Thursday, March 29, 2007

hillier, lies or truth?

Afghan experts contradict Hillier’s optimistic claims
Andrew Mayeda, CanWest News Service March 29, 2007

Two leading experts on Afghanistan painted a sobering picture of the conditions there Thursday, arguing support among Afghans for NATO forces is plummeting, the U.S.-driven policy of poppy eradication is wrongheaded, and the war might not be winnable in its present form.

U.S. scholar Barnett Rubin and Gordon Smith, Canada's former ambassador to NATO, delivered their withering comments to a parliamentary committee only days after Canada's top military commander, Gen. Rick Hillier, touted the progress being made in Afghanistan.

Hillier, the chief of defence staff, this week predicted Canadian troops in southern Afghanistan should soon see a rise in attacks from the Taliban. But he insisted on using the term "surge" rather than "offensive."

He also noted many Afghans are moving back into their homes in districts west of Kandahar following a Canadian-led NATO offensive last fall.

But Rubin, who has been to Afghanistan 29 times and followed it for more than two decades, said Thursday that many Afghans are growing frustrated with the pace of Western efforts to stabilize the country.

"They're not at all happy. Support for both the international presence and the government has plummeted in the past year or so," he told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee.

He said Afghans aren't seeing the results of promises by the United States and NATO, which took over the mission in 2003, to increase security, establish democracy and improve the economy.

"The main complaint that I hear from Afghans is not that we're imposing something on them that we don't want, but that we haven't delivered what they think we promised."

Rubin recently published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine warning Afghanistan "is at risk of collapsing into chaos." In the article, he blasts the U.S. government for underestimating the influence of Pakistan, which he accuses of providing "safe haven" to the Taliban.

"There certainly [is] in Pakistan very obvious infrastructure of support for the insurgency," including madrassa religious schools and insurgent training camps, Rubin said Thursday.

He also noted reports that the Taliban are receiving support from the Pakistani intelligence agency, known as ISI, although he cautioned such reports are difficult to verify.

Smith, meanwhile, threw cold water on Hillier's suggestion that Canadian troops are facing a weakened enemy.

There is evidence that al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, who often fight alongside the Taliban, are actually gaining strength, said Smith, now executive director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria.

"The al-Qaeda problem has not gone away," he told the committee. "It's important that we not forget the original motivation for going to Afghanistan, and that was to deal with al-Qaeda."

Smith recently released a critical report of his own, entitled "Canada in Afghanistan: Is it Working?" He questions whether NATO can achieve its stated goals, even within a period of 10 years. Canada has committed to maintain its military presence until 2009.

"If we're serious, and we've got to be serious, we'll be there for a long time," he said.

Smith argues NATO needs to increase its troop commitment, while deploying development aid more effectively and opening political negotiations with the Taliban.

He is also harshly critical of the policy, favoured by the United States, of eradicating poppy crops to curb the drug trade.

He said NATO needs to create a market so Afghan farmers can sell their opium for legal use in medical products, such as morphine, or establish financial incentives so that farmers can become less dependent on the heroin market.