2.03.2006

support our troops, maple leaf edition

I want to talk about something I've never mentioned here, something that's increasingly on my mind: Canada's role in Afghanistan.

Canada supported the US's foray into Afghanistan after 9/11, ostensibly to overthrow the Taliban and secure the country while a semi-secular Afghan government was set up. There were always other issues there for the US - the Central Asian pipeline, for one - but from all reports, it sounds like Canada was there to help thwart terrorism and to loosen the grip of the loathesome Taliban.

More than four years later, Canadian troops are still there. I understand that a continued military presence is often essential to prevent an extremely repressive regime from filling a power vacuum, or from the total lawlessness and extreme violence of, for example, Rwanda, Somalia, or Sierra Leone.

But is that what's actually going on over there? What kind of government is being supported? And is Canada's presence in Afghanistan assisting the US occupation of Iraq, by propping up an overextended US military?

When a Canadian diplomat was killed in Afghanistan two weeks ago, Canada's role there was highlighted. The public was warned that Canadian casualties there may become a more common occurrence, and that Canadian troops will increasingly take the offensive. In other words, Canada will make war to keep the peace.

I found this interesting analysis of the Central Asian situation by Tom Porteus on TomPaine.com. I'm quoting it here as food for thought.
Two scourges of western civilization - terrorism and heroin - were wheeled out again in London this week to justify increased U.S. and European military and economic engagement in Afghanistan. The occasion was the unveiling of a new Afghan Compact: yet another "blueprint" for rebuilding the country.

Afghan and western leaders used the London conference to deliver a stark message to the world: If you don't help fix Afghanistan, you will be overwhelmed by a mountain of Afghan narcotics and hordes of kohl-eyed graduates from Al Qaeda's Afghan terrorist academies.

The analysis is familiar, and a common theme runs through it: Afghanistan is a "failed state," and in order to address the global threats that emanate from it, the west needs to address the problem of state failure.

There are three difficulties with this presentation of the problems of Afghanistan. Together they help to explain the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the West's policies there since the overthrow of the mad mullah/Taliban regime in the aftermath of 9/11.
The writer presents what he sees as the three problems with the west's approach to Afghanistan: first, that it's been proven repeatedly not to work, second, that other western policies encourage the very failed state that the west is supposedly trying to fix, and third, that the focus on terrorism and drugs is simplistic and reductionist, that it doesn't take into account the rest of Afghanistan's reality. He concludes:
The assessment of the political grandees at the London conference was that the west and its Afghan partners are on the right track in Afghanistan but need to go further. The reality is different.

Whatever pious statements may come out of international gatherings like the London conference, the west's strategic interests in Afghanistan and in the wider region will continue to pull in different, often contradictory and unpredictable directions - not all of them beneficial to Afghanistan. In short, the Great Game, which has so often undermined Afghanistan's prospects of peace and stability in the past, goes on. [Full story here.]
* * * *

Feel-good pride in the military is very common in Canada now, a bit of quiet (because it's Canadian) chest-thumping that the military is no longer a predictable punchline. Canadians are very proud of their country's frequent role as international peacekeeper, which I can appreciate.

But that pride can easily morph into a blanket support-our-troops kind of cheerleading. Citizens can easily confuse support for the people in the military and empathy for their dangerous jobs with uncritical support for whatever mission their government sends them on. And that's dangerous.

I have no conclusion about this, only questions. How do you all feel about Canada's continued presence in Afghanistan?

21 comments:

M@ said...

Canada's position in the world is such that it is to our, and the world's, advantage to act militarily (outside our own borders) only as part of an international force, preferably under a UN mandate.

Our problems in the last 20 years have stemmed from a lack of useful UN mandates. Bosnia, Rwanda, and now Afghanistan (though there's no actual UN mandate there anyhow) have been problematic because our objectives were unclear, and to the extent they were clear, they didn't jive with the rules of engagement we were given.

Granted, it's a little more difficult than Cyprus, where there are well-defined forces and a well-defined cease-fire line. But still, we should be advocates for clear UN missions with objectives that are achievable under the rules of engagement. And absent that, we should refuse to participate.

It's kind of a take-our-ball-and-go-home attitude, unfortunately, but it's the only way to protect our soldiers. I can accept that our participation in solving the difficult problems in the world will cost some Canadian lives. (I was in the military myself, btw, so this is not a 101st Fightin' Keyboarder regiment member talking.) My problem comes from our soldiers being put in undue danger because the political conditions were not conducive to, you know, deciding what our soldiers were supposed to do.

