The Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mr. Sproule, has identified three Ds which underpin our policy: defense, development and diplomacy.
However much defense may be necessary for the other two Ds, it creates problems by killing local people. We may like to think of ourselves as noble warriors protecting the weak, but as soon as we set ourselves the task of killing undesirables we can be certain that Afghanis will fail to see us in such a positive light.
The United States and other major powers have proved repeatedly in recent decades that the good which can be done by the prolonged presence of foreign armies in a country is zero or less. Nobody can make a place better by going there to kill bad guys. The outsiders don’t know who’s who; the foreign army become identified as an occupying army; the so-called bad guys’ friends and relatives are recruited to their cause by their deaths; more good people than bad are killed; property is damaged and the entire atmosphere fouled by the condition of open violent conflict. Inevitably the foreign armies have to go home.
In Afghanistan, there may have been a need, originally, for aggressive military action, but the major part of the work was, and still is, peaceful. We have to recognize that no enduring good can be established at gunpoint.
Let us concede that defense is necessary for the safety of people performing the two peaceful Ds, development and diplomacy. But let us also ask whether NATO’s military action is as effective as possible. Canada recently sent tanks to Afghanistan. Development and diplomacy will not take place inside or on top of tanks. A tank is among the ugliest images of foreign presence. If we want to succeed in performing the two peaceful Ds I think we must reduce the offensiveness of the defense.
Military people may be the best qualified to deliver much of our contribution to Afghanistan, but let us ask them to do it either unarmed, or else armed for specific, limited, defensive purposes, such as guarding the builders of roads or schools. It is obvious that if military people are to do demanding constructive work they must lay aside their arms, at least momentarily, to do it. So the fewer the guards, the more good can be done.
Admittedly, there are precise questions to be answered in proposing such a shifted emphasis. Specifically, what would be the rules of engagement? One purely defensive possibility is that measured peripheries, perhaps determined by the range of enemy artillery, be established around the peaceful Ds. Inside these boundaries our military personnel would stand guard and fight off attacks, but be forbidden to pursue attackers beyond these limits.
While such a policy might give vast safe zones to the enemies of reconstruction, it would also give a moral high ground to NATO forces. It would go a long way toward eliminating so-called collateral damage to NATO actions, damage which ultimately spells death to a foreign mission.
Needless to say, a mission so-conceived is dangerous, and nobody should be part of it except volunteers. Moreover, there would still be casualties, but probably fewer than are incurred in efforts to do good through proactive killing.
It should not take long for a population to learn that certain foreigners are in their country exclusively to help. If a uniform marked its wearer as someone present for the sole purpose of nonviolent reconstruction, the local population could become the best possible protection for a person in that uniform. In this connection, if the American and British forces went home and left the job to other NATO troops, the remaining forces would not then be so tainted by association.
The risks to personnel by this proposal might be increased in the short term, but the risk to the entire mission might be reduced.
Peter R. Harley lives in Newfoundland. He can be reached at: email@example.com