By Adele Cassola

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Counterpoint: Canada Should Use Diplomacy in Afghanistan, not War

By Adele Cassola

Thesis: Canada's continued military presence in Afghanistan is incurring increasingly high casualty rates, on both Canadian forces and among Afghan civilians, without achieving the coalition's goals of combating terrorism and rehabilitating Afghanistan. Canadian troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Canada should focus on meeting these goals through diplomacy and development assistance.

Summary: Canada entered the war in Afghanistan in October 2001, with a clear mandate to combat the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda terrorists in that country. However, since completing its original mission, Canada has become mired in an increasingly dangerous operation in the southern province of Kandahar, where fundamentalist Islamic Taliban insurgents have mounted renewed attacks from bases in bordering Pakistan. Faced with the ineffectiveness of military action in meeting Canada's goals, mounting Canadian casualties, and the Canadian public's disapproval of the war, Canada should withdraw its troops from the war in Afghanistan. This action would not mean an abandonment of Afghanistan to an uncertain fate. On the contrary, Canada could then focus its resources on promoting peace negotiations between the Afghan government and insurgents, while increasing development assistance for the rehabilitation of the countries impoverished citizens.

A Good Start

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) approved military action by the United States and its allies against the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, was discovered to have perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban, a ruthless Islamist regime in control of Afghanistan's government from 1996 until 2002, was known to support al-Qaeda bases within its territory.

In light of the September 11 attacks, Canadian officials believed that al-Qaeda posed a potential threat to Canada's national security. Based on this assessment and in fulfillment of its commitments as a NATO ally, Canada entered the war in Afghanistan in October 2001. Its military supported NATO troops and Afghanistan's Northern Alliance forces in their efforts to destroy al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By January 2002, the Taliban government had been toppled, al-Qaeda's training camps had been destroyed, a provisional Afghan government had been installed, and surviving Taliban and al-Qaeda members were forced to flee.

Having fulfilled their original mission, Canadian troops were scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by August 2002. Instead, Canada's mission has been repeatedly extended despite mounting evidence that military action is not the most effective means of achieving Canada's goals in Afghanistan. In 2005, 2,500 Canadian troops were transferred from the relative security of their mission with the International Stabilization Assistance Force (ISAF) in the capital of Kabul to the volatile province of Kandahar, where they engaged in combat against resurgent Taliban forces. This mission was scheduled to end in February 2009, but Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's minority government extended Canada's military commitment to the war in Afghanistan to 2011. In 2010, it was decided that, while the combat mission ends in 2011, Canadian forces would be assisting in a three year training mission through 2014.

Downward Spiral

According to Prime Minister Harper, Canada will remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks until Afghanistan is immune to the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The Canadian government describes Canada's goal in Afghanistan as eradicating these groups in order to create a viable state that will not become a haven for terrorists.

Although this is a worthy aim, military action is not the most effective means of achieving it. Beyond the initial assault on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001, military engagement has proven to be a futile tool for eliminating these groups. Al-Qaeda is a stateless network that is flexible and mobile. With cells believed to be operating in North America, Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the loss of their base in Afghanistan dealt a blow, but not a mortal one. The network's endurance was demonstrated effectively by the deadly terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002, Madrid, Spain in 2004 and London, England in 2005, all of which have been linked to al-Qaeda.

Military action is a misguided approach for eliminating Taliban influence in Afghanistan. Following NATO's initial success, Taliban forces regrouped in Pakistan and have emerged with renewed vigour. Suicide bombings, coalition casualties, and civilian casualties have increased. Canadian and coalition troops cannot defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan while they are based in Pakistan, a country with ethnic ties to Afghanistan's dominant Pashtun tribe and a long history of supporting the Taliban. Under such conditions, continually engaging Taliban fighters in battle merely worsens conditions for NATO troops and Afghan civilians without improving security in Kandahar. Amid mounting unrest in response to civilian deaths from NATO air strikes, the instability in Kandahar fuels public sympathy for the Taliban.

Despite commendable improvements in Afghanistan since 2001, evidence of persistent volatility demonstrates the limited range of possibilities that can result from military action. Several regions of Afghanistan remain under the influence of religious extremists. Afghanistan's elected President Hamid Karzai and the National Assembly government exert limited control and are accorded little respect or influence outside of Kabul. Accusations of rampant government corruption increases civilian support for the Taliban. The Afghan economy remains heavily dependent on the opium trade, which is operated by the Taliban and its allies. Many of these elements of volatility are beyond the control of NATO forces. The Canadian government's commitment to stabilizing Afghanistan would be better achieved through non-military means.

Mission Impossible

The difficulty of managing the conflict in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. Nineteenth-century British and twentieth-century Soviet attempts to occupy the country proved futile, bloody, and ultimately unachievable, despite the vast military superiority of the invading armies. This is attributable to Afghanistan's difficult geographical terrain, the divided loyalties of its ethnically diverse population, and the tenacity of its mujahideen, or rebel warriors.

In the twenty-first century, Canadian forces face an equally undefeatable enemy. The ranks of the resurgent Taliban fighters, which include religious leaders, disillusioned Northern Alliance soldiers, mujahideen, opium farmers, drug lords, unemployed Afghans, and religious zealots, seem endless. Without a serious commitment from Pakistan to cooperate in sealing its border to militants, the situation in Afghanistan will not change. In fact, it is thought that Pakistan prefers the presence of militants in the northern region in its effort to lay claim to Kashmir. Therefore, Pakistan's cooperation seems unlikely. Former President Pervez Musharraf gave religious militants effective control of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan in 2006. After this act of appeasement, attacks targeting NATO forces in Afghanistan tripled.

