Afghanistan mission more than a military matter

By  Gerry Barr, Catholic Register Special
  • December 14, 2007

afghanistan.jpgAfghanistan leads the news these days and for good reason. But the fixation on the question of whether our troops should remain or come home has obscured the most important objective of Canada’s presence — namely, supporting the struggle of the Afghan people to live in peace with decent living conditions. 

Canada’s military contribution of 2,500 troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kandahar is but one component of what should be a much wider strategic approach that emphasizes development, diplomacy and humanitarian assistance. Why? 

For one, Afghanistan is ranked 174th out of 178 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, placing it near the bottom, in spite of the recent advances in literacy and education. Clearly, poverty reduction must be a first priority, and this requires effective development. Secondly, peace will not come without a political agreement involving all warring parties and with the widespread support of Afghans themselves. Right now, this essential national political consensus is missing, even though the Afghan government and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization acknowledge that peace cannot be achieved by military means alone. Lastly, vulnerable populations in the southeast are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

What has to change?

First of all, peace in Afghanistan requires safety for civilians, jobs and livelihoods, education and health, and trust in local and national government. It also means reconciliation among communities previously at war. And it means an end to impunity for human rights violations.

Canada’s contribution to peace in Afghanistan, then, must include pressure on NATO to adopt operational measures that minimize civilian casualties resulting from combat operations. At least 1,000 civilians have been killed so far this year by both the international forces and the Taliban. To put this in perspective, that is equal to more than one-third of our troop contribution. Air strikes are the most devastating cause of deaths ascribed to international forces. The high number of civilian deaths is simply unacceptable, and Canada should play a more robust role with coalition partners to make sure such deaths are minimized.  

Second, we must make more progress in development. Afghanistan is the largest single recipient of Canadian aid in history. We have an obligation to ensure that it is used as effectively as possible and that it provides tangible benefits to people. Greater priority to the poor in rural areas and to vulnerable groups such as widows, the disabled and female-headed households would help ensure Afghans experience the benefits of development. Development is about reducing poverty in the long term by empowering people to be self-sufficient and tapping their full potential to contribute to their societies. Canada is committed to supporting these efforts until 2011. It must be ready to do so for much longer to see results. Most importantly, aid must be distributed on the basis of need and should not be used as a political or military tool.

Third, Canada is in a position to play an important diplomatic and political role in helping Afghans achieve a negotiated agreement that leads to a lasting peace. This means dramatically increasing our diplomatic efforts to support initiatives by the Afghan government to negotiate with elements of the Taliban and other opposition forces, a regional process with Pakistan and community-to-community peace-building.  Women and civil society groups must be included in these processes. Those who emphasize military action must understand that without a multi-level peace and reconciliation process, any gains in security enforcement will prove to be short-lived.

 Lastly, Canada must protect the independence of humanitarian actors who deliver vital assistance to vulnerable populations. Humanitarian assistance must not be confused with “hearts and minds” operations of armed forces. Life-saving humanitarian assistance is premised on impartiality toward civilians, neutrality with warring factions and independence from political and military goals.  

When armed forces use such assistance for military goals — for example, to gain information about the Taliban from local communities — humanitarian efforts are no longer considered neutral. This turns both those who use such assistance and those who deliver it into targets. The high level of casualties among aid workers in Afghanistan (more than 80 individuals so far) is partly a result of this militarization and politicization of humanitarian assistance. Insurgent tactics also target civilians and risk to civilians increases through their association with military actors.  

That’s why humanitarian assistance is traditionally delivered by civilians. Canada must commit itself to maintaining the credibility of humanitarian organizations, as distinct from the military. Military use of humanitarian assistance for “hearts and minds” purposes must be ruled out. At best, it results in confusion; at worst, it results in harming civilians.

What all this amounts to is a dramatic re-shaping of our mission in Afghanistan to elevate diplomacy and peace-building, to ensure our development efforts benefit the poor, to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need and to prevent civilian casualties. 

Afghanistan needs Canada to do more than help fight a war; Afghanistan needs Canada to help make peace.

(Barr is the chief executive officer and president of the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, a coalition of Canadian voluntary sector organizations involved in international development. Among its members is the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace.)

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