Three Ways of Looking at Afghanistan

The new Canadian minority prime minister Stephen Harper recently made headlines (here, anyway) by visiting and overnighting with Canadian troops in Afghanistan. When he spoke to the troops, with the press lapping it up, he said some things that I thought at first were deliberate deceit, or toadying to the US neocons who helped finance his campaign. He said (emphasis mine):

You have put yourself on the line to defend our national interests, protect Canada and the world from terror, and help the people of Afghanistan rebuild their country…Before its liberation, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan often served as an incubator for Al Qaeda and other terror organizations. This reality hit home with brutal force on 9-11, when two dozen Canadians lost their lives suddenly and senselessly in the destruction of the World Trade Centre…Since that time, Al Qaeda has singled out Canada as one of the countries targeted for terror. And beyond the threat of terror thereís the threat of drugs. An unstable Afghanistan represents easy pickings for drug lords who would use the country as a safe haven for the production of heroin, which wreaks its own destruction on the streets of our country.

I was a supporter of Canada’s involvement five years ago in the overthrow of the Taliban, and I can tell you that for most Canadians this support had nothing to do with the ‘war on terror’, 9/11, or the ‘war on drugs’. We supported the overthrow of the Taliban because its theocracy — using money, arms and resources cynically supplied by the US to help them wage war on invading Russian troops — had enslaved its people, especially its women, and because we believe that the systemic brutalization and murder of its people by any government is repugnant.

For the same reason I, and I think most Canadians, would support intervention in Darfur, to protect at least some of the people from the genocide that is occurring there today with the full knowledge of the indifferent governments of affluent nations including Canada. Our duty in Afghanistan, in my view, was to help oust the Taliban, then quickly reestablish the rule of law and reconstruct sufficient infrastructure to allow the people of Afghanistan to look after themselves, and then help keep the peace.

We have done none of these things. The attempt to achieve ‘regime change’ in Afghanistan, like the war next door in Iraq, has been a near-total failure. The so-called government of Afghanistan that Harper met for photo-ops with, is in fact only the government of Kabul, the country’s capital city. The rest of the country remains in the hands of the war-lords, now hugely enriched by the explosion of the poppy heroin business, which neither the ‘coalition’ nor the so-called ‘government’ has any power to curtail. In much of the country these warlords are sympathetic to the Taliban, and no doubt some of the heroin wealth is being funneled to them.

The idea that Canadian troops are “protecting Canada and the world from terror” is laughable — they are protecting the new Karzai regime from losing Kabul to the same thuggery and anarchy that still prevails in the rest of the country. The idea that Canadian troops are helping reduce the “threat of drugs” is equally preposterous — drugs are now the mainstay of the Afghanis’ economy, far more than they were under the Taliban. And, worst of all, the idea that Canadian troops’ role in Afghanistan is “peacekeeping” is belied by their mounting, intended casualties and heavy “counter-insurgency” activities — you cannot “keep peace” until you have won it in the first place.

So my view is that we tried, but have failed, to intervene in a sufficiently positive way in the lives of the people of Afghanistan to justify our continued presence there. We were naive to believe that this country, which has been down-trodden and abused by an endless succession of foreign invaders and domestic opportunists, could manage its own affairs if we simply removed the leaders of its latest gang of despots. This is one of the poorest countries on the planet, horrifically overpopulated relative to its carrying capacity, its environment utterly destroyed by overgrazing, bombing and chemical poisons, with no viable industry except the cultivation of poppies. And while that poppy industry might, in better circumstances, be harvested for medical purposes instead of drugs, the combination of intractable lawlessness and utter lack of economic infrastructure makes such a dream impossible.

If we stay, we are looking at decades of incessant civil strife and insurgency — and the distinct possibility that the people might prefer a relatively-benign but forceful dictatorship able to achieve a reasonable degree of peace, even if that dictatorship had a religious fundamentalist philosophy, provided it was not too brutal and doctrinaire at enforcing it, rather than a fragile democracy constantly struggling with civil war. If we leave, we are inviting civil war. The best of a sad lot of alternatives is, I think, to leave and to invest the money we would otherwise spend on military activities on infrastructure that could actually help the country become a little bit better place to live — education, health care, sustainable agriculture, water treatment, even markets for the poppies that would see them used for pain medication instead of drugs. We are, alas, not ‘big enough’ to admit failure, and to be honest to the world about it.

While progressives might nod at such a strategy, to Harper and those of conservative mindset such an idea would be shocking, unthinkable, even treasonous. My reading of Lakoff (and the fact that I know quite a few conservatives) has led me to understand that, while 80% of Canadians favoured our involvement in removing the Taliban from power, probably only 2/3 of that number favoured it for the humanitarian reasons I did, while the other 1/3, the 27% of Canadians who see events through a conservative worldview, favoured it for the ideological reasons that Harper spouted in his speech to the Canadian troops. We overwhelmingly agreed for utterly different, irreconcilable reasons.

