November 2006: Canada's Fatally Flawed Afghan Mission

Harper is happy to turn Canada from peacemaker to war-maker
November 1, 2006

It is alarming for many Canadians to watch Stephen Harper, the head of a minority government with the support of fewer than 40% of citizens, turn Canada into a nation of war. But that is what is happening.

The roots of Harper's preference for war go to the core of his view of government: maintaining a strong, war-fighting armed forces is one of the few roles that Harper believes government should have. He is fighting a war against a battle-hardened and determined enemy in one of the most fiercely independent nations on Earth. The complexity of Afghan society confounds all but a few who would try to understand it. Yet, for Stephen Harper, understanding Afghanistan seems almost irrelevant. But it is relevant, because this is a war that Canada and the West cannot win, any more than Britain and the Soviet Union could before us. And Canada will share disproportionately in its ultimate loss in terms of dead and wounded, billions of dollars wasted, and our international reputation sullied for a long time to come. It will go down in history as one of our country's biggest foreign policy disasters.

Stephen Harper's contempt for Canada and what it became in the decades following the Second World War is firmly on the record. Most of his comments--his sneering dismissal of our egalitarianism and sense of community--relate to social programs like Medicare. He once described Canada as "a second-tier socialistic country, boasting ever more loudly about its social services to mask its second-rate status."

It was not until recently that he revealed his disdain for Canada's three decades of peacekeeping. In a CBC interview conducted as Parliament resumed sitting in September, Harper showed that he relished the fact that Canadian soldiers were war-fighting, and dismissed Canada's peacekeeping history as virtual cowardice: "For a lot of the last 30 or 40 years, we were the ones hanging back." He even mused that the deaths of Canadian soldiers were a boost for the military--cathartic after years of not being able to kill or die like real soldiers. "I can tell you it's certainly engaged our military. It's, I think, made them a better military, notwithstanding--and maybe in some way because of--the casualties."

Utterly blind to how the rest of the world sees the conflict in Afghanistan, Harper told the CBC that Canada's role in Afghanistan is "...certainly raising Canada's leadership role, once again, in the United Nations and in the world community."

You have only to look at Harper's history and his government's "five priorities" to understand why he would get Canada and himself deeper into a conflict he cannot win. For five years, in the middle of his political career, Harper was with the National Citizens Coalition, an extreme right-wing organization that was founded by an insurance company millionaire explicitly to fight public Medicare. Its slogan is "More freedom through less government." It is virtually impossible for Stephen Harper to recognize Canadian leadership in any field--such as Medicare--that he believes Canada should not be involved in. For the Conservative prime minister, the Afghanistan conflict may be literally the first time that Canada has shown real leadership in decades.

Harper can finally be proud of Canada, now that we are making war. It does not even matter to him that more Canadians question the country's commitment to the increasingly distorted mission in Afghanistan (49%) than support the mission (38%). Embarrassed for years about living in a “socialist” country, Harper can now hold his head high where it counts: in Calgary and Washington, D.C.

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Four of Harper's five priorities following the last election reflect his "less government" imperative. Cutting taxes is critical to creating "less government" because, as long as you have robust revenue (even surpluses), citizens will expect you to deliver those things they desire. Combatting crime is one of the "core" activities of Canada for Harper and all neo-cons. While priority No. 3, cleaning up government, is a noble cause, many experts on the effective running of government say that aspects of his huge Accountability Act will serve to paralyze the federal government. His "child care" grants were transparently designed to ensure that government would not be involved in the provision of child care at all.

In the secretive and tightly controlled world of the Harper government, it isn't always easy to determine who Harper is listening to for advice. But his disdain for government and his enormous intellectual arrogance suggest that bureaucrats, including civilian military officials and the diplomatic corps, are not high on his list. These are the people who would have tried to give Harper an objective analysis of how the Afghanistan conflict was going back in February when he took over as prime minister. But, given that they were part of a military establishment that was responsible for the peacekeeping culture he detested, he was unlikely to listen to any cautionary advice.

They were part of the problem, not part of the solution.

He was much more likely to listen to those running the U.S. (whom he has admired to the point of worship for many years) and to those Canadian generals who were also rejecting the peacekeeping culture. In fact, Harper's predecessor, Paul Martin, had already signalled a political change.

