4.16.2007

let canada lead the drive for peace

From Star columnist Haroon Siddiqui.
Let Canada lead peace drive in Afghanistan

One of the blessings of Toronto is that you can find experts in this city on almost every international issue. Returning from a recent trip to the Afghan-Pakistan border, I met Karamatullah Ghori, a retired Pakistani diplomat whose last posting was as ambassador to Turkey and who now lives in Scarborough, to be near his daughter and grandchildren, and writes essays and books.

From his Canadian Pakistani perspective, what does he make of our mission in Afghanistan?

"Why are you there?" he shot back. "What's the Canadian interest that's at stake in Afghanistan? When did Afghanistan, or even the Taliban, declare war on Canada? There was one mention of Canada by Osama bin Laden, way back when.

"The alibi is that we are there to prevent the spread of terrorism. In fact, it is by being there that you are creating enmity against yourself."

Can the Taliban be defeated?

"No, they can't be. There's no end to the supply of razakars (willing fighters). For an Afghan, there's no greater calling than taking on a non-Afghan occupying his land, especially a white man who is not a Muslim."

The British and the Soviets may have discovered that but, I ventured, the Taliban may be doing well not because of their DNA but the sanctuaries they allegedly enjoy in Pakistan.

"This is being alleged on the flimsiest of evidence," Ghori said. "Where's the proof?

"The Americans and now the Canadians are asking Pakistan to do what they themselves have not been able to do" – prevent the insurgency in the first place and, failing that, to contain it.

Ghori then tossed a question at me: "What's your red line?"

Meaning? "How many casualties can Canada take? A hundred? Two hundred? Three hundred? What's the ceiling?"

Don't know. Can't know. Perhaps don't want to know.

But we must know, I suppose, as also the answer to his central question: What's Canada's interest in Afghanistan?

Perhaps nothing more than a desire to please the Americans and also to protect our trade with it. Or, to indeed do good in Afghanistan, as the Afghans do want us to, but in a more constructive way than we have been.

Canada needs clarity of mission. The planned withdrawal date of 2009 is too far off to keep muddling along, which is what NATO has been doing. Just one day's news stories bear this out.

Pervez Musharraf claims that 300 foreign fighters have been killed in South Waziristan, the lawless Pakistani area along the Afghan border, where Al Qaeda remnants are hiding.

Afghan officials claim they are killing the Taliban by the dozen.

A Canadian commander in the field claims progress at building several schools and clinics.

If everyone is doing their job as well as these stories suggest, and as Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his bumbling Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor keep proclaiming, why is Afghanistan still in turmoil and NATO so divided?

The allies are ducking Canada's repeated calls to take on more of the fighting. Either they do not want to put their troops in harm's way or they understand far better than us the futility of the exercise.

France and Germany openly question the wisdom of committing more troops, when there are already 35,000, plus another 11,000 Americans hunting Bin Laden, et al.

Yet here's the U.S. leaning on Canada, of all allies, to commit even more troops and hardware.

Why does the U.S. think a few hundred more troops can defeat the Taliban, when the Soviets failed during their 1979-89 occupation despite deploying 80,000 troops, and sowing millions of land mines and conducting endless carpet bombings?

What drove the Soviets out was Afghan guerrilla warfare, which is what the Taliban are waging, even more brutally, with suicide and roadside bombings.

We need a political solution in Afghanistan.

Ottawa should be encouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai's tentative steps toward political reconciliation with the Taliban. He met 50 of them this month. Canada should persuade the U.S. and other allies to back him, openly.

Canada should also be taking the lead in having Karzai and NATO talk to Pakistan.

Its entanglement in Afghanistan dates back to the 1980s when it was the chosen conduit for American funding to the anti-Soviet mujahideen, who morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

That involvement brought Pakistan praise then, but much heartache later – waves of refugees, Islamic extremism, and a culture of Kalashnikovs, drugs and crime.

Pakistan is also nervous about the involvement of its archrival India in Afghanistan.

Besides opening four consulates, India is investing $750 million in development projects – and is quietly doing a much better job of it than most NATO nations.

Pakistan, always suffering from an existentialist paranoia, feels sandwiched between India and a hostile Afghanistan.

Canada, friendly with all three nations, should be suggesting a regional conference, where they, along with the U.S. and other NATO allies, would explore ways to end the agony of Afghanistan.

