The newly-elected Prime Minister of Canada has committed his Conservative Party government to a long-term military adventure in Afghanistan. So as to make the commitment crystal clear, Stephen Harper made the new, forward Canadian military base in Kandahar his first foreign foray. He made a highly publicized visit on March 12-13.
In a speech to soldiers and assembled journalists, Harper declared, â€œWe recognizeâ€”the international community recognizesâ€”that this is a long-term project. And weâ€™re here for the long term.â€
The Conservatives are following the trail blazed by their Liberal Party predecessor. Canada joined the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2002. Late last year, it made a significant increase in that commitment when it accepted to head up a â€provincial reconstruction teamâ€ (PRT) in Kandahar and neighbouring provinces in the south of the country.
â€œPRTâ€™sâ€ are the forward offensive units of the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) occupation forces in Afghanistan. Troops from the U.S., Germany, Britain, Italy, and more recently Canada and the Netherlands, have divided the country into operational zones. Comprising more than 2,000 combat troops, the Canadian military force arrived in Kandahar in February and immediately began offensive military operations.
Canadaâ€™s corporate media, most already strongly supportive of the U.S. war in Iraq, quickly fell into step with the Afghanistan adventure. Television screens and print news publications have been filled with reports from embedded journalists, cheering on the Canadian mission. For one week in early April, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporationâ€™s based its main nightly television news broadcast at the Kandahar air base.
War, not peacekeeping
The Canadian mission to Afghanistan is the first foreign mission in a half-century in which the declared aim is warmaking, not â€œpeacekeepingâ€. Brigadier-General David Fraser described it as follows on February 15, â€œWeâ€™ll be training the Afghan national security forces â€¦ so when they want to go out and do operations against that minority thatâ€™s trying to destabilize the good people here, weâ€™ll be out there to support them. And if that means hunting, weâ€™ll be out there hunting.â€
A Canadian commander, Lt.-Col. Tom Doucet, told journalists in Kandahar on March 12 that while the eventual goal of the â€œPRTâ€ is to rebuild schools, roads and infrastructure, the key issue now is security. â€œOnce we get rid of the bad people,â€ he said, â€œwe can carry on with full force in terms of the reconstruction and development.â€
The â€œbad people,â€ or as the head of Canadaâ€™s armed forces put it last summer, â€œthe murderers and scumbags,â€ are those people in Afghanistan who resist for whatever reasons a foreign occupation of their country or who protest the refusal of foreigners to help solve crying social and economic needs.
The new warmaking strategy ties the projects of non-governmental organizations and other â€œcivil societyâ€ groups directly to the military effort. An article in the March 2006 issue of Walrus magazine explained:
â€œOne unique aspect of the new strategy is the way that development and humanitarian aid are being used specifically for the purpose of building loyalty toward coalition forces and democratic reforms. The American, British, and Canadian governments all have representatives from their international development and relief agencies stationed in Afghanistan; the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) alone plans to spend $616 million there by 2009….
â€œThe strategic use of aid [sic] may offend some, but this approach is gaining credibility and has been adopted by CIDA and Foreign Affairs.â€
Such abuse of foreign aid has prompted some highly reputable aid organizations to leave Afghanistan. Doctors Without Borders pulled out in 2004 after a 26-year presence delivering vital medical services to the civilian population. Marie-Madeleine Leplomb of the groupâ€™s Paris office told Radio Free Europe, â€œGiven the multiplication of actors, how can the [Afghan] community recognize who is a humanitarian worker and who is doing intelligence? We are not credible anymore.â€
Government, media rally prowar sentiment
The Kandahar mission received a rude shock from public opinion polls in February and March. In one, a Globe and Mail/CTV poll published on February 24, 62 percent of respondents said they were opposed to sending troops to Afghanistan, while 43 percent said they opposed Canadian participation in â€œthe war on terrorism.â€ In response, an intense government and media campaign in support of the war in Afghanistan went into high gear.
Poll numbers may improve for the government as its pro-war propaganda campaign progresses, but they reflect a major problem for the Canadian intervention. Large sections of the Canadian population are deeply skeptical of the warâ€™s stated aims, if not outright hostile. Demonstrations across Canada on March 18, the day of international opposition to the war in Iraq, drew attention to this. Opposition to the war in Afghanistan was a prominent theme. More than 3,000 people marched in each of Vancouver and Toronto, more than 2,000 in Montreal, and some 750 in Ottawa.
Like the U.S.-led war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan is being waged in the name of helping the people of that country to build a new and progressive society. â€œThe international community is determined to create a democratic, prosperous, modern country that can be a model in this part of the worldâ€, Stephen Harper stated in Kandahar on March 13.
But Canada is there in order to earn its share of the oil, mineral and other resource wealth in the region and to earn its place in the new imperialist world order that its allies in the U.S. and U.K. are determined to create. To cite one example, Canadaâ€™s long-serving and former prime minister Jean ChrÃ©tien is today a legal representative for several Canadian oil and gas companies seeking production and pipeline investments in central Asia. These projects require a â€œstableâ€ Afghanistan so that pipeline projects can go ahead.
