The current issue of This Magazine (March/April 2007) features a four-page article by Vancouver-based journalist Jared Ferrie, entitled "Staying the course: why Canada can’t pull its troops out of Afghanistan."
While the author does indeed attempt to rebut the calls for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, the title is something of a misnomer. Ferrie allots some space to criticism of the Harper government as well as advocating for a slightly modified version of Liberal party leader Stephane Dion’s policy on Afghanistan. In what follows, we’ll look briefly at his views on the government and the official opposition, then look at Ferrie’s assertion that about half the Canadian population supports "a policy that could result in the suffering of millions of Afghans."
Harper, Dion and Drugs
Ferrie’s main objection to the Harper government’s current Afghanistan policy centres on the government’s poor public relations efforts. Here, he echoes the concerns of many opinion leaders who feel that the Canadian public’s lack of enthusiasm for the Afghan mission is a result of the Tories’ ham-fisted approach to selling the war to the public. For Ferrie, this is best illustrated by Defense minister O’Connor’s refusal to acknowledge the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan and by the pig-headed attitude of the Conservative caucus toward expert testimony given by Senlis Council president Norine MacDonald.
According to Senlis, a leading drug policy think tank, the international community ought to establish a legal opium industry in Afghanistan, aimed at supplying badly needed narcotics to the world market. While Ferrie echoes Senlis’ arguments in support of this policy, he offers no insight as to how this policy change might be accomplished. For the hard fact is that with American leadership of the Afghan mission, the chances of such an enlightened drug policy actually materialising are extremely thin. Ferrie lets his readers down when he fails to explore the consequences of this aspect of "staying the course".
In a similar leap of logic, Ferrie goes on to champion the approach of Liberal leader Stephane Dion. Dion’s advocacy of a new Marshall Plan for Afghanistan is so attractive that Ferrie urges anti-war activists to forget their "troops out" position and jump aboard the Liberal bandwagon and demand that larger sums of money be spent on Afghanistan‘s reconstruction and aid programs.
While the sentiment regarding more foreign aid is no doubt a laudable one, Ferrie side-steps any discussion of the feasibility of such a program, as reconstruction and aid programs in Afghanistan face tremendous obstacles. Aside from the widely discussed lack of NGO-guided humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, Western efforts toward stimulating recovery in Afghanistan are held back by widespread corruption. According to the Sunday Telegraph "Defence officials in the United States and Britain estimate that up to half of all aid in Afghanistan is failing to reach the right people." Culprits include corrupt government officials, police and religious figures, according to the article (Jan 28/07). Other reports indicate that nearly all reconstruction funds are spent on projects in or near urban areas. Considering that Afghanistan‘s population is overwhelmingly rural, this poses a daunting problem inherent in wishful thinking like Ferrie’s.
Peaceniks under fire
It is perhaps unfair to overly scrutinize Ferrie’s views concerning the two main political parties, as his treatment of their positions and actions is rather glib. Most of his ire is reserved for those calling for Canadian troops to be withdrawn from Afghanistan. In doing so, Ferrie makes credulous use of the pronouncements of Karzai government officials, mixed in with some poor use of evidence, unsupported argument, and numerous uses of innuendo in an attempt to discredit those with whom he disagrees. It is beyond the scope of this essay to pursue Ferrie’s use of distortion and innuendo, though readers are encouraged to write to the editors of This Magazine to pursue the matter with them.
Ferrie’s indictment of the left rests substantially on several facts drawn from two opinion polls. But closer examination of these polls indicates that Ferrie is at best rather slovenly in his fact-checking. In citing a poll undertaken for CanWest Media by Innovative Research Group, which found that 58% of Canadians support our mission in Afghanistan, Ferrie fails to mention that the poll in question is an online poll. Surely, the well-known biases inherent in such self-selecting polls render them virtually useless save for ideologues.
In citing the online poll, Ferrie is able to dodge any mention of better-designed polls such as one released in October by Strategic Counsel which found that "62 per cent of Canadians and 70 per cent of Quebecers want a negotiated settlement with the Taliban" (Toronto Star, Oct 20/06). The same poll had 54% of respondents supporting a withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan (Globe & Mail, Oct 19/06). Other polls have returned similar results.