The city of Ottawa would make a good neutral site for such a gathering.

12 comments:

loneprimate said...

I agree with the assessment of why we entered Afghanistan in the first place. It was to please the US. Well, that sounds a little too cynical. Really, it was in a moment of strong fellow-feeling. People tend to forget we went in in October of 2001, only about a month after 9/11. Feelings were still pretty high. I thought it was a mistake then and that we owed due process more than lip service… but non-white countries don’t get that as a right, it’s a privilege we observe when it suits us, so in we went.

So here we are, five years and change later, scores of dead soldiers, myriad thousand dead civilians who cannot, and whose families never will, thank us, and our amnesia lets us forget why we were there so we invent soothing pabulum like “getting rid of the Taliban” and “spreading democracy”. We devastate a nation and pat ourselves on the back for building a few roads and schools.

Are the Taliban swell guys, in Western estimation? No. Is it our responsibility to root them out? No. Like it or not, they were the government of Afghanistan; they provided it a measure of stability and order in which their society could function. That’s all a government is supposed to do. If it didn’t past muster in Western eyes, so what? It didn’t have to. It had to — any Afghani government has to — past muster in Afghani eyes, period. If it doesn’t, it’s their right and responsibility to remove and replace it. That sounds cold-blooded but it’s the only way to ensure regime change is anything like legit. No one did it for Britain, France, the US, etc., but they themselves. No one could. Either a nation is ready, willing, and able to adopt democracy, or it isn’t. “Willing” is part of that. Democracy is much more a conviction than it is a process (after all, even Zimbabwe still has elections). Afghanistan will be a democracy only when the people of Afghanistan will it so, and not before. We can plant 10,000 of our young in their soil and it won’t change a thing. If anything, it hurts the cause.

Our soldiers need to come home, and we need to apologize to Afghanistan for the harm done. The sooner the better.

James said...

Meanwhile, the US is sending funding to al Qaeda affiliates because they're anti-Iran.

So what was the point of all this again?

loneprimate said...

Playing all ends against the middle in the name of global hegemony. As if anyone were smart enough to think into that many dimensions.

Lisa said...

Thanks for posting this article. I have been on a bit of a media fast (exception: reading your blog, among a few others) lately, so I missed this. Will be sending this to far too many of my friends who are confused about the mission, or have fallen hard for the patronizing "we must save them from themselves" line.

Lone Primate (as he often does) phrased my feelings about this mission exactly. I wish more Canadians saw it this way...

L-girl said...

Lisa, I'm honoured to make the rotation while you're on a media fast.

I agree with Lone Primate's basic premise, too. However, I think he's way too easy on the Taliban.

Like it or not, they were the government of Afghanistan; they provided it a measure of stability and order in which their society could function. That’s all a government is supposed to do.

They were no more a legitimate government than the Russians were after their occupation. And that's not all a government is supposed to do. It's not supposed to oppress half its subjects, and there's little doubt that they are extremely misogynistic and oppress women.

But it's certainly not Canada's job to fix that. And if Canada wants to help the people who are oppressed by the Taliban, it should be supporting grassroots democracy movements in Afghanistan, not killing all the Taliban it can find.

loneprimate said...

This position begs the question, on what basis lies the legitimacy of a government? The Taliban, by and large, are just guys from around Afghanistan... pretty much the same sort of thing as the Minutemen or the Patriots of the American Revolution -- most of whom, by the way, thought it was fine to deny women voting and property rights, many who felt the same of people of the wrong religious conviction, and nearly all of whom felt it was perfectly fine and natural to actually own other human beings. Did these beliefs deny the government they founded legitimacy? When, then, did the United States government become legitimate, real, worthy of representing the American people to the world and passing and enforcing laws and policies? 1863? 1920? At what point did other nations lose the right to claim the 'illegitimacy' of the US government on philosophical grounds as a basis for invasion and the overthrow of that system in favour of one better suited to their own ideas of fairness, justice, and the right way for human beings to live and comport themselves? Canada didn't allow Asians the vote until the 1950s, and until 1960, Indians could vote or have status, but not both. There are countries on Earth for whom our policy of same-sex marriage is highly offensive and even insulting to what they "know" to be real human dignity. Is our government illegitimate as a result of their reaction to it? Are we, then, justly subject to their whim if and when they are strong enough to impose it?

