Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Iraq exit dance has lessons for Canada

Iraq exit dance has lessons for Canada
March 27, 2007 The Toronto Star Richard Gwyn

In itself, the bill passed last week by the U.S. House of Representatives requiring the withdrawal from Iraq of most American troops by the end of 2008 is little more than a gesture.

President George W. Bush has already said he will veto it.

Yet there is a good reason for Canadians to keep a close eye on the progress of these political struggles and also of manoeuvrings between the White House and Congress and between the Democrats and Republicans.

This reason is that what's happening there today may well happen to us in a few years time.

There, the source of the challenge confronting the political system is Iraq; here, it will be Afghanistan.

The comparisons aren't exact. Canadians haven't been deceived, by either the incumbent Conservative government or its Liberal predecessor, about the reasons Canadian soldiers are in Afghanistan.

There has been here no explicit expression of public opinion about the war in Afghanistan, unlike the anti-Iraq war vote in the U.S.'s mid-term elections.

Even the regular polls don't show strong public opposition to Canadian troops in Afghanistan, and do show strong support for our troops. But it also shows unease about what might happen there.

This won't last, though, entirely aside from the possibility of casualties in the intense fighting predicted for this spring.

We are committed to staying to mid-2009. Unless, by then, the Taliban is clearly in retreat and the government in Kabul is clearly gaining popular support, extending the mission would be extremely difficult.

In fact, neither mark is likely to be achieved by 2009. In terms of "nation-building" Afghanistan is at least a 10-year project, and quite possibly a 20-year one.

Staying on, therefore, would look like committing our troops to an eternity of fighting.

This is when the crunch will happen. There's really no way to get out of one of these kinds of conflicts except to randomly declare a victory and then to bring the troops home.

This is what Bush is now doing. His "surge' of extra troops is likely to quieten things down in Baghdad. So, shortly before leaving office, he will be able to declare a victory and blame everything thereafter on the Iraqi government.

Except that, as soon as the U.S. troops leave in large numbers, the insurgents and the Sunni will themselves surge right back into Baghdad.

Our situation is more complicated. Fighting the Taliban is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) responsibility. But major NATO members, such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, are standing on the sidelines.

A Canadian withdrawal in 2009 would thus leave a huge hole. The Dutch, who, like us, are actually fighting, may well use our withdrawal as cover for them to do the same.

Thus, a Canadian withdrawal might precipitate a general withdrawal even if – unlike in Iraq – the circumstances don't really warrant it.

On the one hand, some of the current news from Afghanistan is extremely worrying. The international think-tank, the Senlis Council, has just reported a sharp increase in support, to close to one-in-three for the Taliban in the south, where the Canadian troops are.

Also, United Nations anti-drug chief Antonio Maria Costa has reported that the alliance between drug lords and the terrorists is "stronger than ever."

On the other hand, education and health care in the country have definitely improved, some 3 million refugees have returned home, and Kabul's streets are now packed with traders.

The clich├ęd phrase that always gets dredged up at this point is "an exit strategy." In fact, as shown by the way the Democrats stretched their withdrawal deadline into late 2008, a key component of any exit strategy is a stay-for-a-bit-longer strategy.

Soon we are going to be tested politically in a way that we haven't been in decades.

The same imperatives as now apply in Washington – of pretending victory in order to avoid the humiliation of admitting defeat, and of bringing our soldiers safely home but of not turning our backs on their sacrifices – will apply here.

Watching the drama now unfolding in Washington may be a useful way to spot the impending dangers and opportunities.

Of course, what we may mostly learn by watching Washington will be to do the exact opposite.