Canada, the United States and Afghanistan

“After watching Pte. Josh Klukie die, the members of 4 Platoon, Bravo Company, vow to finish their ugly little war.” Globe and Mail, October 2, 2006

Why are Canadian armed forces fighting a war in Afghanistan? The official position of the Canadian government is that we are there to prevent the relapse of that country into a “failed state” where the Taliban regains political control. Canadian forces support the democratically elected government headed by Hamid Karzai, which includes training the new national armed forces and police. We are helping to extend the central government’s control over the large areas of the country which have traditionally been controlled by local ethnic groups, their militias, and their “warlords.”

While the preponderance of Canada’s spending has gone to support our military forces in Afghanistan, our Liberal and Conservative governments have emphasized that we are also there to implement humanitarian assistance programs. This view is strongly supported by the mass media and Canada’s “embedded” reporters in Afghanistan.

How quickly Canadians conveniently forget the origins of this war. Following the disaster of 9/11 in New York and Washington, Art Eggleton, the Minister of National Defence, immediately announced that Canadian forces operating within U.S. military units would participate in any U.S. operations in Afghanistan designed to eliminate the al Qaeda organization and even to replace the Taliban regime which protected them.

President George W. Bush took his case to NATO, which on October 2 gave its full support to a US/UK military attack on Afghanistan. Enough evidence was presented to convince the European governments that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were behind the 9/11 attack. For the first time NATO invoked Article 5, the joint defence clause, that holds that an attack upon one member is an attack against all. The Chretien government strongly supported this decision. Tony Blair spoke to a convention of the Labour Party, describing and promoting the forthcoming attack on Afghanistan. President Bush declared that no negotiations were being made and rejected offers by the Taliban government to close al Qaeda bases and extradite bin Laden for trial in a third country or an international court.

The UN General Assembly condemned the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and called for “international co-operation to bring justice to the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the outrages.” Back in 1991 UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar set forth basic principles for solving the political conflict in Afghanistan:

(1) The necessity of preserving the sovereignty, territorial integrity, political independence and non-aligned and Islamic character of Afghanistan;

(2) The recognition of the right of the Afghan people to determine their own form of government and to choose their economic, political and social system, free from outside intervention, subversion, coercion or constraint of any kind whatsoever.

Yet on October 7, 2001 the United States and British forces unilaterally launched a massive bombing attack on Afghanistan. In the ground war that followed they supported the warlords of the Northern Alliance in their efforts to overthrow the Taliban government.

On that very day Prime Minister Jean Chretien announced that Canada would contribute a military force to support the US/UK “war on terrorism,” and Operation Apollo was formed. The next day the government sent Canadian ships to join the US fleet in the Persian Gulf. On October 14 Chretien announced that Canada was offering “unqualified support” for the US war effort in Afghanistan.

With strong air support from the United States and Great Britain, the Northern Alliance was able to defeat the Taliban government in a short time. On November 12 the Taliban forces fled Kabul. On November 25 Konduz surrendered. In early December Kandahar fell. At a five day meeting in Bonn, organized by the US government under the cover of the United Nations, various Afghan ethnic and political representatives gathered to form an interim government. On December 5, 2001 this government was recognized by the UN Security Council. It was headed by Hamid Karzai, the candidate supported by the U.S. government. Karzai had worked closely with the CIA channeling arms and cash to the Islamic mujahideen war against the Soviet Union.

There have been two military operations in Afghanistan. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), which launched the war, is completely controlled by the United States with some military support from a few European countries. This force, designed to overthrow the Taliban government, regularly engages in counter-insurgency warfare against the various resistance forces.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was established by a UN Security Council resolution on December 20, 2001, following the defeat of the Taliban and the installation of the new interim Afghan government. This was done under Chapter VII of the Charter, an enforcement mandate. It is not a peacekeeping force. It is not a force in any way under UN authority. All financing comes from the participating governments and none from the United Nations. At the beginning it was under the leadership of the British government. During the first Gulf War the United States was able to use its political pressure and economic power to obtain a similar resolution from the UN Security Council.

For the first two years, the ISAF force was confined to Kabul. This allowed US forces to operate throughout the country with very little outside observation.

