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Counting the Cost: Canada’s Longest War

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Todd Howe, WeAreChangeToronto
November 20, 2010

In March 2009,  PM Stephen Harper was being interviewed on CNN when he told Fareed Zakaria that “…we are not ever going to defeat the insurgency.” The interview was remarkable not only for its candor (and Harper’s in reputable company on this point) but also because it seemed so off-message. He went on to say that  “[From] my reading of Afghanistan history, it’s probably had an insurgency forever, of some kind.” Really?

Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of of central Asia and is the intersection of empires. The windswept homeland of  independent nomadic peoples, it’s weathered waves of invaders — Alexander and the Macedonians, the Mongols, English and Russian empires, all have come seeking occupation of this geopolitical keystone and all have been repelled. The present conflict, which has been dubbed the ‘New Great Game’, has very deep roots.


From Freedom Fighters to Terrorists

Veteran Middle Eastern correspondent Robert Fisk has covered the region since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in his book The Great War for Civilization provides one of the clearest sketches of the true political motivations in the region. From the CIA’s campaign in the 80s to arm Reagan’s ‘freedom fighters’ — the Afghan and Arab mujahedin fighting the Russian military’s occupation at the time — to UNOCAL executive Hamid Karzai’s failed negotiations for a trans-Afghan pipeline with those same mujahedin — now known as the Taliban — Fisk documents the legacy of failed interventions in the area. He’s also heard a lot about terror during his long career:

“Terrorists, terrorists, terrorists […] this word would become a plague, a meaningless punctuation mark in all of our lives, a full stop erected to finish all discussion of injustice, constructed as a wall by Russians, Americans, Israelis, British, Pakistanis, Saudis, Turks, to shut us up. Who would ever say a word in favour of terrorists? What cause could justify terror? So our enemies are always ‘terrorists’. In the seventeenth century, governments used ‘heretic’ in much the same way, to end all dialogue, to prescribe obedience.”

Canadians didn’t hear about terrorism too frequently before 9/11. It’s interesting to note then that Jane’s International Security News reported on March 15th, 2001 that the invasion of Afghanistan was underway well before 9/11′s trauma spurred the expansion and public unveiling of the campaign. Battle plans for this full-scale invasion were tabled On September the 10th. All they were wanting was an enemy. And when the call came to take a role in the war, Canada answered.

The Peace Mission and its Costs

With the deployment of regular troops in January 2002,  the nation entered a minefield of competing interests, corruption, and long standing ethnic hostilities between the two major tribes in the country, Tajiks and Pashtun. Matthew Hoh, American diplomat to Afghanistan threw up his hands and resigned in disgust, citing the existence of ‘civil war’ as the primary dynamic in Afghanistan. In his interview with Matt Lauer on NBC, Hoh quoted the disposition of American troops who had approached him, reportedly stating “We’re not sure what we’re doing here. It doesn’t make any sense. All we’re doing is fighting people who are fighting us because we’re occupying them.”

A Frontline report aired in 2007 entitled “Afghanistan: The Other War” covered the situation at Forward Operating Base Martello, staffed by a Canadian contingent charged with the task of guarding the road to Kandahar. The film follows the isolated team in their quest to obtain a couple of spark plugs to repair a local village’s water pump, an impossible task undertaken in an environment where the hills bristle with Taliban militia. Outside of the occasional model school, precious little reconstruction is apparent to Afghans. Even Canada’s signature development project, the Dhala Dam, has been sidelined by violence associated with the corrupt Karzai administration and its camp followers.

The desire to assist in the reconstruction of villages shattered by war is no doubt a sincere one on the part of frontline troops, but they’ve found themselves caught in the gears of war. Sold as a peacekeeping mission from its earliest days, the combat nature of the Afghan campaign was downplayed. First Liberals and then Conservatives fed Canadians a narrative of development and reconstruction, training, and aid. By 2007, the message was so tightly controlled by a partisan Privy Council that it was issuing ‘Message Event Proposals’ for the Prime Minister’s Office, literal word by word scripts making sock puppets of those government agencies and employees chosen to appear in the media.

This campaign to emphasize development projects minimizes and distracts from the real situation on the ground — a noxious maelstrom of violence and political corruption. The UK Telegraph just reported that this year is the worst since the war began for civilian casualties, that insurgency and violence are growing. Detainees handed over to Afghan police by coalition forces from Canada and its coalition partners are routinely tortured, corrupt governors linked to narcotics trafficking run around blowing up UN workers to encourage instability and well connected corporations clean up on NATO security and massive military construction contracts to build these hardened garrisons.

Is this the return Canadians were expecting for the loss of (at last count) 152 soldiers and 11.3 billion dollars?

Multiple Extensions Threaten Runaway War

Malalai Joya, a former Afghan Member of Parliament and one of the few women to speak out in a hostile legislature visited Toronto in October and gave a speech at Bloor Trinity United Church. While detractors in the audience loudly insisted she didn’t speak for Afghans, Joya methodically recounted the impacts that the Afghan war has on a largely voiceless civilian population.

Tens of thousands of civilians have died since the war began, caught between a vindictive Taliban and the loose triggers of ISAF coalition forces. Opium production and drug addiction have skyrocketed. The protection of women’s rights is a miserable sham across the country. Elections are occasions for widespread fraud and intimidation. Aid sent into the country is siphoned off by the warlords and power brokers controlling the government, men tied to human rights abuses and past massacres in the country.

She suggested that if the coalition forces in the country are benefitting anyone it is certainly not the people, women least of all. And with the Taliban now involved in peace negotiations to rejoin the government, the Afghan campaign has accomplished little more than poverty and steadily declining security since the occupation began. This view was further underscored by her Guardian piece of Nov 2, another urgent plea for NATO to decamp.

To those following exclusively domestic coverage of the war, this may all come as a bit of a shock. She wants us to leave? When the government wanted an extension of the war’s initial 2009 end date, a commission of study chaired by John Manley duly reported that the majority of Afghans wanted Canadian forces in the country. Digging into the methodology revealed what was actually said was that Afghans wanted foreign aid and investment, but why split hairs?

This past week, Canadians were told once more that the war requires an extension. While regular forces will begin to come home, some will remain to provide training. In lockstep with American policy to stay past 2011 first mentioned in June, Harper unilaterally declared the passage of this extension with the greatest reluctance and assurances that Canadian troops would be safely out of harm’s way. This time, the extension is for 2014, which happens to also be the date suggested by NATO at the recent Lisbon summit to general acclaim. 2014, being an ‘inflection point’ in their words is a date which NATO stresses is ‘not set in stone‘.

When it comes to limitations on this conflict, clearly nothing is set in stone. It’s estimated that another three years of war will cost Canadians a total of $1.5 billion, and it’s difficult to feel assured that would be the end of it. Last month, the NATO Council Secretary told a roomful of Concordia students that Afghanistan still promises to be a “very long military venture”. And US President Barack Obama has more than doubled the size of the American forces in the country since 2009.

With no reliable end in sight, the war threatens to spill over more borders and engulf the wider region in conflict. If the continuing litany of outrages suffered by the Afghan civilians don’t make for convincing enough of a moral argument for withdrawal, practical considerations should speak to this government. According to the latest Ipsos-Reid poll, the vast majority of Canadians oppose the NATO extension on the war in Afghanistan. It’s really time we came home — we’ve done enough.

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