Jean Chrétien warned about military demands for money: "It's never enough...They all need more and they all have plans for more." But Martin eagerly listened to the war generals and to Bay Street, who also supported a stronger military integrated into the U.S. war machine. Already the seventh-highest spender in NATO at nearly $14 billion, Martin added $12.8 billion over five years. Conservatives will top that by a further $5.3 billion, putting military spending much higher than at any time during the Cold War. Both Martin and Harper were bending over backwards to please George Bush.

U.S. Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, in 2002, made a remarkable admission: the only order he received from the White House when he was appointed was to get Canada to dramatically increase its military spending.

It isn't just the money; it's how it will be spent. As defence analyst Steven Staples points out: "Without billions of dollars, the military can't afford to buy the high-tech weaponry required for joint operations with the Americans, the most lethal and technologically advanced fighting force in history...Defence spending fuels military integration [with the U.S]."

Harper is even more committed to the idea of fully integrated armed forces as part of the Security and Prosperity Partnership, a formal integration agreement between the three NAFTA countries that will see huge areas of government policy "harmonized," including energy, water, drug testing, security, immigration and refugees, and more.

But military integration is the key to other areas of continental integration--such as open borders--that Canadian corporations want. "Security trumps trade," Paul Cellucci said repeatedly in lobbying other political parties and Bay Street against Chrétien's refusal to increase the military budget. They won the money battle, but that's not enough. As Staples says: "Afghanistan is the proving ground for Canada-U.S. military integration."

But of course Harper will not talk about military integration, because that debate would damage an already unpopular engagement. In order to sell Canadians on our war-fighting mission in Afghanistan, the Harper government resorts to language that reduces the debate to an adolescent level. By constantly repeating phrases like "we can't cut and run" and we won't leave "until the job is done," or "we have to support our troops" or we "can't let the terrorists win," Harper hopes to frame the debate so that nothing substantive ever gets discussed. These are the kind of arguments you find among adolescent boys fighting in schoolyards: too immature and too driven by their testosterone to actually think straight about the consequences of their actions.

It might be productive if every conversation about Afghanistan had to begin with a quotation from Benjamin Franklin: "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." At least it might lead those discussing the war to delve a little deeper, to examine Afghanistan's social and political structures, its history and, most importantly, the record of the West in creating the current horrors.

As is stands now, we proceed as if Afghanistan was created from nothing on Sept. 11, 2001.

But Afghanistan does have a history. Canada's involvement is part of a 30-year continuum of Western (and Soviet) interference, and it cannot be surgically excised and declared pristine in its motives. So long as we ignore this history, we will have more body bags coming home, thousands of innocent Afghanis will die, and homes and whole villages will be destroyed---along with orchards, crops, and other means of survival--by our tanks, mortars, and U.S. "air -support."

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Afghanistan was not always a country totally dominated by warlords and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism. This brand of Islam was largely imported into the country as part of the U.S.-inspired Cold War effort to defeat the Soviets. For a brief period, the country had a progressive, secular government which, according to University of Winnipeg professor John Ryan, "affirmed the separation of church and state, labour unions were legalized, health care and education became priorities, women were given equal rights, and girls were to go to school...A program was being developed for major land reform." []

That government was put in place following a 1978 military coup that removed an autocratic and unpopular president. Noor Mohammad Taraki, a Marxist (and a university professor, writer and poet) was asked by the army to form a government simply because the Marxists were the only ones who had an actual development program. Tragically for the Afghan people, however, the U.S. was not prepared to allow such a government to exist in the context of the Cold War. The U.S. used the CIA (and the assistance of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) "to provide military aid and training to the Muslim extremists, who became known as the mujahedeen and 'freedom fighters’." Barely a year later, Taraki and his closest associates were killed in another coup. It was after this that the Soviets invaded in support of the government.

Years later, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, boasted of implementing a plan to tie down the USSR in its own version of Vietnam and to bleed it into submission. According to Ryan: "Brzezinski saw this as a golden opportunity to fire up the zeal of the most reactionary Muslim fanatics--to have them declare a jihad (holy war) on the atheist infidels who defiled Afghan soil." What followed was the recruitment of thousands of non-Afghan Muslims (including Osama bin Laden) into a 10-year jihad, funded by hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars that destroyed much of the country.

