Steven Staples debates General Lewis MacKenzie on CTV's Question Period, March 8, 2009

On Sunday, Steven Staples and retired General Lewis MacKenzie were on CTV’s Question Period with Craig Oliver and Jane Taber discussing the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Watch the video clip from Question Period or read the transcript below.

Transcript from CTV’s Question Period, March 8, 2009

CRAIG OLIVER: In Afghanistan, the death toll continues, once again the sad and dreary procession, three caskets returning of Canadian troops killed last week in Afghanistan. And this time one wonders if a serious rethink is taking place about what Canada, what NATO is doing there, and what it should be doing. To discuss that with myself and Jane, we’re joined by retired General Lew MacKenzie, and by Steve Staples of the Rideau Institute. Lew, you first. President Obama said on the weekend in the New York Times we are losing. Is this an admission you’re surprised to hear?

LEWIS MACKENZIE (Retired Major General): No, not at all. And I hope he said that not just because we’re not handling the insurgency with adequate numbers, it’s a message to NATO. Look, folks, there are 25 other nations here other than the United States from America who are now promising 30,000 additional troops, 17,000 on their way, and that’s not enough, you really have to step up to the plate, and other than Canada and the UK, you haven’t been doing that lately.

OLIVER: Steve, do you think what he’s saying is time to rethink what we’re doing in Afghanistan?

STEVE STAPLES (Rideau Institute): Well I think that’s exactly the message. I would disagree with Lew. I don’t think it’s a message to send more troops, I don’t think that’s going to happen, to other NATO countries. He’s essentially saying that, he’s preparing the ground for a change in strategy here, that expectations about what can be achieved are going to have to be reduced, and that we may have to look at more of a diplomatic role here. He’s appointed Richard Holbrooke there who’s known for his diplomatic skills. I think that’s going to be the general tone of the Obama administration going forward in Afghanistan.

JANE TABER: Well interesting that Obama made those comments because last week Prime Minister Harper also made some very controversial comments about the Taliban. Let’s have a listen to what he said on CNN.

STEPHEN HARPER (Canadian Prime Minister): The issue in Canada, Fried, I don’t think is whether we stay or whether we go, the issue that Canadians ask is are we being successful? And…

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What’s your answer to that right now?

HARPER: Right now we have made gains. Those gains are not irreversible, so the success has been modest.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So then why leave?

HARPER: We’re not going to win this war just by staying. We’re not going to, in fact, my own judgment, Fried, is quite frankly we are not going to ever defeat the insurgency.

TABER: Well that was pretty remarkable that he says he doesn’t think we’re ever going to be able to defeat the insurgency.

MACKENZIE: I’ve been saying that on this network for three and a half years.

TABER: And he’s just catching up to you.

MACKENZIE: Well, I wouldn’t put it that way, no. But the fact is that people just don’t seem to understand insurgencies. Witness what happened in Northern Ireland today, you know, the IRA killed two British soldiers. The same thing is going on in Peru, in Colombia, and Spain, with insurgencies that are controlled, though. They’re reduced to the point of irrelevance, and that’s what we have to achieve in Afghanistan, and we can achieve it in Afghanistan. And Steve’s wrong because we’re already augmenting from other countries within NATO and the 15, now 15, not 14, non-NATO countries. But nowhere, let me just give you an example. In Bosnia, one soldier for every 66 civilians, in Kosovo, one soldier for every 50, in Afghanistan, one security soldier for every 653 Afghan civilians. Now you just take it from there, there are not enough to guarantee security.

TABER: Well, Steve, is the answer, then, just more soldiers? Because it doesn’t seem like that’s…

STAPLES: That’s one of them.

TABER: Yeah, but it doesn’t seem that’s the way governments are going right now.

STAPLES: I don’t think that’s the way, I don’t mean to put General MacKenzie on the spot, but it was an op ed in February where you said your worst nightmare would be that the government would stop trying to defeat the insurgency. But I think that’s actually what Mr. Harper is essentially saying is we’re not going to measure victory by defeating the insurgency. There’s going to be always a level of violence there so that when Canadian troops withdraw by 2011, don’t expect to have a completely pacified country and schools and everything else. So it’s a, and this is in line with what the US is essentially saying, that we got to get back to the original goal in Afghanistan which was to prevent it from being a base for international terrorism. That is focusing on al-Qaeda and the international terrorism. It was by extension that we were trying to defeat the Taliban. Our military is suited for a sprint where the insurgents are long-distance runners and our military is essentially worn out.

