Debate Afghan War Goals, Then Select Strategy

(Written with Adnan Zulfiqar, and initially published in The Japan Times, Nov. 7, 2009)

The current debate in the United States over the war effort in Afghanistan contains no shortage of opinions on the best strategy for defeating the Taliban, but far too little discussion regarding the actual objectives of the war. The famous Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote about war that “the political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation of their purpose.” But in the current debate on Afghanistan we risk doing just that — arguing about strategy without a clear understanding of our goals.

So what are the objectives in Afghanistan? What is the purpose for which we are fighting this war? The problem is that they have shifted over time. At the outset, the coalition invasion of Afghanistan was an act of collective self-defense in response to the 9/11 attacks. The objective was to prevent further attack by disrupting and destroying al-Qaida forces operating out of Afghanistan, and overthrowing the Taliban regime that supported them. … Read more…

Canadian Government Hiding Behind “Operational Secrecy”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is reported to be refusing to answer questions as to when he learned of the military’s decision to cease turning detainees over to Afghan authorities (Jan. 26 – “PMO Backtracks”), on grounds that to do so could “endanger the lives of Canadian Forces personnel”.

This is utter rubbish, as there is no conceivable scenario in which the disclosure of when he learned of the decision could be of any value to insurgent forces in Afghanistan, far less impact on any actual operations in Afghanistan. But it is far more dangerous that we increasingly allow our government to use assertions of “national security” and “military operations” considerations to shield their own acts, omissions, and policy decisions from the public eye. The detainee issue involves questions of Canada’s compliance with international law, and is thus of public importance.

There are times when national security requires secrecy, but we must be rigorous in demanding that the government justify with precision their attempts to invoke such secrecy. The media, in particular, should demand explanations of public figures as to how, exactly, the disclosure that is being refused would pose a threat to national security.


Bagram Prison, the U.S.-Afghani Detainee Agreements, and Int’l Law

The New York Times carried a detailed piece on the U.S. detention policy in Afghanistan on Monday, January 7, 2007. It is an excellent overview on the prison, but the information provided in the piece gives rise to a number of international law issues that are not explicitly discussed or acknowledged in the article itself. I first review the salient facts, and then turn to the issues.

The facts

It reviewed the history of Bagram Prison and the extent to which it was in many respects worse than the facility in Guantanamo Bay. There are over 600 detainees being held there, most of whom have not been charged with any offence or been subject to any legal proceeding. Some have been held without charge for more than five years. The average detention is over 14 months long. Moreover, while U.S. authorities claim that all detainees are to be processed and “registered” within fourteen days of admission, and thus accessible to the International Red Cross when it visits, they also conceded that there were exceptions. An IRC confidential report, according to administration sources, claims that it has been denied access to a “warren of isolation cells” in the Bagram facility.

But what is more striking from the article is the account of how the U.S. Defence Department officials applied pressure on the Karzai administration to establish a regime of indefinite detention of “enemy combatants” along the lines of the so-called legal framework of Guantanamo Bay. President Karzai refused to sign the decree drafted with U.S. assistance to authorize and establish the regime.

A 2005 agreement to transfer the bulk of detainees to Afghanistan was the basis for a more detailed plan of transfer, as outlined in an exchange of diplomatic notes. The notes reflect that the U.S. sought to have the Afghanistan government share any intelligence obtained from detainees, to “utilize all methods appropriate and permissible under Afghan law to surveil or monitor their activities following any release,” and “confiscate or deny passports and take measures to prevent each national from travelling outside Afghanistan.”Read more…