Some government policy decisions are so profound in their impact that they can actually change the nature of the country. Medicare was one such policy decision and so was the signing of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.
It could be argued that the decision to take on an explicitly war-fighting role in Afghanistan will turn out to be another watershed decision, this one at odds with Canadian values and Canadians’ convictions about the military’s role in the world and society.
It also is having the effect of transforming both our foreign policy and our foreign aid policy. Our role in the war is dominating our international reputation and integrating us into the U.S. and its imperial designs on Middle East oil. In order to justify this colonial occupation, Canada now spends so much of its (paltry) aid budget on Afghanistan (much of it finding its way into the pockets of corrupt officials) that there is barely any financing left over for other developing countries’ needs.
Meanwhile, the conflict and its “war on terror” rationale are being used to justify massive increases in military spending, completely distorting the role of government and the spending priorities of Canadians.
Lastly, the military’s role in Canadian politics and culture is being rapidly Americanized. Canadian military spokespersons now openly promote their war-fighting role and take part in cultural events, and the media (most notably the CBC) promotes this new expansive role.
Why we fight
It is hard to imagine a less honourable “mission” on which to base such fundamental changes to the country. There are no longer any secrets about the Afghan conflict or Canada’s continuing role in it. It is an increasingly brutal occupation, unwinnable in any foreseeable circumstances, threatening to become an even wider regional conflict involving Pakistan. The war’s “building democracy” cover story has been debunked by countless sources. The initial invasion was justified on the basis of destroying al-Qaeda, a loosely organized force of no more than 300 fighters. The Taliban government, as hideous and deeply reviled as it was, had nothing to do with 9-11.
Any military action that followed the rapid rout of al-Qaeda was directed at occupying the country as part of the U.S. plan to control Middle East oil and gas. Alan Greenspan, the former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, stated this year that Afghanistan and Iraq were all about oil. The Taliban had broken off negotiations with the U.S. for a pipeline from the Caspian Basin. According to Middle East expert Eric Margolis, “In early 2001, six or seven months before 9-11, Washington made the decision to invade Afghanistan, overthrow Taliban, and install a client regime that would build the energy pipelines.”
A ‘good war’ winnable?
Afghanistan is increasingly framed as the “good war” by those who have long since given up portraying the Iraq quagmire as morally justified. Even the “hope” candidate in the U.S. election, Barack Obama, is now running on the good war myth, promising to send soldiers from Iraq to bolster the 60,000 NATO and U.S. troops now there and to “win” the war.
But winning in Afghanistan is sheer fantasy. Just ask the British and the Russians. U.S. General Dan McNeill, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently stated that it would take 400,000 troops just to pacify the country. Even if every U.S. soldier in Iraq transferred tomorrow, they would still be 200,000 short. The UN has said that its analysis shows one third of the country is literally a no-go zone, controlled by insurgents, and an additional one half is “high risk.” Even Kabul is not safe, as attacks in and near the capital have increased by 70 per cent since January. Supply lines from Pakistan are under constant attack.
A report in the International Herald Tribune claims the Taliban’s “resilience and ferocity are sowing alarm” in Washington and NATO capitals and that “security officials talk of a noose tightening around the capital.” Tensions between the Karzai government and its U.S. and NATO backers have reached the boiling point over the opium trade, which helps finance the Taliban. Thomas Schweich, until recently the U.S. co-ordinator for counter-narcotics for Afghanistan, said in a New York Times feature article that Karzai himself was “deeply involved in protecting the opium trade” because his supporters depend on it.
The “hearts and minds” struggle is in even worse shape. With so few troops, occupying forces have to rely increasingly on U.S. air power just to maintain the status quo, with predictable results: up to 1,000 civilians killed in the past six months (with 260 of those in July alone), including a wedding party of 47 slaughtered in Helmand province recently.
The NGOs trying to deal with this catastrophe are now in full panic mode, cutting back their operations. Their network, ACBAR (Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief), representing 100 Afghani and international organizations, issued a statement on August 1 drawing attention to the civilian casualties, the spread of danger to previously secure areas and increasing attacks on aid agencies and their staff (19 killed since January, twice the total for all of 2007).
Karzai’s cardboard presidency
But what of the democratically elected government of Hamid Karzai? The man they call the mayor of Kabul — because that is as far as his government’s authority extends — is perhaps the best evidence of the real purpose of the occupation as well as its inevitable failure. The U.S. blithely “appointed” Karzai as interim president and then manipulated the political process to ensure that he won the subsequent election. A former consultant for U.S. oil giant Unocal, Karzai (a former Taliban supporter) was part of negotiations between the Taliban and Unocal for a gas pipeline through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India from the Caspian Basin. The U.S. was negotiating with the Taliban until four months before 9-11.
Karzai has literally no political base amongst the competing tribes in the country. His support is American fire power and cash and Afghan opium producers. Most observers agree that he was elected president primarily because he was, at least, not a warlord. Yet his election was the result of systematic manipulation by the U.S. and by the changing of the 1964 secular constitution to one that declared Islam supreme: no laws could violate “the sacred religion of Islam.” The new Political Parties Law also restricted parties. They were not allowed to pursue policies that were “contrary to Islam.” Many secular parties were effectively excluded from the parliamentary elections of 2005. These largely unknown details of the Afghan political system are detailed in Jack Warnock’s excellent new book: Creating a Failed State: The US and Canada in Afghanistan.
Warnock, author of many acclaimed books on international affairs, also details the systematic breaking of the law banning political parties or individual candidates associated with armed groups. He quotes the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit’s analysis of the election results: of 249 members elected to the House of the People, 133 had fought in the internecine mujahideen war. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission concluded that “80 per cent of winning candidates in the provinces and more than 60 per cent in… Kabul have links to armed groups.”
Promoting an Islamist state
Following his own election, Karzai appointed some of the most reviled war lords in the country to senior posts, including Abdul Rashid Dostum, known as the “butcher of the north” to be the new army chief of staff. All of this, of course, was done with the approval and connivance of the U.S.
Despite the talk of democracy, the U.S. — with Canada in obsequious support — still holds to its strategic position that it is better to have an Islamist state than a secular one that might actually be committed to modern government: industrial development, social programs, public education, human rights and the strengthening of civil society. This strategy goes back to the days of Jimmy Carter’s administration, the one which created the mujahideen on the theory that religious fanatics would be the most determined foes of the godless Russian communists then occupying Afghanistan.
Warnock quotes Daan Everts, the former NATO special representative in Afghanistan, about the systematic sabotaging of genuinely democratic government: “…the result has been an extremely chaotic parliament. There are 248 talking heads with very little discipline and little organized deliberations that are meant to produce legislation which the country so badly needs. We deliberately did this.” Combine this with a constitution that put enormous powers in the hands of the president and you have a political structure designed to ensure American dominance.
Dying to protect a pipeline
The definitive piece of evidence about the real goals in Afghanistan arrived a few weeks ago with the announcement that Afghanistan had signed a major deal to build the pipeline the U.S. has wanted all along. If the reports are accurate, the $8 billion pipeline will go through the southern part of the country — and right through Kandahar. With this final piece of the puzzle in place, Canada’s role becomes even more clear: a private protection force for the American pipeline.
Right now the Canadian military are riding high, arrogant and confident that their new war-fighting role as junior partner to the U.S. empire, and their new billions in spending money, are secure. Maybe. But the Afghan conflict is set to bleed America, just as it bled the Soviet Union. As time passes, the unfolding catastrophe might just drive the Canadian generals back into their cushy quarters and convince Canadians to demand their money back. And to demand back, as well, the traditional peacekeeping role of Canada’s military.