David Fraser: Ousting Taliban left Afghanistan with leadership 'vacuum'
Ten years after the first Canadian troops took up combat posts in Kandahar, the former commander of NATO's mission in southern Afghanistan says it was a mistake to engage both the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Appearing on CTV's Power Play Wednesday, retired major-general David Fraser said NATO should have kept their focus exclusively on the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks -- al Qaeda -- and left the ruling Taliban to be dealt with at another time.
"We could've gone in there with the (Taliban) regime to say, 'We don't agree with what you're doing' -- not at all, and I do not agree with the Taliban, they're a despicable regime -- 'but our fight is not with you right now. We're going after the perpetrators, and you stay out of our way, and we’ll do what is necessary. You get in our way, and we’ll do what is necessary,’" said Fraser, who was the Canadian commander of the Multinational Brigade for Regional Command South.
Fraser said he was proud of what he accomplished as the leader of the Canadian task force and the coalition of troops tasked with extending the authority of former Afghan president Hamid Karzai beyond the capital of Kabul.
But he said Western forces overcomplicated the mission by taking on two targets in the Taliban and the al Qaeda, and the strategy left the nascent Karzai government to deal with a "vacuum" of leadership, which created an even "bigger problem" that the region is still dealing with to this day.
"Those challenges created that opportunity for the Taliban to root themselves in the local region and it will allow other terrorist groups," said Fraser, whose mission began just over four-and-a-half years into the Afghan war.
"That's what we're continuing to fight today, it is the symptoms of a destabilized situation."
Instead, Fraser said Western forces could've tackled al Qaeda as a "discreet problem," and "dealt with the Taliban afterwards."
"That's something the military is very good at: targeting them, going after them," he said.
"But what did was we actually went after a much bigger problem, and we didn't quite understand about the hallowing out of society by actually cutting off the head called the Taliban."
Fraser's statements come as the Afghan government is scheduled to resume negotiations with Taliban leaders in Pakistan next week. The goal of the talks is to resuscitate a peace process that broke down last summer after it was revealed that Mullah Omar, the insurgent group's reclusive leader, had secretly died a few years ago.
Fraser said the West made a similar mistake in Libya by removing dictator Muammar Gaddafi and attempting to back a "nascent government that has not yet been able to deliver effective governance."
"We've created yet another vacuum, which we're now still dealing with the aftermath, and ISIS is now inside Libya," he said.
"When you create a vacuum you got to have something to replace it."
Libya has been wracked by two civil wars since Gaddafi's ousting.
Fraser would not label the mission in Afghanistan as a failure, but said the West should have taken other approaches, rather than a "hardline" stance against the Taliban.
Steve Saiderman, an international affairs professor at Carleton University, told The Canadian Press that agreed with part of Fraser's assessment, but said they were potentially harmful consequences of leaving the Taliban in power.
"I do think there's something to this notion that we do regime change very, very badly and we cannot create legitimate governments from nothing," said Saideman, who is the author of the book "Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan."
"On the other hand, leaving the Taliban in place is like leaving ISIL in place, which is you leave in place a government that is ideologically predisposed to supporting terrorism, and has a proven track record of supporting terrorism."
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was reluctant to comment on Fraser's remarks on Wednesday.
Sajjan, who worked for Fraser as a liaison officer and intelligence analyst in Afghanistan, has been a proponent of using military strategies that better account for the long-term consequences. As recently as last month, he made comments about reshaping Canada's mission against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in a way that would avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Fraser was complimentary of Ottawa's new approach to the Middle Eastern conflict.
"I applaud what Canada is doing to today in Iraq, because what Canada is doing is a committed, comprehensive approach where we're addressing the displaced people that have been affected because of that conflict," he said.
Canada has committed $840 million to provide water, shelter, health and sanitation as part of its new mission. An additional $270 million has been allocated for countries who are struggling to deal with the waves of refugees who are fleeing the region.
With files from The Canadian Press