Afghanistan and Canada by Lucia Kowaluk and Stephen Staples (Eds.)
This was a good book to have read because it was very informative about various important issues regarding Canada’s engagement with Afghanistan, but also because it offers a glimpse into anger and frustration about the war held by the left community. The book is a collection of over 20 different articles and essays about Canada and Afghanistan. They provide analysis of history, context, gender, energy, current engagement, cost, and future possibilities. The book, on the whole, argues for an end to military activity and seeks a negotiated settlement. While a fine collection overall, there were some editing errors (typos and such) and many times I thought particular articles could have been better structured or written, so I do wonder about inclusion and exclusion (That's not to say that there weren't some fine, well-researched pieces).
I had read and thought about the Afghanistan issue in the beginning of 2007, but subsequently I have not paid much attention to it. I never really thought of Afghanistan as ‘the good war’ (compared to Iraq) and thought it had some sketchy beginnings as well as costs to human lives and Canada’s reputation (by being aligned with the US). After reading The Unexpected War, I came to believe that Canada just sort of stumbled into Afghanistan, mainly to satisfy perceived concerns of the US as we didn’t take part in Iraq or missile defence. I think part of the reason I left the issue was due to a statement by Alexander Neve (Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada). When he visited Kingston to speak I had a chance to address him. I said something like, “I used to think Canada should be out of Afghanistan and into Darfur, but considering Afghanistan is one of the worst places to live and people are suffering there similar to Darfur, it seems to make less sense to give up on any expertise, knowledge and connections we’ve acquired and established by shifting to another region of which we are unfamiliar. What do you think?” He basically said that he agreed and that the situations are comparable. Consequently, I chose to defer to the AI man who knows much more than I do and thought, “Well, good enough for Neve, good enough for me.” Now, the above mentioned should not indicate that Neve thought it was great for Canada to be in Afghanistan or that there weren’t problems, but that within the context of the two countries/regions and the complications that go along with international relations and military/humanitarian action, it wasn’t as if there was a big upside to shifting out of Afghanistan and going into Darfur.
Anyway, along comes a book launch by the Rideau Institute about Afghanistan and Canada and I thought it was time to re-engage the topic. (The people and their entertaining actions at the book launch could be a whole other entry). I purchased the book and that is what I shall discuss more below.
The general ideas that were raised in the book are that the war in Afghanistan is illegal and illegitimate and is a poor approach to help the Afghan people. The war is/was illegal because it was a violation of international law to attack a state for holding a non-state actor who may have been responsible for the 9/11 attacks. It is true that bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban and was therefore in Afghanistan during 9/11, but when asked to turn him over, the Taliban asked for evidence that bin Laden actually committed the crime. Further, the 9/11 attacks were committed mainly be Saudis and it was planned in Germany. Additionally, notions of honour play a big role in Afghanistan and to evict a guest would be a severe transgression. That said, it seems that the Taliban was willing to turn bin Laden over to an international court or another state, just not the US. Of course, this wasn’t good enough for the US, so it decided to invade. It also invoked part of the NATO agreement (treating itself as an attacked country and therefore requiring the engagement of other signatories) and therefore Canada was compelled to enter the fray.
The war was illegitimate because it wasn’t sanctioned by the UN security council, and when part of the military operations were sanctioned after the fact, the book argues that this was illegitimate because the Security Council failed to fulfill their own mandate to prevent war (as the war in Afghanistan was unnecessary).
As you can imagine, these are very interesting, complex and controversial issues to discuss. Similarly, so is the idea that the main reason for the invasion was so the US could have a military presence in the region (which is important as Russia, China and India increase in power) and have access to energy reserves. I certainly don’t think the US invaded Afghanistan to help the women who are suffering terribly (they didn’t seem to care in the 1980s when the Mujahidin were in power, nor when the Taliban took over), but I’d need a bit more hard evidence regarding the point that it was that breakdown of talks between Unocol (a US company represented by Karzai) and the Taliban to have a pipeline out of Turkmenistan several months prior to 9/11 that was one of the main reasons. Under this view, the argument would be something like: the US wants a(n increased) military presence in the region and after 9/11 they ‘had’ to attack someone, why not Afghanistan which would then allow such a presence and access to energy reserves (and then a closer eye could be kept on Iran). True? I’m not sure, but it is certainly plausible.
The book did a good job of providing some facts and figures about the cost of the war: Canada is spending over $2,600,000 a day (about $2000/minute) on the war in Afghanistan to extend its mission to 2011. [Note: that amount comes from the article in which Steven Staples did a good job of breaking down the various costs, including those that would occur anyway and those that are in addition to regular costs, as well as costs associated with CIDA and Veterans Affairs - I chose to only give the associated increased cost due to the war. If one went with total overall costs, the number would be closer to over $11,000,000/day.)