I believe we all have the inherent right to persuade. But to compel? That should be reserved to only the highest order of emergency... though I'll admit that where the line is to be drawn is subjective. Keep in mind, too, that our "right' to encourage movements pleasing to us there implies the same right in others to encourage movements pleasing to them here. How much foreign money in aid of Muslim fundamentalism in Canada and elsewhere in the West are we comfortable with?

Sovereignty and the recognition of the rights of others to their own conception of government is not about equating cultures or all that stuff right-wingers usually accuse us of. Everyone has preferences. And in fact, it's about recognizing just that. That we're all different, and we're going to have differences of opinion on how to live, so we have borders and we reject notions of exceptionalism that would imply the right to impose our will on others. We do this, ultimately, to defend our own right to be who we are, and have our own society the way we like it, and a place that we can call home. The unfortunate upshot of that is accepting that the world will not be made in our image in all places at all times.

The Taliban were the government of a legally constituted state, despite the fact that their policies are obnoxious to our sensibilities... though they would hardly have been to men like George Washington in his time. If we deny them legal legitimacy on the basis of personal fiat, then ultimately we give anyone anywhere the right to do so and the legality of any government on Earth can be unwound in this fashion.

L-girl said...

Lone Primate, I am completely opposed to Canada's and the US's military presence in Afghanistan.

However, to be so opposed does not require one to defend the Taliban, which I cannot do. I have read too much about what they did and do, and about the very widespread, however covert, resistance to their rule.

The two beliefs are not contradictory, and needn't be linked.

I'm not sure why you insert the references to the American colonial revolutionaries, as if I uphold them as some sort of ideal or as if I defend the US's hypocritical policies. The misogyny and racism of George Washington and his contemporaries have nothing to do with that of Taliban, except that both are/were misogynist and racist.

L-girl said...

Canada didn't allow Asians the vote until the 1950s, and until 1960, Indians could vote or have status, but not both.

If that's all that was happening to women under the Taliban, I wouldn't be arguing.

Women and girls were denied medical care because all the doctors are male, and women cannot show their bodies to a man who is not their husband.

Women and girls were denied education.

Women were not allowed to leave their homes without a male escort.

Women were forbidden to show any part of their bodies or faces in public. A burka is not a headscarf or a veil. Try wearing one in 40-degree heat.

Women could be - and were - executed for infractions of any of these rules. Women were executed for being raped. They were stoned to death, or hung and left to suffocate to death.

Once again, I do not support a military non-solution to the rule of the Taliban, and I never have. But I hope I never succumb to such moral relativism that would lead me to condones this kind of "government".

Certain basic human rights should be universally recognized. We didn't think the apartheid government in South Africa was legitimate, and in my opinion we should view the Taliban in the same light.

loneprimate said...

I, too, feel the need to draw a distinction between "condoning" the acts of a government and recognizing its legitimacy. These, too, are not mutually inclusive. The fact that I don't support, say, the murder of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians by agencies of the US government should not necessarily be construed as suggesting I do not recognize the government of the United States as a legitimate expression of the sovereignty of that country; on the contrary: I hold it to a higher standard because it is the government. The same holds true for the Taliban in reverse... the recognition that they form the government of Afghanistan, according to the ways and norms of that country, is a simple nod to reality, and is not in and of itself support for its policies or conduct.

In evoking the Founding Fathers, I didn't mean to suggest anything in particular about you... but to cast the issue into a new light. People are prone to say that the Taliban aren't legit because they weren't elected, because they took power by force, because they disenfranchize others as suits their own aims and prejudices, that they are few and by far most Afghanis had nothing to do with instituting their government. Every one of those charges can be leveled against those who wrought the American Revolution, and, in fact, pretty much most modern republican governments. If that's where legitimacy lies, then not many countries are governed legitimately even now.

loneprimate said...

Certain basic human rights should be universally recognized. We didn't think the apartheid government in South Africa was legitimate, and in my opinion we should view the Taliban in the same light.

