Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"Harper in Kandahar: Some signs of trouble," March 20, 2006.

Question of the Day: In which of the following countries does Canada *not* contribute to a UN peacekeeping force?

Afghanistan, DRC, Golan Heights, Georgia, Haiti, or Cyprus. Stay tuned for that answer and some more good questions later in the broadcast.

This week began with Peter MacKay dithering about whether or not Canada would contribute aid payments to the Palestinians now governed by Hamas and with growing protests over David Emerson's defection to the Conservatives.

Stephen Harper had slipped off to Kandahar's military operations, the only one of his government's international ministries not in relative disorder. Even the center-left Globe and Mail called the trip "audacious" and "a pre-emptive strike."

In a sentence not as widely reproduced as his "we don't cut and run" remark, Harper told the troops that quote "We don't make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble" (Harper Mar 13 06).

Strange he would put it that way. In fact, one of the first signs of trouble began on October 15, 2001 when US bombs hit an Afghan wedding party in Mazar-i-Sharif. That was followed on Dec 29 by a second in Niaze Qalaye. On May 17, 2002, a third wedding party was bombed in Bal Kel village. These were bad signs. Signs of trouble. Early signs of massive civilian casualties which--morality aside for a moment--can spell the end of an effective counter-insurgency operation.

The Afghan Victim Memorial Project cites a Pentagon spokesman speaking a week later on condition of anonymity who told CNN about another attack at 11 P.M. on October 22-23, 2001 on the small village of Chowkar Kariz in Kandahar Province.

A US assault killed between 52 and 93 innocent civilians. The unnamed Pentagon official said, quote

"the people there are dead because we wanted them dead." endquote

An old man, Mohammad Qasin, said (on March 14, 2002), he could barely walk through the rubble of his village. The vision of the torn bodies of women and children was still too real in his mind's eye, "every time I walk through here, I see the scene all over again," he said. His voice shaking and eyes tearing, he told of helping pile the bodies onto a tractor wagon the next day. "I can't do numbers," he said as he walked away. If Stephen Harper had been paying attention, he would have known that this was a sign of trouble.

In January 2002 the first batch of 20 "detainees" arrived at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba after a 20-hour flight from Afghanistan. This was a sign of big trouble, a lack of trust in the justice system, that continues to this day.

Then on April 18, 2002 an American F-16 fighter jet dropped a 225-kilogram laser-guided bomb near Kandahar, accidentally killing four Canadian soldiers and injuring eight others. It was an accident that sent the whole country into mourning. It was another bad sign.

Friendly fire incidents are far more common in military operations than in police-oriented investigations of the type undertaken by Spain after the Madrid bombings. This incident made it clear that Canadians would not escape the consequences of bad decisions made on their behalf.

In June 2002, Irish film-maker Jamie Doran released a documentary entitled Massacre in Mazar charging the US with mass killings of POWs. In fact, these signs of trouble have continued to accumulate, one at a time, down to the present day until by now there are many of them indeed. Mr. Harper has no reason to speak of running away at the first sign of trouble.

The first signs occurred long ago. And no one I have encountered in my reading and talking on the subject suggests running away. Mr. Harper is dueling with ghosts.

The Prime Minister went on to express his confidence in The Afghanistan Miracle. quote

"Already a great deal has been accomplished. Reconstruction is reducing poverty; millions of people are now able to vote; women are enjoying greater rights and economic opportunities than could have been imagined under the Taliban regime; and of Afghan children who are now in school studying the same things Canadian kids are learning back home" (Harper Mar 13 06).

A sampling of headlines from the last year suggests otherwise.

For instance, on Harper's first point that reconstruction is reducing poverty Declan Walsh wrote a piece for the San Francisco Chronicle called "Gap between rich and poor widens in Afghanistan." That was on Jan 21 06.

Back in November 2005, a Pakistani newspaper called Dawn published an article under the headline, "The US Rebuilding Plan Full of Cracks." It cited reports in the Washington Post of corruption and inefficiency causing millions of dollars to be wasted on useless projects.

Just three days ago, Reuters *and* the Economist published articles under the headline "Taliban, poverty fueling Afghan opium boom."

