DAVID COMMON: AFGHANISTAN DIARY
Spring in Afghanistan: an ugly horizon
Updated Dec. 5, 2006
Thirty-seven nations have soldiers in Afghanistan, yet 90 per cent of the casualties have been suffered by four of those nations. A Canadian soldier is killed five times more often than the average of all the NATO countries in Afghanistan. Proportionately, those Canadian soldiers stand a greater chance of dying than an American soldier in Iraq.
Though Canada is not amongst the top three troop-contributing nations to the NATO mission, clearly it is shouldering more than its share of both the burden and the risk. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said as much, repeating again at the NATO summit in Riga that the effort in southern Afghanistan "continues to be undermanned" and that Canada is already doing enough.
At that same summit, Harper lobbied other nations to free up their soldiers and contribute more. Even before the summit, most of the founding NATO nations were saying no. The summit changed little in terms of German or French participation. A few offers for a little more, but, on the whole, not what Canada and the NATO leadership were looking for.
So now what?
Winter in Afghanistan is a traditional pause — a hiatus in the many wars and battles that have plagued the nation over too many centuries. NATO and Canada are using the relative calm to strategize, and be assured the Taliban are as well.
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who probably knows more about the Taliban than anyone outside that organization, quotes tribal leaders along the mountainous, lawless border separating Afghanistan with Pakistan as saying the group is recruiting, training and arming thousands of fighters for a full-scale, multi-pronged offensive in the spring.
Canadian soldiers got a glimpse of this in September when hundreds (at least) of fighters massed in the Panjwai district near Kandahar city. The Canadians, Americans and some Dutch fought pitched battles for three weeks in what the Canadians dubbed Operation Medusa.
Some say this was the Taliban testing the military capabilities of the Western forces. Others, including many Afghans, believe the Taliban was trying to set up a parallel government in Kandahar, their traditional centre of power. They were defeated, and soundly.
So, what is there to gain by doing this again? The NATO forces in Medusa also lost soldiers, and their deaths have profound effects in their home countries. Already, in many NATO nations, support for the Afghan mission is waning. In some, the majority want a withdrawal, so the impact of casualties, and scenes of intense close-quarter battles, could well push voters to force their governments out of Afghanistan.
A different type of war
If the Taliban employ this strategy, it will be one they are good at: the information war. Major battles would come at great human cost to them but may win them the war. They pay their fighters between $8 and $10 a day, and have a large supply of new recruits from the madrassas (religious schools) of Pakistan and the large private armies of Afghanistan’s powerful drug lords.
Western leaders like to say progress is being made in Afghanistan. It is true: refugees have returned, the legitimate economy is growing, there is an elected Parliament and president, and schools have been built. But the situation remains desperate. There have been more suicide bombings in Afghanistan just this year than in all of the country's history.
The success of NATO’s mission is uncertain. Rashid calls the Riga meeting a watershed moment because it demonstrated NATO is not united on Afghanistan and many countries support the mission, but only if no risk is attached.
It sent a message not just to its enemy, but also to the Afghan people, who will read it as a signal of the alliance’s commitment.
Canadian soldiers are spending the winter on reconstruction, hoping the population will see a future with NATO support. The Taliban will attempt to undo that.
Afghanistan is in for a rough spring, and Canadian soldiers will be facing it head on.