I thank you for this opportunity to appear before your committee this afternoon to talk to you about Afghanistan.
I am the president of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, which is the research arm of the CDA itself. The CDA is Canada's oldest defence organization, going back 75 years.
I am accompanied this afternoon by my colleague, Colonel Alain Pellerin, who is the executive director of the Conference of Defence Associations, as you just mentioned.
In this short time available, allow me to present several points regarding Canada's mission in Afghanistan that I believe to be of particular importance at what is, after all, a critical juncture.
First, and perhaps most important, our detailed study of the situation in Afghanistan over the past five years leads us to believe that contrary to the pessimistic view that's taken by many in Canada today, things are actually going quite well in Afghanistan. To be sure, there is yet a long way to go, but the country is seeing some remarkable improvements as it recovers from the devastation brought about by 30 years of conflict.
On the military front, the Taliban are not occupying ground in the way they did in the mid-1990s, when, in a brilliant military campaign, they came to power following the Soviet withdrawal and the ensuing political vacuum that existed at that time. This time around, the Taliban forces have been soundly defeated every time they've met coalition forces head-on in battle, and they've given up trying to conduct any form of conventional warfare. Instead they have resorted, as we know so well, to suicide bombings, roadside bombs, assassinations, and kidnappings. In my view, these are last-resort measures that will not win victory for them in Afghanistan, and they're certainly not winning the hearts and minds of the people of that country.
Looking at the important matter of development, the picture is encouraging here too. At the macro level, the gross national product of Afghanistan is increasing at a rate that's reminiscent of China's, albeit starting from a very low base. Education is burgeoning throughout the nation, with millions now attending schools, many of them young women who were not permitted to get any formal education whatsoever under the Taliban regime. It is particularly interesting to note that the Taliban have been burning down schools by the hundreds and murdering teachers who dare to allow girls into their classrooms. Clearly, education is anathema to the insurgents. But in spite of their destructive efforts, progress continues. Imagine the long-term impact of massive education on the nation's governance, respect for the rule of law, industry, health care, infrastructure, the media, and other elements of an emerging and enlightening society.
In these early days, development efforts are starting to make a difference—mostly at the local level—and even in Kandahar province, where the Taliban are doing everything they can to disrupt development projects.
A measure of success in helping Afghanistan get back on its feet will be the extent to which freedom of movement allows local enterprises to thrive and to spread, offering the benefits of a free market economy to all citizens, especially those who live outside of the more secure city areas. Here again, there is a long way to go, but the beginnings are increasingly evident.
I don't want to paint too rosy a picture, but before I touch on some of the key problems that must be faced, it is important to hear from the Afghan people themselves. Recent polls indicate that about 85% of the people of that country support the presence of the coalition forces and more than 90% oppose a return to power by the Taliban.
Canadian troops are in Afghanistan under a United Nations mandate, as part of a coalition operating the international security assistance force under NATO auspices. Together with our 35 allies, we are wanted and we are needed.
There are problems in this huge international undertaking, of course. Some of them are very difficult and rather evident these days. Here are the principal ones, as we see it. First and foremost is the security challenge posed by the insurgency forces, loosely referred to as the Taliban. They are nasty, murderous people who are not bound in any way by the Geneva conventions or international humanitarian law. So they have an enormous tactical advantage over our soldiers. They don't wear uniforms, they hide behind civilians, they use booby-traps, and they employ unimaginable brutality against their own people. Yet, as I pointed out earlier, they are not winning.
Secondly, there is a problem of a massive and illegal narcotics industry, the profits of which feed drug lords, warlords, and the Taliban itself. Elimination of this plague can occur only when a strong measure of central government authority is exercised over the poppy-producing regions, which are almost exclusively in the southern string of provinces in Afghanistan.
Third, closely related to the poppy problem is the matter of corruption. This is not a new phenomenon in the region, of course, but the vast profits from the heroin market have allowed a culture of corruption to exist at all levels of government, and it must be corrected.
Next, Pakistan has emerged as a source of difficulty in the battle against the Taliban, for reasons that are perfectly well known and are reported daily at this critical time.
Finally, and this brings the whole matter back to Canada, there's a political question about the future of the Canadian mission. The Manley report has offered Canadians an excellent summary of the situation in Afghanistan, and it proposes what I think is a reasonable way ahead for Canada's involvement in that land.
Here, I would like to make two simple but important points, which I hope you will consider in your deliberations.
It would be a disastrous error, in my view, for Canada to announce a fixed deadline for its military mission. That would be handing the Taliban enemy victory on a platter. Unless other NATO nations were willing to move in to Kandahar to fill in this large void left by Canada, which seems unlikely, that vital ground—and that term is important, it is vital ground—would be lost, with military, political, and psychological consequences that could be very severe indeed. So you can imagine, incidentally, the impact that such a move would have on Canada's international reputation: from being a much-admired leader in the war, we would be seen as having initiated a negative turn in the struggle to get Afghanistan back on its feet.
The political answer, in my estimation, is simple: set a new mandate to 2011 or 2012, but allow the government of the day to review the situation at that time before deciding upon the next step. No one—no one—can predict what the situation is going to look like two, three, or four years downstream.
Finally, Mr. Chairman, honourable members, its very troubling to note the calls for Canada to limit its military involvement to training or self-defence, with no so-called search-and-destroy mandate. That makes no military sense. Even worse, it would place our troops in the field in an impossible position. Rules of engagement would be so complex and inhibiting that they simply couldn't operate effectively, and it would likely expose them to greater risk. Furthermore, it's naive to expect that Canadian troops could tutor Afghan army personnel in the comfort and security of a garrison and then send the Afghan troops out into the field on their own. It doesn't work that way. Side-by-side operations, sometimes involving combat, are essential if this mentoring process is to be effective.
Mr. Chairman, members, there is so much more I could add on what is an immensely complicated and sensitive subject. For example, I didn't even touch on the question of the impact on Canada's national security interest from a withdrawal of Canadian Forces from Afghanistan, but at this point, at the end of my seven minutes, I'll bring my remarks to a halt and say that Colonel Pellerin and I are now prepared to answer your questions.