While in Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban, I was taken aside by a local man during a visit to a village, a typical Afghan farmer but with a passion for geography. Why, he wanted to know, had the United States, who sent the Arab jihadis to help the Afghans fight the Russians, forgotten Afghanistan after the Russians were gone? And why had the US returned a few years later, insisting that these Arab heroes were now devils and must be exterminated?

This was a pro-American Afghan who regarded the US and the West as the most sophisticated and intelligent society in the world. But he was genuinely puzzled as to why such an obviously intelligent society should be suffering from a strange mental lapse – an inability to recognize that our own actions led to the development of serious problems over a very short time period.

For him, it represented a sort of societal Alzheimer’s disease. He had a point. He recognized that our overwhelming present-minded approach to the problems we are facing is creating new problems rather than solving old ones.

What are our reasons for being in Afghanistan?

First, the intervention is meant to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks in Canada. Quite frankly, this is nonsense. To quote a recent RAND report, “There are terrorists – those who employ terrorist tactics, but there is no such thing as the terrorists – some perennial group of bad guys who ride from town to town terrorizing citizens until someone guns them down.” We did not particularly care why the insurgents we backed were fighting the Russians in Afghanistan as long as they would fight.

In my view, this war is unwinnable if we keep concentrating on the military/technological side without undercutting the worldview that motivates our enemies. Any long-term deployment of Western troops in Muslim countries will only make matters worse.

For all the technical excellence of our Net-centric Warfare technology, our enemies have perfected camouflage to the extent that makes them virtually invisible whether they are in Afghanistan or in the countries of the West.

We cannot operate in this war without bases to retreat to. We sally out from them like Martians in a foreign landscape. This confirms the jihadist ideology that we are the ‘other’, occupying Muslim lands. This camouflage also undercuts our vision of a liberal democratic state at home by spreading the fear that the ‘other’ is appearing among our citizenry.

The camouflage is so effective that our soldiers cannot pursue this war without killing many more local people in ‘collateral damage’ in their efforts to engage the enemy. However professional they are, the frustration of fighting this kind of asymmetrical war is bound to lead to incidents like Haditha. Even Canadian troops will not be immune.

Military occupation as a rule makes things more dangerous for both national and international aid workers. For years, CARE operated in Saddam’s Iraq and in Taliban Afghanistan doing essential work under difficult conditions. It was only after the deployment of Western troops that our Country Director was murdered in Iraq and our office burned in Afghanistan.

In short, our concentration on the military and technological side of things, especially the deployment of our troops in a war-fighting capacity in Afghanistan, is making Canada a more likely target for terrorist attacks; it is also making the efforts of humanitarian workers more dangerous. In addition, it is deflecting attention from diplomatic efforts to solve important conflicts in Somalia, Darfur, Kosovo, Kashmir and West/Bank Gaza.

The second reason we are in Afghanistan is to demonstrate our commitment to the United Nations and the international community. If we look at the figures, the opposite seems to be true. In 1992-93 we spent $510 million on international operations by our military; put simply, for every $10, $9.27 was spent on UN operations. In 2004-05, we spent $1.1 billion on international operations by our armed forces – for every $10, $0.31 was spent on UN-led operations. In 1992-93, we had 4,000 military personnel deployed on UN missions; in 2004-05, this number was down to 216.

This is not just a Canadian phenomenon. As a RAND report puts it: “Western troops form a much smaller share of UN forces today than 40, or even ten years ago. As a result, Western militaries are denying themselves invaluable experience in the conduct of stability operations, reducing the United Nations’ prospects of success and thereby making more costly and more controversial Western-led interventions more likely. The United States has led the way in this form of burden shirking. Many European governments have followed suit. Of the more than 58,000 UN peacekeeping troops currently deployed around the world, just eleven are American. Thirteen are German. Seven are Belgian and two are Dutch.”

