Why Are We in Afghanistan?

There are probably still a few people among the hardcore supporters of Canada’s war in Afghanistan who believe we’re there to restore peace, create democracy, and help women go to school. Yet among opponents, whose numbers are growing, the most common analysis is that we’re there to please the U.S. and to atone for the fact that Canada did not send troops to Iraq – complaints often rooted in a lament for a romanticized Canada, the "honest broker," the "peacekeeping" nation.

Whatever our reasons for invading Afghanistan in the first place, our reasons for still being there have little to do with simply pleasing the United States and everything to do with the usually causes of war: self-interest and profit. And all Canadians are complicit whether they know it or not. Yes, there is a small group of Canadian companies getting rich off this war. But as the profits of these companies are feeding our pension funds and creating Canadian jobs, those of us in Canada who oppose this war cannot be under any illusion that our opposition is rooted in the simple struggle between private interest and the public good. To be against this war, we must not only accept the way in which we currently benefit from it, but we must be prepared to accept the consequences of ending it. Because the reality is that it cannot be ended without cost. Ultimately, beyond merely withdrawing from this war, we must meet the deeper challenge of untangling the dependency of our public sphere on the private profit of war profiteering.

Though negligible in terms of its military power, Canada profits from war in many ways. To start, we have the dubious honour of being the sixth largest supplier of military goods in the world. Between 1997 and 2002, Canada’s military exports rose from $23 million to $678 million. Since then, according to a recent CBC investigation (1), Canada’s military exports have tripled. Though under the Export and Import Permits Act, the government is supposed to report its military exports to parliament, for the past four years – that’s three successive governments, two Liberal and one Conservative – that has not happened. Keeping this information from the public is a trend that cuts across party lines.

So who is benefiting? One company now being targeted by anti-war activists in Canada (2) is SNC-Lavalin, one of Canada’s largest publicly traded companies and one of its largest arms manufacturers. SNC-Lavalin is a major supplier of bullets to both the Canadian and American militaries. Montreal-based CAE makes flight simulators, and in August they won $60 million in military contracts for U.S., German, British, and Canadian aircrafts (3). Last year, DRS Technologies Canada and L-3 Spar Aerospace Ltd. sold a combined $87 million in military gear to the Netherlands and Norway respectively – two countries with NATO troops in Afghanistan. General Dynamics of Canada, meanwhile, has supported the occupation of Iraq with a staggering $658 million in sales of military goods to the U.S. military in 2006. And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg. (4)

Canada does not have a military-industrial complex like the United States, though there are parallels. Certainly, like the U.S., Canada is seeing its defense industry take an increasingly central role in its domestic economy, with many jobs and related industries directly or indirectly dependent upon the sale of military goods. In the U.S., there is barely a single congressional district in which thousands of jobs do not depend upon the sale of arms and other supporting industries of war. Canada is not yet there, and unlike the U.S., it does not possess the world’s largest army upon whose imperial pursuits the arms industry depends for its lifeblood.

Since most sales of military goods do not go to the Canadian army, one might well ask why Canada would bother with the expense of keeping 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. The answer is that Canada has become a lynchpin in a mission that fuels a market for international arms sales. If Canada were to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan without securing replacements, the entire mission would risk collapse, bringing down with it the market for Canada’s military exports.

That’s not something any government of Canada is going to risk. The Canadian human rights group the Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT) reports that the Canada Pension Plan has invested over $2.55 billion in military and related industries both in Canada and abroad. This makes every Canadian, knowingly or unknowingly, a war profiteer. In 2005, Seven Oaks Magazine reported, "The [British Columbia] government controls the BC Investment Management Corporation, which in turn controls $63 billion in pension fund investments for the Municipal Pension Plan, the College Pension Plan, the Public Service Pension Plan and the Teachers Pension Plan. As of March 31, 2004, these investments included $4.6 billion worth of stock in 251 corporations producing war materiel and/or contracting to provide goods or services to the Pentagon." (5)

As a teacher who has tried unsuccessfully to get my union to adopt a policy of opposing to the presence of military recruiters in schools, I find the inclusion of the B.C. Teachers Pension Fund particularly troubling in this list of war profiteers. Institutionally, of course, teachers have always served the interests of state power – and in Ontario, where I teach, under the Education Act we are, in effect, owned by the state, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Yet I find it particularly dangerous when the state guardians of children in loco parentis have a vested interest in their charges becoming part of a war machine that lines their pension funds. This is very problematic.

For those who are troubled by the increasing militarization of Canadian society, ending Canada’s occupation of Afghanistan is only the beginning of the story. Yes, as the war grows more unpopular, Canada will likely withdraw its troops from active combat, and it may happen sooner than we think, though it will probably be the success of the Taliban’s roadside bombs, not public opinion, that will bring an end to Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. Yet unless we can unravel the increasing interdependency between military exporters and the public sphere in this country, we will have achieved only a temporary respite from the many more Afghanistans that will certainly follow.

Jason Kunin is a teacher in Toronto. He can be reached at jkunin@rogers.com.


1.http://www.cbc.ca/news/yourview/2007/10/canadas_military_exports_soar.html. 2. See No One is Illegal campaign, http://users.resist.ca/noii-van.resist.ca/snc.html.
   3. http://www.cbc.ca/money/story/2007/08/07/cae-contracts.html. 4. Project Ploughshares, an ecumenical agency of the Canadian Council of Churches, publishes an excellent annual audit of arms sales in Canada, which it has posted at http://www.ploughshares.ca/libraries/monitor/mons07i.pdf.


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