Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Freedom From Fear - Selling Canada's Afghan Mission

I have steadfastly refused to wander into polemical debate with this blog but the deployment of a friend to Afghanistan has given me pause. Here in Canada the civilian feeling wavers between apathy and resignation. There's a faint sense that the finish line (2011, when the mission ends) is getting closer and that the government will hold to it and not extend the mission.

More than half the country opposes this mission (54%). The media refer to it as a 'war' and the headlines are typically "3 Canadian Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan" (Calgary Herald) or "Unarmed Civilians Killed by Canadian Soldiers (Hamilton Spectator)." The politicians focus on the end date of the mission, not what is actually happening now. And the abiding images are of (a) bewildered Afghan civilians being searched by heavily armed Canadian soldiers and (b) coffins coming home draped in flags.

Answering Why

As Remembrance Day rolls around, I asked myself "what are we doing here?" And why is it that most Canadians don't really know?

Because of the nature of democracy, the bureaucracies at
Foreign Affairs and National Defence (as well as in the military itself) cannot be seen to be communicating at odds to the elected government. So how is the government portraying the mission? The Harper government oscillates between two rationales for our mission - supporting our American friends in the maddeningly vague 'war on terror' and, if pressed hard, continuing to honour a commitment given by a previous government. Put in schoolyard terms, this amounts to 'we're doing it because they said so' and 'they started it.' Unhelpful and largely ignored by the media.

The only solid story hooks left then are the conventional ones that flowered during the war reporting of the Vietnam era - body bags and the mistreatment of innocent civilians. Don't take my word for it; look at the media coverage over the past year and you'll see these are the main metaphors for our mission.

I think it could be different. I believe that this should not be communicated as a military mission foremost. And I believe we are owed an answer to 'why.' Here's how I would do it:

First, it's not a war. The principal objective is not killing Taleban and rooting out terror networks. Sure that's why there are tanks, artillery and all the rest of the toys over there. But that's not what should be sold to the Canadian public as the purpose of the intervention. Remember, nobody likes a long, unexplained military commitment in some country on top of the world (especially not a place where two global superpowers have already had their asses handed to them on a plate).

This mission is about delivering freedom from fear to the Afghans. That's how it should be portrayed. It's not a stretch, honest. In fact we're already doing stuff in Afghanistan that would support this narrative - bomb disposal, primary health care delivery, school construction and more. Think of it:

  • Everyone should be free to go to school without fear of intimidation.
  • Everyone should be free to travel the roads without fear of IEDs.
  • Everyone should be free to live without fear of serious disease.
Wouldn't that throw light on the true purpose of the mission? Wouldn't that shift the focus from the body counts in the Taleban and Canadian columns? Wouldn't we be able to measure and communicate a win in Afghanistan? Of course, there is military activity but it should be seen as occurring in support of solid goals, not in the light of some cowboy-like 'shootin' up the bad guys' narrative.

Unfortunately I think this may be too little too late. I predict the government will continue to use the communications approach it is wedded to. And I predict the mission will, be any of the measures being used now, fail. But it will obtain its political objectives - getting out by 2011 with some activity to show for it. This is because, as 2010 comes around, the mission will likely focus on minimizing casualties in advance of the departure the following year. I see it as a year or so of declining activity, driven by the need to mitigate political risk, not the actual purpose of the mission.

Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase, 'night and the Taleban return.' When the day wanes in 2011 and we leave, when in 2012 and beyond we construct rationalizations for our activities in Afghanistan, we will have missed an opportunity to truly say what we did and why. We will not have answered the Canadian public when they ask "what was the point?"

Postscript - I expect criticism from both the political and bureaucratic folks who may argue that all of this is being communicated through their websites and so on. To them I can only say 'stop drinking the Koolaid.'

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