Afghanistan: Why Canada Should Stay


May 7, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Toronto Star on May 7, 2007.

Al Qaeda poses a threat to this country that will not decrease if we withdraw troops from Kandahar, says Seth G. Jones.

There is a growing movement in Canada to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, illustrated by such newspaper headlines as: "Is it time to go?" and "Canada must leave Afghanistan." Such a move would be a tragic mistake. Withdrawing would be a severe blow to NATO's efforts in Afghanistan and would ultimately undermine Canada's own security.

There are at least three myths in the Canadian media that need to be dispelled.

The first myth is that Canada has no significant national security interests in Afghanistan. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Pakistan-Afghanistan front is the headquarters of Al Qaeda, which is a more competent international terrorist organization than it was on Sept. 11, 2001. It has close links with the Taliban and is led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, who have been pivotal in the rise of suicide attacks against NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda possesses a robust strategic, logistics and public relations network in Pakistan, especially in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This infrastructure has enabled it to play an important role in orchestrating international terrorist attacks. Canadian cities are also threatened. As an October 2006 Al Qaeda statement warned, Canada faces "an operation similar to New York, Madrid, London and their sisters, with the help of Allah."

Al Qaeda has been involved in an average of six major global attacks per year since 2002, up from one attack per year from 1995 to 2001. These attacks have spanned multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. It is also involved in hundreds of smaller attacks each year in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Al Qaeda's modus operandi has evolved and now includes a repertoire of more sophisticated improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks. Its organizational structure has also evolved, making it a more dangerous enemy. This includes a "bottom up" approach (encouraging independent thought and action from low-level operatives) and a "top down" one (issuing orders and co-ordinating a global terrorist enterprise with both highly synchronized and autonomous moving parts).

Al Qaeda poses a threat to Canada, which will not decrease if Canada withdraws. Canada's values are ultimately at odds with a terrorist organization that is committed to the restoration of the Caliphate in the Middle East and the establishment of a radical version of Islam. Al Qaeda needs to be destroyed, not appeased.

The second myth is that Canada should withdraw because other NATO countries are not pulling their weight. It is certainly true that several NATO countries have severely restricted the ability of their conventional forces to fight. The result is that a few countries – such as Canada, Britain and the U.S. – share a disproportionate amount of the risks in Afghanistan.

But this is not a reason to withdraw. It brings Canada into a small group of countries that speak with their actions. For better or worse, coalition operations always include a wide variation in the competence and commitment of participating countries.

Canadian soldiers have demonstrated in Afghanistan that they are among the most competent in the world. I have travelled to Afghanistan regularly for the past four years and have seen Canadian operations from the front lines.

During Operation Medusa in 2006, for example, Canadian military forces prevented the Taliban from overrunning the strategically important city of Kandahar, home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The Canadians faced an embattled Taliban force that dug trenches and engaged Canadian forces with recoilless rifles, mortars, rockets and heavy machine guns. Taliban losses were staggering. Withdrawing Canada's battle-hardened forces from Afghanistan would be a huge blow to NATO.

The third myth is that Afghanistan is largely hopeless. To be fair, NATO operations in Afghanistan have been mixed. The Taliban and other groups have engineered a competent insurgency from bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The insurgency will ultimately be won or lost in the rural areas of Afghanistan, not in the cities. NATO countries have struggled to secure and rebuild rural areas in the south and east. Part of the reason has been too few international forces and poor Afghan governance. The ability of insurgent groups to establish a sanctuary in Pashtun areas of Pakistan has also been critical to their survival.

But there are clear successes. The security situation in western, central and northern Afghanistan is relatively benign. Afghans overwhelmingly support the NATO military presence.

It would be a mistake to sugarcoat NATO's efforts in Afghanistan. But the failure to eliminate Al Qaeda and other groups should not be viewed as a reason to pull out. A RAND Corporation study I conducted of all counter-insurgencies since 1945 indicates that it takes an average of 14 years for governments to defeat insurgents. Greater patience and resolve are required.

Canada's role in Afghanistan is critical to defeating Al Qaeda and radical Islam more broadly. Success will take time and sufficient resources. It would be a tragedy if the naysayers in Canada succeeded in reducing their country's commitment.

Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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