In 1992, three years after the end of the Soviet occupation, the government was finally defeated and Afghanistan fell into absolute chaos, inter-tribal warfare, drug smuggling, and mass rape. In 1994, according to Middle East authority Eric Margolis, "a village prayer leader, Mullah Omar, armed a group of 'talibs' (religious students), and set about defending women from rape. Aided by Pakistan, the Taliban stopped the epidemic of rape and drug dealing that had engulfed Afghanistan, and imposed order based on harsh tribal and Sharia religious law."

Oil and gas are part of every U.S. intervention in the Middle East, and the U.S. had no qualms about dealing with the Taliban in the 1990s. Washington began to pour millions into Taliban coffers in the hope of signing a contract with U.S. oil giant Unocal to build a gas pipeline south from the Caspian Basin to Pakistan. The negotiations broke down in the spring of 2001--just months before 9/11. As for those attacks, they were planned in Germany, carried out by Saudis, and were almost certainly done without the knowledge of the isolationist Taliban. When the U.S. demanded that Osama bin Laden be handed over, the Taliban agreed to turn him over to an international tribunal upon seeing evidence of his guilt. But the U.S. had no such evidence. Instead, they invaded.

The government of Hamid Karzai is constantly touted as having been "democratically elected," and it is fair to say that Afghans voted in the election because they hoped it might make a difference. But the Karzai government is totally dependent for its survival on the U.S. and is heavily influenced by the U.S. oil industry. According to Le Monde newspaper, Karzai was a consultant for Unocal during the failed negotiations with the Taliban. Another Unocal consultant, Zalmay Khalilzad, was initially the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan. By May 30, 2002, he had in place a multi-billion-dollar contract for a gas pipeline.

Afghanistan's democracy is a fraud and operates more as a grim coalition of mujahedeen, warlords, drug-lords, oil company executives, and U.S. agents. Following 9/11, the U.S. recruited and armed its old mujahedeen creation to help in the task of defeating the Taliban, renaming them the "Northern Alliance." Many of the elected MPs stand accused of carrying out massacres, mass rape, torture, and other war crimes. A lengthy 2005 UN report (leaked to the Guardian newspaper) documents these atrocities and names those responsible. According to Afghani MP Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman legislator, Karzai has also "appointed 13 former commanders with links to drug smuggling, organized crime, and illegal militias to senior positions in the police force."

This is the context for Canada's involvement in Afghanistan. When Hamid Karzai visited Canada and told the House of Commons and the Canadian people that our troops are desperately needed in his country, he didn't tell the whole story. And who would blame him? But there is no excuse for the soft-peddling of the conflict by the mainstream Canadian media, who remain complicit in the government’s misleading description of the “mission” and in covering for Harper’s failure to protect Canadian troops.

Even a cursory examination of the facts about our country’s disastrous involvement in Afghanistan reveals that the two men most responsible for this continuing nightmare are simply not up to the task of leadership. Stephen Harper and General Rick Hillier, his “butt-kicking” military chief, have demonstrated a level of ineptitude that should have Canadians extremely worried.

This military engagement will go down in Canadian history as one of the most shameful betrayals of Canadian soldiers in our history. Canadian troops are dying because neither their supreme commander nor their prime minister has the courage to acknowledge what is actually happening. They are dying so Stephen Harper can prove himself to George W. Bush. Hillier and Harper keep asking Canadians to “support our troops.” But they insist our troops pursue a strategy ensuring more of them will die, and they mislead them about their prospects.

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A quick survey of what is happening in Afghanistan puts the lie to every positive statement coming out of the government. First, the notion that we will still be doing development work and nation-building, once Afghanistan is “stabilized,” is a cruel hoax. With the approximately 40,000 troops (half of whom are not allowed to fight) now stationed there, this simply will never happen. When the Soviet Union was finally driven out of that country, after 10 years of brutal conflict and 15,000 dead, it had 100,000 troops there, a functioning Afghan government working in cooperation with it, and an additional 100,000 Afghan troops fighting with it.

It is no wonder, as reported by CCPA defence analyst Stephen Staples [], that Canadian soldiers are six times as likely to die in Afghanistan as American troops are in Iraq. No wonder, either, that the Senlis Council [], a Brussels-based security and development policy group, assailed Canada’s approach as continuing “ unquestioningly accept America's fundamentally flawed policy approach in southern Afghanistan, thereby jeopardizing the success of military operations in the region and the stabilization, reconstruction, and development mission objectives.”

As a result of this “war on terror” mind-set, General Hillier has shown no interest in counter-insurgency strategy. As continued deadly attacks reveal, the much touted “Operation Medusa” turns out to have been a complete waste of resources, and of Canadian and Afghan lives. In addition, it alienated thousands of Afghans whose “hearts and minds” must be won to give this mission any meaning at all.