So what's to be done in Afghanistan? First, a UN mandate, stat. Canada could easily demand a time limit on the start of a UN mission there, and pull our troops out when that time expires. And when the UN mission starts, we can demand a mandate that reflects our understanding of the situation, and gives us a fighting chance of achieving our objectives without undue danger to our soldiers.

I can just imagine the sinking feeling that our Minister of Defence has every time he or she signs the order to send troops on a UN mission: "Well, let's hope it works this time." I want Canada to be a world leader in peaceful, constructive conflict resolution. Unfortunately we're going to have to refuse to do some UN missions and pull troops out before that can happen.

And incidentally, I agree about the quiet chest-thumping. Our country has not come to fetishize its military the way the US has, but it's definitely not out of the question that they could, and it's worth keeping that in mind.

I think I've said enough now, huh? :)

Lone Primate said...

But that pride can easily morph into a blanket support-our-troops kind of cheerleading. Citizens can easily confuse support for the people in the military and empathy for their dangerous jobs with uncritical support for whatever mission their government sends them on. And that's dangerous.

I entirely agree with what you're saying here.

I never supported our role in Afghanistan. I suspected then, and it's entirely clear now, that it was just another exercise in imperializing. Yet again we're along for the ride, as we have been so many times since the Boer War. We're there to fight terrorism? Yeah? Where's Osama? We're there to install democracy? Oh, yeah? Then why is President of Afghanistan little more than the Mayor of Kabul? Because people resent, and resist, our attempts to force our ways upon them. That's why.

I don't know when it's ever going to dawn on us that just because we happen to like the way we run our countries, that that gives us neither the right to prescribe it for everyone else (and assume they're likeminded), nor to apply our prescription by force. Other societies have other priorities and see things other ways... they may, or may not, choose representative democracy as the way to organize their societies. But that's up to them, not us; and it's as arrogant and wrong of us to presume our way of doing things is right for them and force it on them as it was for our remote ancestors to suppose Christianity to be the only right and natural way and that people must either embrace it by dint of logic, or by force. A crusade is a crusade, no matter what ribbons you tie it up with. And people elsewhere know it, and hate us for our arrogance... just as we would if the roles were reserved. And God knows, maybe one day, they will be -- and what will our moral defense be then? "We didn't engage in militaristic statecraft when we had the upper hand"? Yeah, well; we did. And do.

As I recall, Afghanistan was offering to help root out Osama and to turn him over to the US, so long as certain assurances were met. The US said something equating to "no surrender", and in we all went, in a vast, hypocritical mockery of our own values and trumpeting about the sovereignty of nations. I can be proud of Canadian soldiers without being proud of our role in Afghanistan. It's a repulsive denial of what we purport to stand for, and history will, or should, mark it as such.

Canrane said...

I too am more than a little uneasy about our involvement in Afghanistan. I know a lot of Canadians thought it was the right thing to do. But it seemed more like a "but we have to do *something*" response to 9-11 than a true desire to get rid of the Taliban/Osama/whatever-the-goal-was.

I know Iraq is viewed as a bigger outrage right now, but I find the Afghanistan situation more troubling...simply because so many countries supported it without question. The stated goals, the occupation, the current "insurgency"...it's pretty much the same as Iraq, but people are okay with one but not the other. Why is that?

And once again, the Afghan people get the short end of the stick. At least Iraqis are getting media airtime.

I *really* hope the NDP will follow-through on their promise to review our involvement in Afghanistan.

Carrie said...

When we first sent our military into Afghanistan, it was based on reports that Osama was definitely there. Over time, obviously, the situation has changed. But we're still there. Why?

Well, I've read that our troops spend a fair amount of time training U.S. troops over there. We have always done that in most situations where the U.S. military and Canadian military are working together. As well, apparently our reconnaissance (sp?) efforts are a major factor. We're very good at it.

But at this point, I wish we would pull out of there. And I do think that now that Harper is PM, that won't be happening anytime soon. This makes me feel very bad for our people stuck over there.

L-girl said...

Thank you all so much for your comments. I fully agree with what's been said here, and it's nice to know I'm not alone.

it seemed more like a "but we have to do *something*" response to 9-11 than a true desire to get rid of the Taliban/Osama/whatever-the-goal-was

I always thought this, too. In the days and weeks after 9/11, many New Yorkers (other Americans, too, but especially New Yorkers, as we were so directly affected by the attacks, and tend to be anti-war) said "not in my name". There was that huge nationalistic impulse to do something, to bomb somebody. But killing Afghan people who had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks - how would that make us safer?

I was also upset that for so many years, women's groups had tried to focus public attention on the sufferings of Afghan women under the Taliban - and the US did nothing. I'm not talking about a military response, I'm talking support for grassroots efforts, working with women and secular men within Afghanistan to try to make change.