By mid-November 2001 the Chretien government committed 2,000 Canadian troops to Afghanistan as part of the ISAF forces. By December 20 there were members of the Joint Task Force 2 special forces operating near Kandahar as part of the U.S. military operation. Under Operation Apollo Canadian forces were deployed to Kandahar in February 2002 to defend the airport and engage in combat activities with insurgent forces.

The armed resistance to the US-led occupation began to expand over the summer of 2003. NATO formally took over the command of the ISAF in August 2003. The largest contingent of Canadian forces served in Kabul between October 2003 and November 2005. As part of the ISAF command, they were to provide security and support for the new Afghan government.

The bulk of the Canadian forces in Afghanistan were then shifted to Kandahar where they were part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, working with forces from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, in military actions against insurgents. In July 2006 these Canadian forces came under ISAF authority. In September the US government agreed that all of their ground forces in the eastern region of Afghanistan would be put under the direction of NATO and the ISAF Command. However, the US government also announced that both US forces (OEF) and NATO forces in Afghanistan will be jointly under the command of US General Dan McNeil.

There is little distinction between operating in Afghanistan directly under the US government through OEF or through the NATO-led ISAF. Canadian forces have operated within both command systems. Furthermore, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams have all been closely integrated with the military commands, both OEF and ISAF. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan has also been closely linked to the two military commands.

InterAction, a coalition of around 160 independent aid organizations, has protested that the links between their organizations and the military organizations have undermined their efforts and made them vulnerable to violent attacks.

According to our political leaders, generals and the mass media everything is going well in Afghanistan. The government is getting stronger and the insurgency is on its last legs. But reports from Europe are quite different.

The central government under Hamid Karzai is seen as corrupt and incompetent. There is growing criticism of the destruction and civilian casualties caused by NATO military actions. The insurgency is reported to be growing stronger. The Northern Alliance appears to be as ruthless as ever.

Sharia law has been re-introduced, forms the core of the new Constitution, and women are still very oppressed. The international aid programs are failing, criticized for being too closely integrated into the US and NATO military system. There is a serious hunger situation. Unemployment is rampant. The only part of the economy that is doing well is the production of poppies for heroin. There is still no sight of Osama bin Laden, and on a world wide basis, terrorist attacks are on the increase. The Senlis Council now reports that the revived Taliban and its supporters control around one half of the country.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been to Canada several times. On each occasion she has praised Canada for supporting US policy in Afghanistan and Haiti. This is seen as offsetting the decision of the Chretien government not to send armed forces to the Iraq war.

NATO was formed in 1948 as a military alliance to defend Europe against a possible invasion from the USSR. Of course that reason for existence is obsolete. As the Bush Administration proclaimed in its famous National Security Paper in September 2002, the United States is determined to continue as the world’s only superpower. It will oppose the attempt of any other countries, friends or foes, to challenge US domination. NATO, under US control, serves as a major obstacle to the development of Europe as a power bloc separate from the United States.

The Afghan war also demonstrates that the present role of NATO is to support the general policy goals of the US government. By assuming military tasks in Afghanistan, NATO countries allow the United States to transfer more of its own armed forces to the war in Iraq.

The U.S. government has another objective being played out in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration is setting a precedent where it can use NATO to support its “war on terrorism” and bypass the UN Security Council. Our Canadian Liberal and Conservative governments have agreed with this basic political strategy.

There is an alternate course of action for the Canadian government. This would mean a return to our traditional role of peacekeeping and humanitarian aid:

(1) Withdraw all military forces from Afghanistan and withdraw from all projects being sponsored by the U.S. government and NATO.

(2) Work within the UN General Assembly to develop a new project for Afghanistan which would emphasize emergency food aid, a significant program to help Afghan farmers to produce food for their own people, and health care. This would be completely separate from any US or NATO project.

(3) The application of this revised UN program would exclude the participation of all countries involved in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

(4) Any security forces needed to protect this UN operation would be drawn, if possible, from Muslim countries and would be financially supported by peacekeeping countries like Canada.

John W. Warnock recently retired from teaching political economy and sociology at the University of Regina.

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