In Afghanistan, the fate of the the alliance matters as much as the fate of the country.
A recent poll by Ipsos-Reid suggests that close to 80 per cent of Canadians want Canada’s mission in Afghanistan to end in 2011. This is a hope that will not be fulfilled, no matter what policy announcements come from Ottawa over the next 16 months.
The federal government cannot meet the public’s wish because there has never been a Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Canada is part of a NATO mission, and that mission will not end just because the Canadian Forces have returned home.
The myth of Canadian independent activity in Afghanistan has been embraced by virtually every element of society. The government refers regularly to a Canadian mission. Pollsters ask questions about a Canadian withdrawal. Journalists report on Canadian deaths as though no other contributing states have suffered similar losses.
The general public has not objected to any of this, choosing instead to express either pride or disappointment in so-called national achievements and failures.
A serious discussion about Canadian foreign and defence policy post-Afghanistan cannot take place until Canadians concede that, as well as our soldiers have performed, the mission could have, and would have, been waged without them. The United States was going to engage in Afghanistan, with or without the support of its NATO allies.
As Canadians look to the future, they would do well to consider an observation made by the late Canadian commentator John Wendell Holmes: the greatest strategic priority for Canadian defence policy, he argued, was never the defence of Canada so much as it was “the defence of an international system favourable to our security and survival.”
With Holmes’s thoughts in mind, and with the future of both NATO and U.S. foreign policy unclear, the post-Afghanistan era will likely reflect one of three systems.
The first would see the United States acting unilaterally when it perceives its global interests threatened. In such a world, multilateral organizations would no longer have meaning, coalitions of the willing – accountable to no one – would be the norm, and only the most powerful would stand a real chance at prosperity.
The second would see the United States turning inwards and absolving itself of many of the global responsibilities that the international community has put upon it. In such a world, massive, systemic human rights violations would initially be universally condemned, but then left to fester because no state or organization would have the capacity, or willingness, to intervene. It would be a lesser world for all of humankind.
The third system would see the United States continuing to pursue its interests abroad, but doing so through multilateral organizations like NATO. Such a world would be full of asymmetrical conflict and counterinsurgencies, successes and disappointments, and disproportionate government spending on national and international security. It would be an unpredictable world, and a challenging one for all states.
Clearly no vision is ideal, but the final one offers Canada greater hope than the others.
At the strategic level, Canada exiting Afghanistan unilaterally in 2011 would be a statement by a founding member of NATO – and a strong supporter of that organization’s original primary goal of committing the United States to active involvement in world affairs – that it no longer believes it necessary to preserve the integrity of America’s primary vehicle for multilateral engagement abroad. It reiterates a message that too many in Washington already believe: that America is on its own, and that the White House should set its foreign policy accordingly.
Does such thinking mean that staying in Afghanistan is necessarily good policy at the tactical level? No, but it does serve to remind Canadians that our strategic interests will be served most effectively if NATO stands (or falls) as a collective.
If the Canadian government no longer believes that success is possible in Afghanistan, then it should lobby NATO’s high command to begin a full, organization-wide withdrawal as quickly as possible and it should align its disengagement strategy accordingly.
If the government believes that NATO has made and should continue to make a difference in Afghanistan, then it should lobby fellow NATO members to stay on until the mission’s objectives have been achieved.
In either case, Canada must strive to ensure that NATO does not become a relic of the past. The strategic impact of maintaining an internationally oriented United States acting within a multilateral context cannot be underestimated.
The alternatives – either American unilateralism or American isolationism – are too frightening to contemplate.