Then all of a sudden, we're told the Taliban is hiding Osama bin Laden and must be destroyed. And suddenly everyone hated the Taliban. When it was just concern for ordinary people, no one gave a shit.

The duck thief said...

And you know, our army used to be so kick-ass 60 years ago. In WWI and II they did some crazy stuff.

redsock said...

It doesn't sound like anything meaningful has happened in Afghanistan. Warlords control most of the country. "Getting" the Taliban (or OBL) was never the goal, anyway.

One difference is that since the US invasion, the country has retaken its place as the world's leading producer of heroin (the Taliban had banned cultivation of opium poppies).

Also, Karzai is a former Washington oil lobbyist (and a longtime CIA operative).

The profits from the drug trade and oil pipelines (several multi-billion dollar projects which had been put on hold during the Taliban's rule were suddenly given the green light once the US started bombing) can fund a lot of criminal activity around the globe.

L-girl said...

Redsock, I agree with you, but let's not imply anything good came out of the Taliban regime. That's along the lines of Mussolini's trains running on time.

Karzai is a former Washington oil lobbyist (and a longtime CIA operative).

Naturally. But is he even in control of the country? I know he's a puppet, but it doesn't even sound like he's a powerful puppet.

redsock said...

Well, meaningful in terms of "democracy" or whatever the fuck the US was saying it was going to do over there.

He's not in control at all. Karzai can't really go anywhere; even in the capital, he travels with a huge group of US soliders for protection.

***

I read somewhere awhile back that the areas where the US bombed were exactly where construction on the mega-pipeline was going to be.

I can't say how true that is, but I'm almost positive that around the time of the invasion, any and all public access to aerial photos of Afghanistan was suddenly unavailable.

L-girl said...

I read somewhere awhile back that the areas where the US bombed were exactly where construction on the mega-pipeline was going to be.

I can't say how true that is


My thought is not very. Remember I used to work for the law firm that brokered that pipeline deal. I think the connection between the war in Afghanistan and US oil interests is more general, about control of a region, more than a neat correlation like that.

In any case, let's please stick to the question of Canada's involvement, and leave aside supposition about US oil interests.

Lone Primate said...

Redsock, I agree with you, but let's not imply anything good came out of the Taliban regime.

Wait, I don't think that's fair. I think it's short-sighted to say that just because we generally don't agree with a regime, we can't give credit where credit is due. The Taliban, for all their faults in Western eyes, arguably did something that eased human suffering by making it harder, and less likely, for people to get addicted to heroin. There's nothing wrong with saying that. They're human beings, not alien monsters. We just generally don't want to live like they do or do the things they do -- but they could say exactly the same thing about us... are we, therefore, monsters with no redeeming value? I don't think so.

Similarly, Castro is no friend of democracy... not as we understand it. But I think the life of the average Cuban, day to day, is almost immeasurably better than it was, or would have been, had Batista stayed on. Cuban literacy compares favourably with ours; their medical facilities are good (certainly better than they were before Castro), and they -- unlike people in the States -- have universal coverage.

I don't say applaud the Taliban, or overlook the things we find objectionable. But, by the same token, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, either. In some ways, maybe most ways, Afghanis were better off BEFORE we showed up. :(

Jim said...

L-Girl,

Great question to raise. Saw your blog courtesy Dark Blue Tory, who says he wasn't allowed to post a comment here...any truth to that?

It's so obvious that the current
"mission" in Afhghanistan has nothing whatever to do with the original mandate, that I'm amazed there isn't more hue and cry about it.

Perhaps it's because general Hillier has spent quite a few taxpayer dollars wining and dining the media sheep and overwhelming them with his Rambo talk and George-Bushlike comments about "getting those bastards".

They may be bastards, but it's not our job to "get" them. Regardless of what we do, the Warlords and poppy growers will fight to the death against a resurgent Taliban, while Osama watches quietly from the sidelines.

It's definitely time to debate the legitimacy of our ongoing presence among the Afghans and re-evaluate the mission. My understanding is that the original mandate was to fight "international terrorism".

My suggestion to Harper would be to refer the whole business to Parliament immediately, before the NDP has a chance to do it.

But then Harper may not want to do that before he makes the ceremonial visit to D.C. and it will go to the NDP by default anyway.

One thing Mr. Harper would do well to keep in mind...almost 7 out of 10 Canadians voted for someone else.

Cheers

L-girl said...

Lone Primate, I agree with what you're saying as a general principle. Certainly in Castro's case I agree in deed and fact.

