Progress is being made in Afghanistan, said Lt.-General Andrew Leslie, of the Canadian Armed Forces at a conference hosted by the Canada Institute. The Canadian government has committed a force of close to 3000 troops in Afghanistan, with the majority deployed in the volatile southern region of Kandahar. Despite Canadian and Allied efforts to defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups, the situation in Afghanistan remains dire. NATO forces have had to endure mounting casualties and have struggled to thwart the internal resistance that has grown more deadly in recent months. Leslie offered his perspective on the progress and challenges facing NATO forces in Afghanistan, as well as his thoughts on the strategy required to successfully stabilize the war torn country.
Outlining Canada's Approach
Canada has employed a "whole of government" approach in its efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Kandahar, Leslie said. The strategy utilizes both Canadian military and civilian resources in an effort to further development, governance, and security initiatives in Afghanistan. Leslie said that Canada has the best equipped unit in Afghanistan and that the Canadian forces have been able to make strides in securing Kandahar. Their success is not purely based in military might. Canada is conscious of the necessity of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans, maintained Leslie. To this end, Canadian Forces have made a point of involving village communities in development and reconstruction projects, which allows the local people to feel a sense of project ownership. An important aspect of the reconstruction process is to ask the village leader what work and projects they want to be done. According to Leslie, such efforts help facilitate greater trust and cooperation between Afghans and Canadian troops.
Leslie admitted that Canada's work in Afghanistan has come at an extremely high price both in terms causalities and dollars spent. Mounting costs have led the Canadian public to grow increasingly wary of the country's mission in Afghanistan. Despite arguments to the contrary, Leslie insisted that the situation in Kandahar is improving. He said that the Afghan army is moving closer to being able to conduct complex operations without Canadian assistance. In addition, Canadian-trained Afghan police forces are being incorporated and deployed in the region.
Nevertheless, according to Leslie, there are no plans to change Canada's proposed 2011 withdrawal date. He stressed, however, that up until 2011, Canadian forces will remain at their current size in Afghanistan. Leslie underscored Canada's work as an extremely significant contribution to international security. Given the instability of the region encompassing Afghanistan, the consequences of defeat could be very grim, Leslie said.
Moving Toward Victory
Victory in Afghanistan will ultimately mean leaving the Afghan people with an independent and functioning state, with its own rule of law and judicial system, Leslie explained. Canadian Forces, he said, believe they are doing important and essential work in Afghanistan. In fact, more soldiers continue to volunteer for Canada's Afghan mission then there are spots available. However, significant challenges remain in achieving victory. Foremost among them is improving the unity of effort between various Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) operated by NATO members, as well as numerous other actors such as NGOs. Currently, the reconstruction priorities in many PRTs are politically driven by the government of the occupying force rather than the Afghan government, Leslie noted. This will have to change if the Allied Forces are to be successful in Afghanistan, said Leslie.
Leslie stressed that victory can only be achieved through building Afghanistan's institutional capacity. Though progress has been made in this area, he conceded that Afghanistan's institutions remain in a very nascent stage. Leslie also stressed that precision when using force is essential for Allied Forces success. Any error or missed target in Afghanistan only serves to anger local people and fosters a strong feeling of resentment toward Allied Forces. According to Leslie, the use of force remains necessary to counter extremists who are trying to harm the innocent civilians that Canadian troops have been instructed to protect: "at times we have to fight to deliver aid."
By Ken Crist, Program Associate, Canada Institute