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More than a hammer

There is an old saying to the effect that when a man has only a hammer in his tool box every problem starts to look like a nail.

Ruxted fears that many Canadians, including some leaders – military and civilian alike, within and outside government – are fixated on DND’s hammer and have forgotten that not all problems are nails.

Ruxted salutes the members of the Canadians Forces who plan, support and conduct operations – combat and reconstruction – in Afghanistan. But, despite the skill, hard work and gallantry of our soldiers, 'victory' in Afghanistan cannot be solely, even primarily a military task.

Too many Canadians, including some in the military and the media, do not understand the workings of traditional Afghan society; it is truly foreign. The efforts by Canadians must take this in account and Canadians need to work with the traditional tribal systems to strengthen the country. This method was initially successful with the tribal leaders of the loya jirga. Reforms to Afghan society are best taken over time - strong democratic traditions cannot be created overnight. While the elections held in 2004 and 2005 were remarkable accomplishments – one can wonder if ‘we’ (the nations involved in the UN mandated mission in Afghanistan) pushed too hard for that singular goal and in doing so forced other important aspects of Afghan culture to the wayside.

The clan is the basic building block of Afghan culture. In pushing so fast to democratize the country we isolated powerful forces that should have been (and had been) our allies in ousting the Taliban. Forces for leadership in the community where ignored and shunted aside in order to create a version of republican democracy.

Removing the Taliban left a large spiritual and leadership gap that could and should have been replaced by tribal elders. In time efforts by NGO's to help mobilize the society would, and still can have a moderating effect on the society. For example, imposing women’s rights from above on the tribal system was unpopular with many leaders. It was a necessary step which could have been made palatable by arranging, even coercing compromises with traditional leaders. This would have allowed women in the society to become a moderating and modernizing (from western outlook) element to the society without inflaming ethnic tensions between ISAF and the Afghan traditionalists.

This is not merely or even primarily a military issue - this is an issue in which the national governments of the coalition partners, the UN and non governmental aid groups failed.

NGO's complain loudly, from the safety of their comfortable offices in Kabul, that they are ignored. They are not prosecuting their mission to help the ordinary, poor, often terrorized Afghan lead a better life. The military should not be blamed for prosecuting its goal of using armed force to create a safe and secure environment - it is the hammer and its job is to go out and pound nails. The Military will keep pressing insurgents, that’s what it does. The Canadian Forces, which has been tethered for years by political caveats forbidding action, is like a dog straining on a leash - it sees its goal and is ravenous to complete the task. A key fact being overlooked is that providing military forces, while neglecting effective non-military aid, is a critical part of the problem. In terms of another familiar analogy, "when you're up to your butt in alligators it's easy to forget that you're there to drain the swamp" - the CF is in Afghanistan to kill and capture alligators; the role of DFAIT, CIDA, and NGOs is to drain the swamp through advancing women's rights and addressing opium production. While it is terrific if the military can help in those areas, one risks the entire operation by blurring the distinction between the players' primary roles. Expecting the CF to take up the slack from ineffective non-military aid organizations can only detract from their armed security task. This will spell the end of all three aspects of the Canadian government's defence, diplomacy, and development strategy.

If we use outmoded methods dictated from above - as is seen on the US driven approach to opium eradication - all we will do is alienate the farmer. Spraying may or may not be an effective means to remove the opium poppy - it does little, however, to aid the farmer, who has just lost the only cash crop which he can grow on his poor, arid soil, to support his family. NGO's and governments need to find a method that is the 80% or even 60% solution: buying the crop at fair market value for the short term, then supplementing income off other crops, to perhaps an end state of a genetically modified crop system that can thrive in Afghanistan’s less than stellar growing environment.

If you imagine Afghanistan as a house the military is the framer - going around pounding nails and putting up the walls. You need a plumber and an electrician to build the house. NGO's and National governments need to get active - mobilize the Afghan culture, accept that we are different and our outlooks will be different, to help the Afghan leadership, elected and tribal, improve the lives of their fellow citizens. Some things such as basic human rights (specifically stoning women to death) are not negotiable - but on other issues we need to make the Afghan people from all tribes understand we are there for them now and for the long term. We need to work with them at their pace to make their society the envy of South West Asia.


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Edward Campbell on :

Regarding the opium poppy crop, see this at,55306.msg511906.html#msg511906

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