Afghan progress simply a MacKay flight of fancy

November 26, 2012 – BY SCOTT TAYLOR | ON TARGET – The Chronicle Herald – Halifax

For the fourth year in a row, top international military officials, prominent authors and powerful government officials gathered in Nova Scotia to attend the Halifax International Security Forum.

As they took part in the conference between Nov. 16 and Nov. 18, the Gaza Strip was a raging battlefield and was, therefore, a hot topic of discussion. Also on the forum’s agenda was other potential flashpoints, such as Iran, North Korea and, of course, the never-ending conflict in Afghanistan.

It was on this subject that Peter MacKay, Canada’s defence minister, lent his voice to the debate. He had just made a quick visit to Kabul to spend Remembrance Day with the contingent of Canadian Forces personnel deployed as part of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan.

MacKay’s message was that Canada’s sacrifice — 158 soldiers killed and another 2,000 injured — was offset by the progress the international community has made in developing that war-torn country.

The yardstick MacKay used to determine this progress was the same well-worn platitudes about girls attending schools and the crowded market places in Kabul.

However at the Halifax forum, MacKay went one step further when he said that on his most recent trip to Afghanistan, he had flow on a commercial passenger plane, which according to MacKay was “once impossible.”

This was offered by MacKay to the assembled brain trust as further proof that NATO is making headway. MacKay’s claim is entirely baseless.

Many journalists and aid workers, myself included, who have flown to Afghanistan during this past decade have all done so on commercial passenger planes. There are a number of airlines offering flights from Pakistan, Azerbaijan and the United Arab Emirates into Afghanistan.

Even in the wake of the Taliban, enterprising Afghans established a number of small air carriers for domestic flights.

The country’s rudimentary air traffic control and challenging weather conditions meant there were frequent delays and the concurrent daylight arrivals resulted in overwhelmed airport handling services upon arrival.

Out of curiosity, I checked with a colleague of mine who was a diplomatic special envoy in Kabul during the Taliban rule. He informed me that even during that turbulent era, there were commercial flights between Kabul and Islamabad.

In other words, while air travel in Afghanistan may have been uncomfortable, and often unsafe, it was never, as MacKay claims, “once impossible,” unless he is referring to the age before airplanes were invented. In that case, I hardly think that NATO should us commercial flights as proof of the mission’s progress.

That being said, MacKay’s wishful thinking was quickly debunked by fellow panelist Amrullah Saleh. As the former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security and current anti-corruption crusader, Saleh has a solid grasp of the situation inside his country.

I first met Saleh in 2007 through an introduction from a mutual friend. At that juncture, there was a media controversy in Canada about alleged Afghan detainee abuse at a directorate-run detention centre in Kandahar.

Saleh had a good understanding of the political implications of this burgeoning scandal and as a result, he granted unrestricted access to the controversial Kandahar facility to myself and David Pugliese of the Ottawa Citizen.

On our subsequent visits to Afghanistan, Saleh provided not only a wealth of off-the-record insight, but also rare access, on two separate occasions, to interview imprisoned would-be suicide bombers.

Saleh has always maintained that NATO will never defeat the Taliban so long as they are allowed safe havens inside Pakistan.

As a spoiler to MacKay’s first-hand observations of recent progress, Saleh pointed out more than 90 per cent of the Afghan government’s operating budget comes from international donations. Take away that revenue stream and the flow of weaponry to equip the Afghan security forces and the entire institution will collapse.

Saleh’s assessment mirrors that of the International Crisis Group, which recently released a report on Afghanistan. In short, it predicted that if the international community withdraws their troops as scheduled in 2014, Afghanistan will rapidly descend into a full-scale civil war.

Of course, as long a Peter MacKay sees nothing but positive progress, there will be no impetus from Canada for NATO to alter the present course.

This is unfortunate because our current Afghanistan commitment until the end of 2014 is still two years away. Plenty of time for us to still make real progress not just flights of fancy.