Afghan mission hinges on Obama

Whether Canadian troops stay or leave Afghanistan could largely depend on the eloquence of U.S. President Barack Obama and his ability to rally western nations, says former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier.

Rick Hillier

HALIFAX — Whether Canadian troops stay or leave Afghanistan could largely depend on the eloquence of U.S. President Barack Obama and his ability to rally western nations, says former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier.

“I think he can shape the opinions and thoughts of people,” the former general said Saturday.

U.S. Senator John McCain, who conceded his presidential ambitions were sunk by Obama’s ability to deliver a hopeful message, agreed and said it was imperative for the president to lay out the way ahead.

He told the Halifax international security forum there should be no talk of exit dates and exit strategies in Afghanistan until the situation is turned around.

McCain said “success” in the war-torn country is the way out of the conflict.

But Michael Semple, a Carr Centre academic who was an European Union representative in Kabul, said a troop surge by itself won’t bring the fighting to an end.

Instead of hunting down Taliban leaders in Pakistan, the international community should be looking “to bring them to the negotiating table to actually talk our way to re-stabilizing Afganistan.”

Najam Sethi, a newspaper editor and TV commentator in Pakistan, said the key is to pry the Taliban away from Al-Qaeda and one simple reality needs to be recognized in Washington, Ottawa and other capitals.

“You have to find accommodation with the Afghan Taliban,” he said.

“You can’t start talking exit strategies. That’s self-defeating. It’s a sign of weakness.”

Semple even suggested that fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar be given another opportunity to “do the right thing” and renounce Al-Qaeda.

Hillier scoffed at that notion.

“I don’t believe in talking to the Taliban as a structured organization because fundamentally I cannot comprehend what we would discuss,” he said. “Would we hand over the women so they could beat them and brutalize them on a periodic basis? Would we hand over a part of the country so they could run it that way?”

What’s needed, Hillier said, is clear, articulate vision if the war is to be rescued within the next 18 months and Obama is the one to deliver it.

“I think that ability could influence a lot of populations outside of the United States of America, including people in Canada and western Europe,” said Hillier, who retired from the top military post last year.

He took a swipe at Ottawa’s absence from the public dialogue, beyond the country’s self-imposed withdrawal date of 2011.

“In Canada all we ever hear about is the soldiers who are killed and whose bodies are brought back to Canada; secondly improvised explosive devices and thirdly corruption in government,” Hillier said. “There is much more to issue than that and perhaps a guy like President Obama with his ability to speak and communicate could help communicate it.”

Hillier and McCain made their remarks one day after Ottawa began to cement its 2011 withdrawal plans.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he’s been talking with other nations, including the U.S., about providing security for Canadian diplomats and aid workers whose mission will continue after the army comes home.

His American counterpart, Defence Secretary Robert Gates, said planning for the Canadian army pull-out is well underway.

Semple, one of the foremost experts on Afghanistan, said that the absence of resolve shown by Western countries is noticed in the region and the message needs to be sent that they’re there for the long-term.

Otherwise, he says, locals in both Afghanistan and Pakistan will throw their lot in with the Taliban because they want to be on the winning side.

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