By Stephen Kimber
January 3, 2008
The real problem is that there is no single “best” solution — not even any remotely good one — to the quagmire that Afghanistan was, is and will remain. And yet the reality is that our government must soon decide whether to continue, change or abandon our current costly military mission in that war-ravaged country.
It’s easy to understand why Canadians are telling pollsters — and Stephen Harper — that they want the government to withdraw our troops. The latest Angus Reid survey, which was taken even before last week’s casualty brought the total number of Canadians killed to 74, merely confirms that. Sixty-one per cent of us don’t want the Harper government to extend our military commitment in Afghanistan beyond its current official end date of February 2009, while fully 53 per cent — a majority of those polled, in fact — believe we should get out right now.
It isn’t that Canadians, in the prime minister’s dismissive view — want to “cut and run” at the first sign of trouble. Or that we don’t support our troops. Or that we oppose transforming tribal Afghanistan into a hopeful new beacon of democracy. Or that we want to abandon its future to the corrupt warlords and drug barons who control it now. Or hand it back to the Taliban, and return Afghan’s women and girls to their not-at-all tender mercies.
It is simply that we have never had a thoughtful, considered public debate about why we are there in the first place — why Afghanistan, say, instead of Darfur or some other global trouble spot? — what it was we hoped to accomplish on the ground, how we can our measure success or failure, and when we will know that it is time to leave. Is Afghanistan the best — or even most logical — place to deploy our limited military, diplomatic and development resources?
The reality is that we went into Afghanistan to curry favour with the Americans (who had invaded, conquered and then abandoned it) because Jean Chrétien had miffed George Bush and company by refusing to join their Iraqi misadventure. And then we ended up in Kandahar, the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, more by accident than design.
Rather than engaging in peacekeeping or nation-building, our soldiers have ended up as just one more group of foreign soldiers in a country that has seen way too many of them. We are fighting a counter-insurgency war in a country where we can’t tell our friends from our enemies and where civilians far too often get caught in our crossfire; where our official friends in the government in Kabul are lining their pockets and torturing many of the prisoners we hand over to them; where our ostensible friend in the war on terror in Pakistan is offering safe haven and weapons to our enemies on the ground; and where our supposed allies in NATO are reluctant to send their own troops into the fray to support us.
The result is that we are fighting a war we can’t win, and fighting that war is diverting resources from the larger and longer-term job of rebuilding the country.
No wonder Canadians want out.
And yet the reality is that we are there. Can we simply walk away now and leave the mess for others to clean up? Or do we have to stay the course wherever that takes us, and for however long it takes? Or is there some other, more useful, more palatable role we can play?
We still need to have that debate. We didn’t have it when the then-Liberal government backed us back into the conflict in May 2005. And we certainly didn’t have it a year later when Harper’s Tories played politics during a supposed six-hour parliamentary debate on extending our mission to February 2009.
It is unlikely we will get it from this month’s report of the politically bi-partisan but ideologically single-minded and very politically constructed Manley commission either. John Manley’s so-called blue-ribbon panel of eminent Canadians has not held public hearings. It has conducted most of its business behind closed doors. Given the pro-American cast of its characters and the process it has followed, no one will be surprised by the outcome. It will recommend that Canada stay the course in Afghanistan, a result Stephen Harper will then use to batter the opposition parties for being partisan if they don’t accept the findings of his hand-picked panel.
That is not the pre-determined, end-result “debate” we need now.
Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King's College. His column, Kimber's Nova Scotia, appears in The Sunday Daily News.