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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Canadian media's narrative of the Afghan war suspiciously like a fairy tale

| July 15, 2011

The narrative of Canada's role in the Afghan civil war as told by the country's mainstream media is designed to lead readers and viewers to two inescapable conclusions:

First, that after 10 years, Canada's involvement in the conflict has come to a definitive end.

Second, that thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of Canada's troops, at least 157 of whom have died with scores more maimed physically and mentally, the West has triumphed unconditionally in Afghanistan.

Alas, the balance of probability is high that both these yarns are baloney.

It is equally likely that the people spinning these Afghan fairy tales know very well they are not true, and that they are designed principally to serve the political needs of the country's Conservative government.

Nevertheless, the tone of Canadian coverage of the Afghan war brooks no argument that these dubious conclusions are somehow the unchallengeable truth.

Consider a story in my local paper and many others across Canada on July 8. This tale by correspondent Matthew Fisher was distributed by Postmedia News, which it is fair to say has served as a trusty Sherpa to the Harper Government's line on Afghanistan, loyally humping the government's propaganda day after day all the way back to Canada from the Hindu Kush.

So begins this tale, with startling precision: "Canada's first war in more than half a century ended at 11:18 a.m. local time Thursday, about 300 metres away from where the first Canadian combat troops set foot in Kandahar on Jan. 19, 2002."

Alas, it cannot be said that Canada's involvement in this war was over by any definition by 11:19 a.m., or indeed that it likely will be until the day the last Western troops and their supporters are taken by helicopter off the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul … metaphorically speaking, that is.

For that matter, Canada's "combat role," technically defined, is not even over, as many of our troops will remain to assist with the handover of the occupied territory to more numerous U.S. soldiers.

Beyond that, the government of Stephen Harper, ever loyal to American imperial projects, foresees our troops remaining for a three-year hitch in a "training" capacity to bring the Afghan National Army to a point at which it can defend the regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai (and its inevitable pro-American successors) on its own.

At least three things are wrong with this story. First, the frequent description of military "trainers" and "advisers" as non-combatants is largely fictional. Historically, so-called combat trainers frequently found themselves in the thick of the fiercest fighting, lest they lose credibility with their students. Notwithstanding its pacific protestations, it is unclear what the intentions of the Harper government are for the activities of Canadian advisers.

Second, even if our soldiers remain "behind the wire," as we have been repeatedly promised, there's no guarantee their "students" can be depended upon not to turn on them -- as the soldiers of the German Bundeswehr discovered to their horror last February. This is a civil war in which the West has intervened, after all, and the motives of many groups, including elements of the Afghan army, remain murky.

Third, it seems highly unlikely that the Karzai government, without popular support among the country's Pashtun majority (notwithstanding the president's ethnicity), can survive without Western mercenaries to prop it up, no matter how well trained the Afghan army is.

From any sensible military perspective, then, the meter continues to run on Canada's involvement in the Afghan war -- and a tariff will still to have to continue to be paid, both in blood and treasure.

The other part of the Afghan fairy story is the claim that has been drummed into our heads that Western troops in Afghanistan, including Canada's, have succeeded in defeating the Taliban in a set-piece campaign, as if the Talibs were the Wehrmacht and this was late 1944 in Europe.

Turning again to the gospel according to Matthew Fisher: "the coalition succeeded in pushing the enemy off the battlefield. This allowed Canadian, American and Afghan forces to move in among the local population to ensure their security and to assist them with economic development."

But the Taliban, as the military arm of the Pashtun people in a civil war, are an insurgency. As such, they do not wear uniforms or march behind brass bands into battles on open ground upon which they can be conveniently defeated.

They ebb and flow, arming roadside bombs at night, farming innocently by day, wisely never turning up for a battle in which they can be crushed by their better-armed foe. As Mao Zedong explained and the Taliban recently practised atop the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and later in Kandahar: "The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue."

If Western troops do pull out of Afghanistan in meaningful numbers, Taliban activity can be expected to pick up. If Westerners flow back to protect their allies, they will seem to evanesce.

Indeed, a study by the Rand Corp., the U.S. military's think tank, has suggested that defeating the Taliban insurgency would take up to 600,000 troops and 14 years -- which is arguably beyond the financial and manpower capacity of the West's armed forces, not to mention the patience of voters in Western democracies, even this one.

This is why, as British Prime Minister David Cameron recently sensibly suggested, in the words of the Telegraph, "Afghanistan's long-term future lies in a negotiated settlement with the Taliban." He argued for the model that was used to entice the Irish Republican Army into a peaceful role in government in Northern Ireland in return for giving up its insurgency.

For even if its numbers are severely depleted, as may or may not be the case, the Taliban can continue almost forever to make trouble for the occupiers and their collaborators. And so even the brother of President Karzai, walled away in his Kandahar redoubt and protected by his Praetorian Guard, could not escape the long reach of the Taliban. To quote Fidel Castro, another old Commie revolutionary of whom the Taliban would likely not approve, "no cause will be lost while there is one revolutionary and there is one gun."

The true story of the Afghan war comes down to this: If the West cannot make an accommodation with the Pashtun people through the Taliban, the war will continue until the West is driven out. That may take a long time, and there may be a high cost, but it will happen.

"News stories" that tell you differently, or that claim Canada's involvement in this tragic conflict has now ended, are designed to advance a political program that has its roots closer to home than in the high dusty mountains of the Hindu Kush.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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Comments

Good article. Also borne out by the news that, not only is the "Mission [not] Accomplished", but the country is not even safe for anyone loosely associated with the Canadian military.

http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/Canada/20110715/afghan-interpreters-canada-110...

 

Canadian involvement in this war has been about greedy profiteering and a quest for oil, land access for pipelines, and resources from the start. If human rights stories about education and Afghan girls "not being allowed to go to school" were the true raison d'etre behind this war, Harper's government would be promoting the invasion of African countries where massive numbers of people are starving to death at this moment. As David suggests, the stories we're sold about Afghanistan have been full of hypocrisy, pure and simple. 

I fully agree with your assessment of the Afghan war.  While progress is touted in the Afghan war, no one can ever substantiate that the Taliban have been beaten.   Meanwhile we have had the highest civilian casualty rate over a six months period (Jan-Jun 2011).  Violence this year has increased significantly during the past few months and  Wali Karzai's assassination should demonstrate to those touting that Afghan Security Forces will be able to take over, that they were unable to protect even someone like Karzai in his own house with heavy security. 

David Cameron, along with other Western leaders are looking for a way out of the conflict.  Having the media support their claims only feeds the hopes of ending an increasingly unpopular war.  I appreciated your well thought out article.  Excellent work.

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