Pitching a long view of Afghan mission
From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
Almost since he returned from Afghanistan at summer’s end, Colonel Mike Capstick has been on the road.
The former commander of the first Canadian Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul — the second iteration of 15 men and women there to lend their strategic-planning skills to the fledging Afghan government in place now — has been crisscrossing the nation, talking about Canada’s mission in that exhausted country.
Sometimes, he speaks to army officers or other friendly audiences, where he is preaching to the converted, but, as often, he has been on university campuses, in the editorial boardrooms of newspapers and other places where support for Canadian involvement is hardly a given.
Interestingly, Col. Capstick said of his seven-city tour, “If there is overwhelming opposition to the mission, I haven’t seen it.”
Normally blunt, the 54-year-old colonel is about to become, as he told a small group of graduate students at York University yesterday, Citizen Capstick, and that has served only to make him even more frank.
His bottom-line message is this: Canadians viewing Afghanistan though the lens of our combat operations there should understand that it’s akin to looking at the country through a straw.
With Canadian blood being spilled, and the solemn faces of young soldiers carrying the caskets of their friends all too regularly appearing on our TV screens, it’s perfectly understandable that media and public alike should focus on combat and its toll, he says. But it is, nonetheless, a misleading glimpse of an enormously complicated place that has made remarkable progress since the U.S. invasion five years ago and the fall of the Taliban.
He began his presentation yesterday with a single slide — he is a soldier, which means he’s organized up the yin-yang — which remained on the screen for a very long time.
It’s a picture Col. Capstick took on the occasion of the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, Sept. 18, 2005, and it shows a long line of Afghans standing in what appears to be the middle of nowhere, but was in fact “two kilometres away from what was a still-smoking hole in the ground” where at dawn that morning an Afghan National Police patrol had been blown apart by insurgents, killing five.
The message was pretty clear.
Yet, all those ordinary Afghans stood in the sun, in temperatures of about 40 degrees, for hours and hours for the opportunity to vote, and though the turnout wasn’t as high as it had been for the earlier election of President Hamid Karzai (causing some cluck-clucking from international observers), it was nonetheless “a lot higher than in any recent Canadian federal election,” Col. Capstick said.
He was there that day with several other Canadians: Grant Kippen, who headed the electoral complaints commission, the independent body charged with making sure the vote was fair; Ali Mahti, the country director of the Aga Khan Foundation; Chris Alexander, then the Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and now a wheel at the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan; and a young man Col. Capstick described as a “transformational leader.”
Together, Col. Capstick said, they and the work they were doing offer a much fuller illustration of the breadth of Canadian efforts in Afghanistan, which run the gamut from diplomatic to the Canadian International Development Agency to the RCMP. And unlike combat operations, what he called “taking casualties and inflicting casualties,” that bigger picture offers evidence that things have improved.
The turbulent south aside, he said, “most of the country is mostly stable most of the time. . . . Development is occurring, kids are going to school, girls, too; schools are being built and they’re not being burned down, and little power and irrigation projects are being built.”
Col. Capstick is honest about the significant problems that remain. “Why is the insurgency there, in the south?” he asked.
First, he said, it’s because the international security force was too small in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion. There simply weren’t enough troops to do the job, only 8,000 in the early days when one former warlord alone had a private militia of 20,000 men at his command.
Even now, Col. Capstick said, the NATO total of fewer than 40,000 soldiers is a far cry from the 60,000 who poured into Bosnia-Herzegovina in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Dayton Accord, and that country already had an existing infrastructure and civil society, whereas Afghanistan’s had been reduced to ruins after three decades of invasion, insurgency, civil war and repression.
Second, tribal lords and simple drug criminals finessed their way into positions of power in the new government, and while some have since gone, “there are still some pretty unattractive people in the Afghan parliament, and the Afghan people are tired of this.”
What these characters have in common is not ideology, he said, but rather a decided interest in making sure that the rule of law isn’t established and thus that the international community is driven out. The Taliban proper want to re-establish their thuggish theocracy; the drug boys want to grow and sell their poppy uninterrupted; the tribal bosses don’t want to give up authority and power. Together, they are what we call now, out of convenience, the Taliban, and together or separately they offer the largely illiterate, grossly impoverished, unemployed young men of Afghanistan something, even if just $100 for the family left behind and a chance at briefly being cannon fodder for coalition troops.
Similarly, the amount of international aid that has poured into the country (like the number of soldiers, not enough) is often invisible, what is sometimes called “phantom aid.” Non-governmental aid organizations, while quick to respond to humanitarian disasters and emergencies, revert to bureaucratic procedures that may see simple projects take two years from idea to implementation, and many NGOs hire consultants, some of whom, Col. Capstick said, “make big promises and are never seen again.”
Add to that the fact that the entire country suffers from what he called “abandonment anxiety,” the legitimate fear that the world will once again turn its back on Afghanistan.
The last slide the colonel showed yesterday was one of a gorgeous Afghan girl, who looks, he said, much younger than her age because she is chronically undernourished, as are so many of her countrymen.
“Canada,” he said, “has made a commitment to Afghanistan in word and in deed, and as a human being, as a Canadian . . . I took that picture, and all you gotta do is look in that kid’s eyes, full of piss and vinegar like every kid.”
For a year, Col. Capstick and his group worked intimately with Afghan leaders and the bright young things who are trying to build a nation. His affection for the place and its people is as clear as his belief in what Canada is doing there.
One thing remains a complete mystery to him, “totally impenetrable,” he said, and that’s the office of The Master of the Special Pen. The occupant has lunch with President Karzai every day, but Mike Capstick still hasn’t a clue what he does.