MACKENZIE: Steve, it’s not our military that’s fighting the battle, it’s 41, well, 40 nations in addition to ourselves.

OLIVER: They’re not there.

MACKENZIE: They’re not there. They’re not there taking it seriously. At least a significant number of them are not.

OLIVER: But, Lew, there are other generals like yourself who say if we can’t win militarily in a counterinsurgency war, we can’t win. The development can’t happen.

MACKEZIE: I hate to sound like President Clinton. You have to define win, okay. And winning in a conventional war is a sign that not an armistice, a ceasefire, surrender, it’s a parade, a ticker tape parade, it’s not going to be that. But it’s going to be reducing the Taliban to irrelevance. And you do that by guaranteeing security to the population of Afghanistan. That’s the way you wean the less radical elements of the Taliban to come over and join Afghan society, because the wacko extreme of the Taliban movement is relatively small and can be handled by the Afghan security forces.

TABER: But, as you say, because I wanted to ask you about that, is there a moderate Taliban, and is there somebody that, you know, that we could negotiate with in order to help do what you say should be done to get rid of the insurgency?

STAPLES: Well that’s my view. It’s also the view of President Obama who said in the New York Times there’s probably elements within the insurgency that we can deal with. We heard Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, the same week that our prime minister was making those comments, he was also making comments and delineating the different insurgent groups that were involved there and trying to move them over. That’s the diplomatic solution that we’ve been advocating for years now that we need to break apart the insurgency, have some kind of reconciliation or negotiation process, and bring them over to underneath the auspices of the government. Then maybe the Afghan national army might be able to handle the holdouts but they can’t fight the same conflict which…

MACKENZIE: But you don’t bring them over by negotiating with 50 people on the other side of the table. You bring them over by convincing, I hate to use the term, the grassroots population of Afghanistan, where the head of the household says, look, the security for me and my family from now on rests with the international forces and ultimately with the Afghan security forces and not with these guys coming over the border.

OLIVER: Finally, is the real problem here increasingly not Afghanistan but the Afghanization of Pakistan?

MACKENZIE: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like Cambodia was to the Vietnam War. You can’t have an RNR, rest and recuperation area, just across some…

OLIVER: Cambodia didn’t have nuclear weapons.

MACKENZIE: That’s right, yeah, which makes it even more serious, and another enemy on the other side of its border from Afghanistan. So, yeah, it certainly has to be included. Richard Holbrooke, who Steve mentioned, and I’ve dealt with and I’ve never been impressed with Richard Holbrooke, but I have to admire what he does. He’s a bully. Even if you don’t agree with him, he gets it done, as he did in the Balkans, so things are going to change over there, maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, I’m not sure which, but he’s the man.

OLIVER: Last word to you, Steve, on the question of Pakistan, is that what we should be worrying about now as much as Afghanistan?

STAPLES: Well I think you noted that President Obama is dealing with both at the same time. Richard Holbrooke is a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There’s always been not just a solution for a negotiation entirely in Afghanistan, but certainly a regional solution as well. We may see Iran playing even a larger role in this. Obama is the game changer here. Everybody is looking to him to sort of rearrange the chess match here and see if he can come up with some kind of solution. So we’re all waiting to see what the result of his review is going to bring.

TABER: Great discussion, gentlemen, thank you very much for joining us today. We appreciate your time.

STAPLES: Sure.

MACKENZIE: A pleasure.

OLIVER: Coming up next, our press gallery journalists.

TABER: As we head to break, some words from Mishelle Brown, the widow of one of our soldiers who was killed in Afghanistan last week.

MISHELLE BROWN (Widow of Fallen Soldier): We may not be able to beat the Taliban. You know what, there’s lots of things in our life we can’t beat. You don’t have to support the mission in Afghanistan, but you can support what they’re doing. They’re trying and they’re working hard.

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