Ferrie makes an even more telling gaffe when he draws on a face-to-face poll by World Public Opinion conducted throughout Afghanistan in November 2006. He cites the poll data several times to establish the Afghan public’s support for the Karzai government and for the general direction of government policy. If Ferrie had closely read the report which he cites, he would have discovered a glaring fact which seriously undermines his argument. The poll finds that 43% of the residents of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where Canadian combat troops have been active, feel that the toppling of the Taliban government was a "bad thing". Further, this figure has jumped since the year previous, when just 13% of Afghans in the southern region felt that way. It was during that year that Canada took over military duties from US forces in the area and we began our engagement in Kandahar. Thus after a year of Canadian presence, many of the people whom we are supposedly there to help are beginning to resent our presence. Ignoring this dynamic is almost certain to lead to avoidable tragedy.
The seriousness of our failure is highlighted by the fact that the same poll indicates that the Taliban is despised in southern Afghanistan, as it is throughout the country. This seeming paradox where people regret the overthrow of the hated Taliban regime is perhaps resolved by the observation in the Afghan press that Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission "stated they had registered over 600 civilian casualties in the operations carried out by foreign forces in the yesteryear" (Pajhwok Afghan News, Jan 7/07).
When he isn’t uncritically repeating statements by Afghan government officials, Ferrie does make brief mention of serious accusations against the Karzai government, "notably by the courageous female MP Malalai Joya." Yet the next sentence relates how "the current Afghan government’s human rights record is light years ahead of any in the past three decades." It is understandable why Ferrie avoids citing any of Joya’s statements regarding the government of her country as she is unequivocal in her assessment that there has been "no fundamental change in the plight of Afghan people" since the toppling of the Taliban regime (Sydney Morning Herald, Mar 8/07). This should come as no surprise in light of comments by Barnett Rubin, the leading American authority on Afghanistan. According to Rubin, the goal of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan "was not to set up a better regime for the Afghan people, but to recruit and strengthen warlords in its fight against al-Qaida" (Rubin, Council on Foreign Relations, April 2006).
Joya is far from the only one wielding harsh criticisms of the Karzai government. The US State Department’s Afghanistan Country Report on Human Rights (2005) found "Afghanistan‘s human rights record remained poor", citing "extrajudicial killings and torture" by government forces and warlords. The UN Development Fund for Women similarly notes that "Afghan women continue to be among the worst-off in the world, especially in measures of health, poverty, deprivation of rights and protection against violence" (UNIFEM, Aug 14/06). And Amnesty International reports that "Violence against women and girls in Afghanistan is pervasive", while noting "reported increases in forced marriages" (AI, May 30/05).
While Ferrie’s evident biases allow him to overlook these problems, other Canadian journalists have been decidedly less glowing in their assessments of the Karzai government. Canadian Press correspondent Les Perrault reported last year that "Afghan authorities supported by the U.S.-led coalition, including Canada, are still jailing teenagers convicted of homosexuality and women accused of adultery, eloping or running away from their husbands" (CP, Feb 26/06).
Return of the Taliban
Ferrie makes much of assertions that any significant pull-out of NATO forces would swiftly usher in a return of Taliban rule. Yet he seems remarkably unaware of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, as related by numerous journalists reporting from inside the country. There is copious evidence that in fact the Taliban are currently in control of large swaths of Afghan territory. The implications of this fact, along with the continued presence of the NATO war machine, are of course lost on Ferrie.
Writing from Afghanistan for the Toronto Star, reporter Chris Sands related last spring that "Afghanistan‘s insurgents are gaining territory. Their power base has spread from Kandahar and Helmand provinces – where British and Canadian troops are fighting to suppress them – to encompass most rural areas south of Kabul" (Jun 2/06). Similarly, Christian Parenti reports from on the ground that "Half of Afghanistan is under effective insurgent control" (Truthdig, Nov 28/06).
Only by ignoring the ugly realities in Afghanistan can war supporters such as Ferrie accuse others of not addressing important questions about the war. Yet the evidence indicates that we are pursuing a war doomed to fail and thus adding untold misery to a country that knows far too much suffering.