January 17, 2007

Star on Afghanistan

This opinion piece could have benefited from a little more in the way of rethinking its premise.

Being greeted by the inflammatory, large-type headline was bad enough (it does seem contrary to recent polling). But some of the textual elisions are rather disturbing as well:

Afghans also have been wounded and killed as a result of the ongoing conflict. Afghans die in aerial bombardments by the United States and its allies. They die when caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and NATO forces. Whenever a bomb explodes on a road or in a crowded market and kills Canadian or other NATO soldiers, inevitably some Afghans also die. They also die in "errors," "mistakes" and "accidents" by the U.S. and its allies. Afghans also have been dying because of poverty and disease, the side effects of war. It is obvious that Afghan casualties must be in the thousands.

Note the one major cause of Afghan murders that is not mentioned by the writer... Taliban killings of other Afghans whom they judge to be collaborationists, such as teachers, government officials, etc. It's a curious omission. As reported here in the past, current estimates are that 1-2,000 Afghan civilians were killed in 2006, mostly from Taliban actions (including the planting of mines and IEDs). Another 2-3,000 combatants on both sides were also killed.

It is true that more girls go to school now, but many girls used to find a way to get education when the Taliban was in power, too. The difference is that then they had to get an education secretly and now they are going to school openly.

Sort of a big difference, I'd have thought.

But one thing has not changed: The fear they had then, they have now, too.

That would be fear of a return to Taliban-style repression of women, of course, whether the writer mentions it or not.

Citing elections as evidence of the dawn of democracy and progress in Afghanistan is not credible either. What has democracy achieved when people cannot find food to feed their children? Nor is this the first time an election has been held in Afghanistan.

Before 2005, the last Afghan national election was in 1969.

The writers' recommendations at the end are inarguable, but also rather vague. Look, there's lots more the world could be doing for Afghanistan on the economic front. There's a significant balance-of-trade issue with Pakistan, to start with... Afghanistan only had $98 million worth of exports to that country in 2005, compared with $924 million in Pakistani imports. That's a big problem... if anything is ever going to compete with opium for farmers' attentions, it's things like raisins and pomegranates that can be sold most easily in Pakistan.

We talk about our "soft power," but if you really want to look at soft power in an Afghan context, look at what Iran has been quietly doing in terms of realigning the Afghan export economy in their direction. Note, however, that while Iran has been giving the Afghans preferential sea access, it is still keeping its own domestic industries heavily protected by tariffs. These are the sorts of areas Western governments should be looking for leverage on.

In Canada, there's a huge issue with regard to exactly the kind of development the writer above is talking about, that has very little to do with the military. The Canadian International Development Agency, with its "list of 25" is focussed primarily on development in Africa, and ideally would like to get out of Afghanistan altogether. That said, it's still Canada's #1 foreign aid commitment: our initial government commitment of $250 million in aid to Afghan reconstruction in 2005-09 has already been increased to $290 million.

A bigger problem may be the inherent difficulty with providing aid in an unsecure environment. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) concept, created by the U.S. specifically to address the Afghan situation, has had its critics, and its effectiveness is a subject of significant debate within the military, and the NGO community as well. Only the successful meshing of civilian and military reconstruction support to Afghans will ever address the kinds of issues the writer raises above. One wishes the same space had been dedicated instead to informing readers about that very complex issue instead.

For instance one could have an informed discussion about the differences between the original US model (where military and NGO aid parameters tended to overlap) and the British experience with their Mazar PRT (where a deliberate attempt was made to separate the two), and where the Canadian model in Kandahar lies between the two extremes. Instead all we're hearing from the Star is that it's all hopeless. Pity.

UPDATE: The latest Senlis Council report on southern Afghanistan rewards a detailed read.

Posted by BruceR at 11:21 AM

We have been warned

"Abu Ghraib is one of many points upon which many on the left have made alliance with the terrorists, as they both use it to run a PR pincer attack against the US military. The fact that the military cleaned up the Abu Ghraib mess, and the fact that the terrorists themselves do worse things every day as part of their mainline strategy, doesn’t deter the left/terrorists in their continual Abu Ghraib-based attacks. Continuing to use Abu Ghraib by pundits in the west is unserious and reflects a basic ignorance of the fight; either that, or an alliance with the enemy."

--The appropriately named Michelle Malkin vehicle Hot Air, today.

Posted by BruceR at 10:01 AM