Mainstream media coverage of the departure of Canada’s last troops from Afghanistan has, with very few exceptions, ranged from unquestioning celebration of the Canadian state’s work in that country to asking whether the war was worthwhile.
As a general rule, alarms bells should roar when the predominantly white politicians and pundits in imperialist states or their adjuncts ask whether it was “worth it” to kill a lot of people of colour living in a distant, impoverished country for economic and/or political gain. (Recall, for instance, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright saying “we think the price is worth it” when asked on 60 Minutes about U.S. sanctions killing 500,000 Iraqi children.)
The question “Was it worth it?” is moreover being posed in ways that implicitly ask “was spending billions of dollars to send Canadian soldiers to kill and be killed in Afghanistan worth it for Canadians?” when the infinitely more important question is “has more than 12 years of western invasion and occupation been worth it for Afghans?” I say that this is the right question because only a very tiny segment of the Canadian population has suffered in any way as a result of the war as compared to the much larger volume of Afghans who have been adversely affected.
Mainstream news outlets asking “Was it worth it” have tended to answer that it was because, they argue, Canada and the International Security Asistance Force (ISAF) mission of which it was a part have made substantial positive differences in the lives of Afghans. For example, an editorial in the Toronto Star concludes that “Answering the call, Canadian troops did their part and more” and The Globe and Mail wraps up its editorial by saying that “Canada made a difference, and for now, that is enough.”
I’d like to challenge the The Globe and The Star’s claims that “it” was worth doing and raise a few points that must be considered by anyone interested in the effects the war and occupation has had on Afghans.
What is most obviously overlooked in the question of whether the war was worth it is that one way Canada “answer[ed] the call” and “made a difference” was by being part of a western coalition that killed uncounted thousands of Afghans, propped a brutal warlord regime and was responsible for torture to the extent that Amnesty International called on ISAF to “Immediately declare a moratorium on any further transfers of detainees to the Afghan authorities … until effective safeguards against torture and other ill-treatment are introduced in the Afghan detention system.” In so doing, Canada has moreover helped with a mission that increased the popularity of the Taliban in a war that is frequently justified as a strategy for keeping the Taliban out of power.
Thus we can conclude that the “it” in “was it worth it?” involves Afghans enduring extreme levels of violence, that ISAF was responsible for much of this and that the standard for worthiness must therefore be very high.
The position taken in The Globe and Star editorials is that by expending a great deal in bodies, psyches and dollars Canada improved the lot of the Afghans and that these gains, threatened though they may be by the possibility of a Taliban return to government, are a major reason that the war is justified.
Yet claims that ISAF’s war in Afghanistan has brought significant improvements to the lives of Afghans are untenable, particularly when used to suggest that the high levels of violence to which Afghans have been subject by the ISAF and its local affiliates has been worthwhile. ISAF can boast all it likes of flooding Afghanistan with aid, and of building schools and hospitals, but indications of the health, wealth and education of Afghans point to a grim reality.
According to the 2014 CIA World Fact Book, Afghanistan has the worst rate of infant mortality in the world. In a September 2013 report, the IMF found that 46 per cent of men and 88 per cent of women aged 15-24 were illiterate, “that more than 40 percent of children under the age of five are underweight” and that “progress in increasing access to potable water and sanitation remains slow,” while the UN’s 2013 Human Development report ranks Afghanistan at 175 out of 187 nations. Furthermore, as of last mid-2013, 574,327 Afghans were internally displaced.
Canada’s military may have “answer[ed] the call” and “made a difference” but that has meant helping enforce an occupation under which Afghans have experienced torture, the death of thousands of civilians and a very low quality of life. That should not surprise given that just one of every ten dollars the Canadian government spent in Afghanistan was used on development, a figure that The Star notes in a roundabout way in its editorial, which demonstrates that improving the lives of Afghans was never the principle objective of the Canadian state.
Let us risk a totalizing claim: poor people with darker skin tones living in relatively weak states do not profit from being invaded and occupied by powerful states whose power elite are primarily white and this set of policies can rightly be characterized as the inherently unjust political practice called imperialism. The experience of the Canadian government and its allies in Afghanistan is proof of rather than exception to this rule.
Greg Shupak is a writer and activist who teaches at the University of Guelph.