Common economic interests are drawing Canada closer to U.S. political and military strategy throughout the Middle East and the world. Canada sat out the 2003 Iraq war. But since then, it has undertaken significant political and military moves to back the U.S./U.K. policy in Iraq and the region. These include establishing a military base in Dubai, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, and joining in the international gang-up on the government and people of Iran.
Canada played a lead role in the overthrow of the elected government of Haiti in 2004, a government that Canada and the U.S. deemed to be a threat to their extensive interests in the Caribbean.
The new, Canada-backed imperialist world order has no place for the provision of basic human rights and social services to peoples. Thus, in Iraq today, there is still no reliable supply of electricity, clean water, health care, and economic development to the people of that country, three years after the U.S. and U.K. â€œliberatedâ€ it. Prisons are overflowing, and torture is routinely practiced.
Similarly in Afghanistan and Haiti, the provision of meaningful services to the populations are little more than an afterthought to the Canadian effort. Accusations of brutalizing Afghan civilians have already been levied against Canadian soldiers. The family of Nasrat Ali Hassan, a rickshaw driver in Kandahar, condemned the Canadian military after a Canadian soldier opened fire without warning and killed him on March 14. In Haiti over the past two years, Canada has trained a new police force that stands accused of massive human rights violations.
Prison conditions in Afghanistan are reportedly worse than the horrors that have come to light in Iraq. This poses a delicate dilemma for the Canadian occupiers. On December 18, chief of Canadaâ€™s armed forces Richard Hillier signed an agreement that has Canadian soldiers turning people it has imprisoned over to the Afghan government military authorities.
â€œHillier is placing rank-and-file Canadian troops, unwittingly, in the position of very likely being accessories to torture and, therefore, war criminals under international and Canadian law,â€ commented Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa.
Even the Afghan police and army get rough treatment from their erstwhile foreign allies. They are poorly armed and trained, and suffer very high casualties. Six Afghan police were killed on April 17, apparent victims of â€œfriendly fireâ€ from Canadian soldiers and U.S. helicopter gunners.
Sham â€œdebateâ€ in Canadian Parliament
None of the four political parties in Canadaâ€™s Parliament oppose the Afghan adventure. The New Democratic Party voiced the unease of the Canadian population when it called for a debate in the parliament. The government convened a â€œtake noticeâ€ discussion in Parliament on April 10 where no vote would be taken. Most members of Parliament did not bother to show up, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe.
New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Peggy Nash said in the discussion, â€œI question whether the war on terrorism, as originally designed south of the border, was really a struggle for womenâ€™s rights and the dignity of Afghan women. I did not hear that in the public debates at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, but it is still a worthy goal.â€
The NDPâ€™s unease concerns only the way Canadaâ€™s war effort is organized, not the war itself. Nash went on, â€œCould the government please tell us when our military will finally leave this U.S.-led operation and instead become part of a NATO-led mission with which we could all feel more comfortable?â€
(Command of the â€œPRTâ€ in southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar, is scheduled to shift from U.S. to NATO this summer.)
Several NDP MPâ€™s joined an antiwar rally outside the Parliament while the â€œdebateâ€ took place. They did not voice their views inside.
The more aggressive military posturing by Canada will cost lots more money, and all parties in Parliament voted last June to significantly boost military spending in the coming years. Military spending in 2005 was $13.4 billion. The new Conservative government is talking of boosting that to $17 billion annually. It has specifically cited the need for new naval craft and aircraft to boost Canadaâ€™s capacity to intervene abroad.
The war is ours to stop
Sixteen Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan since 2002, and the pace of casualties is rising. Four soldiers died on April 22 when a convoy of Canadian vehicles was struck by a roadside bomb. It was the largest loss of life by the Canadian military in combat since the war in Korea. The government responded by following the example of its warmaking ally south of the border and banning all future media reporting from military bases when the bodies of dead soldiers are returned.
The refusal and inability of occupation forces to tackle the staggering social and economic problems in Afghanistan will fuel opposition to their presence. So, too will the occupiersâ€™ backing of the reactionary and anti-popular governing authority in Kabul.
As the Canadian mission fails in its stated aim of â€œwinning the hearts and mindsâ€ of the Afghan people, it will bring more suffering to the Afghan people. The occupiers will resort to the same brutal methods of rule that the U.S. and Britain have already made infamous in Iraq.
Canadaâ€™s rulers are deeply committed to their war alliance with the U.S. and its disastrous plans for military conquest of the Middle East. With meaningful debate closed off in Parliament and the media, Canadians must increasingly take to the streets in order to voice our opposition.
For news on the Afghanistan conflict and actions demanding Canadaâ€™s withdrawal, contact the Canadian Peace Alliance, www.acp-cpa.ca.