Seventy years ago today, September 10, 1939, Canada declared war on Nazi Germany. The declaration issued out of a special session of parliament nine days after the Nazi invasion of Poland and one week after Britain and France declared war on Germany. Later during the Second World War, there were further declarations of war against Fascist Italy and Japan. Those declarations of war, beginning with the one 70 years ago, marked an important marker in Canada’s achievement of sovereignty.
During the First World War, when Britain went to war against Germany in August 1914, there was no Canadian declaration of war. It was automatic. Canada as a dominion in the British Empire was at war when Britain was at war. Since the Second World War, there have been no further Canadian declarations of war. When the government of Louis St. Laurent took the country into the Korean War, his government simply announced that Canada would participate in what it called the “police action” in that country.
On Afghanistan, there have been two votes in the House of Commons, neither of them declarations of war, one in May 2006 that extended Canada’s mission there by two years and a second one in March 2008 that pledged that Canadian troops would stay in Kandahar until 2011.
With little thought of the potential consequences, the Chretien government declared in October 2001 that Canada would participate in Operation Apollo, the codename — derived from the U.S. moon landing project — for the mission of Canadian military units in support of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
The current Afghan conflict has dragged on for nearly eight years. Before that a military struggle for control of the country was being waged by the Taliban government against the Northern Alliance. And before that, there were armed struggles among elements of the Mujahideen. And earlier still, there was the war of the Mujahideen, funded by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Egypt and China, against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, and the Soviet Union’s occupying army.
To date, 129 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, the most recent on September 6 were Maj. Yannick Pepin, 36, and Cpl. Jean-Francois Drouin, 21, killed in an armoured vehicle by a roadside bomb. Coalition fatalities now stand at 1374, of which the U.S. share is 821 and the British total 213. Despite the participation of a long list of NATO countries in the conflict, just under 85 per cent of the casualties have been suffered by Canada, the U.S. and Britain. On a per capita basis, the Canadian toll has been the heaviest.
Year after year, despite the verbal commitment of other NATO countries to the cause, the proportion of NATO deaths experienced by the “Big Three,” if we can call them that, remains almost exactly the same.
In truth, commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan is low in almost all NATO countries. In Canada, the U.S. and Britain relatively few people believe that the West will succeed in the conflict. An EKOS poll taken in July 2009, revealed that 54 per cent of Canadians opposed the country’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, while only 34 per cent were in support.
During the Second World War, despite important internal divisions over crucial issues such as conscription, and despite the vastly higher level of casualties, Canadians remained committed to the conflict, believing their own futures were vitally tied up with the outcome of the war.
While huge efforts have been made by the Harper government to convince Canadians that the war in Afghanistan is our first line of defence against terrorism directed at us, Canadians just don’t believe this. Unlike the Second World War, during which the causes of human freedom and a better world remained intact until the end, the Afghan war has cheapened and tarnished the values to which Canadians are committed.
Repeatedly, it has been indisputably clear that the government in Kabul to which we are allied is brutal, corrupt, tied to war lords, and drug dealers, and is not committed to a vision of human rights, women’s rights in particular, that is remotely congruent with our own. The recent presidential election in Afghanistan was rife with fraud. Some will respond that we should not try to impose our values on the people of Afghanistan or their government. I agree with that. But I see no reason why we should put our soldiers in harm’s way and spend billions of dollars in a conflict where the cause has little or nothing to do with the kind of world to which we aspire and in which our national interests are not at stake.
While Canada has claimed to be rebuilding Afghanistan, 90 per cent of the billions we have spent there has been on the military side of the mission.
Although the Second World War was many things — a transition to a new system of global power with the United States and the Soviet Union at the helm, a proving ground for the atomic bomb, a laboratory for industrial genocide — for Canadians and the other peoples of the allied powers, it was a war to halt the Nazis and fascists from imposing their racial and authoritarian doctrines on the world.
The war in Afghanistan is not about freedom and human rights. For the West, it is a conflict to shore up a border region in the American Empire, the kind of war the Romans fought on the Scottish border, or to hold back the barbarians on the frontiers of Gaul or in the Balkans. It is the kind of war, the British fought in many places, including Afghanistan, when they ran a global empire.
Canadians don’t belong in this fight.
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