On Afghanistan: A decade of war, a decade of resistance

Photo: Graham Lavery

Just hours after the Twin Towers fell, the first signs of an anti-war movement appeared. At candlelight vigils not far from Ground Zero, some people held placards that read: "Islam is not the enemy. War is not the answer." Like activists all over the world, they knew a war was coming, and that Arabs and Muslims would be blamed for 9/11.

On Oct. 7, 2001, the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan. Ten years later, the war continues to rage. But the last decade has not been without resistance. Indeed, the decade that began with the War on Terror has ended with the Arab Spring. As Occupy Wall Street protests spread across North America, we should ask: how much have the movements of the last 10 years helped make this moment possible?

In Canada and Quebec, the anti-war movement has played a small but important role in the global struggle against war and occupation. At home, its impact is more significant. So what have we accomplished?

Let's go back to 2001. In the weeks and months after 9/11, there were attempts to oppose the war in Afghanistan, but the demonstrations were small and isolated, and public opinion was hostile to dissenting voices. There were no pan-Canada networks, civil liberties were under attack, and a racist backlash against Muslims and Arabs was underway. The situation was bleak.

But activists persisted. Many came out of the anti-globalization movement and saw the war as the military face of globalization. They brought their skills and analysis to the anti-war movement, building it on a solid base. By the spring of 2002, the U.S. gaze was turning to Iraq, and more signs of an anti-war movement began to appear.

In June 2002, Canada hosted the G8 Summit in Kananaskis, Alberta. Thousands of people protested. During the mobilization, about 70 activists from across the country met to discuss the coming war on Iraq. They left Calgary to organize modest demonstrations that summer, among the first to raise the slogan: "Don't attack Iraq!" By November, those small networks grew into a pan-Canadian movement that was part of the global wave of protest against the Iraq War.

The movement reached its zenith on Feb. 15, 2003. Millions marched in cities around the world in the largest coordinated action in human history. In Canada and Quebec, nearly 400,000 people took part in 80 local protests. In Montreal alone, over 250,000 marched -- and on two separate occasions!

Those protests forced the Chrétien Liberals to sit out the war, although they had already deployed two Canadian warships to the Persian Gulf (which were recalled). Not since the Vietnam War had Canada refused to participate in a U.S.-led mission.

Although the movement began to decline after the fall of Baghdad, it dramatically shifted the political terrain. Public opinion had hardened against the Iraq war, and was hardening against the war in Afghanistan. Local groups were now connected through a pan-Canadian network, and a generation of activists had learned crucial lessons in movement building.

More importantly, a deeper sense of solidarity with Muslims and Arabs began to develop in the movement, the result of working together to oppose the war. The effects were transformative. Non-Muslim organizations, especially in the student and labour movements, became active in campaigns against Islamophobia. The issue of civil liberties, a casualty of the War on Terror, was finally getting the attention it deserved.

All of this meant the movement was better prepared to take on other issues as they emerged: Palestine, war resisters, the war in Lebanon, the spread of the War on Terror to Somalia, the war in Gaza, Sri Lanka's war on Tamils, ongoing civil liberties campaigns, and more. Much of the anti-war network that developed around the Iraq war has since been part of these struggles, sometimes directly supporting them, at other times building solidarity. In turn, these struggles have become part of the anti-war movement, strengthening and expanding it.

The movement's improved organization and experience also meant that it was ready to respond to the war in Afghanistan as the situation worsened. When Canadian troops moved to Kandahar in 2006, casualties spiked and the war became a central issue in Canadian politics. In Sept. 2006, anti-war activists helped bring the growing sentiment against the war to the federal convention of the New Democratic Party in Quebec City, where it passed a near unanimous resolution calling for the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. The result was a vindication of the anti-war movement, giving legitimacy in the wider public to the "troops out" demand.

In addition, the movement has helped organize pan-Canadian speaking tours of high-profile activists, including former Afghan MP Malalai Joya, U.S. peace activist Cindy Sheehan, and British anti-war campaigner George Galloway. Events like these have played an important role in shaping the public terms of debate about the war, and in exposing federal leaders for their hypocrisy and duplicity. In recent years, as the presence of the movement on the streets has declined, they have also created a venue for thousands of people across the country to engage in anti-war politics and to find their way into the movement.

Despite these successes, serious challenges remain. Canada is still in Afghanistan, propping up a government dominated by warlords and drug lords, and against the will of the Afghan people. The anti-war movement failed to stop three extensions of the mission, and has not been able to translate widespread opposition to the war into mass mobilizations. Civil liberties continue to be eroded, and Islamophobia is on the rise. Stephen Harper's Conservatives now have a majority in parliament. They aggressively back NATO's bombing of Libya and Israel's occupation of Palestine, and are quietly militarizing Canadian society.

On the surface, the prospects for the movement look bleak. But the situation is contradictory. Although Canada continues its presence in Afghanistan, the NATO occupation faces the real possibility of defeat. Political and military leaders alike now openly speculate about the mission's failure, and cracks have opened up in the NATO alliance. New voices of opposition to the war have emerged across the country, both among the Afghan community and military families and veterans. Polls show anti-war sentiment has never been higher. Similarly, there is growing opposition to the Conservatives' attacks on civil liberties and free speech, with some important legal victories such as the Galloway campaign. Internationally, Canada is more and more isolated. From its blind support for Israeli expansionism to its destructive policies on climate change, the Harper government stands largely by itself.

But Harper can't flout public opinion forever; at some point, he will pay the price for the widening gap between what most people want and what his government does. The longer he waits, the bigger the consequences. Hosni Mubarak can attest to that fact!

As we reflect on our experiences over the last 10 years, we should keep our assessments sober. But sober is not the same as pessimistic. Of course, we have to acknowledge our weaknesses and learn from our defeats. But that's not enough. We have to remain open to the possibilities that lie ahead. And there are many possibilities at this moment.

The last decade shows that small acts can lead to big movements, and that, even in times of defeat, we can emerge from our struggles stronger and better prepared to fight the next round.

When the U.S. shifted its focus to Iraq, it had plans to redraw the entire region in its image. It made appeals to democracy, but delivered its opposite. A decade later, millions of ordinary people from across the Arab world have responded with their own ideas about democracy. Those ideas have already begun to echo on the barricades of Greece, in the central squares of Spain, and throughout the streets of Manhattan's financial district. And it won't be long before we hear them, too.

James Clark is an anti-war and civil liberties activist in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @2jamesclark.

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