"Afghan carpet weavers are unpaid slaves, rights activist says," is the name of an article published by SANA in Dec 2005.

It's certainly true as Harper says that "millions of people are now able to vote. But just about a year ago, the co-directors of the Afghan Women's Mission penned an article called, "US Exporting Fake Democracy -- By Force."

On Oct 29 05, "Winning Afghan candidates become warlords' targets" was a story about a physician in Herat whose consulting room was bombed shortly after he won a seat in the new parliament.

Carlotta Gall's article "Islamists and Mujahedeen Secure Victory in Afghan Vote," for the New York Times last October observes much the same phenomenon as the Human Rights Watch report "Warlords Dominate New Parliament,"

The piece called "EU sees 'worrying' cases of fraud in Afghan vote," observes that "At least half of the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of Parliament, will be made up of religious figures or former fighters, including four former Taliban commanders. About 50 of the men elected fall into a broad category of independents, or educated professionals, and 11 are former Communists. Women have taken 68 seats - slightly more than the 25 percent representation guaranteed under the new electoral system" ().

On Sep 29 05, Rousbeh Legatis wrote a story for IPS called "Was Women's Vote a Roar, or a Whisper?" She describes a report by Human Rights Watch in which a female parliamentary candidate in Jalalabad said, "I feel frightened. I am not afraid of al-Qaeda, I am afraid of commanders who are candidates."

In October, Peter Symonds, writing for the World Socialists Web Site concluded that "Afghanistan's presidential election: a mockery of democracy."

Just a few weeks ago, on Feb 5 06, Tony Harnden wrote a piece for the Telegraph in the UK called "Some cabinet ministers in Afghanistan are deeply implicated in the drugs trade." I guess that's still hitting the fan.

The PM claims that "women are enjoying greater rights and economic opportunities than could have been imagined under the Taliban regime," but already that appears too optimistic.

On May 30, Amnesty International called their report "Afghan Women Still Under Attack -- Systematic Failure to Protect."

In Nov Bill Weinberg wrote "Being a writer -or woman- still dangerous in Afghanistan," a piece about a well-known woman poet in Herat being beaten to death by her husband.

A UN expert said "Violence against women in Afghanistan remains dramatic" and here's one called "Afghan Woman Accused of Being US Spy Is Killed."

Finally, when we contemplate the image of school evoked by the Prime Ministers reflection that "Afghan children ... are now ... studying the same things Canadian kids are learning back home," we can recall the Los Angeles Times article from last December "Militants Kill Teacher for Instructing Girls."

The PM's own words raise demoralizing questions. Like "How long are our troops there for?"

We already have an idea about this: Speaking in August 05 at the Couchiching Summer Conference in Orillia, Ont, Major-General Andrew Leslie said, "Afghanistan is a 20-year venture."

Colin Powell said much the same last week and urged Canada not to set a time limit for pulling out. Well and good, but what is our exit strategy? Does Mr Harper expect us to participate in the American's so-called "Long War"? Will Canadian troops be going to Iran? To Syria? To North Korea?

It's been said that this is no time to walk away. But it's not a good time to be increasing military presence there either, especially without better evidence that it is the right approach.

"Bringing democracy" is a lofty aspiration, but it's not a plan. Afghanistan is as complex as Iraq. As in Iraq, no one has offered or seems to have a vision that could actually unite the country.

Three years of reconstruction have yet to enable the country to function without a level of official development assistance that accounts for nearly 90% of its budget.

Stephen Staples of the Polaris Institute asks if Canadian Forces are moving away from UN peacekeeping toward US-led war fighting. The answer to the first part of that question follows from the answer to our Question of the Day: In which of the following countries does Canada
*not* contribute to a UN peacekeeping force? There is no UN peacekeeping force in Afghanistan. There is in Georgia, but Canada does not contribute to it. Canada contributes either police or military personnel to UN peacekeeping forces in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Golan Heights, and Haiti.

In all, as of January 31, 2006, Canada contributes 129 police, 43 military observers, and 198 troops to UN peacekeeping operations for a total of 370 individuals, the same total as the US and 5 more than the UK.

In the words of Canada's International Policy Statement, "The greatest concentration of Canadian resources abroad are currently directed toward Afghanistan."

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