Canadian soldiers aren't dying for nothing in Afghanistan
By Sverre Frisch and Tylere Couture
In the December 11-18, 2008, edition of the Georgia Straight, Langara professor and former United States Marine Corps corporal Peter Prontzos vents his frustration with both the Canadian Forces and the Canadian government for their respective approval of and participation in the current Canadian contribution to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Prontzos argues that the mission in Afghanistan is based on four big lies: that the mission is in the interest of bringing some form of democracy to Afghanistan, that the war involves improving Afghan women’s rights, that it is possible to win the war through military means, and that the war is a part of the fight against terrorism. In reality, Prontzos argues, Canadians are dying in Afghanistan not for democracy or women’s rights, but in order to please the Bush regime by aiding its attempt to dominate the Middle East and control the oil supplies in the region. The solution to the problems in Afghanistan, Prontzos believes, can be found in negotiating a cease-fire agreement with all sides of the conflict and instituting a United Nations mission to enforce the cease- fire agreement.
Prontzos is right in his observation that the security situation throughout Afghanistan has deteriorated over the last few years. He is also correct in identifying the flaws in President Hamid Karzai’s government, and that Harper has cut the budget of Status of Women Canada. However, while Prontzos gets some of his facts straight, his argument suffers from dubious causation, wishful thinking, and complete confusion regarding the role of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan as well as its influence in determining Canadian foreign policy. First of all, Prontzos argues that the war in Afghanistan is not about fighting terrorism because the Taliban did not attack the United States on September 11, 2001. No one is claiming that they did. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was undertaken to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime which had provided support and safe harbour to al-Qaeda. Unbeknownst to many, the Taliban regime was given several opportunities to hand over Osama bin Laden before the coalition attacked, but they refused. In fact, the United Nations requested bin laden turned over as early as 1999 to face trial for the United States embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, under resolution 1267 and 1333, but were ignored by the Taliban, who continued to support him. Thus removing the Taliban regime from power became an unavoidable part of the fight against al-Qaeda and terrorism.
This leads us to Prontzos’ second claim: that the war in Afghanistan is not about improving women’s rights. The reasoning used here is that since Stephen Harper has failed to promote women’s rights in Canada, there is no way he would be interested in doing so in Afghanistan, and thus the war cannot be about improving women’s rights. It is pertinent to remind Prontzos that the Canadian participation in the war in Afghanistan was not initiated by the current Conservative government, but rather the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien. A man who seemed to have few qualms about crossing the persuasive American government, not only on humanitarian causes such as the land-mines ban, the Kyoto Protocol, and the International Criminal Court, but also opposing a Canadian contribution to Iraq, which undoubtedly sat poorly with the Bush administration. Based on Prontzos’ own logic then, the decision to join the war in Afghanistan suddenly seems nobler. However, disregarding facile reasoning and public policy preferences of individual politicians, there is a strong case to be made for the fact that the war in Afghanistan is indeed being fought for women’s rights: it is about improving the rights of all Afghan citizens by creating a secure environment in which the Taliban are not allowed to force their regime upon Afghans. An environment in which girls are allowed to go to school without having acid thrown in their faces, where people are free to express their opinions without being tortured or killed, and in which organizations such as al-Qaeda are denied sanctuary to plan and carry out terrorist operations.
Prontzos’ solution to the “endless war and continued killing in Afghanistan” caused by the “mindless war-fighting mentality”perpetuated by “some in the Canadian military who despise the Canadian peacekeeping reputation” is to initiate successful peace negotiations with all sides in the conflict and bring in well funded United Nations peacekeepers to enforce the cease-fire agreement. Since peacekeeping requires much less resources than war fighting, Prontzos suggests using the extra money to improve the Canadian health-care and education systems, and providing housing for the homeless. Everybody wins. While this solution looks great from the ivory tower, it quickly shrivels up and dies in contact with reality. It is true that many NATO countries, as well as U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, have spoken of political reconciliation with elements of the Taliban. However, this is under the precondition that these elements accept the Afghan government, human rights, and the democratic system. Needless to say, these demands exclude al-Qaeda and all hard-line Taliban elements, such as those of Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, who maintain close ties to al-Qaeda. Thus, even if successful peace negotiations are carried out with moderate elements of the Taliban, Afghanistan faces a grave threat from the remaining groups opposed to any political solution other than replacing Afghanistan’s constitution with the Taliban’s “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. These groups have to be confronted with blunt force, the kind of force which requires large quantities of professional, coordinated, and well armed soldiers, not blue helmets under a peacekeeping mandate whose funding is being spent on social projects in Canada. Thus, there is no more a political solution to Afghanistan alone than there is a military solution to Afghanistan alone; the two have to be combined to provide the best possible outcome in Afghanistan.
