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the Toronto Star / Canada

Our Deafening Silence on Afghanistan

Haroon Siddiqui

Have Canadian soldiers been dying in vain in disproportionate numbers in Afghanistan?

It's a reasonable question, given that NATO is panicking over the rise of the Taliban and also over the deteriorating relationship with Pakistan, the West's main post-9/11 partner in the war on terrorism.

Yet the leaders of our national political parties are, for the most part, silent on the subject in the election campaign. Contrast this with the developments elsewhere:

  • As Afghans seethe over increasing civilian deaths from U.S. air and ground attacks, David McKiernan, the American general who commands NATO troops, announces new rules of engagement.
  • As Pakistanis seethe over American cross-border attacks that have killed civilians there as well, NATO distances itself from the U.S.

    And Admiral Mike Mullen, chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he is "looking at a new, more comprehensive strategy" to tackle cross-border insurgent traffic.

  • As Washington and London come to grips with the reality of a seven-year-old war going nowhere, George W. Bush and Gordon Brown commiserate on "the need to develop a new strategy."

Does Canada have a view on any of this? Does it care that the killing of civilians has a disastrous impact on our own mission?

Does it agree that the way to uproot Taliban/Al Qaeda sanctuaries is to unilaterally and illegally violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, inflame public opinion there, embarrass the fledging democratic government and enrage the chief of the army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the most powerful man in Pakistan, on whom we are more or less dependant to take on the militants?

There's much speculation in Pakistan - especially in the Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi press - that Bush is out to destabilize Pakistan; perhaps dismember it by fanning latent separatist sentiments among Pushtuns who live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border; or scapegoat Pakistan for his Afghan failure, thus helping John McCain.

Amid all this, Stephen Harper is busy scoring brownie points. With 60 per cent of Canadians harbouring grave doubts about the Afghan mission, he says the deployment will indeed end in 2011. But that's 29 months away. In the meantime, must our soldiers be exposed to even greater danger?

Shouldn't Ottawa be trying for a political way out of the quagmire?

"In 2002, we were being welcomed almost as liberators by the Afghans. Now we are being seen as a necessary evil," says Francesc Vendrell, the European Union's outgoing envoy to Afghanistan.

Can the Taliban be defeated militarily? "No."

What's the way out? I asked Prof. Janice Stein of the University of Toronto, author of The Unexpected War, Canada in Kandahar.

"It is imperative that our government, along with others, engage in a serious diplomatic strategy. Afghanistan is not really about Afghanistan. It's about Pakistan, which means it's about India."

She is referring to Pakistan's existentialist fears - in the south from India over the disputed border territory of Kashmir, and in the north from the Pushtuns as well as an anti-Pakistani government in Kabul.

"That's why Pakistan invested in the Taliban," not so much to run Afghanistan as to defuse Pushtun separatism.

Equally, it must be understood that the primary problem in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's, not Pakistan's. What's happening with Pakistani sanctuaries is exactly what happened during the 1980-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It suited us then. It does not suit us now.

The porous border cannot be closed. If it could be, Afghan and NATO troops would have done it long ago from the Afghan side.

No long-lasting solution is possible without a political détente among Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. That, in turn, would permit economic development in Afghanistan as well as the tribal areas of Pakistan, thereby reducing militancy and letting democracy take root.

Canada should be counselling Washington against counterproductive warfare and working to arrange a regional peace conference.


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