By Alex Wilner
National debates are a good thing. They not only signify democratic resilience, but the more often Canadians bat around ideas the more nuanced our policies become.
Of course, constructive debates hinge on solid information. Without it, arguments are half-baked, conversations blinded, policy calculations ignorant.
It’s a pity, then, that Canada’s Afghan debate has fallen into this predicament.
Our debate pivots around setbacks: politicians dole out positions in the hours following a tragedy; op-eds follow within 48 hours; pollsters attack after that; and second-tier editorials referencing the polling data culminate the week.
The result is a reactive, impulsive, and emotional debate centred on the darker stories coming from Afghanistan.
A majority of Canadians know, for instance, that 66 soldiers and one diplomat have died since 2001. Most understand that troops face a menagerie of resurgent Taliban/al Qaeda fond of wreaking havoc with suicide bombings, improvised explosives, and other acts of terror. Some Canadians might recall that blossoming poppies imperil economic initiatives, that teachers, aid workers, and journalists have been murdered, that schools and police stations have been bombed, and that civilians have died violently.
"This war cannot be won – bring home the troops," politicians chide, pointing to the televised carnage as evidence. Only half-informed, a great number of Canadians nod in agreement.
Perhaps it is time, then, to reverse the adage that "good news isn’t news." If Canadians want to debate the merits of the mission, they should do so properly.
Good things are happening in Afghanistan every day. Triumphs are adding up and Canadians contribute directly to these improvements.
First, the Taliban has lost every battle against NATO and the Afghan National Army. Taliban tactics have regressed as a consequence, from bold, full-frontal maneuvers to ‘shoot-and-scoot’ attacks, suicide bombings, and IEDs. Why? Because NATO operations, especially the elimination and capture of top- and mid-level Taliban leaders like Commander "Saleem", and Mullahs Osmani, Dadullah, and Obaidullah, has addled the insurgency. As a result, the Taliban has shifted to small – though dramatic – operations in hopes of tilting public opinion in Canada rather than tilting the military balance in Afghanistan.
"The only way the Taliban can succeed," Sean Maloney, a professor at the Royal Military College explains in the latest issue of Maclean’s magazine, "is to generate doubt and fear in Canada, and hope … Canadians opposed to helping the Afghan people are able to generate a consensus for withdrawal." But while suicide attacks make great headlines, they are less-than effective in theatre. The latest poorly executed suicide attack killed only one – the bomber. It’s a shame the Canadian media didn’t report it.
Second, Afghanistan shows impressive economic promise. GDP growth rates will reach 12 percent this year and income per capita has doubled; expanded circulation of the new currency continues and inflation is expected to drop to five percent; government revenues have increased by 25 percent; US$ 60 million in microfinance has reached 250,000 citizens; and a modernized Afghan central bank now has 75 branches.
Economic investment has responded. Coca Cola recently opened a $US 25 million Kabul-based plant. Telecommunications giant Roshan invested $US 60 million into expanded Afghan operations. The Kabul Serena Hotel opened its doors with a $US 7 million loan. And electronics developer Siemens constructed permanent Afghan offices. If only further highlighting Afghanistan’s substantial economic progress, the World Bank announced last week that the country had sufficiently solidified its economic reform to qualify for a 51 percent slashing of its international debt.
Third, societal rehabilitation has surpassed expectations. Since 2001, 4 million Afghans have returned home. In that time, thousands of health facilities – from field clinics to the US$ 25 million hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif – have been constructed with impressive results (83 percent of Afghans now have access to medical treatment, infant mortality rates have dropped precipitously, prenatal care has increased by 65 percent).
Add advances in education (5 million children enrolled in school; inaugural undergraduate classes at The American University of Afghanistan; trade school graduations), politics (8 million votes cast in Afghanistan’s first democratic election; 27 percent women parliamentarians – by comparison, Canadian women have never constituted more than 21 percent of Parliament), leisure (new television and radio stations; dozens of sport associations; women’s Olympic Volleyball tryouts; rock and roll concerts; two televised seasons of Afghan Star – think Canadian Idol), and civil infrastructure (reconstruction of Kabul’s Thermal Power Station and International Airport; 4000 km of road construction; the resurrection of the Salang Tunnel connecting Kabul to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and life in Afghanistan is clearly on the mend.
Amidst the smoking headlines, victories are piling up. While Canadians are right to mourn the very real human cost of the mission, our calculations must also weigh the impact our actions are having in rewriting Afghan history. Anything less only cheapens the debate and derides the sacrifice many Canadians have already made.
Alex Wilner, a doctoral candidate at Dalhousie University, is the Intern in Security and Defence Policy at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank based in Halifax, NS.