There's a legal distinction to be made here as well. We did, in fact, recognize South Africa's government. It was the government of South Africa. We had a high commission there. They had a seat at the United Nations. They conducted foreign affairs and trade, taxation and currency regulation. What we took issue with was the policy of apartheid and limits on the access to the electoral mechanisms of that government by some (most) of its people. Still: we recognized its sovereignty. We didn't invade it. We persuaded, we did not compel. How we treated South Africa was right and correct, and it did pay dividends in the long run. When the people in whole took over South Africa at last, it wasn't a ruined shell. I realize you don't support the military action in Afghanistan, so this isn't meant to suggest otherwise (at least not where you're concerned, but perhaps others). What I am saying is, our moral and economic means of persuasion may yet take the day in lands like Afghanistan. In the meantime, we still have to interact with the governments of such places as they exist today.

L-girl said...

the recognition that they form the government of Afghanistan, according to the ways and norms of that country, is a simple nod to reality, and is not in and of itself support for its policies or conduct

But what makes you think the Taliban ruled according to the ways and norms of Afghanistan? Nothing I've read suggests that they did, and I'm not talking about US propaganda.

They were a small, powerful minority of totalitarian theocrats. They wrested control of some portion of the country (other portions being ruled by local warlords), and forced it to their bidding. What makes you think this is some type of Afghan way or norm?

I think we have an obligation to oppose totalitarianism in all forms. Even if George Bush's US also opposes them (although they obviously did so for very different reasons, as the US has always supported dictatorships around the globe), even if we don't believe Canadians should be sacrificed in that opposition.

We still can't just say, it's ok, because that's "their" way. Because it's no one's way - it's just the way of a small group of rulers.

In evoking the Founding Fathers, I didn't mean to suggest anything in particular about you... but to cast the issue into a new light.

Perhaps, but it strikes me as a semantic shell game.

People are prone to say that the Taliban aren't legit because they weren't elected, because they took power by force, because they disenfranchize others as suits their own aims and prejudices, that they are few and by far most Afghanis had nothing to do with instituting their government. Every one of those charges can be leveled against those who wrought the American Revolution

But what of that? Any group of people who delcare themselves to be a legitimate government are therefore a legitimate government? Simply because they say so?

If the Constitutional Congress had not instituted voting for any portion of the populace, and had enjoyed very little popular support, if they put down rebellions with executions, if they set up a mock monarchy with no check on power, would we look back in history and say, they were legitimate because they declared themselves to be?

And the Taliban - no matter how morally repugnant their rule - and we're talking voting rights for minorities here, as important though those are to western democracy, we're talking basic human rights - has said they are legitimate, so they are?

The white government in South Africa claimed they were the legitimate rulers, and they functioned in the world as if they were. But only white South Africans had any say-so in that. The black majority had none. Therefore the government's claim to legitimacy was insupportable.

If the great majority of Afghan people recognized the Taliban as their legitimate rulers, then I'd have no right to say otherwise. But they don't. No one freely chooses to be oppressed.

Democracy cannot be forced on a people. It's a ridiculous notion. But in our global village in 2007, we cannot let vast numbers of people suffer and die because their oppressors claim to be a legitimate government.

(Of course, we do allow that, but we should not.)

L-girl said...

There's a legal distinction to be made here as well. We did, in fact, recognize South Africa's government.

Yes. And in fact, we should not have. The people's movement in South Africa did not want us to. By recognizing that government and continuing to trade with it as if it were any other government, the west prolonged apartheid and stymied the revolutionary movement that opposed it.

The west did that because it was profitable to do so. It was more convenient to pretend that change could happen by piecemeal, voluntary methods, which were proven over decades to be ineffectual window-dressing.

That South Africa was not a ruined shell when apartheid collapsed has little (or nothing) to do with the west's recognition of the apartheid government. And, for millions of its citizens, it was a ruined shell.

It did take an invasion to force apartheid to fall, but that invasion came from within: a revolution. Eventually the west came to support the aims of that revolution with economic sanctions and divestment, because it feared the alternative. Those sanctions and divestement could have come much sooner, saving countless lives.

Regardless of that, Afghanistan was not invaded to free Afghan women from the Taliban. The idea is ludicrous. No one in the US, outside of feminist activists and Afghan refugees, knew or cared about the Taliban until they were about to destroy some ancient statues - and until they were told the Taliban was a terrorist organization.

The propanganda may have been different in Canada, I don't know.