Afghanistan: Bringing Canadian troops home

| June 5, 2007
(Mission of Folly: Part nine) The Canadian mission in Afghanistan has never been as advertised. Apparently a straightforward fight against terrorism and for human rights, the realities of the mission have been shrouded in deception from the very start. Initially, in autumn of 2001, the announcement of the mission was a way for the Chrétien government, with its tense relationship with the Bush administration, to express solidarity with the Americans in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

The members of the Chrétien cabinet undoubtedly thought the conflict would be of brief duration and that the Canadian role in it would be unimportant. By March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was clear that the Afghan mission would be longer lasting than originally anticipated.

Jean Chrétien's refusal to join the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq, the most popular decision he ever made as prime minister, put Ottawa more at odds than ever with Washington. The Canadian mission in Afghanistan then became a back door means for Chrétien to assure the Bush administration that Canada was doing its part in the broader War on Terror.

The short-lived government of Paul Martin further adjusted the focus on Afghanistan when it signaled its willingness to deploy more Canadians in the south of the country, the zone of heavy fighting. For the Martin government, this move, along with a shift to a more pro-Israeli stance in the Middle East, were ways to cozy up to Washington.

When the Harper Conservatives won their minority election victory in January 2006, the politics of Canada's Afghan mission altered yet again. While in opposition, Harper made it clear that he thought Canada should enter the fray in Iraq. As the leader of a shaky minority government, however, at a time when Canadians have been solidly opposed to participation in the Iraq War, Harper found a new use for the Afghanistan mission. It became his way to signal his neo-conservative bona fides both to the Bush administration and to his core right-wing base in Canada.

Unlike the Liberals, who were wary of Washington, Harper was genuinely and fervently pro-American. Harper expressed the view that Canada's casualties in Afghanistan were the price the country had to pay for greater influence in global affairs.

While the politics of the Afghanistan War for Canadian governments has been a shifting game of smoke and mirrors, there has been a very real consequence. On a per capita basis Canadians have suffered more casualties in the conflict than any other country sending troops from the outside to participate in the war.

That this should have been visited upon Canada and Canadians and particularly on those Canadians who have been killed or wounded in this war has been a tragic result of a political process that has never been transparent. Canadians have been poorly served by the Chrétien, Martin and Harper governments on the Afghanistan question.

The war in Afghanistan, like the struggle in Iraq, is doing more to promote the cause of terrorism throughout the Islamic world than it is doing to win the so-called War on Terror. The argument made by some that to advocate withdrawal is appeasement and that we have a choice between fighting this enemy in Asia or on our own doorstep is a completely phony one.

Like previous invasions of Afghanistan, this one is almost certain to end in failure. Eventually, the West will decide to pull its troops out, leaving an even more despoiled country to sort itself out. The values touted by the West — democracy, human rights, and equality for women — are considered by many in Afghanistan and in other parts of the Middle East and Central Asia as nothing more than the crusader myths of outside invaders. The causes which we hold most dear are being sullied in this war.

Canada is not a great power, and has no strategic interests in Central Asia. It is time for this country to signal its NATO allies that we intend to pull our troops out of Afghanistan, giving them reasonable notice of our decision. Withdrawing from Afghanistan will enable Canada to pursue a more independent foreign policy, one that is not hopelessly compromised by support for the failing global policies of the Bush administration.

The European effort in Afghanistan has been grudging from the start. When the strategic policy in Washington shifts, as it promises to do, and Afghanistan falls into obscurity, the Europeans will be happy to pick up and go home. They will not be offended by a Canadian decision to do the same.

What will we owe the Afghans as we withdraw our military forces? In addition to an explanation for why we came and decided to leave, we owe that country, which has seen far too many foreign armies on its soil, continued economic assistance, in addition to programs tailored to training and educating Afghans in Canada, to help in the reconstruction of their country.

The Canadian government has insisted from the very start that the mission in Afghanistan is divided into two crucial components: military and reconstruction aid. In fact, the military side of the mission has received 90 per cent of the funding. That ought to be redressed as we pull our military out of Afghanistan. It should be Canada's policy to provide aid to the people of Afghanistan up the level that we have spent on the military mission. Depending on when we end the military operation there, that would mean that Canada would provide at least $3.5 billion in additional aid.

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