September 16, 2009

Today's essential Afghan reading

The Globe story itself is rather negative and short on detail on the latest governmental no-progress progress report. Worth noting, though, are the comments of Prof. David Bercuson, another very prominent and longtime advocate for the Canadian military, joining Sen. Kenny last week. That cranking sound you here is the Canadian military-academic establishment reorienting itself to the (new?) reality:

The report notes that, rather than attempting to disrupt the Taliban in Kandahar province as a whole, Canada is shifting its focus to maintaining stability in the capital Kandahar city and its environs.

These scaled-back expectations make sense, said David Bercuson, director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, and Canada was foolish not to keep its ambitions more modest years ago when its Kandahar commitment began in earnest.

"We never had the troops to cover the entire province. I understand people believed we did, but that was clearly a miscalculation..."

Canadians, and their politicians, who question Canada's presence in Afghanistan need to be realistic about the tiny size of the mission and what it can accomplish, Dr. Bercuson said. If Canada leaves in 2011, he said, it will be able to point to keeping Kandahar city out of Taliban hands for several years with limited resources - but little else. (exactly right --B.)

"We were overly ambitious," he said. "Corruption, accountability. I think you've just got to be realistic about the part of the world that you're dealing with."

UPDATE: Re the report itself, there's nothing too surprising in it. Canadian non-security development goals have been pushed back due to the absence of security. Not sure why the June report is coming out in September, or why some but not all pages have a Dari translation, but hey. What's annoying is the way the government overwrites the benchmark page with each new quarterly report, so you really have no at-a-glance way of comparing what the government was saying about security reform with what it was saying three months ago about security reform, for instance: you have to go to the PDFs. Which is fine, but you risk missing the subtleties, for instance the change in the numbers of the ANA brigade in the province, which since the last report has gone from all units "over 70% effective strength" to "three of the five kandaks and the ANA brigade headquarters have an effective strength of 70% or higher." This could be due to problems with re-enlistment and attrition beyond Canada's control, or possibly better bookkeeping, and not necessarily worrisome, however.

The change in the primary army development benchmark from "#of districts with an ANSF security lead" to "% of operations with an ANSF lead" replaces a statistic that would likely have shown little upward change before 2011 with one that says less by comparison. Going forward, will a positive change in percentage indicate an increase in Afghan operational tempo, or a reduction in Canadian aggressiveness? Both would lead to the same percentage increase. Add in the lack of clarity about what counts as an "operation" (a patrol? a resupply run? a shura?) and it's largely reduced to a bookkeeping exercise. But there really aren't better options. Canada is running a much smaller part of Kandahar province now, and the day when Afghans take on lead security for the American-run parts of the province is no longer something we can pretend to influence, so rating ourselves on what proportion of the province Afghans are controlling independently would no longer be valid.

Posted by BruceR at 10:21 AM