What Are We Fighting For?

Stephen Harper says we’re in Afghanistan to defend ourselves and help the people. Does his rationale hold up?

By George Melnyk

In March 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper went to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to speak to Canadian troops. he defended Canada’s mission in Afghanistan, claiming that our military is “defending Canada’s national interest” and helping Afghans “rebuild their country.” What national interests are these troops defending? you may ask. What kind of help have we given the Afghans? In the year since Harper made his argument, his rhetoric hasn’t changed. But does it reflect reality?

An overview of Canada’s involvement in Afghanistan since 2001, followed by an examination of the current situation, can provide in-depth answers to what is really going on and why.

Afghanistan has been subject to an ongoing war since the 1970s, when a series of government changes ended in a Soviet occupation that lasted a decade. Then followed a period of civil war between various factions and alliances of the victorious mujahedeen for control of the country. The Taliban, centred in the Pashtun-speaking southern region of Afghanistan and having significant support from Pakistan, was able to gain control of Kabul and most of the country in 1995.

The fundamentalist and anti-modernist Taliban held power until 2001, when they were overthrown by the American military. Later that year, a Canadian special forces unit was deployed to help the American forces. The US then ruled the country using a government it had installed, supported by a small military presence of about 15,000 troops, including a UN-sanctioned multinational force (ISAF) in operation around the capital, Kabul. This government was legitimized in an election several years later, and has ruled the country through the appointment of local governors and warlords, while foreign troops have ensured that it has not been overthrown. In 2003 Canada joined the ISAF units operating around Kabul. NATO became the new face of foreign military power in 2006, while the Americans continued to run their own show in areas they considered of vital interest.

In spring 2006, several thousand Canadian soldiers who had been part of ISAF were restationed in the southern province of Kandahar, once a key Taliban stronghold. They began counterinsurgency operations, which led to Canadian casualties, including nine deaths from March through May. The Canadian news media reported daily on the campaigns, including one that reportedly killed 1,000 Taliban militants later that year. from 2001 to 2006, Canada’s military operations in Afghanistan cost Canadian taxpayers $2-billion.

Canada’s image as a blue beret peacekeeper is history.

In May 2006, the minority government of Stephen Harper, with support from elements of the Liberal Party, received Parliamentary approval (149 to 145) to extend Canada’s role in Afghanistan until 2009 (originally it was to conclude in February 2007). As well, it seems that Canada will assume command of non-American NATO forces in Afghanistan beginning in February 2008.

Last summer the conservative government unveiled a $15- billion program for “the largest defence equipment purchases in Canadian history,” including helicopters, ships and tactical- lift planes. The counterinsurgency equipment used by Canada now includes Canadian tanks, American attack helicopters and the dreaded A-10 “Warthog” planes. costs are escalating as the Harper government cranks up its commitment to arming the military, increasing its air transport capability, focusing the media on the “mission” as a patriotic exercise, and making war costs a significant part of the national budget. When in early 2006 the head of the Canadian military, general hillier, described Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan as a “minimum” of 10 years, it became obvious that Canada had entered a long period of increasing military expenditures.

Canada’s image as a blue beret UN peacekeeper is now history. The military campaign in Afghanistan has become the new face of Canada. Walter Dorn, professor of defence studies at the Royal Military college, has concluded that “Canada can no longer be called a committed peacekeeper.” A Canadian lieutenant-colonel serving in Afghanistan was more blunt about the new reality in a speech to his troops, recorded by Globe and Mail correspondent Christie Blatchford. “These people have been abused for 30 years,” he said. “They fear us. We roll up in a LAV [light armoured vehicle], kitted up like Star Wars troopers, we inspire fear.”

Harper’s rationale for Canada’s role in Afghanistan— his claim of self-defence and altruism— proves wanting when measured against the real situation in Afghanistan.

The promise of military action leading to a better future for Afghans is demonstrably false when measured against reality on the ground, particularly when we look at a key area of Afghanistan’s political economy—opium production. In his 2006 book State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, James Risen says that the insurgency is fuelled by the power and income generated by opium production. During the post-Soviet and pre-Taliban period, opium production helped fund the civil war. The Taliban cut production: in 2001, only 74 metric tons was produced. In 2002, the first year of American rule, that amount jumped to 1,278 metric tons. In 2003 it doubled, and by 2004 Afghanistan was producing 87 per cent of the world’s opium supply.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers depend on poppies for their livelihood. Recent reports indicate that the 2006 crop was 60 per cent larger than that of 2005, nearing 130,000 hectares according to UN figures and over 160,000 according to other sources. The driving force is extreme poverty: opium is the surest source of income.

In June 2006 an NGO policy group working in Kandahar produced a report, “Canada in Kandahar: no Peace to Keep,” which pointed out that in Kandahar province, where the Canadian military is operating, 160,000 people (26,000 households) relied on opium poppy cultivation in 2005. Wheat farmers, who planted three times the amount of land as the poppy farmers, received less than one-third the income. In other words, growing poppies is nine times more valuable to a farmer than growing wheat. The report concludes that “the growing insurgency, combined with… counter-narcotics policies, has resulted in an explosive situation where Canadian troops are negatively identified…”

The end result is more counterinsurgency warfare, matched by more insurgent activity, more opium production, more disenchanted Afghans, more corruption, more of a mess. This is the vicious cycle that keeps escalating in Afghanistan, while Canadians at home are fed a diet of patriotic pablum.