If we were to accept the generalized criticism of the UN as gospel, then I suppose this policy shift could be rationalized. However, if we look at both the success and cost of UN operations, it is a highly dubious strategy. As the same report puts it:

“(The UN) leads the largest number of nation-building missions world-wide, and, although it has had its share of nation-building failures, it has also been behind a larger number of successes than is generally recognized…The United Nations currently deploys more than 58,000 soldiers in 17 different countries at a cost of under $4 billion per year. That is less than the United States spends on one month’s operations in Iraq.”

The truth is we are not deploying our forces in Afghanistan to show our commitment to the UN or the international community. Instead, we are demonstrating our loyalty to our key ally, the United States. Afghanistan is a military laboratory to test the interoperability of the Canadian Armed Forces as auxiliary troops in the new concept of Net-Centric Warfare being developed by the US.

Canadians have always operated as auxiliary troops to major military powers so there is nothing wrong with that per se. The question is whether the geopolitical strategy of our major ally jives with our national interest. The results of our historical deployments or non-deployments have been mixed. Probably, current analysts would say they did not reflect our national interest in the Boer War and WWI, but they did reflect those interests in WWII, Korea and in our non-deployment (at least as combat troops) to Vietnam. Only time will tell if the commitment to Afghanistan will fall into the former or latter category.

Our final reason for being in Afghanistan is to leave behind a stable democratic nation state. It is difficult to see how this can be accomplished. Afghanistan has always been a diverse polity where power is concentrated at the local rather than national level. As well, it is surrounded by states with their own national interests whose influence on Afghan affairs is strong and often at cross-purposes. This is because their languages and ethnicities bleed over the border into the geographical entity that is Afghanistan.

President Karzai, whose roots are in the south, knows very well that the persistence of the Taliban is directly related to the cross-border support it receives from Pakistan. A few thousand coalition troops face an impossible task in overcoming this insurgency if that cross-border support continues. And it is likely to continue because it is in the interest of the military regime in Pakistan.

What are the prospects for a stable, sustainable Afghan state? The total Afghan government budget for the year 2005-06 is US$609 million. The government only manages to generate US$309 million itself through direct taxes and customs. The cost of Canada’s military deployment to Afghanistan for the same period is US$943 million (or US$643 million in incremental costs). In other words, just our military deployment to one small part of Afghanistan costs us more than three times as much as the Afghan government raises in total revenue. What likelihood is there that this government will become sustainable over the three-year period of our deployment?

Or let us put it another way. In 2005, opium exports from Afghanistan generated US$2.7 billion; US$560 million of this went to farmers and US$2.14 billion went to drug traffickers. In other words, poor citizens received a direct cash infusion from illicit trade of almost twice what the government collected in formal taxes. The drug traffickers whose interests are diametrically opposed to the formation of a functioning state are currently able to use almost seven times the resources than that incipient state collects in taxes. You can be sure that they will use a large part of these resources to frustrate the establishment of a functioning state. The international community has committed a total of US$490 million as funds for alternative livelihoods in upcoming years to roll back this situation.

Under these circumstances, it’s very unlikely that a three-year military deployment will provide the basis for the development of a stable democratic state in Afghanistan.

The truth of the matter is that our strategy for reconstituting failed states – military intervention followed by democratic elections – is failing because our own states and the empire that underpins it are failing. On both the military and development side we seem to be caught up in a pernicious case of group-think, which is leading us towards disaster.

Let me end by giving the last word, like the first, to an Afghan.

When the British first began their military moves against Afghanistan, the British Resident in Baluchistan said to the Khan of Kalat, in an effort to elicit a reaction, ”The British army has entered Kabul without firing a bullet.” The worldly-wise Mir Mehrab Khan, instead of answering, began to stare at the sky. “You make no answer,” the Resident said. “You seem lost in thought.” The old Khan replied, “Yes, I am thinking. You people have entered this country, but how will you get out?”

For the sake of our soldiers, I sincerely hope our leaders are giving serious thought to the old Khan’s question.

John Watson is president of CARE Canada. This article is adapted from a presentation to a conference in June hosted by Queen’s Centre for International Relations and Defence Management Studies, The US Army War College and Canadian Forces Land Force Doctrine and Training Systems.