R2P is in the air. When the United Nations approved a declaration in 2005 that the international community has a Responsibility to Protect the citizens of a nation when its government cannot, or its government is itself the oppressor, expectations were high. This was not a call simply for military intervention: It offered an entire continuum of tools, from the diplomatic to the economic. Nonetheless, loud silence followed. Now R2P has been invoked, at least implicitly, for Libya, where those expectations might finally be met. But its limitations are also palpable, as Afghanistan has dramatically demonstrated.

First, as George W. Bush demonstrated when he invaded Iraq, it’s often hard to differentiate between imperialist aggression and humanitarian intervention. Most aggressors naturally claim honourable motives. So all interventions are in the eye of the beholder. Just as one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, so one person’s humanitarian crusade is another’s illegal aggression.

Second, no United Nations declaration of principle will trouble nations that don’t want to intervene. If the binding 1948 UN Convention on Genocide didn’t move the Security Council to intervene in the Rwanda genocide, surely R2P would not have done so. The simple fact remains that political will is the basis of all interventions, humanitarian or otherwise. Nothing could deter Mr. Bush and his bellicose neocons from attacking Iraq just as nothing could convince the five permanent members of the Security Council to intervene decisively in either Rwanda or Darfur.

Third, sometimes even honourable interventions just can’t succeed. This is tragic but must be faced. Sometimes no tools are sufficient to protect the citizens of a country from oppression and injustice. Which brings us to Afghanistan, something Canadians have heard curiously little about recently, even with an election looming. Not only has the Harper government succeeded in smothering the scandal of prisoners turned over for torture, Canada’s future role in that country remains murky at best.

Certainly many Afghans need protection, not least its girls and women. But their enemies are many: the Taliban; the Karzai government we support; the many war lords and their thugs, often our allies; their own tribal rulers; the vast majority of men; the American-led military coalition that kills civilians. This comprehensive array of oppressors deeply complicates all attempts to being a better world to Afghan females.

So far, with small impressive exceptions that prove the rule, such efforts have largely failed. The coalition, including Canada, may be fighting a just war (although that’s not self-evident). But it is also largely a futile one. All the evidence, including documents released by WikiLeaks over the past year, confirms the unpalatable truths many want to deny:

– Large numbers of Afghans consider the coalition forces, including Canada, to be occupiers not liberators.

– America’s steadfast allies, the Saudi royal family, so far immune from the contagion of freedom in the Arab world, are among the most generous funders of international Islamist terrorism.

– Pakistan’s government — an indispensable ally against the Taliban — allows (or more likely can’t stop) its sinister intelligence unit from working hand in glove with the Taliban. So substantial amounts of the generous aid the United States and others provide Pakistan goes directly to those we are fighting.

– Many of the Afghanis who are recruited for the police and army soon defect, taking their training and weapons with them. Those who remain are still far from ready to take up the war against the Taliban. And if they are ever ready, is there a trusted Afghan government to direct them?

– Many if not most foreign initiatives in Afghanistan require protection from the Taliban. Those who are hired as guards are either themselves Taliban supporters or are affiliated to warlords as reactionary, misogynistic and violent as the Taliban.

Canada is very much part of this self-defeating syndrome. We now know that Canada has spent over $40-million in Afghanistan since 2006 on security companies that were named by the U.S. Senate as having warlords on their payroll. To provide security for our embassy in Kabul, the Department of Foreign Affairs spent $8-million to hire a company that a U.S. Senate investigation found relied on warlords who were engaged in “murder, kidnapping, bribery and anti-Coalition activities.”

CIDA has contracted the giant Montréal-based SNC Lavalin to work on a major dam project. The company in turn hired an Afghan company, the Watan Group, to guard the dam. The Watan Group is owned by President Karzai’s relatives and has been blacklisted by the U.S. military. This seems to be how SNC Lavalin works. The company is known to have a close relationship with the Gadhafi family, which has meant several projects in Libya, including building a new prison for a cool quarter of a billion dollar.

The Watan Group is emblematic of President Karzai’s rule. WikiLeaks documents underline that the scale of corruption in Afghanistan is even worse than was known. Meanwhile, the country is driven by seemingly irreconcilable ethnic conflict between the Pashtun and the rest, with the coalition forces in the middle.

This leads to the central dilemma: If the Taliban is ever defeated — whatever defeat and victory means in the Afghan context and however implausible such a defeat seems — who will run the Afghan government, and on whose behalf? Who will protect the rights of girls and women, an objective no longer even mentioned by the Obama administration?

After a decade of war and billions of dollars, Afghanistan is in ghastly shape. On the UN’s Human Development Index, only a group of African countries rank lower. Next week marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, but Afghan women have little to celebrate. Violence against women remains endemic, much of it carried out by our own allies. Eight-seven per cent of women have experienced some kind of abuse, including nearly three-fifths of those under sixteen. Rape, under the government we’re fighting for, is not a criminal offence. Most girls are still not allowed to attend primary school. The country’s main feminist group, RAWA, charges that the American-NATO coalition simply entrenches “a regime of fundamentalists, reactionaries, misogynists and criminals.” That’s our side they’re describing.

Half the country’s GDP comes from the narcotics trade: Afghanistan now supplies 93 per cent of the global opiates market. On the other hand, after $15-billion in foreign aid — Afghanistan is Canada’s No. 1 recipient of aid — reconstruction remains insignificant. Much aid is stolen by the Taliban, warlords or government officials. Most Afghans still have no secure access to food, water or electricity. Nearly seven million Afghans don’t meet their minimum food requirements.

This is Mission Failed, and it’s an enormous tragedy. The sad lesson learned is the limits of foreign intervention. None of the various coalition objectives have been met and there’s no reason to believe that the chances of success will increase in the future. Those of us who believe in R2P for strictly humanitarian reasons must acknowledge that sometimes we cannot do what desperately needs to be done. It’s heart-breaking, but it directs us to places where R2P is both critically required and might well succeed.

Libya seems to be one. Rich countries have a direct responsibility here. Some of the weapons Moammar Gadhafi is using to suppress the uprising have been graciously provided by the West in recent years as heads of government and business leaders have flocked to suck up to him, his oil and his oil wealth. Support for those courageous enough to stand up to the dictator could play a critical role in their success, though the use of military might by western nations would be an egregious error. R2P offers many other tools. It would be refreshing to think that Western governments finally take seriously their responsibility to protect the Libyan people instead of Brother Leader and his oil.


Gerry Caplan

Gerald Caplan has an MA in Canadian history and a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He is an author, teacher, media commentator,...