Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, March 13, 2006

"Why Is Canada in Kandahar?" March 13, 2006.

Question of the Day: Who said "If we wage a total war … our children will sing great songs about us years from now?"

This week International Women's Day came and went, and CBC's the National rediscovered Afghanistan. But was it too little too late? While opposition parties called for a debate, Prime Minister Harper said there would be no vote on the Afghanistan mission while troops were in harm's way. He said that any vote on Canada's role in Afghanistan should have been held before the decision was made to send the troops. And, using the same language as George Bush, when he said that it was not the Canadian way to "cut and run."

In following Bush's lead, Harper was opting to pretend that he hadn't noticed a "...a Strategic Counsel poll commissioned by the Globe & Mail and CTV which showed that 62 per cent of Canadians are against sending troops to Afghanistan, while only 27 per cent are in favour. Furthermore, 73 per cent of those surveyed said parliamentarians should have the chance to vote on deployment. (G&M - Feb 24)

International Women's Day exploded another pretty fantasy. Western politicians and analysts have made gender equity a special bone of contention in the so-called war against Islamist terrorism. So it was appropriate to investigate what RAWA is saying these days?

You may remember that RAWA is an Afghan women's human rights organization, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. They provided underground clinics and schools during the Taliban era. They are still active, winning praise from all who are familiar with their work.

On International Women's Day, they issued a declaration stating that quote "Murder, robbery, kidnapping and the rape of women and children has become the routine. There is a high rate of women committing suicide and an ever expanding cultivation and trafficking of narcotics, all while billions of dollars of foreign aid and public resources are squandered away. Unemployment and homelessness are on the rise. Opening of Kabul Serina Hotel and other hotels of this type in a country with the lowest rate of income per capita in the world doesn't mean development.... The government is unable to solve even the smallest of these issues. The country is in chaos" (RAWA Mar 8 06).

That wasn't exactly the picture I was getting from the CBC's week of special reports from Kandahar, so I decided to probe a little further.

The US State Department warns prospective tourists about kidnapping, assassination, land mines and what it calls banditry, but that didn't prevent a company that builds bush hotels in Africa from renovating the old Kabul Hotel, turning it into the Kabul Serena, Afghanistan's first five-star destination.

The total cost of the reconstruction was US$ 36.5 million.

The Agha Khan Development Network hopes that the investment in the hotel, the hours of training and skills transfer - combined with a commitment to the highest standards for materials, labour and services - will increase local and international confidence in Afghanistan and the reconstruction efforts taking place there.

Over 900 skilled Afghan craftsmen, artisans, gardeners and unskilled labourers worked on the project. While few if any of them will ever stay in the hotel, "over 400 people (90 percent of them local Afghans from various ethnicities, 30 percent of them women)" work there now (Agha Khan Development Network).

This seems to contradict the RAWA's point that unemployment is increasing, but last December, just a month after the Kabul Serena opened, approximately 18,600 labourers working in brick kilns lost their jobs. The escalating price of oil coupled with a black market in coal drove up the price of bricks and collapsed the market. All but 3 of the 75 kilns in the Jalalabad region of eastern province of Nandahar have closed, probably for good.

Unfortunately, it also more or less confirms Mark Herold's point that the few investments that *have* been made in Afghanistan "cater ... to the urban upper middle classes [both the huge foreign expatriate community, the returned Afghan exiles, and the Karzai bureaucrats] and do little to garner mass support and political stability" (Herold Empty hat Aug 14 03).

Herold is an American academic who tracked civilian casualties during the early days of the war in Afghanistan.

He believes that quote "Western powers have no interest in either buying from or selling to" Afghanistan (Herold Feb 26 06). Certainly statistics on where Canadians invest do *not* suggest that we have rushed into Afghanistan with our investment dollars.

Herold describes Kabul as an "island of affluence amidst a sea of poverty" and a "grotesque capitalist imaginary reality."

The foreign bank branches, luxury hotels, shopping malls import houses, and ad agencies (Herold "Afghanistan as an empty space," Feb 26, 2006) add up to what travel writer Paul Tough calls a "travel boom" in a piece for the NYT enthusiastically entitled "the Reawakening of Afghanistan." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is even more ecstatic writing of the Afghanistan miracle.

This almost whimsical view of a desperate situation raises the question of just what is the reason for being there, the main objective of the war. Herold believes that the Western powers view Afghanistan as a space on the geopolitical chessboard which they mean to keep "vacant from all hostile forces. The country is situated at the center of a resurgent Islamic world, close to a rising China (and India) and the restive ex-Soviet Asian republics, and adjacent to oil-rich states" (Herald Empty space).

Peter Mansbridge says "the goal is to rebuild Afghanistan." It's not hard to guess where he gets this idea since the most widely publicized units outside of the capital are called Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Last week, General Rick Hillier, whom the National has dubbed "Canada's Top Soldier," projected a more altruistic and protective role in the promotional clip for The National's 4 days in Kandahar: "We help keep people alive," he said, "by facing down an enemy they cannot face down themselves."

Canada's International Policy Statement, the Liberal's update of foreign policy released in July last year, quote "Our main objective - and that of our allies - in helping Afghanistan to become a stable, democratic and self-sustaining state is to ensure that it never again serves as a terrorist haven" (Canada in Afghanistan IPS Jul 21 05). We are defending ourselves albeit far away from home soil. Hillier has said this too.

Because it speaks not only for Canada, but also for our allies, we may believe we are safe to infer that the International Policy Statement did not expire with the Liberal government.

Indeed, ISAF, the multilateral force of which Canada is part, now operates under a revised plan--known as Stage 3 expansion--agreed to at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels last December. This new operational plan "provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country" (Tarzi RFE/RL Feb 27 06). So maybe that's what our troops are doing--helping Karzai get beyond being the Mayor of Kabul.

Margaret Wente wrestles with the question of strategic objectives: quote "If you believe what you hear, the reason our forces are in Afghanistan is to help the suffering Afghan people. A little bit of reconstruction, some nation-building, a few photo ops with cute children -- who could be against that? Trouble is, that's not why we're in Afghanistan.... Afghanistan is a nasty, bloody place. It has confounded every foreign force that's dared to meddle in it. And in the end, there is just one reason to be there. It's to wipe out al-Qaeda and the Taliban before they wipe out us" (Wente Mar 2 06).

That was certainly the point four and a half years ago, in the wake of September 11.

But 30. "On May Day, 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced in Kabul that the US had quote 'ended major combat activity' endquote in Afghanistan and a period of stability was beckoning." One journalist recorded that "His faithful executor, Hamid Karzai, sat at his side with some prophetically sagging flowers between the pair." ("In Afghanistan, Selling War As Peace," Sep 6 04).

The promise of stability and reconstruction is not the only one that failed to materialize. The Taliban moved to Pakistan and went back to their villages. Al Qaeda replaced its training camps in Afghanistan with on the job training in Iraq.

Just a few months before, John Pilger quoted Richard Perle, then Chairman Defense Science Board, as saying, "This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq... this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war... our children will sing great songs about us years from now.'" (Pilger Dec 12 02).

Harper provided smart legal arguments favouring of Canada's entry into that particular vision, but later seemed glad to deny that he would have taken us into war in Iraq. Now we are talking about a resurgent Taliban in a war called reconstruction and a victory called chaos.

Until we redefine success and separate it from victory or finding Osama bin Laden or making the enemy stand down or protecting ourselves against threats that can develop in distant lands, it will be hard to understand why both victory and success have been so elusive.

Is it a case of the wrong stuff? Or too little, too late?
Or all three?

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