Re the Taliban, I'm biased by my knowledge of how women - that is, half the population - suffered under the Taliban, a violent misogyny that had no parallel elsewhere on earth, to my knowledge. There were massacres, tortures, women were denied access to health care (because their bodies could not be seen by doctors, who are all male) - and this in addition to the "usual" deprivations - denied education, not allowed to be in public without a male escort, etc. etc.

For my part, I can't weigh the destruction of opium crops (which also renders farmers and their families destitute) against that and come up with a positive. The opium farmers are providing supply for a demand.

I do hear you, though, and as I said, I agree with the idea.

L-girl said...

Saw your blog courtesy Dark Blue Tory, who says he wasn't allowed to post a comment here...any truth to that?

I don't know Dark Blue Tory, but if he posted something I find morally offensive, or a personal attack, or attacked my core beliefs, then I may have deleted his comment, as that's my policy.

This blog is a not a free-for-all forum. I have guidelines for comments, which I recently restated.

They may be bastards, but it's not our job to "get" them. . . . It's definitely time to debate the legitimacy of our ongoing presence among the Afghans and re-evaluate the mission.

I agree.

One thing Mr. Harper would do well to keep in mind...almost 7 out of 10 Canadians voted for someone else.

Ooooh yes!

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Mitch said...

Hey L-Girl,

Personally, I have little problem with Canada being involved in Afghanistan. In Kabul, it's a new city with a new focus. Khandahar, while more dangerous, shows that there is significant opportunities for change and renewal. Simply put, we're making a difference through NATO involvement, it's supported internationally, and change is occurring. Fortuneately, it seems that pride in the military can be placed alongside criticism of the role the Canadian military may play abroad, but the military itself is highly respected, highly regarded, and frankly, is the best tool we have at hand to help the Afghan people transition to a stable democracy.

However, I just wanted to correct 1 point you made. 4 Canadians weren't killed in the recent car bombing in Khandahar, instead, 1 Canadian diplomat was killed, and 3 soldiers were injured, 2 seriously and 1 slightly less so.

L-girl said...

Hi Mitch :)

However, I just wanted to correct 1 point you made. 4 Canadians weren't killed in the recent car bombing in Khandahar, instead, 1 Canadian diplomat was killed, and 3 soldiers were injured, 2 seriously and 1 slightly less so.

Yes, you're absolutely right. I'll change that now.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Andrea said...

I have never been overly supportive of Canada in Afghanistan. I never saw the conection/lie that was being touted to us by the big boys.

general Hillier scares me.
I read an article about him in the Saturday Review (I can not recal the month but it was last year, sorry) and he really worried me. He wants an american style military and I am soooo against that. I am all for peace keeping but the military of our neighbours is not designed for peace keeping anymore.

L-girl said...

Generals want bigger militaries - that's what generals do. I'm not a military fan, but Hillier's got his job to do, and it sounds like he does it well.

It's up to the government to give him that bigger military or not. That's the worrisome part.

but the military of our neighbours is not designed for peace keeping anymore.

Oh my. It never was!

sharonapple said...

I only support the military when they do the right thing and respect the locals. I don't think anyone can say they support what they believe to be a humanitarian mission, which involves the wholesale slaughter or torture of people. There aren't any easy solutions to any of these problems, the situation is too complex. Does involvement only make a situation worse? Do we sit on the sidelines because there are only people there as in Rwanda? Do we only get involved because of resources or because of treaties or because of race? I think the second we stop asking these questions, we're going to be lost.

Anyway, just wanted to post a link to a discussion with Romeo Dallaire about Rwanda and his hopes in the future on humanitary efforts. He's been pushing for more anthropology, sociology and philosophy training for soldiers to deal with conflicts.

http://cceia.org/viewMedia.php/prmTemplateID/8/prmID/848

L-girl said...

a link to a discussion with Romeo Dallaire about Rwanda and his hopes in the future on humanitary efforts.

Thanks. He's a fascinating and great man.

M@ said...

I hate to be late to the party here, but a couple of notes:

- Hillier sounds to me like an okay person. His views aren't outlandish or anything. Based on an extensive interview on the CBC I heard a couple of years ago, he seems to have a rational, long-term view of the military. I think his views about our military and how it should be used jive pretty much with mine. Thus he's correct and a Good Person. :)

- Romeo Dallaire. There are few people out there who I would count unabashedly and unreservedly as my heroes. He's one, though. I've heard him speak twice. If you haven't read his book, it's a good idea to go do that now. If he's speaking within your driving range, go see him. He's one of the few people who can speak from experience about the problems of, and possible solutions to, modern warfare.

His area of concentration right now is the use of child soldiers in conflict, especially in the third world. The problems are so unbelievably complicated. I wish I had his mental strength.