Tuesday, February 20, 2007

becasue it IS canada's Iraq! or soon to be

Iraq dogs Afghan mission
Feb 20, 2007 James Travers TheTorontoStar

Here's a puzzler with life, death and election consequences. Question: What's more threatening to Canada's Kandahar mission than the expected Taliban spring offensive? Answer: Confusing the war in Afghanistan with the war in Iraq.

The reason rests squarely on modern reality. Troops sent abroad must constantly look over their shoulders at public opinion at home.

Wars fought by democracies are struggles for not one but two sets of hearts and minds. Soldiers can't beat the formidable odds against them without convincing skeptical voters along with suspicious locals that the interlopers are there to help.

Iraq is an instructive example. Even in the embarrassing absence of weapons of mass destruction, toppling Saddam Hussein could have justified the misadventure if the U.S. hadn't so quickly morphed from solution to problem.

From the careless early failure to provide Iraqis with security and life's basics to the grotesque Abu Ghraib abuses and Saddam execution, the Bush administration consistently alienated its twin constituencies. Predictably, Iraqis turned to sectarian leaders for protection and Americans turned first against the war and then against George W. Bush.

Similar ghosts now stalk the Afghanistan mission even though the original motivation was different and the current problems not nearly so extreme.

Sweeping the Taliban out of Kabul was easy; controlling the rest of the country was beyond the limited capacity of an already minimal force dangerously depleted when Washington shifted focus to Baghdad. On-the-cheap reconstruction coupled with a self-defeating opium strategy led some of the world's poorest people to the reasonable conclusion that warlords offer the best bet for profit and protection.

It's not clear how much those problems are contributing to soft Canadian war support. But it's revealing that the ambiguity continues even though the recent lull is reducing casualties and, considering what often happens in chaotic, alien, and high-risk situations, the headlines aren't full of horrors.

So why aren't we more convinced the cause is noble and the price acceptable? One reason is that the mission is framed in unfamiliar terms that make a lot of Canadians queasy.

As the Star's Allan Woods revealed Saturday, Canada's new Conservative government spent $76,000 discovering the obvious – that Canadian rhetoric sounds too much like American hoorah to be persuasive.

Instead of modest talk about help and hope, there's too much rhetoric about liberty and retribution for 9/11. Apart from making Prime Minister Stephen Harper a presidential echo, all that stuff about turning a ready-or-not tribal Afghanistan into a 21st-century democracy encourages odious comparisons with Iraq.

Once duped, North Americans are twice shy. Iraq is making Canadians as well as Americans infinitely more savvy about the complexities and open-ended commitments involved in trying to create facsimile states out of entrenched traditional cultures with layers of internal and external conflicts.

Harper skirted those central considerations by inflating the prospects of a decisive military victory while deflating the much greater possibility that winning will never be much more than an improvement in the status quo. That tactic set the clock ticking on the mission and on his government's credibility.

The alternative is more candour. Instead of raising expectations that NATO could succeed in quick time where the old Soviet Union failed over decades, the Prime Minister could have been honest about the risks while levelling with Canadians that having soldiers deliver war zone aid is good public relations and lousy development.

His problem now is that anything that remains possible in Afghanistan is in danger or being confused with what is now clearly impossible in Iraq. That danger increases with every parallel news story about troop surges, the deployment of Cold War weapons and smart, innovative enemies willing to fight forever.

Anything that blurs the line between Afghanistan and Iraq is a multiple threat. It raises doubts about the mission and the competence of a government that last year extended it until 2009 without negotiating the critical agreements with Pakistan, NATO and Kabul.

An error by an inexperienced administration rushing to toughen Canada's international image is now an election variable. If the Afghan spring turns as bloody as predicted, it will narrow the already small window for an early federal campaign this year and by fall the famous francophone Van Doos regiment will be doing the fighting with self-evident implications for Conservative prospects in pivotal Quebec.

Sometime between now and when voters pass judgment on the Conservatives, this Prime Minister needs to convince the country that Afghanistan is not Canada's Iraq. Each passing day makes that more problematic.