As one officer told his troops, “We roll up like Star Wars troopers, we inspire fear.”

As for self-defence, Harper suggested that making war in Afghanistan will defend Canada from the Taliban, which would otherwise “wreak havoc” here. Sounds like a bit of a stretch. Not only is this argument implausible, but the actions of our military may in fact be making Canada more of a target.

Late in 2006, Afghan legislator Malalai Joya came to Canada and told the media that Canada was simply following in the footsteps of the US in its approach and that this was only creating enemies among the Afghan people. Canadian troops may not be part of the solution. They may very well be exacerbating the problem.

When foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay visited the Canadian base in Kandahar in January 2007, he was asked about the recent critique in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs, which said that Afghanistan was sliding into chaos. MacKay rejected the analysis and pointed to the Afghan government’s efforts “to build a more functioning and more dedicated police force.” It’s always guns, troops and police with the Harperites. Their “stability and security” mantra means $9 spent on the military effort for every $1 on development aid.

Already the Americans have had to up their presence to 27,000 troops and the British have been enticed back with a force larger than Canada’s. With the other NATO forces in place, there are now 40,000 foreign troops providing “security” to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the frustrated manager of a mothballed textile mill in Kandahar asked a Canadian reporter, “Every year, you foreigners spend millions of dollars to stop the poppy-growing. Why don’t you spend your money to help us grow cotton?” Why indeed?

On February 26, 2007, Harper announced an additional $200- million in non-military aid to Afghanistan. It was obviously a response to the criticism of his emphasis on military solutions. But this amount pales when compared to the $15- to $17-billion planned for military hardware over the next few years. In total the government has spent or intends to spend about $1.2-billion in aid over 10 years (2002 to 2011), or $120-million annually. That’s about $4 per Afghan.

The government argues that security comes first or development is wasted. This has been proven wrong by a practical, non-counterinsurgency approach adopted by NATO troops from the Netherlands, who arrived in the province of Uruzgan in August 2006. The Dutch troops have reduced violence, lowered animosity in the region and provided real leadership toward peace. They have not faced the kind of enmity the canadians have in Kandahar. Why?

According to Graeme Smith, The Globe and Mail’s reporter on the ground, the Dutch do not go into major offensives, they communicate indirectly with the Taliban and they restrain the American special forces operating in the area. While canadians use the American model of building fortress-like encampments, the Dutch prefer mud-walled compounds. They inform locals about prisoners taken by the Americans. They keep the corrupt elements of the Afghan military at bay. They acknowledge that intelligence information about the Taliban, which might provoke a military response, is unreliable. They are building goodwill by showing they are not naive about the situation.

One could argue that things are easier in Uruzgan than they could ever be in Kandahar, where the Taliban are very strong. But it is the Dutch, with their non-violence, who lowered the level of attacks by insurgents in Uruzgan. Meanwhile, in the province of Helmand, where the British were stationed last year, a US-influenced tough-guy approach has seen a 600 per cent increase in violent attacks. The aggressive counterinsurgency model is fomenting the violence. This is Canada’s model.

Defence Minister Gordon O’connor claimed that the new police posts will act as an early warning system, but those who will man them are the same corrupt police hated by the local population. If Canadians are working with the discredited local authorities and calling them “the good guys,” then we shouldn’t be surprised when an Afghan farmer, his poppy crop burned because he didn’t have the money for a bribe, turns to the Taliban. Nor should we be surprised that the woman, her children killed by gunships strafing her mud village, sees Canadian troops as the enemy.

The Taliban, for want of a better term, are often described in the Canadian media as outside forces coming from Pakistan to wreak havoc. But a detailed report of a battle between Canadians and the “Taliban” fought in fall 2006 states that many of the fighters were actually local people, fed up with the corruption of the Karzai government and angry about its selective poppy eradication program. They have grown distrustful of the foreign troops propping up the regime. It is obvious that most of the insurgents in Kandahar are Afghans from tribal groups that live on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistani border. no wonder they blend in with the local population. To a significant degree, they are the local population.

In this tragic situation, Harper’s pop-into-Kandahar photo ops make a mockery of the concepts of leadership and genuine altruism because they do nothing for Afghanistan or its people, but simply further a soft-chinned foreigner’s personal political agenda of portraying “strength” and so winning re-election.

The Harper administration has no political will to make reconstruction a priority—it’s more or less outright pacification or nothing. It has no political will to encourage poppy production for the manufacture of morphine, which is in a global shortage. Just keep fighting and killing and showing who’s the boss.

The recent history of Afghanistan shows that the obsession with counterinsurgency only worsens the consequences of the war and propels Afghanistan into the same downward spiral that infects Iraq.

When foreign powers believe they know what is best for others, and that indigenous peoples cannot be trusted to determine their own future; when they believe the cost of foreign intervention is minimal, and then later believe it’s worth any price because national prestige is on the line— then those powers have chosen a path to disaster. This is now Canada’s path.

George Melnyk co-edited Canada and the new World Imperial Order and co-ordinates the U of C Consortium for Peace Studies.

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