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Jeffrey Simpson: Canada lost its will to fight in Afghanistan

Jeffrey Simpson

Brigitte Bouvier/The Globe and Mail

"It is a well-tested rule of counterinsurgency that the perception of time is always critical. If insurgents believe their adversaries ... have no stomach for the fight, they will eventually win at least some of their objectives," national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson writes in Wednesday's column, arguing that Canada and other NATO countries have lost their stomach for the fight.

Mr. Simpson took reader questions Wednesday about his column and Afghanistan. An edited transcript follows. Alternatively, scroll to the bottom to read the full discussion as it unfolded.

(Reading this on a mobile device? Click here for a mobile-friendly version of the live chat.)

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Moderator: Jeffrey, yours is a decidedly pessimistic take on Western involvement in Afghanistan. And yet it was a near-unanimous sentiment in 2001 that the Taliban had to be removed. Where, in your opinion, did things go wrong?

Jeffrey Simpson: The Taliban had to be removed ten years ago -- and the United Nations passed a resolution authorizing the use of force to bring about that objective -- because they had literally invited al-Qaeda to set up shop in Afghanistan from which it planned and launched attacks, notably 9/11. Once the Taliban were removed, the question became what kind of govenrment would replace it, and that remains the issue for today. Karzai has been elected, the last time in a rigged election, buit his sway does not extend much beyond Kabul, and he is not at all popular. The government is widely seen as ineffectual and corrupt. Mr. Harper has himself moaned about this fact, without being able to do anything about it. To answer the question where did it all go wrong would take several books, although Ahmed Rashid's writing are instructive. For Canada, things started going wrong when a famous general said the mission was about killing some "scumbags," namely the Taliban, reflecting a macho positioning that unfortunately was taken up by some of the early corrspondents and commentators.

Dawn: Have we not benefitted from the political prestige and military experience of the Afghan mission? It seems to me it's not a complete loss.

Jeffrey Simpson: Well, we undoubtedly gained military experience, but at a very high cost. Political prestige? Where? Washington? That's what the Canadian defence association would say, but we didn't lose much by not going to Iraq and we won't gain much by having been in Afghanistan.

Larry: Do you think it is a done deal that, once Western forces leave Afghanistan, the Taliban or Taliban-like elements will again rule, and impose the horrible human rights abuses that we saw prior to 2001?

Jeffrey Simpson: I do not, although there is a chance of inter-ethnic military clashes, up to an including some form of civil war. The danger there is that it would draw in outsiders, notably Pakistan and India.

vlad: We can not change the past ... The question is if there is still any hope for Afghanistan and its people. Also, what do we have to learn after this?

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Jeffrey Simpson: First, we learn to know what we did not know. It is usually the case that to persuade democratic electorates to engage in a discretionary military campaign, governments have to stoke up the ambitions. And so we were told that the Afghan mission was about girls' education and democratic governance, when in fact it was always about deterring the Taliban from taking over. Our goals have shifted and been diluted. We also learned, from those "scumbag" days, that counter-insurgency is not about how many of the "scumbags" you shoot, but how much support you earn among the local population. There are five or six cardinal rules for success in counter-insurgency warfare, and we repsected none of them: to wit, a preponderance of force, sealed borders, no easy sources of finance for insugents, a government more popular than that of the insurgents, a staying power that exceeds that of the insurgents.

YYDDMM: Was it ever realistic to shut off Afghanistan's borders? Could that have been done?

Jeffrey Simpson: Obviously, no. The Americans tried to stop through bombing the supply of the Viet Cong; the French build a massive fence between Algeria and Tunisia. Neither prevented insurgents from winning.

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