Interview with See Magazine (Edmonton)

The Non-Military Solution

There is a peaceful solution to Afghanistan, but don’t expect Obama to do it, says Steven Staples

Alternative Policies | Steven Staples, director of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based advocacy group.

Although some Canadians awoke with friendlier feelings for the United States yesterday, one man is warning Canadians that newly elected U.S. president Barack Obama might not be all goodness and light.

Longtime critic of the Afghan War Steven Staples warns that Obama may ask Canada to stay in Afghanistan past Stephen Harper’s withdrawal date of 2011. And that’s not going to sit well with Canadians, he says.

Staples is the director of the Rideau Institute, an Ottawa-based advocacy group opposed to the war. He was an early advocate of negotiations with the Taliban, and was secretly monitored by the military during one of his speeches in Halifax in 2007. He says that during his current speaking tour, he has heard from many people who are very conflicted on the war in Afghanistan. He hopes his public speaking tour gives Canadians a chance to talk about both the American election and what they want in Afghanistan.

Here’s what he had to say about Obama’s policies for Afghanistan and Iraq, negotiations with the Taliban, and Canada’s changing role internationally.


SEE Magazine:
Why are you cautious about Obama?

Steven Staples: Well, I think there’s a lot to be grateful for. Everyone will be celebrating the end of George Bush’s eight years in the White House. … But Obama himself has cautioned that he has become a kind of screen upon which anyone can project whatever they want, whatever their hopes and dreams are for a politician. He certainly would mark a new direction. But let’s be realistic about it: nations don’t have friends, they have interests. Canadians should look at it with eyes wide open. What Obama is saying about Afghanistan is actually closely related to what he’s saying on Iraq. He has a policy on moving troops from Iraq to redeploy those troops to Afghanistan. He’s already signaled that he wants a greater commitment to Afghanistan from allies. He’s been on Canadian media and made it very clear that if he’s elected he will be coming to Canada and asking for more of a commitment. But we are not stuck in Afghanistan for the want of a few thousand American troops. The problem is we are pursuing a failing strategy.

SEE: But hasn’t Canada asked for more troops from other allies?

SS: That’s what some people have asked for, but those people still think that there’s a military solution to the war. There is no military solution to the war. We can’t win it militarily. The end of the war is going to happen probably by sitting around and talking to people that we don’t really like very much, and encouraging the [Hamid] Karzai government to enter into negations. In fact, that’s the trend line. … The problem is that so much of Canadian policy has been focused on how do we fight the war instead of how do we end it.

SEE: How seriously do you take Obama’s willingness to talk with the Taliban?

SS: There’s certainly been a trend towards more listening and less shooting. I think he will be more apt to listen to other partners. Certainly, the Europeans have been very critical of the U.S. approach in Afghanistan. … We’ll have to see how it goes. He’s inheriting a whole apparatus there. He can’t just change it on a dime. But I’m hopeful there will be some wisdom in the White House.

SEE: What do you think about Canada’s changing role internationally?

SS: Well, we’ve been fighting a major war since 2001, and every year it gets worse. Please tell me which strategy we should be following, because the one we are using now is not working. We have been involved in a combat role and it seems the tighter we grip our hands, the faster the sand flows though. That’s why you don’t let generals determine your approach.

SEE: What would the non-military solution to Afghanistan look like?

SS: Some of this would have to be explored, but it certainly wouldn’t be Canada leading the talks. It would be Canada supporting the Afghan government to open up a dialogue and supporting that process. Karzai has made some attempts in the past, but it has been met with skepticism and foot-dragging from international partners like Canada, whom he’s dependent upon. The problem is the insurgency is made up of a number of different groups that have different interests and different motivations.

What you want to do is try to peel off some of these different groups, which have to be legitimate, into some kind of power-sharing agreement or role. In peeling away the hardliners, there will be some spoilers and they will have to be dealt with though international security forces. … It would make sense to have troops committed from Muslim countries, like India, Jordan, and Indonesia, which contribute the lion’s share of troops to the United Nations these days, with support from Western countries in terms of training or logistics. With a peace agreement in place, that could provide enough stability for the peace agreement to take hold and create some stability. That’s the secret to ending the war and getting Canadian troops out of there.

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