International

Not out of sight, not out of mind

Afghanistan is a conflict that can no longer be out of sight or out of mind. Bill Moyers made that statement to Americans but it is apt in this country with the Canadian fatality count risen to 25 this year, 131 in total.

Do Canadians understand the goals sought in Afghanistan? Without that knowledge, we cannot determine success or failure or judge if Canadian lives are wasted there. Jonathan Couturier, the latest dead soldier, considered the mission pointless, according to his brother.

Governor-General Jean says Canada’s mission is improving lives. The Prime Minister says deaths will not deter Canada’s mission to rebuild Afghanistan. Yet, neither goes beyond platitudes to communicate meaningful detail of what we are likely to achieve. Harper’s statement is particularly trite:

Be reassured that an entire country stands behind you at this difficult time. It is only through the hard work, dedication and sacrifice of remarkable Canadians like Corporal Jean-François Drouin and Major Yannick Pépin that Afghanistan will once again flourish and stand on its own.

Will Afghanistan flourish and stand on its own? Has it ever? Not in recent history, not since the middle ages. These lands are where numerous civilizations crossed paths and armies have battled since ancient times. The people have been subjugated by most every bygone empire that crossed the region.

From the 19th century, Britain tried to rule the area until independent Afghanistan was created following WWI. Royal authority presided uneasily over the fractious state until a 1973 coup resulted in formation of a republic. A secular government, sustained by the USSR, attempted major social changes: land reform, religious freedom and female emancipation – ironically, values that western nations now seek to impose. Then too, cultural discord and foreign influence led to armed strife. American agencies encouraged anti-government forces as part of their anti-communist strategy.

To help its client state, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Callous fighting continued until the invaders withdrew in 1989 and, with that ideological prize gained, America lost interest in remaking Afghanistan. Internecine violence continued with control exercised by regional warlords and religious extremists. By 2000, Taliban fundamentalists dominated the country and repressed most disorder.

After 9/11, Americans resolved to punish the Afghan government for sheltering Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Eventually, western special forces and Northern Alliance militias overthrew the Taliban regime. Hamid Karzai headed the transitional administration and was made Interim President in 2002. However, his influence was limited and his place depended on US military power. Karzai was often derided as the Mayor of Kabul and much regional control remained with residual Taliban elements and militias.

Nevertheless, with support of the US and it’s allies, Karzai remains President, even if he holds incomplete power through corrupt election practices. In 2009, a UN-backed commission in Afghanistan said it had found “convincing evidence of fraud” in the presidential election. Britain, the US and others in the NATO mission are reluctant to condemn irregularities strongly, partly because supporters of Karzai are responsible for the worst abuses. Of course, widespread corruption undermines the case for continued allied military intervention.

Dexter Filkins, New York Times (September 2009), says Afghan corruption is boundless, affecting every element of society:

From the lowliest traffic policeman to the family of President Hamid Karzai himself, the state built on the ruins of the Taliban government seven years ago now often seems to exist for little more than the enrichment of those who run it.

A raft of investigations has concluded that people at the highest levels of the Karzai administration, including the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, are cooperating in the country’s opium trade, now the world’s largest. In the streets and government offices, hardly a public transaction seems to unfold here that does not carry with it the requirement of a bribe.

Carlotta Gall, New York Times, called Afghan corruption widespread and the government effort to change lethargic. She mentions a housing scandal from 2003:

…cabinet ministers, in Karzai’s absence, awarded themselves and friends prime real estate in Kabul, where land prices have shot up since the U.S. invasion.

An investigation was quietly dropped and the officials were allowed to build their ostentatious villas, which now tower above passers-by as a constant reminder of official excess. Elsewhere, though corruption is small in scale, it has an enormous impact on the poor, which is most of the population.

Nancy Youssef is the Chief Pentagon Correspondent for McClatchy news. She covered the war in Iraq for four years, including two as Baghdad Bureau Chief. Appearing recently on Bill Moyers’ Journal, she talked about the Afghan people:

Well, the democracy they’ve seen is from their perspective a fraudulent election that’s brought about a government that’s more corrupt, in their view, than even the Taliban was. And by the way, they don’t get any more basic services. They have to pay a lot more in bribes to get basic things done. Their warlords in some cases are more empowered under the system, not less. Who would want democracy under that? I think we have to think about how we’ve defined democracy in their minds. It’s really become about survival.

I was in Zhari District, which is about 20 miles west of Kandahar. When the Canadians first came in, they painted schools and they built new schools for the residents. And you know what happened? The NATO forces eventually had to destroy them, because the Taliban took them over. They own everything. They own the terrain. They know the terrain better than anyone.

Bill Moyers asked Youssef about $32 billion of foreign aid that’s been splashed across Afghanistan in the past few years, “Can you see any of the effects of that?”

It’s very, very minimal because at the core it’s security. I mean, that same number, you’ll hear talked about how much has reached the Afghans. It’s something ridiculously small. Like $4-$6 billion that actually has reached the ground in Afghanistan. Do you see it? Not really. You’ll see it in pieces. You know, you’ll see the ring road, or a paved road of some kind there. Or you’ll see a new water system, or a new school, or a new crop buildup. But there’s nothing linking all those things together. That’s what’s missing. So, it’s very piecemeal. So, it’s sort of like a mirage of a big pool of water in the middle of the desert. You know, you see it and then it sort of disappears, because it doesn’t have any real long term impact.

Canadians have no territorial ambitions, no historic involvements or obvious ties to people of the region. And, we can hardly justify military action as a defense of moral values, democracy and human rights, given that both sides of the Afghan hostilities stand a world apart from Canadian values. Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan is, more than anything, Stephen Harper’s deferential response to American wishes. We are not defending democracy, we are serving American political rhetoric.

With escalating costs and casualties, painful collateral damage inflicted on non-combatants and continued failures of the corrupt Karsai regime, NATO must re-evaluate its participation. It seems clear that too few in Afghanistan cherish the values of universal liberal democracy. There are no pleasant solutions now nor will there be later. History suggests that westerners should now depart, as every failed transient conqueror has done before.

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