Jul 09 2010

On the G20, Afghanistan and a Question of Priorities

Should the government be spending large amounts of tax dollars to protect diplomats from harassment or protect vulnerable civilians in a far-away land from murderous bandits? Actually, I think we can and should do both. I contrasted the recent security operation for the G20 in Toronto with operations in Afghanistan in The Mark.

An excerpt:

For the G20 conference in Toronto, we had 19,000 security personnel. Crusades have been launched with fewer boots on the ground. The centre of Canada’s most famous metropolis was turned into a passable imitation of the Green Zone of Iraq. The security price tag was around $1 billion for just a few days – and again, to secure only a tiny stretch of downtown.

And what did this draconian exercise achieve? For all that was spent, did this overwhelming force actually manage to prevent every conceivable threat?

Well, yes and no.

First, the no. Everyone’s seen the photographs of blazing police cruisers – oddly, with police standing in rough formation not far away, and seemingly in no rush to stop the spectacle. And a bunch of businesses got their windows smashed in.

Now, the yes. Did the cops achieve their main objective? Sure. No troublemaker got within 300 yards of any G20 leader, diplomat, or economist.

And I suppose that’s the point. The clear aim of the security apparatus was to protect conference attendees. They certainly did that. So what if some cop cars got burnt? That’s what security is for – they take the hit so ordinary folks don’t have to worry about it.

Was it all necessary? By any reasonable accounting, no. But then, how much of a price do we put on preventing the distinguished viceroy of Italy from embarrassment? A broken arm? I suppose it’s somewhere on the lower end between $1 and $1 billion, but I couldn’t tell you precisely what it is.

Now we turn to Afghanistan. Americans are boosting their troop presence in Afghanistan to 100,000 by September. Other countries are upping their commitment in dribs and drabs; the French are shipping in another 250 soldiers. Meanwhile, in the absence of any coherent policy, governments like Canada’s are looking for the exits. How many troops and guns are really needed?

Again, it’s hard to put a number on it. Clearly, better security is needed. This, despite the number of troops currently on the ground and the military training dollars – $27 billion from the U.S. alone – that have to date produced an Afghan Security Force wholly unfit to defend even small pockets of their own sovereign territory.

But again, what is the objective?

We want to prevent assassinations and bombings of key leaders in Afghanistan from the township on up to the President’s office. We want to stop the enemy from going into villages and raping, pillaging, and executing anyone who doesn’t offer up their son for service with the jihad.

We want girls to be able to go to school without worrying about getting burnt alive or having their faces sprayed with acid. And it would be awfully nice if we could ensure humanitarian aid workers and other nice foreign personnel don’t get summarily machine-gunned as “spies” by the Taliban.

And we ultimately want to prevent the country from sliding into a regional civil war that could end the lives of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people.

These are certainly worthy objectives. How much is this worth? Again, I don’t know. Somewhere between $1 and $1 trillion, I suppose – probably closer to the higher figure.

The article elicited the following response from some guy named wsam:

I think it was Jack Layton who first suggested we talk with the Taliban. A suggestion for which renowned military expert Peter McKay and the Conservative caucus ridiculed him. Of course, anyone who has been following the debate in US strategic circles and who consequently understands COIN and the evolution of US strategy under Patreus and McCrystal understands US strategy is based on talking to the Taliban and has been for quite awhile. The problem right now is the Taliban consider themselves to be winning – so why would they need to make deals.

And my reply:

Wsam, it may very well have been Jack Layton who first suggested talking to the Taliban. It makes as little sense as it does now. The Taliban are not a popular resistance movement in Afghanistan. They are murdering thugs with no redeeming platform, except perhaps the part about dying for their cause, which I’m fully on board with.

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