International forces should expect to stay in Afghanistan for "10 to 20 years," according to a Canadian commander who helped lead foreign troops in Kabul until February.
"We ignore Afghanistan at our peril," said Maj. Gen. Andrew Leslie. He pronounced the election in Afghanistan "a tremendous success," although he acknowledged that the fledgling government would be fragile and require international backing for many years.
Leslie, 46, who became deputy commander of the International Security Assistance Force in August 2003, said the mission's successes in Afghanistan were attributable in part to its cooperation with the existing power structures in the country, in contrast to Iraq, where the United States conducted a "de-Baathification" program after it invaded the country, removing former government officials and military and police officers.
The 8,000 ISAF troops from 36 nations are largely responsible for security in Kabul, while U.S. troops operate outside the capital. Canada had 2,300 soldiers in Afghanistan for a year but rotated all but 900 out of the country at the end of their tours in August. Leslie, now on a sabbatical to complete a doctorate in war studies, spoke at a conference of security experts in Ottawa and in an interview afterward.
In 1992, "when Canada went into Bosnia, we thought it would be three or four years, and we are just pulling out now," Leslie said. "In Bosnia, the level of devastation was less than in Afghanistan, the numbers of dead less, and the general circumstances were better. The West and NATO are looking at a 10- to 20-year commitment in Afghanistan."
He said international troops avoided being widely resented as occupiers, as U.S. troops are in Iraq, in part because "we made it very clear that we were there as guests of the Afghanistan government. They asked us in, and we are working with them and for them.
"In Iraq, the police, army, bureaucrats, were all terminated. From necessity, that means you are starting from scratch. In Afghanistan, that didn't happen. It was two different approaches."
Leslie declined to comment on the charge by the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, that the Bush administration had fumbled the chance to capture Osama bin Laden in northern Afghanistan. But he said that "the land there is so rugged and riddled with so many caves and tunnels, with tribal links and ethnic links and clan links. If there's any hole possible, those guys will get away."