WASHINGTON Canadian and other foreign armies can't defeat the Taliban, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in an interview broadcast Sunday.
“Frankly, we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency,” Mr. Harper said, more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime. Canadian troops have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan since 2002, but this is the first time the Prime Minister has explicitly said defeating the Islamic extremists can't be done.
Mr. Harper, in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, said that despite sending thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan and suffering more than 100 troop deaths, the “success has been modest” and any gains made could be lost.
“We're not going to win this war just by staying,” Mr. Harper said, and pointed to the long history of Afghan insurgencies successfully driving out foreign invaders – including the Soviet army in the 1980s and the British a century earlier.
“[From] my reading of Afghanistan history, it's probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind,” Mr. Harper said.
But Mr. Harper didn't rule out sending more troops or extending the Canadian combat commitment beyond the current 2011 deadline.
Despite unambiguous and repeated assertions – as recently as last week by Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon – that Canada won't extend its combat role in Afghanistan, Mr. Harper seemed to leave a little wiggle room on Sunday.
Asked if he would reject such a request from America's new president, Barack Obama, who has just ordered more than 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan and has vowed to defeat the insurgency, Mr. Harper ducked the question, responding instead by saying: “If President Obama were to ask me that question, I would have a question back for him. And that question would be: ‘What is your plan to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans.'” Mr. Harper said the paramount issue for Canadians was not “whether we stay or whether we go,” but rather “are we being successful?” He suggested that after more than three years of deploying the biggest battle group Canada has sent overseas since the Korean War, “we have made gains. Those gains are not irreversible, so the success has been modest.”
Although Mr. Obama has made clear that he regards military success as only one dimension of eventual success in Afghanistan, he has never suggested defeating the insurgency can't be done.
Rather he has exhorted allies to do more militarily.
“We must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan,” Mr. Obama said during his major foreign-policy speech in Berlin during the election campaign. “The Afghan people need our troops and your troops, our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
And just before his trip to Ottawa and the announcement he was sending 17,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, Mr. Obama said the war in “Afghanistan is still winnable,” although he made clear that solving “the problem of Afghanistan, the Taliban, the spread of extremism” cannot be accomplished “solely through military means.”
However, with a NATO summit next month and Mr. Obama keen to secure more military commitments from increasingly reluctant European allies, Mr. Harper's assessment that defeating the insurgency is impossible may reinforce the split in the alliance.
Canada is one of the very few allies so far willing to send soldiers to southern Afghanistan, heartland of the Taliban where the insurgency has been growing. For Ottawa to be taking the position that foreign troops can't deliver victory may make Mr. Obama's task harder.
Mr. Harper said he welcomed the President's decision to send U.S. troops to relieve the embattled Canadian contingent. “We're delighted to have them, especially in Kandahar,” he said. But, he added, he wants to know Mr. Obama's strategy “for success and for an eventual departure.”