The demonstrated futility of Canada's mission in Afghanistan has made the Canadian public increasingly dissatisfied and angry about the presence of Canadian troops in that country. According to public opinion polls, Canadians broadly supported Canada's initial military contribution in Afghanistan, but by July 2007, 50 percent favoured the withdrawal of troops before February 2009 and only 16 percent were in favour of postponing that deadline. Increasingly, the war is perceived as a failure among Canadians, few of whom believe that Canadian troops are helping the situation of ordinary Afghan citizens. Furthermore, in 2009, Canadian public opinion reflected the belief that the number of fatalities among Canadian troops in Afghanistan was unacceptable.

Unacceptable Costs

By May 2011, 155 Canadian soldiers had been killed in Afghanistan. Canadian fatalities in 2007 occurred at a rate five times higher than that of Canada's 36 allies also with troops in Afghanistan. This is an unacceptable human cost for a mission with goals that would be better served through other means. As the danger of Canada's mission increases, so does its financial cost. Canada is projected to spend billions of dollars in revenue in the coming years on its involvement in Afghanistan. In 2011, Canada's total spending on the Afghanistan has been estimated at between $13 to $16 billion.

Canada's contribution to NATO's military campaign in Afghanistan dwarfs that of many of its allies. Spain, which suffered a terrorist attack on its citizens in 2004, had only 550 troops stationed in Afghanistan in 2007. Countries such as Germany and France have refused to send their troops to unstable, violence-ridden areas like Kandahar. Canadian troops and taxpayers should not be burdened with continued extensions of Canada's Afghanistan mission simply because of the reluctance of allies to place their own soldiers in danger.

Shifting Focus

Canada should properly evaluate its mission in Afghanistan, admit the inability of military action to achieve its goals, and withdraw its troops immediately. This does not mean that Canada should abandon Afghanistan and its people to an uncertain fate. It is in Canada's interest to invest in a stable and peaceful future for Afghanistan. One viable alternative is the facilitation of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This alternative is broadly acceptable to the Afghan and Canadian publics, key figures within the Afghan and US governments, and senior members of the Taliban.

Development assistance, also known as foreign aid, is another critical means of rehabilitating Afghanistan. Canada's Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence has warned that if NATO is to win the support of the Afghan public for its efforts against insurgents, the quality of life of Afghan citizens must be visibly improved through development efforts. In February 2006, Canada pledged its assistance to the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan until February 2011, and Prime Minister Harper has committed $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan until that time.

However, the proportion of resources allocated to development assistance remains relatively insignificant. Of the $4 billion that Canada had spent on its commitments in Afghanistan to date in January 2008, military spending accounted for 90 percent and only 5 percent was allocated to reconstruction efforts. For Afghanistan to stand a chance of becoming a viable state, Canada must reallocate its resources toward reform and rehabilitation. This also means ensuring that aid dollars are used effectively and are not drained off by corrupt Afghan government officials, as has allegedly been the case since 2002.


Canada must alter the nature of its commitment in Afghanistan from military action to increased diplomacy and development assistance, regardless of whether its allies contribute their forces to fill the resulting security void in Kandahar. Withdrawing Canadian troops and reallocating Canada's resources through these channels is the most secure investment in Afghanistan's future and Canada's best insurance against terrorist attacks emanating from that country.

Ponder This

  1. The author argues that history is doomed to repeat itself in Afghanistan. Does the author offer convincing evidence for this argument? Explain.

  2. Evaluate the relative contributions of military action, development assistance and diplomacy to the future of Afghanistan based on the evidence presented.

  3. Which is the strongest argument made by the author in favour of a withdrawal from Afghanistan? Which is the weakest? Why?

  4. Are there other arguments for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan that the author fails to cover? If so, assess their relative strengths and weaknesses.



Buckley, Mary and Rick Fawn, eds. Global Responses to Terrorism: 9/11, Afghanistan and Beyond. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Pigott, Peter. Canada in Afghanistan: The War So Far. Toronto: Dunburn Press, 2007.

"Why Are We There?" Canada and the World Backgrounder 71.6 (May 2006): 17-23.

Caplan, David. "Staying the Course in Afghanistan Means Abandoning Reason." Canadian Dimension. Mar/April 2007. Vol. 41.: 24-26.

Dyer, Gwynne. "Fresh Eyes Won’t Help in Afghanistan." Opinion. The Hamilton Spectator. 19 May 2009: A11.


Canada. Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. "Canadian Troops in Afghanistan: Taking a Hard Look at a Hard Mission. 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. February 2007. Parliament of Canada. 6 February 2008

"Canada's role in Afghanistan shifts to reconstruction." 7 May 2009. World. 21 May 2009

"More Canadians feel too many soldiers lost: poll." 12 July 2007. News. 5 January 2008

Power, Samantha. "Keeping Canada in Afghanistan." Time. 17 April 2008. 21 May 2009,9171,1731892,00.html.

Cassola, Adele. "Counterpoint: Canada Should Use Diplomacy In Afghanistan, Not War." Canadian Points Of View: Afghanistan (2009): 3. Canadian Points of View Reference Centre. Web. 1 Apr. 2013.

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