11 September 2006

Lost in Afghanistan


So, we are getting ready to send more troops to Afghanistan. In otherwise unrelated news, I was at my friend Adam Zita's wedding this weekend, where I got to catch up with my buddy Norm who serves with the forces and has spent two or three tours in Afghanistan. I asked him frankly what the sense was on the ground there, and he said that no one knows why they are there or what they are doing.

Of course it's not really the job of the average grunt to know what great purpose is being served by their being there. But not knowing and not having any idea are completely different. I think they have no idea why they are there because we have no idea why they are there. Originally, we were helping root out the Taliban who were sheltering Osama Bin Laden who attacked our ally the United States. Well, that sounds like a great idea, and the Taliban weren't a nice bunch of guys and I'm not sad that they're gone. But I have to point out that 'regime change' is just Bush-Speak for a coup. What was arranged in Afghanistan was a coup, no more and no less. The coalition removed a government that they did not approve of, and arranged for the installation of a friendly government.

Now coups seem to me to have only two outcomes. The first is where the leaders of the coup have the support of the people, as for example Fidel Castro did when Batista was overthrown. There, the coup leaders immediately set up shop as the new government, enjoy their honeymoon, and face their fate when the people have had enough time to decide whether or not they're better than the old lot (which of course they sometimes are not). The other alternative is where the coup is not backed by the people, in which case the foreign powers that (invariably) launched it must remain to protect the new government from the people it is allegedly serving. This path can pretty much lead to only two things - the failure of the coup (e.g. the American back Chavez coup of several years ago), or a long and brutally oppressive foreign occupation (with the foreign troops ostensibly there to 'assist' the government).

Which kind of coup is this? That's not hard to see. Are things getting better in Afghanistan? It doesn't look like it. Yes, their parliament has more women than Canada's, but their parliament doesn't actually run the country. It's like pretending gwe are on the vanguard of sex relations because our head of state is a female. It's technically true, but she is an unelected one without actual authority. Similarly I hear more girls are getting educated, but Rick Hillier says that if you build a school, the next day the Taliban will tear it down and behead the teachers if they were teaching girls. So, I have to take these claims with a grain of salt.

News reports note that we have been attacked or have successfully dispatched Taliban fighters, as the case may be, but this also must be taken with a grain of salt - Afghans have a long history of resisting invaders that has nothing at all to do with the Taliban movement, and while I have no doubt the old executive wields some authority among religious fighters and its old adherents, I equally have no doubt that many of the fighters are not Taliban, but simple patriots who recognize that they have a duty to rid themselves of foreign occupiers, no matter how well-intentioned their propaganda leaflets claim they are. Finally, as Gerard Kennedy emphasizes, opium production is back to an all-time high. Hahaha, I said high.

One question is what we do about this right now. That's a tough one, because we don't want to let our Afghani friends down. The thing is, we don't have that many Afghani friends. The other thing is that we are letting them down right now, even while we're there and fighting. So staying or leaving is not a question of fulfilling our promises or cutting and running, but more a question of whether we keep banging our heads against a wall in the name of a promise we have no prayer of fulfilling, or whether we admit our abject failure and reconsider our options. Put another way, given the expectations we tried to create we are absolutely certain to let our Afghani friends down, so the real question is how we will let them down, and not if.

Answering this first question requires us to sit down with our NATO allies, figure out what we can accomplish and what we can't, figure out which of those things we have the ability to the accomplish we actually have the resolve to accomplish, and then set about doing them. This is, I think, the position that Gerard Kennedy is taking and it's one with which I am in whole-hearted agreement. We cannot 'stay the course' because the course we are on is not defined and has no end. Trying to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban is like trying to rid my cottage of mosquitoes. Real fighting forces have commanders that can surrender. These guys just have a land, and they have no reason to stop fighting no matter how many die or how bleak their prospects. They also know that, ultimately, they will win, because we will go home. It matters little whether that happens in five months or five years - we will go home, like the French from Algeria or the British from Palestine or the Americans from Vietnam. But we also cannot simply 'cut-and-run', as Jack Layton suggests. We are not the only foreign force in Afghanistan and this situation that we have helped create will persist after our departure, the main difference being that we will have lost any leverage and credibility we presently have to effect positive change. Anyway, I do have some ideas about the kind of strategic changes we need to effect but I'm an expert in common sense, not tactics, so I will not say more on the subject right now.

The second and larger question is how we intend to use our military going forward. Stephen Harper apparently intends to use it to cement our partnership with GWB and the Americans. In this, he is clearly out of touch with what the average Canadian believes, and I hope cheap tricks like cutting checks to everyone with children under six does not make people forget how and why Canadians are killing and dying overseas. There is also the "muscular diplomacy" proposed by Michael Ignatieff, who thinks that Pearsonian peace-keeping is dead. Once again, he is out of touch with the vast majority of Canadians, who believe in and are proud of our peacekeeping tradition. Even if he is correct, however, and traditional peace-keeping is dead, that does not mean we should simply step into a new roles as peace-makers. Such a venture is of very dubious moral quality, and in any event we are presently very poorly equipped (as a military and as a society) for that kind of change in posture.

Anyway, I think it would be a disaster for us and for our troops if Iggy were to win the liberal leadership - the foreign policy debate between Harper and him would be vapid and largely pointless. Of course I am rooting for Gerard Kennedy - but I hope we see some robust policies put on the table by the other candidates. It seems we can't have a coherent debate in parliament, so let's have a great debate in the Liberal Party and then we can make some real changes once Canadians cast Harper and his flunkies back to the opposition benches where they belong.

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