It was a public-relations stunt worthy of P.T. Barnum, perfect for getting the attention of a uninterested American audience: Tuck an Afghan village, complete with authentic Afghans, into the heart of Washington, D.C., right between the White House and Capitol Hill. Then, blow it the hell up.
The most surprising part of the whole idea was who came up with it: the Canadian government.
Alas, sober-minded authorities managed to shut down this worthwhile Canadian initiative a few days before it occurred, thinking the melodramatics might frighten citizens still trained by the Bush administration to panic at the slightest whiff of terrorism. The staff of the Canadian Embassy, where the staged attack was set to take place, elected to soldier on with a decidedly less-flashy forum designed to remind Americans that Canadians are still fighting alongside -- and, for a time, were fighting without -- U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The Canadian Embassy is an expansive limestone structure, modernist in style, beautiful to approach, and apparently an architectural joke on us -- an anecdote from the biog-raphy of the designer, Arthur Erickson, reports that the zoning-mandated columns in the facade are hollow, "mocking the U.S. and all of its imperial pretensions." Maybe so, but it's the little touches -- like the sign by the fountain informing passersby of "eau non potable" -- that retain an air of Canadian punctiliousness.
Inside, instead of Afghans and pyrotechnics, I found an assemblage of Canadian officials, an assortment of representatives from other NATO allies, and even a bagpipe player flown in from Montreal specifically for the event. But scant few Americans were in attendance. Following a couple of Canadian military officers who joked about their need for a drink -- "It's the Afghanistan effect!" -- I ran into Jennie Chen, an embassy counselor who had just returned from a year-long diplomatic stint in Afghanistan. The conflict, she said, is a big issue in Canada, which has committed some 2,700 troops through 2011. Canadians, she explained, emphasize a whole-of--government approach, primarily focused on developing the Afghan army rather than engaging in the kind of counterinsurgency operations now popular in the U.S. military.
"We welcome the U.S.," Chen said of the recent American troop deployments to Afghanistan, "particularly in the south -- we've been holding it on our own."
Indeed, around Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, the Canadians were essentially on their own until last year as they attempted to train new Afghan forces and conduct security patrols of the surrounding area but lacked the troops and direction to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy of fighting to protect civilians. The Taliban gained ground in the south -- its traditional ethnic home -- against frustrated Canadian forces.
"[Americans] need to understand this is the toughest environment," Canadian Capt. Chris Blouin told a McClatchy reporter over the summer. "Expect everything."
American military observers have looked down upon the work of our NATO allies in Afghanistan, deriding them for failing to leave their bases and engage the enemy "outside the wire." (Indeed, a decision by German military officers to attack suspected Taliban with missiles instead of troops led to over a hundred civilian casualties and a major public-relations debacle.) They say the Canadians are better than most but still fault their ability to go after insurgents.
Now, though, with Americans leery of the troop increases that go along with counterinsurgency, many, including some influential senators like Carl Levin, are considering a more Canadian approach focused on quickly scaling up the Afghan army and police force. With public support for the war falling, policy-makers in Washington are rethinking the fundamental logic of our efforts in Afghanistan and asking whether we need a counterinsurgency mission to fulfill a counterterrorism objective. It's a shame none of them made it to the forum.
One person who isn't reconsidering the American deployment is Said T. Jawad, the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. who spoke at the luncheon, glossing over recent problems with electoral fraud that put his job in jeopardy and thanking the Canadians and Americans for their sacrifices. Unless they continued, he said, terrorism would land at their doors. "I disagree with those who argue that it is dangerous to be in Afghanistan," he said. "It's a lot more dangerous not being there."
The difference between the U.S. and Canadian approaches became clearer in an afternoon panel on policing, when Tom Schrettner, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, gave a presentation on his agency's efforts to fight drug trafficking in Afghanistan. It began a little above my head -- "as you know, the major compound you need to make heroin is acetic anhydride" -- but quickly came down to earth as Agent Schrettner discussed how the DEA has trained Afghans to assault suspected drug havens.
"Those sites are actioned through a military means to deprive the enemy of that resource," he explained with bureaucratic clarity. Later, he was even blunter. "There will invariably be huge gunfights."
Agent Schrettner was excited to play a clip from ABC News showing a DEA team leading the Afghan police on a raid of suspected drug producers. "This will wake you up," he promised. Onscreen, as police arrest a suspect, the narrator observes that though the man tells his wife and children he is only being taken for questioning, Afghanistan's harsh drug laws will put him in jail for 15 years.
It didn't seem like anyone was winning hearts and minds.
Agent Schrettner's counterpart, Paul Young of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- sporting a standard police uniform rather than a red Dudley Do-Right getup -- made a much less sexy presentation focused on training Afghanistan's regular police force. "My heart is in Afghanistan," he explained. "Parts of it have never returned." Then, with a note of reproach in his voice, he commented on the DEA presentation: "I often wonder if we're creating a civilian police force or a paramilitary police force." There was no doubt which he preferred.
The two men then joined an Afghan general and his interpreter for a panel discussion, which offered a taste of what both nations must be going through in Afghanistan every day -- even without the benefit of a fake Afghan village and a staged explosion. Doctrinal differences in the two police approaches faded to the background as both men struggled to communicate with the irascible general, who seemed to be asking if they visited Kabul's red-light district. The interpreter intervened, explaining that "he is a policeman; he doesn't go there."
The general gestured broadly -- of course they don't get it, then.