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On Afghanistan: Spare us the hypocrisy

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Since the United States launched its invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the terror attacks on New York and Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, the West has dispatched thousands of soldiers and has spent tens of billions of dollars to secure that unfortunate country. In addition to the young men and women in uniform and the tax dollars, the West has provided an oily propaganda screed to keep the populations of NATO countries onside.

The Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan had nothing to do with human rights, the rights of women in the family and in the workplace, and the right of girls to attend schools. The invasion was a response to the September 11 terror attacks, an invasion whose utility the U.S. military quickly came to doubt. “There are few worthwhile military targets in Afghanistan,” commanders complained. From Day One, the Bush administration and the Pentagon was much more interested in preparing the ground for an invasion of Iraq.

During an earlier chapter in the decades-long armed struggle for control of Afghanistan, the Americans supported the Mujahideen, the spawning ground for the Taliban, against the Soviet backed regime in Kabul. Whatever the defects of the Moscow-sponsored regime, and there were many, the horrific suppression of women, a hallmark of the Taliban, was not one of them. Women were allowed to work, leave home without the permission of their husbands, and as conditions allowed (and they often did not) girls were permitted to go to school. The Americans provided billions of dollars to outfit the incubator that cooked up the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.

Once the United States managed to launch the war it really wanted in Iraq, Afghanistan became the forgotten war. The Americans cared little about Afghanistan, were much more concerned with developments in neighbouring and nuclear Pakistan, and were quite happy to let Canadians bear the brunt of military casualties---the highest on a per capita basis for any NATO country including the U.S.

Then along came Barack Obama during the campaign for the White House. To fend off attacks on him from Hillary Clinton and John McCain that depicted him as a geo-strategic lightweight, Obama talked tough about Afghanistan. To lend credence to his criticism of the U.S. conflict in Iraq, Obama said the war the Americans really had to win was in Afghanistan. To show how unflinching he could be, Obama said he would be prepared to launch attacks on Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, along the Afghan border, even if the government of Pakistan withheld permission for this.

Once inaugurated, Obama has followed through on his fervour for the forgotten war. Now he is in Europe, trying to drum up commitments from NATO countries to send more soldiers, police and money to Afghanistan.

It was immensely inopportune at this hour, therefore, for the Afghan government’s backing of a law denying the right of Shia women to refuse sex to their husbands or their right to leave their homes without spousal permission, to come to the attention of western media. Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is adept at playing to different audiences. In the West, he is an eloquent supporter of human rights and women’s rights in particular; at home, he governs under a constitution based on Sharia Law and reaches out for the political support of misogynist constituencies. As sometimes happens, Karzai’s initiatives at home can cause trouble abroad. American, Canadian and European officials have roundly condemned the reported law. And Karzai will doubtless bow theatrically to acknowledge their expressed concerns at the same time as he does next to nothing to broaden the rights of women in Afghanistan.

For several centuries, it has been a hallmark of western intervention in a country to include cultural warriors, whose job is to inculcate western values, in the assault teams. The case of the Hawaiian Islands comes to mind. In the first wave, sailors armed with sexually transmitted diseases came ashore. They were followed by Christian missionaries who pressured the local regime to abandon its religious practices. Then the next generation of missionary families took over the most fertile land, established the sugar and pineapple industries (remember the Dole family) and reduced the Hawaiian people to the position of low paid agricultural workers, powerless to resist U.S. annexation.

To date, 116 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan and Canada has spent more than $10 billion on the mission, over ninety per cent of it on the military side of the operation.

Let us suppose the Canadian government had actually cared about the rights of women and the education of girls. Instead of entering the lists in a protracted civil war, had Canada invested ten billion dollars to provide schools for girls in parts of the world where the schools would be welcomed, we would have made an enormous contribution. This would have been the most important international development project ever undertaken by Canada.

Instead, we are paying in blood and treasure for a relationship with a regime that is no better than Taliban-lite.

As for the hypocrisy about our concern for the rights of women and the schooling of girls, spare me the pineapples.

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