What are we doing in Afghanistan? Do we know? Are we afraid to ask? The lack of public debate over this indicates that we are. It’s not a good sign.

Parents and children are seen on TV bidding tearful farewells to their soldier husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, as military authorities warn that the Kandahar region, which Canada has taken over from the Americans, is the most dangerous part of Afghanistan and that the public must know “there will be casualties.” There have been already.

In order to send soldiers off to risk their lives, the cause must be great. What is it? As explanation, what we have mainly is General Rick Hillier, head of the Armed Forces, telling us that “we have to fight them over there so we won’t have to fight them over here.” This echo of a failed Vietnam War era slogan (“If we don’t fight them in Hanoi, we’ll have to fight them in San Diego”) is as hollow now as it was then, although it is more coherent than his offering of last summer about having to fight “scumbags.”

These non-explanations about Afghanistan link up with another set of hanging questions: about our military build-up, in which our venerable peacekeeping role has been jettisoned (we’re now 36th as a provider of troops to UN peacekeeping operations) in favour of aggressive combat missions integrated with the U.S. military.

In other words, having not gone to Iraq, we’ve snapped to attention anyway — and just at the moment when military action against terrorism is proving spectacularly counterproductive. As even the Pentagon and the CIA have admitted, the assault on Iraq has not only motivated Islamic extremism worldwide, but allowed insurgents to improve their techniques, and export them. The roadside bomb that recently killed a Canadian diplomat and maimed three soldiers was of the “improved” Iraqi type.

Also, analysts are pointing out that the successes that have been scored against terrorists and their plots have come through police action, not military — underscoring the fact that sending tanks, planes and battleships against shadowy figures, and blowing up civilians as part of the bargain, is simply ratcheting up the cycle of malevolence. After 9/11, with virtually all the world onside, including even Iran, it should have been a global police operation. It’s a “war” only because George W. Bush and company have made it one.

Originally, of course, we went to Afghanistan with many others to knock off the horrific Taliban regime which had harboured the 9/11 terrorists. Fair enough. But why are we lingering, and even increasing our presence now — with Gen. Ray Henault, Canadian head of the NATO contingent, saying we’re there for 10 years? If it’s to bring about freedom and democracy, does it follow that in order to be consistent, we’ll have to invade dozens more countries in the Eurasian subcontinent where similar conditions prevail?

It’s a classic trap. The amorphous and undefined enemy we’re variously calling “Taliban,” “terrorists” and sometimes “warlords” in Afghanistan are the heirs of mainly peaceful tribes of centuries past that were brutalized by the advancing West — in this case, in the form of the British Empire — then took to the hills and fought back. They’ve been fighting ever since. They beat the mighty British Empire in the 19th century, the mighty Soviet Empire in the 20th (ironically with the help of American arms provided to the Islamic mujahedeen), and now they’re taking on the Canadian Empire, and friends.

Questions are indeed in order, and they should be asked before too many people get killed or maimed, after which point asking questions about the usefulness of soldiers’ ultimate sacrifice becomes horrendously difficult.

Questions, for example, about the very nature of occupation, in which, no matter how good we presume our intentions to be, unjustified bombings, harsh treatment during house searches, wrongful imprisonment and so forth are virtually inevitable, gaining converts to the “enemy.” And often our intentions aren’t that good, since Western occupiers have a tendency to look on citizens of “failed states,” as the neo-con expression goes, as inferior beings.

There’s also the troubling situation in which Canadian forces, bound by the Geneva Convention and the Canadian Charter of Rights, are apparently handing prisoners to American forces, possibly to be tortured, a practice by which the Bush administration has openly devalued the very thing — democracy — it wishes to impose on others.

And finally, participating militarily is only more likely to make Canada a terrorist target. Let’s talk about this. The subject is too important to be left to the generals.