Thursday, December 17, 2009

A closer look at Richard Colvin's claims about the lies of his lying bosses and their lies

As I noted here, Richard Colvin has quite clearly insinuated that his one-time boss, Arif Lalani, Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan, is both a coward and a liar. Turns out there is rather more going on here (or less, if you like) than that, and I suspect it betrays a lot about this preposterous affair that will, sadly, take a lot of the fun out of it too.

In his most recent instalment, Colvin claimed that Lalani had been instructed by Ottawa to withhold information, "however accurate, that conflicted with the government's public messaging," and consequently Lalani reversed the intent of an embassy report in order to give its opposite meaning: the report initially referred to a deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, but Lalani changed the report to read that "security was improving."

Colvin cites this alleged incident to refute Ottawa's claim that it "encouraged accurate, rigorous, fact-based reporting" from Kabul and wasn't interested in "opinion" or "non-fact based information." This is "not correct," Colvin states, and then he goes on to reiterate the claim that the security situation in Afghanistan was actually getting worse, which was what the Afghan Minister of Defence thought, and which was also "a view shared by our allies, and corroborated by violence trends and other metrics." Colvin adds that in September, 2007, a Canadian embassy staffer was "severely rebuked" in writing for merely stating what Colvin presents as the overwhelming, evidence-based consensus that things were getting worse, not better.

It looks terrible, doesn't it?

A closer look shows that in fact, the state of the security situation in Afghanistan at the time was rather less a matter of fact and very much a matter of contested opinion - and Colvin's account, which we might now pause to describe as his own "public messaging," however accurate, relies almost wholly on opinion even now, and seems to play rather loosely with the facts besides.

In February, 2007, a memorandum from the British Defence Ministry reckoned that the security situation across Afghanistan was actually "broadly stable," though "fragile" in places. "Insurgent groups are able to launch small scale local attacks, particularly in the South and East, but at present they do not pose a strategic threat to the long term stability of Afghanistan."

In August, a United Nations security assessment noted that while most analysts assessed security to be deteriorating in Afghanistan through the first eight months of that year, "the nature of the incidents has, however, changed." The UN report cites a noticeable shift from "large-scale armed clashes in the field" to "asymmetric or terror-style" attacks. "The former do still take place and as air support is often used, casualty figures are still high. On average however these clashes are fewer and smaller than in 2006. Possible reasons include the high numbers of Taliban fighters killed during summer 2007 including many mid-level and senior commanders. Another reason must be the realization that these types of attacks are futile against a modern conventionally equipped military force supported by a wide range of air assets. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has also been improving throughout 2007."

Make of this what you will, but it would seem rather less than accurate and fact-based to report simply that the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating. A proper assessment would avail itself of some elaboration, and nuance, and perhaps the resort to some French words to get the point across, even. Which is what I thought diplomats were for.

What Colvin has also strangely expunged from his own account is the fact that the debate about whether the security situation in Afghanistan was improving or not was a rousing and highly amusing political "controversy" that was playing out in the pages of Canada's newspapers at the time. This has also been oddly forgotten by those very same newspapers, which are at the moment making such a great lark out of it all (don't reporters even check their article morgues anymore?)

Colvin's boss, Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier, was in Afghanistan around the time of the alleged rumpus to which Colvin alludes, publicly insisting that security was getting better, not worse. This was laying it on a bit thick, given the nuances and all, but Bernier was making some political hay of it. Which is what I thought politicians were for.

That's the most necessary context you'll need to have at hand in order to make sense of what's really going on here. Sadly, because it conflicts with Colvin's recent "public messaging," it tends to drain some of the high drama out of the whole story. Then, as now, Colvin wanted his opinion to stand unchallenged, and unedited, even if it stood in direct contradiction to his boss's opinion and made his boss look like a piker, besides. Which is not what I thought diplomats were for.

And at the end of the day, just whose opinion proved the soundest? Not that it matters to political affairs in Ottawa, but who was right, and who was wrong?