Another truth which seems to have escaped Prontzos is that Canada does not draft soldiers. Rather citizens from around the country are free to enlist, in which case they sign a contract and receive training to prepare them for any of a myriad of different jobs, much like in the civilian world. However working in a professional army, as any former corporal having served two years in the Marine Corps should know, you have to make certain sacrifices which ordinary citizens do not. First of all the Canadian military has as its core an apolitical mandate. It simply cannot, by definition, act without the direct authorization from the democratically elected civilian who is charged with oversight issues of National Defence (and as such, the Canadian Forces). This strikes at the very core of a liberal democracy—armed forces that are totally subservient to the will of the people’s representative. Thus, an army is a function of state power, which in a democracy like Canada means that your job is whatever the democratically elected government determines it to be. If you cannot reconcile with this idea, you are free to not sign up for service with the Canadian Forces. A professional soldier also accepts the unlimited liability of his or her profession, that sudden death or serious injuries are inherent work hazards in military life. This might happen in Afghanistan, Somalia, or any other country in which the Canadian government decides to deploy Canadian soldiers. Being a professional fighting force, Canadian forces show up and do their job. That is how they serve the country. If they are injured or killed, they should be able to count on unconditional respect and honour from all Canadian citizens, regardless of political affiliation or doubts about the legitimacy of the mission.
General Douglas MacArthur once stated rightly “no one hates war more than a soldier”, and like the soldiers in the Canadian Forces, the Canadian people want to see Canada contribute to the development and rebuilding of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the current situation in many areas of Afghanistan prevents development without using force to impose some measure of security. This situation will not change even if proposed peace negotiations with moderate elements of the Taliban succeed, as many of the areas most in need of development are under the control of hardliners who see development as a threat to their feudal ideology. The other part of this equation is that force projection is essential in bringing even moderate Taliban commanders to the negotiating table. They are unlikely to make any serious commitments to the Afghan government if there is even a slight chance that the Taliban hardliners might regain power. If they are turned, they need help protecting themselves and their families from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, a task which the still embryonic Afghan National Army, even in cooperation with a well funded United Nations peacekeeping force is ill suited to carry out. This again underscores the need for the presence of well armed, well coordinated forces designed for war fighting, not only to fight the Taliban, but to help train the Afghan National Army.
Prontzos did get one fact straight: the fundamental question has to do with the moral courage of Canadian politicians. However, it has nothing to do with whether or not Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, or Stephen Harper would be willing to risk their lives in Afghanistan. They did not sign up for the Canadian Forces. What matters is that the Canadian government honours its commitment to create a better Afghanistan, even when it entails the tragic deaths of Canadian soldiers. It is never easy for a government to see its soldiers’ coffins returning from a conflict, especially when these deaths provide ample political ammunition for opponents to bash them with. The simple and politically viable solution would be for the government to take the easy way out, as Prontzos suggests, and broker some tenuous peace agreements with moderate elements of the Taliban and institute a United Nations peacekeeping mission to monitor it. When the country then inevitably collapses, the government could pull their troops out and argue that they at least tried and, importantly, that they maintained the traditional Canadian role as a peacekeeping nation.
Sverre Frisch studies political science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. He spent five years as an officer with the Norwegian Army, including two tours as a peacekeeper in the Balkans. Tylere Couture is a captain with the Canadian Forces and recently returned from a seven-month tour in Afghanistan with the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar City. Couture and Frisch are both members of the UBC chapter of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.