Is this the best use of your tax money?
Additionally, there is the human cost, with Canada losing more soldiers in Afghanistan than in all its UN peacekeeping operations in over 60 years. Of course, UN peacekeeping missions usually do not lead to death and involve different personal compared to the combat mission in Afghanistan, so one could question the validity of the comparison.
Realizing that international obligations often force the spending of such resources, such figures still do raise the issue of opportunity cost – should all of the various resources going towards Afghanistan be spent elsewhere?
Afghanistan and Canada also provided useful information regarding Afghan women and the brutality they have continually experience. Historically, things weren’t so bad going back 100 years and the progressive movements that were attempted to give women rights and powers in the 1920s and 30s, but then it becomes mixed after about the 1970s. Things were terrible under the Mujahidin and the infighting that occurred after the Soviets left (1990s). While certain aspects of life (i.e., rape and being terrorized) greatly decreased when the Taliban came into power (mid-1990s), the Taliban imposed such severe restrictions on their lives, that it was hardly any better. One of the few female Afghan MPs said that things are no better now then they were 10 years ago – a truly saddening statement. In addition, I learned (obviously in retrospect, I just hadn’t thought about it much) that women of different socio-economic statuses were affected differently. What were freedoms for some in the cities did not translate into the rural areas (nor was it desired). The march for women’s rights must be seen as an internal movement and it must move slowly with various actors on board – pretty much the opposite of what the international community is doing at large.
I mentioned previously that notions of honour are very important in Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtun areas where there is Pashtunwali, a code of practice followed by the Pashtun people which includes such things as hospitality and sanctuary. A Pashtun woman, upon hearing that there was homelessness in Montreal, was shocked, wondering how we could let this happen. When I first read this I too was suprised, but from the other direction. I thought about how we so often judge another culture and many think they are 'backward' and here we step over people who are sick, troubled and cold while they never would. Upon further reflection, I don't know how much this extends to those who are complete outsiders and if a Pashtun would think they would be threatened, would they still provide sanctuary? (I mentioned above that the case with bin Laden seems to indicated many probably still would.)
There is much more to say and many thoughts I still have to consider, but I’ll end with an analogy provided by Michael Neumann (page 29) about the war in Afghanistan. He does say it is “inexact” but I think his parallel is quite powerful. Further, I found it appealing as the psychologist in me appreciated his description of conflicting ideas.
“The big justification for The Mission is that we are fighting, as the fantile phrase goes, the Bad Guys, the Taliban. There’s something criminally dishonest about this. Here’s an inexact parallel which tries to get at what’s wrong.
Suppose the Taliban are bad like TB, not cancer – you lead an awful life, but usually you live. Now suppose there’s TB in your town. I come to believe that TB is a scourge of your society, and fighting TB should be your number one priority. I could eliminate TB in your town by providing 100mg of a certain drug to each inhabitant, but I have no intention of allocating resources on that scale. So, on the cheap, I provide 10mg of the drug per person. This may bring some temporary relief; it may even cure a very few exceptionally healthy people, but of course what it won’t do is eliminate TB, and those helped are likely to get it again, later. I use this distribution of drugs to justify my military occupation of your town. I kill inhabitants who oppose my TB program, on the grounds that they’re an obstacle to curing your society.
The contemptible wrongness of my actions is elusive. I have no bad intentions or motives; I’ve violated no inviolable principles. But there is something repugnantly shoddy about my good intentions. It’s not that I’m trying to do something bad. It’s that I’m not really trying to do something good, only pretending to do so. I pretend, first of all, to myself. I’ve embarked on an enterprise that I know will have terrible costs to others, and which will achieve nothing. This looks a bit like the sort of gamble we just have to take from time to time. But it isn’t a gamble, because I know my strategy will fail. I choose to ignore this, and pretend my efforts are serious. In short I’m trying to hold two obviously clashing beliefs. One is that after much struggle I will succeed; the other is that I’ve invested much too little in the ‘struggle’ to succeed. I don’t want to relinquish either of them. Academics call this cognitive dissonance.
Willful myopia helps us manage these clashing beliefs. We see our killings of Afghan civilians as a series of mistakes, of setbacks, and so they are. But we know these mistakes will continue to happen, and we refuse even to estimate their eventual, total cost to the Afghan people. Instead, we go about our noble sacrifice."
Why are we in Afghanistan? Why is any country?
Do you have answers that satisfy your notions of truth and justice?