Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Politics of War: Why Canada's Afghanistan Pullout Is Such A Big Concern

As we all know, Canadian troops are just now starting to prepare for the settled 2011 withdrawal date, with our troops starting to leave by July 2011 at the earliest date. This comes after much wrangling on the subject, driven by public pressure and fears of the repercussions of extending the mission of our exhausted military past 10 years. All in all, this is something the vast majority of Canadians support, and none too soon by certain reckoning.

Yet, the pullout also comes with certain repercussions, the least of those being our reputation abroad (at this point, there's a certain modicum of understanding among all parties involved in Afghanistan). NATO's mission in Afghanistan, often coming under the jurisdiction of the International Security Assistance Force (though not exclusively), has relied heavily upon the Canadian contingent of forces based in Kandahar, where our forces make up a good portion of both the fighting force in the troubled province, and the administrative service as well. Much like the UK's withdrawal from the Sangin area of Helmand province, ISAF and mostly US forces will have to fill the gap, leading to an even greater exertion of American forces blanketing the area (thereby increasing America's load, commitment, and exhaustion).

While no one can actually blame Canadian forces for wanting a break after 10 years in what is a very desolate country, the fact is that the Canadian commitment, after the collapse of Dutch and British support for major missions within ISAF, was one of the few remaining non-American actors that helped give the "I" in ISAF legitimacy. Our pullout not only lends credence to the idea that Afghanistan is an American exercise in imperialism (whether or not you think it is, I don't know), but it hammers the final nail in the coffin of NATO's modern raison d'etre.

Let me explain: since the end of the Cold War, NATO has struggled to find an actual, meaning reason to exist, outside of annoying the heck out of Russia. Because NATO was originally built in opposition to the USSR and the Warsaw Pact countries, as well as to essentially cement the United States' influence over Western Europe, the loss of these opponents has really brought many to question the purpose of the alliance. In recent years, however, two things have helped NATO redefine itself: Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Kosovo is the most successful example of NATO's power, even after all these years its been forgotten by most. Though NATO's initial involvement in the region was simply aerial bombardment (and mostly American at that), after Milosevic's removal from power, NATO's "Kosovo Force," the UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force made up of alliance members, helped preserve the peace in the tiny region, providing security, infrastructure, and administrative services. KFOR has done a very good job considering its mandate, up to the point where Kosovo was able to successfully claim independence with relatively little violence for the region's history.

Afghanistan, of course, is another story. After the American-led invasion in 2001, NATO members came in with the idea that the set-up of ISAF would be more or less like the successful KFOR mission. However, less resources, far less support from the majority of members, and the general desolation and resistance in Afghanistan have created challenges to this missions, dragging on the commitment of members for years at the time. The stress, simply put, has been great, and members, already averse to taking much risk, collapse under it. This has lead to member after member dropping commitments, support, and simply off-load their portion to the Americans, who under Obama are more willing to take them up.

However, the disintegration of ISAF's legitimacy as an internationally-backed fighting force, especially with Canada's eventual pullout, has consequences for the alliance. The very fact that European allies were not willing to step up, leaving the heavy fighting to American, Canadian, British and Dutch forces, already doomed NATO in one way; the fact that three of those four major players are now losing their cool over the situation just hurries the process up. The Americans, quite rightly in my opinion, are now focusing on letting the Afghanis rebuild their own country, including their police forces, something that NATO members, even the more feeble ones, were hoping to do. The fact that the Americans are more focused on their ability to rebuild the country without much NATO and ally support - much like they did in Iraq with quite successful results - should tell us something about their patience with the alliance.

As noted, Canada's pullout is simply sounding the final warning bell for NATO's future, not only in Afghanistan, where Canadian forces will leave a gap that American forces can and will fill, but for its ability to meet the demands of modern combat and national building. The question should not be whether or not American forces can handle the takeover of Kandahar, because they can. The question is whether or not NATO can survive the aftermath.


  1. If NATO is somehow to be defined by the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, it lost its legitimacy before the first troops went in. Afghanistan is a lousy yardstick by which to measure the utility of NATO.

    The Afghan mission has been tragically farcical. Even the RAND Corporation, the Pentagon's very own think tank, has analyzed the (our) Afghan War as a conclusive defeat.

    The country is a narco-state and is widely assessed as one of the worst failed states in the world. We've been fighting a fire in the parlour while the rest of the house has been steadily consumed by the flames. And on that basis we're to decide the validity of NATO?

    Something very much akin to the Cold War NATO will return. Climate change will dictate its resurrection. The West, that astonishingly fortunate group of nations that will be the "least and last" impacted by global warming will face a host of military and security threats from a very destabilized world. The Pentagon knows that. It was referenced in its last Quadrenniel Defense Review. The British MoD know it. They have an excellent study of the military ramifications to Britain of global warming in distant lands. Gwynne Dyer has examined it in his book "Climate Wars." As he notes, it won't be climate change that kills the West. Our existential threat will be war.

  2. Lousy yardstick, yes - but a yardstick nonetheless. NATO's legitimacy relied on a successful international mission in Afghanistan, and that's been the main mission since 2001-2002. Up to this point, it's clearly stalled, and is in fact falling back down to Earth. NATO's major mission has become a major disappointment.

    And that, of course, is the issue. NATO's viability relied on its ability for the member states to work in unison to successfully complete or retain such a mission. NATO's entire existence hinges on the idea of the strong, US-backed alliance which gets UN support for its missions. The fact that ISAF has more or less failed in its mission is not going to help NATO retain its status as favoured partners on the international stage.

    As for the climate change stuff, I'm not too sure about it, but I've yet to read Climate Wars anyways, so I can't comment.

  3. As much as I would like to agree, we voted in parliament to leave by 2011. What's a governmenmt supposed to do? Would Manley like to start up another extension bid?

  4. There's nothing you can do unless whichever party wanted to actively campaign on rescinding that Parliamentary vote and keep our commitment past 2011, which at this point, no one appears to be willing to do, for obvious reasons. Not only that, Canada has to look after our own resources and soldiers, no matter the consequences for our allies and NATO. 2011 is, probably, the best date to say we gave it our all, but now we need a break.

    I think one of the questions for the next election, however, has to be whether the government, Conservative or Liberal, is willing to retain strong administrative and aid services in Afghanistan, as the Americans are more than likely happy to give us the opportunity to do. I'm fairly sure of Ignatieff's personal position on it, and more or less know Harper's, but so much can change. It's a question that must be addressed.

  5. Interesting, Gletscher, very interesting.