The Real Afghanistan

For the first time in two generations, Canada is at war. The 2500-odd pairs of Canadian boots pounding the dust in Afghanistan aren’t there to separate old enemies or protect a fragile peace. Canada is in Afghanistan to fight a long, dirty, and brutal counterinsurgency campaign against a diverse group of factions, men only united under the label of “Taliban” when they are too dead to argue the point.

Canada is at war, but what do we know of it on the home front? Mainstream war coverage is so jingoistic as to verge on the pornographic. The “support our troops” bumper stickers have started to appear – a statement that, without a question mark attached, offends every democratic tradition our nation stands for. Should we support our troops? This isn’t a matter of patriotism, rhetoric, or tradition. This is a judgment between two competing stories of life on the ground, half a planet away.

The first story is one familiar to anyone reading the papers. Canadian troops as heroic defenders of the embattled democratic Afghanistan, risking their lives to protect the freedoms of innocent Afghanis against the foul Taliban. Attached to this story are countless photos of heavily armored Canadian troops ambling through villages, passing out sweets and sitting cross-legged with tribal elders. The Afghan state being defended is an oasis of empowered women, enlightened human rights, religious toleration, and resistance to the dominance of the drug trade. Our soldiers have taken up the role of “armed social workers”, jacks-of-all-trades equally comfortable hunting down Taliban and digging wells. There is a bellicose element to this story, too – Canadian soldiers as avengers of the dead of September 11th, as stalwart allies of our American brothers, as a small nation punching above its Lose Weight Exercise on the world stage.

It is this first story that tingles the testicles of flabby Canadian parliamentarians. It is this story that is fed to the soldiers packed into planes and sent off to patrol the poppy fields. This is not, though, the story written on the bullets we put into Afghani brains or on the shrapnel shredding Canadian limbs. That is the tragedy of this war: that our troops are dying and killing for a lie.

The real picture of the Afghan War is far more sobering. It has much more in common with the dirty war in Colombia than with the beaches of Normandy. Canada is indeed shouldering more than it’s share of the burden – but that burden is a war fought at the behest of American expediency, not human rights. Canada has sold it’s soul for a bit of international prestige with which to puff up our collective chests.

The first face of the real war in Afghanistan is the government we are defending. Canadian soldiers, firstly, are based in Kandahar. Like all of Afghanistan outside of the capital of Kabul, the central government has almost no meaning here. The governor, Asidullah Khalid, is a man chosen by his friendliness to American leaders; without the ISAF to hold the province, he would be unlikely to live another week. Optimists would note, of course, that a democratically elected government appointed him. Ascribing too much worth to the democratic credentials of the Kabul regime, though, is dangerous. As Human Rights Watch notes, “the turnout was only 36% of registered voters”. More to the point, the same report makes the point that many of the winners of the election are warlords who have been implicated in gross human-rights abuses, and at least one is a Taliban governor who “arranged” his own election at gunpoint. This is the government for which we fight. The American invasion exchanged a bunch of violent religious fanatics for a group of equally violent warlords who find the democratic process a convenient way of consolidating their power. Progress.

On the other side of who we are fighting for, of course, is who we are fighting against – and how we fight them. The term “Taliban” is far too vague a label to have any real meaning. There certainly large numbers of resistance fighters associated with the formal Taliban regime, but there are also myriad other groups involved. Fundamentalist Afghans unassociated with the Taliban, Pashtun tribesmen, smugglers and criminals, international Jihadis.

More ominously, though, there are growing numbers of fighters recruited as a direct result of our tactics. Afghanistan, more than any other nation on Earth, is a narco-state. 50% of Afghan GDP comes from opium poppies. This is no fault of the Afghanis – poppies are the only thing between them and starvation. It’s no wonder, though, that when our troops destroy their crops, they are driven into the arms of the resistance. As with any other war zone, creating reams of unemployed, angry young men is a recipe for disaster. This policy is largely an American one, but let us not deceive ourselves into thinking that one white man with a gun is easily distinguished from another. The Afghans certainly have no reason to; Canadian troops are just as brutal as the Americans, and we have a regular practice of tossing our prisoners into the black hole of Guantanamo.

This is how we fight. Why we fight is another question. If human rights were really an overriding concern, there would be Canadian boots down in Darfur, not to mention a dozen other vicious conflicts. Nor are we in Afghanistan for our own security; indeed, by throwing in our lot with the Americans, we have made Canada a real target for the first time. The only plausible reason here are much more cynical: our desire, as a nation, to curry favor with the Americans by fighting wars against nouns – “terror” and “drugs”.

This is Afghanistan. This is the war that Canada refuses to look in the eye. As long as we persist in maintaining our sickly idealistic view of the conflict, we dishonor both the men and women who fight, and the men and women whom they kill. Democracy, freedom, and prosperity cannot be given to the Afghan people by force. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we stop this madness.