The Afghanistan misadventure and restoring Canada's international reputation

Why is it that our collective, social intelligence on so many critical matters falls dramatically short of our individual citizen intelligence? It is amazing that our society can function as well as it does given that we are in a state of continuous denial about so many things we do as a society. It feels like devolution to me.

I am thinking in particular of the Afghanistan war which we are now exiting, allegedly, in order to take another less violent role. There is no doubt that this is an improvement -- at least we will not be asking Canadian soldiers to kill Afghans in a conflict we had no business being involved in, in the first place. The Afghan war could only be described by any rational person as the "good war" when compared to the grotesque conflict next door in Iraq. Ostensibly it was to rid the world of Al Qaeda for its attack on the U.S. -- not Canada, the U.S. It did not matter that the attack was planned in Germany, that it wasn't a "war," and it clearly didn't matter that Al Qaeda consisted of a few hundred individuals who were basically routed in the first couple of months of the assault.

So while it is good that we are no longer killing people, we have traded one delusion for another which we will be entertaining, at great cost and no benefit, for three more years. The first delusion -- that we were going to win the fight against the Taliban -- was an embarrassing charade. It's as if we had to trade up in the delusion market for something that wasn't quite so preposterous and could be sold for a while before it, too, became embarrassingly obvious. Now we are going to "train" the Afghan police and army to take over the job of providing security for the Afghan people -- which in turn is supposed to make providing development assistance easier.

No one actually believes this is going to happen -- not the Americans, who will be there for a generation, not the Afghans, not the Europeans, not Canadians or the Canadian government. No one believes it because all of the evidence -- and there is a lot of extremely good evidence -- suggests otherwise. Only a voluntary state of delusion allows for this "new mission" talk.

Extending our unwanted presence in Afghanistan was a huge mistake if for no other reason than leaving clean and completely would have been a victory of rationality over fantasy. The only rational approach the West can take is to simply pack up and leave over a relatively short time span, say six months. All the hand-wringing about how "we can't leave until we fix what we have done" ignores thousands of years of history and the facts on the ground. Leaving any other way, based on the standard list of Western assumptions, means in effect that we can never leave "clean."

Corruption versus Islamic fundamentalism

The choice represented by leaving or staying is, for the Afghan population, a choice between: continued corruption at every level of society; physical, economic and social insecurity; the machinations of a narco-state and another decade of war; or an eventual return to the Taliban's hideous brand of Islamic law after an indeterminate period of conflict with our current Afghan allies -- the equally hideous warlords and drug lords.  

Some choice. But it is a choice we have forced on the Afghan population by imperial hubris and a willful ignorance of Afghan history. Before the invasion there was virtually no corruption under the Taliban and the heroin trade had almost been eradicated.

There has been a raft of recent reports and studies which demonstrate just how futile any and all efforts to create a viable state in Afghanistan will be. The implied claim that you can create a functioning police force and army just by training people without the requisite civilian state structure is profoundly dishonest.

Can a viable state be created in Afghanistan? The answer is a deafening no. First, the constitution now makes it virtually impossible for a functioning secular government to become established. The former secular constitution was dissolved by the U.S. and NATO in favour of an Islamist one which makes it illegal for political parties to run in elections -- producing legislatures of individual representatives who, even if they had law-making experience (which they don't), have an almost impossible task of passing sensible laws for the country. This legislative zoo was deliberately created by NATO to ensure that there was no possibility of any expression of Afghan nationalism. The single real aim of the West's nation building has always been to maintain control over the country's future and to ensure gas pipeline routes.

A recent study by the International Crisis Group, one of the most credible sources in the world on Afghanistan, suggests that the culture of corruption is actually getting worse and ranges from Taliban taxes on apples shipped across provincial boundaries to open collaboration between provincial governments and insurgents regarding sharing the Western loot that floods into the country. UN food aid heads straight for the black market and is virtually never seen by the poor it is designed for. The report refers to the Karzai government as a "mafia state" incapable of serving its citizens.

Ironically, the billions in aid have actually created perverse incentives for continued fighting. International aid has brought the Taliban and other insurgents together with local officials to share the wealth resulting in an economy that "...is increasingly dominated by a criminal oligarchy of politically connected businessmen." There seems to be nothing that NATO, the U.S. or Canada can do about it so the longer we stay the worse it gets.

Indeed, efforts that are made to instill ethical behaviour in the government and security forces have created what yet another report describes as huge obstacles to creating an independent military. Produced for the US Army and entitled "A Crisis in Trust and Cultural Incompatibility," the 70-page report documents the attitudes of U.S. soldiers and their Afghan counterparts towards each other. It's not good news for Canadian trainers: Afghan soldiers say U.S. soldiers are "...extremely arrogant, bullying, unwilling to listen to their advice." U.S. troops criticized their Afghan counterparts for "...pervasive illicit drug use, massive thievery, personal instability, dishonesty, no integrity." The result -- on average, one Western soldier now dies every week at the hands of an Afghan cop or soldier. While Canadian troops get higher marks from their Afghan counterparts, the task they have been given is next to impossible to achieve.

Is it possible to learn from our enormous Afghan blunder? Is there any hope that Canada's foreign policy could actually be determined on a principled basis and not as some poker chip on the table in dealing with the Americans? Could we actually make foreign policy by determining what is the ethical, principled and informed thing to do?  

Now that the NDP is the official opposition and the Liberals are all but gone from the scene, there is a real opportunity to see a foreign policy put forward for national debate that reflects Canadian values and a principled role for Canada in the world. But just as the NDP was given enhanced status it dropped the ball and behaved exactly like the Liberals they replaced: voting for an extension of the assault on Libya was one of the NDP's biggest policy blunders in recent years.

It could have stood alone and demanded a stop to this ill-conceived and patently illegal "mission" and for working out a diplomatic solution brokered through the African Union (which has denounced the ICC war crimes warrant for Gadhafi and refused to recognize it). The NDP's support for extending the effort to topple Gadaffi has used up much of the political capital gained from its positions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The NDP has always been mixed up on foreign policy especially when it comes to the Middle East. Jack Layton's shameful apology to the Israeli ambassador for Libby Davies' gutsy refusal to be bullied by the Israeli lobby is another example.

Yet on foreign policy the NDP has a huge opportunity to distinguish itself from the Harper Conservatives by speaking directly to Canadian values. There has been a dramatic shift in opinion in this country regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in favour of Palestinian rights. But that's just the beginning of what could be a major, broad initiative aimed at restoring Canada's reputation in the world. A whole raft of issues (most of which the NDP already has good positions on) await their focused attention: asbestos exports, GMO foods, terminator seeds, the Canada-EU trade deal, the $30 billion in fighter bombers, re-establishing aid to Africa, and siding with South American countries attempting to escape the pernicious domination of the U.S. and the IMF.

It could be an exciting policy initiative, one on which Harper is extremely vulnerable. Just putting it forward for debate would help undo the damage Harper has done to our international reputation. But to undertake it successfully, the NDP has to avoid the temptation to behave like the Liberals and do foreign policy based on political opportunism. Being the Official Opposition is an opportunity to lead, not an excuse to run and hide.

Murray Dobbin is a guest senior contributing editor for rabble.ca, and has been a journalist, broadcaster, author and social activist for 40 years. He writes rabble's bi-weekly State of the Nation column, which is also found at thetyee.ca.

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