Rethinking Canada’s mission 

UBC professor to join Afghanistan panel at Dialogue Café

It’s been more than six years since Canada joined the international mission to unseat the Taliban in Afghanistan for sheltering terrorists, and Stephen Harper’s government recently won its bid to extend the peacekeeping and counter-insurgency mission there for at least three more years, to give the central Afghanistan government more time to build an army and unify the war-torn country.

There are currently 2,500 Canadian soldiers deployed in Afghanistan, in one of the most dangerous areas of the country, around Kandahar. To date 80 soldiers have been killed, most by improvised roadside bombs planted by Taliban supporters looking to return to power.

For Michael Byers, a UBC professor, Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics, and author of two books — Intent for a Nation: What is Canada For, and War Law: Understanding International Law andArmed Conflict — the mission in Afghanistan is based on a flawed premise, and can only succeed if Canada and its NATO allies step aside in favour of United Nations peacekeepers.

Byers is speaking at a Whistler Forum For Leadership and Dialogue discussion on Afghanistan at Millennium Place on Tuesday, March 18, from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. He will join Graham Fuller, a former CIA consultant on the Middle East, who led a Whistler Forum discussion on Afghanistan last August. Tuesday’s discussion is “Canada and Afghanistan: Where in the World are We Going?”

“Our biggest problem is our unwillingness to change our approach (in Afghanistan),” said Byers. “And more specifically to challenge the stubbornness of the Bush administration in preserving the counter-insurgency approach despite the spectacular failure in Iraq and current failings in Afghanistan.

“I’m very proud of our soldiers, and they’re doing the best they can in difficult circumstances, but the concern for the Afghan people is that the approach we’re taking is not working.”

For one thing, Afghanistan has a long history of resisting foreign forces, from Alexander the Great’s army to the British Empire, to the Soviet Union. It has also never been entirely unified under a central government, but has been ruled by a loose association of tribes, ethnic groups and religious groups.

“I have some difficultly imagining how 40,000 (NATO) soldiers will succeed where hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers failed,” said Byers, adding that the idea that a secular government can unite the country is so foreign to Afghans that it’s impossible to achieve. Instead, he says a unified Afghanistan will most likely be the result of building a consensus among regional rulers, warlords, tribal leaders and other factions. That means talking to the Taliban, and negotiating a peace.

“We can keep the Taliban from regaining power in Kabul, and stop the counter-insurgency approach in Kandahar,” said Byers. “Ultimately we’re going to see negotiations and a transfer of involvement from NATO to the UN. Any high ranking member of NATO will tell you that much in private. We will transition to a UN force when we realize that a military solution is not possible, and we will see blue helmeted peacekeepers on the ground from the developing world working with Afghan soldiers and police rather than Canadians in Leopard tanks.

“The only question for Canada should be how we promote that transition, and stop our current approach which is taking a toll on Canadian soldiers. I get extremely frustrated when I hear about dead or wounded Canadian soldiers because I know the approach they’re being told to use is not one that can succeed. Our soldiers can do anything, but we have to give them missions that are possible.”

Admission is a $10 donation.

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