Hillier’s response to the shocking Canadian deaths was to send 15 Leopard tanks to bolster the troops--exactly the wrong thing to do, according to Gavin Cameron, a specialist in counter-insurgency wars at the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies: “If you see tanks in your streets, it's hard not to think about it as an army of occupation.”

No one in the Canadian military will criticize Hillier for such an inexcusably wrong-headed strategy. But Captain Leo Docherty, of the Scots Guards, the former aide-de-camp to the commander of the British task force in southern Afghanistan, does so indirectly. He resigned in disgust in September, calling a similar campaign in southern Helmand province “a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency. All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British.”

According to the Senlis Council, there are between 10 and 15 refugee camps in the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, with up to 10,000 people in each, the result of Canadian and British conventional war tactics. They are receiving “...little or no help from relief agencies.”

The third factor in this endless misery has to do with reconstruction. Canada has now spent over $4 billion on its Afghan mission--90% of which has been used in the military conflict. But even the development aid that has been spent in Afghanistan by other Western nations is often resented for the way in which it is spent--and wasted.

According to University of Manitoba Professor John Ryan [], “...a recent report for the Overseas Development Institute, by Ashraf Ghani, the chancellor of Kabul University and former Karzai finance minister, has stated that in 2002 about 90% of the $1 billion spent on 400 aid projects was wasted.” Problems abound--not least the gross disparity in pay for Afghan civil servants ($50 a month) and Afghans who work for Western aid organizations($1,000 a month). The government can barely hold on to its staff. Also, says Ryan: “Where the Afghan government could build a school for about $40,000, an international aid agency undertook the task of building 500 schools, at a cost of $250,000 each.” Contracts for reconstruction are handed out to donor country corporations, who take huge fees up front and then hire layer upon layer of subcontractors who make sure they make their profit--leaving substandard construction behind. Says Ryan: "The result is collapsing hospitals, clinics, and schools, rutted and dangerous new highways...”

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The Afghanistan conflict is no longer just a fight against the old Taliban. The Taliban has morphed into what many now suggest is a formal jihad--a general call to arms of all Afghans to rid the country of foreigners. Last May, according to the Toronto Star’s Chris Sands, clerics in Kabul mosques were calling on worshippers to join the Taliban's fight against the Karzai government and NATO troops. The war is now everywhere--even in Kabul.

Even worse, says Star reporter Mitch Potter: “Money, as much as any concept of jihad, is the driving force today behind an unholy alliance of religious radicals, drug-running militias, smuggling cartels--and, in many cases, apolitical young Afghans simply looking for work--who have enlisted in the confrontation with foreign troops.”

And what is Stephen Harper’s response to this reality? “[Canadians] want a Canada that ...punches above its weight.” It is reminiscent of George Bush’s adolescent musing about Iraqi insurgents: “Bring ‘em on.”

Lastly, Harper chose to ignore evidence available at the time he extended the mission that the U.S. was losing interest in Afghanistan and was totally preoccupied with Iraq. He also ignored the caveats that European members of NATO had placed on what their troops could do in Afghanistan--the same caveats that now leave the NATO commander unable to send more troops into the south. In addition, Pakistan is doing virtually nothing to end the safe haven for the Taliban. The U.S. has now handed its messy war over to NATO. But, despite repeated, desperate pleas for more NATO troops for the south, almost none have been forthcoming.

On September 1, NDP leader Jack Layton, in calling for Canada to withdraw from its southern Afghanistan mission, stated: “We believe that a comprehensive peace process has to bring all combatants to the table." For this he was vilified in the media. Now the situation is deteriorating so quickly that even hard-liners--including Bill Frist, the hard-right U.S. Senate Majority Leader--are calling for negotiations with the neo-Taliban resistance.

There is an alternative policy that would bring Canada credit. According to retired international affairs professor Jack Warnock [] of Regina, Canada should “withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan and withdraw from all projects being sponsored by the U.S. government and NATO [and then] work within the UN General Assembly to develop a new project for Afghanistan... completely separate from any U.S. or NATO project.” Unrealistic? Not compared to the current policy of desperation and denial.

(Murray Dobbin is a Vancouver-based columnist, author of several best-selling books, and a CCPA research associate and Board member.)