By Michael Byers and Stewart Webb
Last November, Canada’s mission in Afghanistan was extended by three years without a debate in Parliament when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that our soldiers would shift to a much safer training role. His explanation was that “when we’re talking simply about technical or training missions, I think that is something the executive can do on its own.”
But remember – the first four Canadian deaths in Afghanistan occurred when a training exercise attracted “friendly fire” from an American F-16 fighter jet in 2002. So just how safe will this new training mission be?
Afghan insurgents have recognized that recruitment and training centres are soft targets. On Dec. 19, five Afghan soldiers were killed when a bus was attacked outside the main army recruitment centre near Kabul. Later that day, five more Afghan soldiers and three policemen were killed when a recruitment centre in the northern city of Kunduz was attacked.
Insurgents are also infiltrating Afghan government forces to target trainers. In November of 2009, five British soldiers were killed by an Afghan policeman at a checkpoint in Helmand province; last July, three British soldiers were killed by an Afghan soldier at a base in Helmand. Later that month, two American contractors and two Afghan soldiers were killed by another Afghan soldier at a training centre outside Mazar-e-Sharif.
Two Spanish policemen and their interpreter were killed last August by an Afghan policeman they were training in northwest Afghanistan; in November, six American trainers were killed by another Afghan policeman in eastern Afghanistan.
The deadly trend is continuing. On Jan. 20, an Afghan soldier shot dead two Italian on a military base. On Feb. 18, an Afghan soldier killed three German soldiers and, on April 4, an Afghan border policeman killed two American trainers.
Although the Prime Minister insists that Canadian soldiers will remain safely within the confines of their bases, this is unlikely. Some reliable entity has to provide security for the bases, and personnel from other NATO countries are increasingly scarce. Using Canadians to secure the bases’ perimeters will increase the risks to those soldiers, while raising the question as to what constitutes the perimeter. Will the Canadians end up having to secure buffer zones around the bases and, if so, how wide?
Furthermore, it’s obvious that effective training will require at least some mentoring “outside the wire.” At least 325 of the 2,750 Canadian military personnel now in Afghanistan are training Afghan soldiers and policemen in the field, sometimes embedded within Afghan units. The training is complicated by a high turnover within the Afghan ranks and the fact that three-quarters of the recruits are illiterate – making it difficult to train them even if they stick around.
Add the incredible diversity of ethnic, political and religious backgrounds and it’s no surprise that – after almost a decade of Western assistance – the Afghan army is still unable to secure and control any territory on its own. If anything, the security situation has worsened. Last month, Canada lost its 155th soldier. This month, seven United Nations staff members were murdered in Mazar-e-Sharif.
Even if the Afghan army could control territory, the character of its political masters provides another reason for concern. Afghanistan tied with Myanmar for being the second-most corrupt country (behind Somalia) in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to a U.S. cable released by WikiLeaks, William Crosbie, Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, said last year that the scale of corruption within the Karzai government makes his “blood boil”.
It’s likely that the Afghan government will implode as soon as Western forces leave, at which time the civil war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban will resume. Although they won’t admit it, most Western governments have already given up on the country. The training mission is clearly an exit strategy, the success of which won’t be measured in Afghanistan because, at root, it’s not about solving problems there. It’s about being able to leave with honour. And that, unfortunately, may cost more Canadians their lives.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. Stewart Webb is a research associate at the Salt Spring Forum who specializes in South Asian geopolitics. Their report – Training Can Be Dangerous – is available at www.policyalternatives.ca.
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail.