Out of Afghanistan: When will we learn?

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"Where have all the flowers gone?" sang Mary Travers of Peter Paul and Mary, who died this week at 72. The song has been widely covered (Dolly Parton, Marlene Dietrich ...) Pete Seeger wrote it during the Vietnam War but it has applied before and since. It didn't call for an end to that war; every war ends. It asked instead why new wars always arise: When will they ever learn?

Now the war in Afghanistan looks like it's drawing to a close. This week, Senator Colin Kenny called our mission "futile" and said, "It's time to retreat from Canada's Vietnam." The government issued a report showing more regress than progress and announced special plans to take in Afghans who have worked for Canada. It sounded like a Vietnam-type withdrawal is on the way. And in the United States, opposition to escalation has mounted and President Barack Obama is retreating from his earlier gusto for the conflict. The question is less: Will it finally end? than Will they ever learn? And if so, learn what?

There are always those who try to ensure we never learn. After two more soldiers died near Kandahar, Canadian General Jonathan Vance dismissed "uninformed" opinions like those of Mr. Kenny. Maybe he means it, but he also needs to maintain troop morale. Our former ambassador there, Chris Alexander, did a media blitz this week, saying that the mission still makes sense and revealing that he intends to run for Parliament as a Conservative. It would be tricky to run if he thought his many years there had been "futile."

Others say the war should end but learn, I'd say, dubious lessons. In a remarkably despondent column in the National Post, Tarek Fatah said we've been beaten by, among other factors, "infiltration of extremist Islamists at all levels of government and civic society in the U.K., U.S. and Canada." In The Globe, Margaret Wente wrote of what she called a "tragedy of good intentions." She said elections "hardly matter if a winner's incapable of governing. Afghanistan ... needs a good, tough warlord." The fault, then, lies not with ourselves but with the Afghans. Next time, elsewhere, who knows? It all might work brilliantly.

What do I think we can learn from this? Let me answer the question with a question: How come the "other" side there seems to run an effective military and an efficient court system while "our" Afghans, despite endless training, never seem ready to go into battle alone, and the legal system is corrupt and despised? What does Islamism have to do with any of that? I know it seems crass, but there is one blatant difference between the two "sides": It's us, our military presence, in all its costly glory. Could that be the crux?

Is this the lesson never learned? That when you invade, no matter what you say your reasons are, you are seen as an invader and occupier? Despite the good deeds you do or claim to do. When our bombs kill civilians, they're the invader's bombs, different from those of the homegrown oppressors. The locals we install and the elections we set up are tainted by occupation.

The first rule of relations between nations or individuals is respect for the right -- not necessarily the ability, but the right -- of others to run their own lives. When occupiers withdraw, it's rarely due to that respect; it's because they are driven out or lose interest. So Britain leaves India, the United States leaves Vietnam -- and then another situation arises, and in they go again.

Why is it so hard to ever learn? Many reasons, but here's one: the continuing deaths of Canadians in combat there. People don't join the forces just because of economic pressure or a desire for adventure; they do it to have meaningful work. In civilian life, most people are expected to work for money and find their fulfilment elsewhere. It's a tradeoff. If some feel they can avoid that by "serving," who wants to take it from them, especially in death? But quick, before this one is gone too -- learn something.

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