Afghanistan, Canada and the challenges facing the anti-war movement

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In just a few months, anti-war activists will mark the eighth anniversary of the launch of the U.S.-led “war on terror,” and the movement that emerged to counter it. Since 2001, Canada’s anti-war movement has accomplished a lot -- including mass demonstrations in 2003 that helped stop the Chrétien Liberals from joining the war on Iraq. Today, however, the movement faces new challenges.

Anti-war sentiment is widespread across Canada. An Angus Reid survey on May 8 this year showed that fully 84 per cent believe that Canada’s mission should end. A majority of 51 per cent wants it to end before the 2011 end-date; 33 per cent want it to end in 2011.

These numbers are important, as they demonstrate just how far public opinion has shifted since the war began, particularly over the last few years.

Thanks to pressure from the anti-war movement, Canada’s New Democratic Party remains the only social democratic party in the West to oppose the Afghan mission, even though the party rarely campaigns on the issue. Almost every national union in Canada and Quebec now has policy calling for the troops to come home. At the 2008 convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), delegates passed a near unanimous resolution supporting the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan. The Union of National Defence Employees (UNDE), which represents workers employed in the Department of National Defence, backed the resolution.

Military families have begun to speak out against the war, as the death toll of Canadian troops climbs well past 100. By early July, 124 Canadian soldiers and one Canadian diplomat had died in Afghanistan. Large numbers of returning soldiers now exhibit symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Anti-war sentiment is so widespread that, during the 2008 federal election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was forced to announce that Canada’s combat mission would end by 2011 -- even though the Conservatives had been considering another extension (and likely still are). Not coincidentally, Harper made his announcement in Quebec where opposition to the war is the highest in the country.

But the focus of the anti-war movement hasn’t always been on Afghanistan. At times, it has turned its attention to issues such as Lebanon, Palestine, Somalia and Sri Lanka, participating in mobilizations that have involved tens of thousands of people. The anti-war movement has also taken up the issue of civil liberties, on questions ranging from Omar Khadr to the ‘Toronto 18,’ expanding the terrain on which it operates.

Despite this favourable terrain, the anti-war movement has experienced dwindling numbers on demonstrations against the war in Afghanistan over the last two years. There are a number of reasons why this is the case.

First, the anti-war movement doesn’t grow in a linear fashion. It ebbs and flows, like any other movement. Despite declining numbers on the streets, the movement registered a sharp increase in participation in March 2008 when the Canadian Peace Alliance launched its “Don’t extend it, end it” campaign during Parliament’s debate about extending the mission.

Second, the public perception that the combat mission will end by 2011 has undermined the urgency to be in the streets. By contrast, when Parliament was debating the extension in 2008, it felt possible to affect the outcome. More people felt confident to join the campaign. When Parliament finally voted to extend the mission in the face of widespread opposition, the public reacted with anger and joined protests in greater numbers.

A third reason is the fact that the war is now approaching its eighth year. It no longer has the feel of a “hot war” to outside observers, although the level of death and destruction in Afghanistan has climbed steadily over the years. The war has become just another feature on the political landscape.

Media coverage of the war is shaped accordingly. The dramatic increase in civilian deaths in Afghanistan is rarely reported, at least in a way that would spark any outrage or motivate people to act. NATO air strikes of Afghan wedding parties have become so routine that they no longer merit regular coverage.

As a result, there is a growing appetite among the wider public for education on Afghanistan and the broader “war on terror.” In the last few years, public meetings that create the space for more discussion and debate about these issues have attracted large crowds. When Afghan Member of Parliament Malalai Joya toured Canada in late 2007, she packed out every venue where she spoke. When British MP George Galloway recently spoke in Toronto (via Skype from New York City), over 800 people attended. Tens of thousands of people tuned in to watch his speech online.

As public opposition to the war increases, so too will the public appetite for more education about the issues. A majority want the mission to end, but do so for a variety of reasons. Many still have questions: What happens when troops leave? Will the Taliban return to power? How do we support the Afghan people without occupying their country? Why is Canada backing a warlord government? What business interests does Canada have in the region? Which Canadian corporations are trying to access Central Asia’s oil, gas and minerals?

That’s why the Canadian Peace Alliance (CPA) -- the largest peace organization in English Canada -- has decided to mount a series of educational events on Afghanistan in the coming months, culminating in a pan-Canadian day of conferences and teach-ins sometime in the fall.

Events like these will be an opportunity for the anti-war movement to widen its base beyond an activist core, and to draw in the broader public that is increasingly opposed to the mission. Whether or not this translates into bigger numbers on demonstrations remains to be seen, but the key task now is education and outreach. If the movement can expand on these fronts, it will be better poised to mobilize when the tide comes back in again.

James Clark is an organizer with the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War.

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