Around this time last year, I'd been in Kabul for a only couple of days when a huge headline in the UK Telegraph proclaimed: 'Kabul Now More Dangerous Than Baghdad At It Worst.' As I made my rounds of the city in the following weeks and found the place filled with some of the friendliest and most hospitable and welcoming people I've ever met in my life, I now and then amused myself by wondering just how lovely a place Baghdad must have been all this time.

Even now, the business about "violence trends and other metrics" in Afghanistan isn't something to which le mot juste readily presents itself. Still, it would be hardly a stretch to say something like: "The security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly since 2007."

But these things are complicated.

If you ask Mohammad Halim Fidai, governor of the central Afghan province of Wardak, he will tell you that the security situation has vastly improved, and it's improving all the time, and the reason you don't know that is because of the newspapers you read.

"I think the question should be why the security situation is improving," he said. "Security is improving day by day, not deteriorating. Unfortunately due to the disinformation by the international media and also lack of capacity and resources of the Afghan government to provide information to the public, it has created an image of that security is deteriorating in the country."

Maybe yes. Maybe no. It's hard to say. Je m'excuse. But what should be completely clear by now to anyone who has been following any of this is that something rather more important is at stake than the reputations of certain diplomats or former foreign ministers. Behind all the "torturegate" histrionics is the fight for the way ordinary Canadians view our "combat role" in Afghanistan, which began in earnest with the history-changing, Canadian-led Operation Medusa, down in Kandahar, in 2006:

If Kandahar fell, and it was reasonably close run last year, it did not matter how well the Dutch did in Uruzgan or how well the British did in Helmand. Their two provinces would also, as night followed day, have failed because we would have lost the consent of the Pashtun people because of the totemic importance of Kandahar.

That praise comes from a 2007 report of a British parliamentary committee on defence, not a Canadian parliamentary committee. Kandahar did not fall, because Canadians held it. The report goes on: "Since the defeat of the Taliban by ISAF Forces in Operation Medusa, concern has grown that the Taliban insurgents might adopt more 'asymmetric' tactics against ISAF including increasing their use of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). According to Anthony Cordesman, Chairman of the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there has been an increase in suicide attacks from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006 and an increase in attacks from IEDs from 530 to 1,297 in 2006. The devastating impact of such attacks was demonstrated over the weekend of 16 / 17 June 2007, when a suicide bomber exploded a device in the North Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, and the following day, a similar exploding device killed 35 people in Kabul. . ."

That's the complexity involved. Win on the battlefield, and the next thing you know, suicide bombers are detonating themselves in the streets of Kabul. But if you lose on the battlefield, you lose all of Kandahar, and Uruzgan, and Helmand, and the patience of the fierce Pashtun people, too. Lose all that, and Afghanistan would be gone, and you'd have to ask yourself what would happen next in Mazar-e-Sharif, and Kabul, and in Pakistan, the Maghreb, the Levant, the Horn of Africa. . .

Canadians won on the battlefield. Afghanistan is still a sovereign republic. Things are looking up. So sorry.

Je m'excuse.


Blogger neilernst77 said...

Surely the issue here is less what was happening in Afghanistan. It is more about whether the government's political masters can be trusted to tell Canadians the truth, warts and all. If some well-credentialed fact finder says things are looking bad, can we assume that report will make its way out unaltered?

The Harper government has never been upfront about what its intentions are in Afghanistan, and manages it (as would any party) for domestic political gain. How can citizens make informed decisions if some twenty-something politico is censoring reports from the field?

I guess I'm with David Eaves on this one.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Old Brooktrout said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

An excellent analysis Terry.

Mr. Colvin strikes me as being a bit too impressed with his own analytical skills, black or white, such as they are - he appears to be what might be referred to in the corporate world as a "High Maintenance" employee.

Fortunately, most Canadians, if they focus on the matter at all, see both sides of the story much in the way you have presented it.


stephen p

2:25 PM  
Blogger Xanthippa said...

Well said.

7:24 PM  
Blogger CanadianSense said...

I am curious after operation Medusa how does Colvin jump to things are worse for us and better for the insurgents?

Medusa broke the back of the Taliban in trying to mount a large scale attack. They have resorted back to small IED hit and run tactics compliments of our spilled treasure.

Did I miss something?

3:27 PM  
Blogger I LOVE YOU said...


9:30 PM  

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