War Reconstruction Lecture Series: A Starting Point

Last Friday, Wilfrid Laurier University held a speaker series with numerous prominent specialists on a given topic. A topic that the media has been quotidianly riddled within the last few years: Iraq and Afghanistan. Accordingly, the lectures purported to question the effectiveness, reasoning, and possible consequences of Canada’s role in reconstructing these war-torn societies. Arguing that the media strictly reports on militaristic actions and war fatalities, the series sought to bring the socio-cultural and psychological impact on these societies to the light.

The series, verbosely entitled, “State and Nation Building in the Twenty-first Century: Problems and Prospects for Canadian Involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan” conjured many imperative notions and sound research, yet overall missed the mark on any substantially conclusive proposals.

Presented in two separate panels, each roughly two hours long, the lectures attempted to unearth plausible notions for reconstruction in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The opening panel, “Afghanistan,” was spearheaded by three specialized academics: Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims of Saint Paul University, Jean Daudelin of Carleton University, and Geoffrey Hayes of the University of Waterloo lectured respectively.

Cheshmak Farhoumand-Sims, a peace researcher, presented her adamant views on the importance of women as an integral part of any given society. With special emphasis on the relationship between the protection of women’s rights and peace building in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan, which she visited in 2003, Farhoumand-Sims’ lecture was steeped in research and pertinent facts. She often alluded to data such as Afghanistan being the fourth poorest country in the world and that 80% of Afghan women are illiterate. On the whole, Farhoumand-Sims’ arguments as to the reconstruction of Afghanistan are nicely summed up in her assertion that, “There can never be peace in Afghanistan, until men and women are equal.” While a strong claim, it is difficult to eloquently support as the first step in the reconstruction of a dilapidated country.

Following Farhoumand-Sims’ lecture, Jean Daudelin presented his paper, “Dangerously Ambitious?” He begen his lecture with a disclaimer that he does not speak Pashtu or Dari (Afghanistan’s two official languages) the country; therefore noting that his knowledge simply comes from his research. Sticking to the topic at hand, state building, Daudelin made numerous contentious claims throughout his lecture. For instance, according to Daudelin, state building is like organized crime as “States are not built by nice people” but by warlords. Furthermore, Daudelin argued that opium cultivation is “fantastic for peasant farmers,” believing that this should be supportshould be supported, not fought against. Daudelin’s central argument, quite provocative in relation to his colleagues’, was that, “it doesn’t make sense to build [a strong Afghan state], because there aren’t resources to sustain it.” Daudelin continued that the Afghan State will collapse when troops pull out because Afghanistan is unsustainable. Possibly a cynical viewpoint, yet feasible nonetheless.

Geoffrey Hayes, co-editor of Afghanistan: Transition under Threat, provided a thorough look to the past in following Canadian foreign policy in Afghanistan. Seeing that Canada has changed its role at least three times in Afghanistan since 2001, and arguing that of late, especially in the summer and fall of 2006, that the Canadian military has been amazingly successful. Other than giving a systematic account of recent research, Hayes lacked any bold claims towards Canada’s reconstructive role in Afghanistan, but merely noted that, “you need boots on the ground to get some of these things done.” Hayes believes that in the short run, Canada will still be involved in Afghanistan, missing a sufficient standpoint in how reconstruction should be handled.

The second panel, titled “Iraq,” was headed by two foreign affairs pundits: Tareq Ismail of the University of Calgary and Sarah Meharg of Pearson Peacekeeping Centre and the Royal Military College of Canada.

Ismail, a native of Iraq, began his lecture outlining several myths about his home country. Arguing that Iraq is a historical and geographical state, dealing with more religious and cultural divides than just Shiites and Sunni, and that we have forgotten that America brought Saddam Hussein to power, Ismail made his indignation towards Hussein quite apparent. Ismail eloquently described the dire situation in Iraq as being a function of the destruction of a majority of the country’s infrastructure, specifically referring to the fact that there are currently no functioning universities in Iraq. In his conclusion, Ismail quipped that President George Bush should read the ancient text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and believes that the U.S. cannot just walk away from Iraq forfeiting all economic means. Albeit, full of personal anecdotes and statistics such as America spending approximately $1.3 trillion in Iraq before the end of the war, Ismail lacked any argument towards Canada’s potential role within Iraq, or any possible solutions to the complex issue for that matter.

Sarah Meharg, a leading post-conflict reconstruction theorist, presented her lecture, “The Dark Side of Reconstruction: Iraq and Other Forgotten Places.” Overall, Meharg outlined the evolution of reconstruction since WWI, gave numerous examples of reconstruction, proposed Canada’s potential role in the reconstruction of Iraq, and concluded in describing emerging trends in reconstruction. Meharg stressed the psycho-social and cultural impact that reconstruction has on the people, seeing that this is typically left out by the media. Meharg also made the provocative claim that there is an apparent connection between destruction and reconstruction in Iraq. For instance, Meharg described a situation in which a pilot bombed a building knowing his brother would be contracted to reconstruct. In arguing that she takes a non-political stance, Meharg concluded, “Canada has a role to play [in Iraq], but it’s not in the military.”

After the final lecture, moderator Brent Sasley of Wilfrid Laurier stated that the means behind this speaker series was to create some dialogue about Canadian foreign policy–which undeniably, the series did produce. However, albeit some contentious claims were presented, on the whole, no conclusive arguments were made in relation to where Canadian foreign policy should be heading in the near future. Seemingly, explicitly provocative statements were too risqué in creating dialogue about current Canadian foreign affairs. Thus, making it quite difficult to ascertain any decisive notions or propositions on what rightly needs to be done in these two greatly calamitous countries.