No wonder Cpl. Boneca wanted out
July 11, 2006
The 17th Canadian killed in Afghanistan didn't fit the heroic script we love when our soldiers fall in battle. Corporal Anthony Boneca was not at all happy to be fighting. In fact, he hated it. "He was misled," his girlfriend's father told the Toronto Star. "He was very mad about it."
Cpl. Boneca, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan, was a reservist. He never expected to find himself in a blistering hellhole, short of rations, being shot at by bad guys. His friends back home aren't playing by the script, either. Declared one: "It's not our fight."
The 21-year-old Cpl. Boneca was not the only one to be unpleasantly surprised at the reality of Afghanistan. Just three months after Britain's then-defence secretary chirpily speculated that British troops might be able to complete their mission without firing a shot, they're rushing in reinforcements; six of their soldiers have been killed in the past few weeks. For Canada, of course, reinforcements are not an option, since we have no extra troops to send.
On paper, the odds don't look bad. The Taliban or al-Qaeda or whatever they're called -- they're an ever-changing mix of religious fighters and men in the employ of various warlords and drug lords -- are said to number no more than 5,000. There are 28,000 American soldiers (some of whom will go home when NATO ramps up), and NATO forces will amount to 17,000. But the number of combat troops is just a fraction of the total deployment -- in Canada's case, about 550 in a total contingent of 2,200, although now our resupply troops are also seeing action. These soldiers are supposed to impose peace across a forbidding land the size of Texas, much of which is under the unofficial rule of mullahs.
The polite fiction is that, in NATO's mission, security and reconstruction go hand in hand. But, in most of Afghanistan, there's nothing to reconstruct. As for aid, you need an infrastructure to deliver it, and there isn't any of that, either.
Donor aid has been pouring in by the billions. But the main beneficiaries, as usual, are expensive international consultants and corrupt local officials, who've created a housing boom in Kabul but very little else. Only 6 per cent of the population has access to electricity. According to The Economist, not a single new dam, power station or water system has been built in the five years since the Taliban fell. Kabul has no sewer system. And Afghans are increasingly disillusioned at the West's failure to deliver security and services.
Meantime, Western governments and aid agencies have been shockingly naive about the task at hand. "The West has been guilty of applying Western precepts on an almost post-medieval economy," warns Lieutenant-General David Richards, the British commander of the NATO forces. "A quarter of children die by the age of 5. Worrying about civil service reform and gender rights are really tomorrow's problems." Everyone was surprised by the Taliban's resurgence. "We took our eye off the ball," says Gen. Richards. But NATO's strategy also looks naive. The plan is to establish secure areas as bases from which to inject aid into the surrounding region and build loyalty to the Western-backed government. That was the idea in Iraq, too.
There has been some progress. Some girls are going to school. The police are not quite as brutal as before. As Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan's human-rights commission, says: "Everyone had to be tortured before. Now they do torture, but not everybody."
The insurgents, meanwhile, are armed with an endless supply of weapons and a bottomless well of opium money. They are largely trained in Pakistan, where NATO troops can't reach. And NATO is handicapped not so much by mission creep as by mission fuzz. Long-time Afghan hand Christina Lamb, writing in The Sunday Times, reports that one senior British military officer talks despairingly of "military and developmental anarchy." On top of that, there's the notoriously short attention span of the West, which wants results now without bloodshed.
Repairing Afghanistan is a noble cause. It's also mission impossible. I suspect that, before too long, more and more Canadians will decide that it's not our fight.