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The Toronto Star/Canada

A Way Forward in Afghanistan

Legally and morally, we cannot shrug off the controversy over whether Canadians were complicit in the torture of Afghan detainees. Still, it's only one issue in the bigger Afghan quagmire.

Afghanistan cannot be pacified without Pakistan. But Pakistan won't fully cooperate unless its paranoia about India is addressed. But India won't be dictated to by Pakistan. Indeed, it has made big diplomatic and economic forays into Afghanistan, further feeding Pakistan's insecurities.

Yet NATO has had no policy to tackle this conundrum.

It had an Afghan policy (botched) but no policy on Pakistan beyond blaming it for providing "sanctuaries" for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

George W. Bush's solution, in keeping with long-standing American practice, was to mollycoddle the local dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf). On a separate track, he befriended India as an emerging economic and global power, extending it nuclear and other strategic cooperation.

Canada does not even have an Afghan policy, beyond following Washington. That's in keeping with our historic practice of taking orders from the imperial power, Britain in the past, America in the present.

On Pakistan, we have no policy.

On India, we were asleep at the switch and only lately have been trying to catch up on business opportunities.

On the Afghan-Pakistan-India triangle, we have nothing to say. Perhaps we consider that to be way out of our league.

But Barack Obama does understand this equation and is only now beginning to address it after having made his own share of mistakes.

As presidential candidate, he proposed bombing the bejesus out of Pakistan. He was mocked. As president, he wanted Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy for the region, to address Indo-Pak issues, including Kashmir, the disputed border state. But India successfully lobbied against it. So Holbrooke got restricted to Af-Pak: Afghanistan and Pakistan.


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In Afghanistan, Obama ordered the military surge (not so much to defeat the Taliban as to batter them enough to get them to sue for peace) but got entangled in an ill-judged public spat with Hamid Karzai. The Afghan president won that round and has just been wooed back (Washington having no other choice but to deal with him, warts and all).

In India, Obama has been quietly prodding New Delhi to open bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. In this, he is siding with Robert Gates, his defence secretary, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who see the Indian link as key to advancing American interests in Afghanistan. Prime Minster Manmohan Singh has responded, despite lingering anger in India over the 2008 Mumbai terror attack by Pakistani militants.

In Pakistan, Obama got the military to launch attacks on militants in the tribal regions along the Afghan border and also arrest some Taliban leaders. He intensified American drone attacks in the same areas. He has increased economic aid to Pakistan. Hillary Clinton has hailed the "dawn of a new day" between the U.S. and Pakistan.

But has all this come too late?

Pakistan has been sliding into chaos for too long to be pulled out quickly.

Jihadism was encouraged and paid for by the U.S. in the 1980s to roll back the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, using the Islamic mujahideen as proxies. In the 1990s, Pakistan created the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan. It created other militias as proxies in Kashmir against India. Since 2001, the Taliban and Al Qaeda have spawned offshoots in Pakistan. Now it's difficult to tell the difference between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban, or their affiliates.

Anti-Americanism runs rampant, which is why the drone attacks are not acknowledged. But being an open secret, the attacks are feeding even more militancy (Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square terrorist, is said to have been seeking revenge for civilian deaths from the drone attacks).

The U.S. wants the Pakistani army to continue its military offensive in the border region. But the army is stretched (having committed 240,000 troops and lost 800 last year alone) and the Pakistani public has other priorities.

The economy is in the doldrums. Power shortages are acute. Corruption is rampant (worse than in Afghanistan). Pakistanis see their government following an American agenda, which they do not regard as being in their interest. The U.S. recasts its request in terms of Pakistan needing to deal with its own internal jihadist cancer.

Too many problems have come to a head at the same time. Progress is needed on all fronts.

In this context, Stephen Harper's position that Canada will have little or nothing to do with Afghanistan after July next year makes no sense. This is not to make a case for continued military involvement but rather for us to think our way through to a peaceful political and development role, not just in Afghanistan but the entire region.

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Haroon Siddiqui

Haroon Siddiqui is the Toronto Star's editorial page editor emeritus. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday (

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