This is why, when the opposition NDP and some Liberals want a debate now on Canada’s continuing role in Afghanistan, Harper will not even consider the possibility. This is the guy who, after all, wanted us in Iraq as well, for the same ideological reasons rejected overwhelmingly by Canadians. He really believes (what I see as) the nonsense he spouted to the troops. Facts about the impossibility of imposing democracy, about the horrific state of continuous siege in most of Afghanistan after five years of foreign occupation, about the ineffectiveness of everything we have tried to do, about the overwhelmingly military (rather than humanitarian, peacekeeping or infrastructure-building) role of the West in Afghanistan, about the drug epidemic from the resurgence of Afghanistan’s heroin production that is devastating many of the former Soviet republics — all bounce off Harper and conservatives because they do not ‘fit’ with their paternalistic worldview.

In the US, at least, there is a third view that is neither progressive (“let’s get out and try doing something different that maybe won’t make things any worse”) nor conservative (“let’s stay the course and work to keep the world safe for democracy from terrorists and drug czars who hate freedom and who want to kill or defeat us”). This third view is that of the materialistic, fatalistic, thrill-seeking, don’t-give-a-damn rugged individualists who now make up a small majority of the population.

What would their take be on all this? They wouldn’t care. They’re cynical enough to doubt that any of the reasons given for Middle Eastern adventures were honest ones, by either side. They loath and distrust the information media — regular and alternative — and are bored by them. They’ll watch CNN only for entertainment, when there is something visually exciting happening. They don’t know what’s going on, and don’t want to know — they are uninterested in making it their business to have an opinion on anything they think they can’t influence, and which will encourage those who do have an opinion to try to manipulate them with lies and distortions.

I find such views very disturbing, but I understand them. Even the neocons, with their recent rants about the dangers of isolationism, are beginning to pay attention to this real silent majority. What is especially troubling is that we have botched our attempts to intervene in the affairs of people in other countries — politically, socially, and economically — so badly that we have given astonishing credence to this third view. Were it not for Western meddling in the lives of the people in the Middle East — from the crusades to our more recent arming and other empowerment of the Saudi princes, the Saddams, the Taliban etc. — would those countries be better or worse off than they are today?

Harper’s buddies at Talisman Energy, in the process of exploiting Sudan’s natural resources, helped finance the genocide in Darfur. That was not their intention, of course, just one more unforeseen consequence of globalization. The third wave argument, which is never articulated, is that in this complex world it doesn’t matter what we try to do — in our ignorance, zeal, paranoia and oversimplification we are as likely in any well-intentioned act to make matters worse than better. Given the disasters inadvertently perpetrated by every type of organization with money and power in the history of civilization, maybe that explains the enduring popularity of anarchy as a political and philosophical persuasion.

I’ve deliberately written about Afghanistan in this article because it is a less emotional subject than Iraq. But as you have probably guessed, what I’ve said about Afghanistan could apply equally to Iraq, Iran, or any other country, or for that matter to efforts to solve solutions to our domestic problems. I know these sound like strange ideas coming from a guy whose blog is about trying to save the world (and I’ll be a progressive until I die), but sometimes it never hurts to take an honest look at what’s really going on in the world, and why, and notget too caught up in our orthodoxies. “First, do no harm” isn’t a bad approach to any intervention.

Cartoon by Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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3 Responses to Three Ways of Looking at Afghanistan

  1. Nepenthe says:

    This is true. I’ve come to see that the biggest “terrorist” threat in the world is the U.S.. If you are wondering why so many people around the world oppose you, try bringing some of your armies home that occupy most of the world (I recently read that of the 300 – odd countries in the world, only 43 of them don’t have an American military presence) and see if your popularity increases. They are worried about the potential nuclear threat from Iran. I am worried about the potential nuclear threat from the United States. One would hope that no people would be mad enough to unleash such destruction on their fellow humans – but the United States has already put the lie to that, not once, but twice. And, with the Bush cabal in power, I would not be surprised if freedom was bestowed via the mushroom cloud once again. There is a huge difference between humanitarian intervention and this oil grab that Harper seems so eager to sign on to. Bring the troops home. Let people work it out for themselves.

  2. I must agree that for a guy who wants to save the world, the progressive approach would be limted to reversing globalization, integration of economics and creating “Fortress Canada” (america or north america if you like). If we are to open our borders to trade, immigration and refugees from these war ravaged areas that are suffering (from what is in our Western perception) tyrany and oppression, then we open ourselves to the importation of the value system of those that we allow in.If you think your own argument to its natural conclusion, you would have to wall Canada from the rest of the world, neither influencing other regimes or allowing change to our own from external pressures. That, indeed would be the ultimate or ultraconservative stance. Surprizing from someone who, up to now, has considered themselves to be “progressive”.You may want to consider reading Richard Bernstien’s views on multi-culturalism and the language of progressive politics pertaining to importing influence.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    I’m not sure I follow the ‘fortress Canada’ argument, but at any rate I address it in my more recent March 31 post.

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