we have been.
Canada needs clarity of mission. The planned withdrawal date of 2009 is too far off to keep muddling along, which is what NATO has been doing. Just one day's news stories bear this out.
Pervez Musharraf claims that 300 foreign fighters have been killed in South Waziristan, the lawless Pakistani area along the Afghan border, where Al Qaeda remnants are hiding.
Afghan officials claim they are killing the Taliban by the dozen.
A Canadian commander in the field claims progress at building several schools and clinics.
If everyone is doing their job as well as these stories suggest, and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his bumbling Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor keep proclaiming, why is Afghanistan still in turmoil and NATO so divided?
The allies are ducking Canada's repeated calls to take on more of the fighting. Either they do not want to put their troops in harm's way or they understand far better than us the futility of the exercise.
France and Germany openly question the wisdom of committing more troops, when there are already 35,000, plus another 11,000 Americans hunting Bin Laden, et al.
Yet here's the U.S. leaning on Canada, of all allies, to commit even more troops and hardware.
Why does the U.S. think a few hundred more troops can defeat the Taliban, when the Soviets failed during their 1979-89 occupation despite deploying 80,000 troops, and sowing millions of land mines and conducting endless carpet bombings?
What drove the Soviets out was Afghan guerrilla warfare, which is what the Taliban are waging, even more brutally, with suicide and roadside bombings.
We need a political solution in Afghanistan.
Ottawa should be encouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai's tentative steps toward political reconciliation with the Taliban. He met 50 of them this month. Canada should persuade the U.S. and other allies to back him, openly.
Canada should also be taking the lead in having Karzai and NATO talk to Pakistan.
Its entanglement in Afghanistan dates back to the 1980s when it was the chosen conduit for American funding to the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
That involvement brought Pakistan praise then, but much heartache later - waves of refugees, Islamic extremism, and a culture of Kalashnikovs, drugs and crime.
Pakistan is also nervous about the involvement of its archrival India in Afghanistan.
Besides opening four consulates, India is investing $750 million in development projects - and is quietly doing a much better job of it than most NATO nations.
Pakistan, always suffering from an existentialist paranoia, feels sandwiched between India and a hostile Afghanistan.
Canada, friendly with all three nations, should be suggesting a regional conference, where they, along with the U.S. and other NATO allies, would explore ways to end the agony of Afghanistan.
The city of Ottawa would make a good neutral site for such a gathering.
Haroon Siddiqui, who writes Thursdays and Sundays, covered the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
© 2007 The Toronto Star