Is anyone really surprised that, after years of solemnly promising Canadian troops would be pulled out of Afghanistan in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has abruptly shifted course and is now saying Canada will stay an extra three years until 2014? It’s a cynical measure that puts me in mind of Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, a book written in 2003 by American comedian (now Senator) Al Franken about George W. Bush and his cronies. Harper and Peter MacKay, his lame duck defence minister, are clearly not people to be believed. Who is to say that as 2014 approaches they don’t conspire with NATO member politicians and generals to move the Afghan goal posts yet again?
Harper says that he is not extending the war. Canadian soldiers will remain “inside the wire” and act as trainers for Afghan troops rather than as combatants. Why should we believe him? American generals and politicians in the Vietnam War maintained for years that their troops were acting as trainers and not as combatants. Of course, that proved to be a lie. The role played by Canadian soldiers will be ambivalent by definition. There is already talk that such training could well evolve into battlefield “mentoring,” which means leading Afghan troops in combat. And what about the joint task force commandos known as JTF2? They have been operating clandestinely in Afghanistan since late 2001 without any public oversight by Parliament. What will they be doing until 2014 and possibly after that date?
Harper ignores parliament
The prime minister claims that he can decide to extend Canada’s war without the approval of parliament or even a debate. His authoritarian tendencies and contempt for fellow parliamentarians, including those in his own party, are well documented in journalist Lawrence Martin’s recent book Harperland. If parliament is not to be consulted when we are extending our participation in a war, then why even have a House of Commons and a Senate? This is a moment of truth. If MPs and Senators allow Harper to do this, they might as well fold up their tents and go home.
Bob Rae, the Liberals’ foreign affairs critic, appears to agree with Harper that no parliamentary debate or vote is needed. “In the current circumstance I fully understand the government’s decision,” Rae is quoted as saying. In fact, both Rae and Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff called last summer for Canada to extend its mission in Afghanistan in a non-combat role. That provides Harper with cover to extend the war and to do so without consulting anyone. He has outmaneuvered Rae and the hapless Michael Ignatieff yet again. Extending the war plays directly into Harper’s core agenda, for example his spending of $16 billion on new F-35 fighter planes. Harper believes all of this allows Canada to be a player on the international military stage. We would be better advised to follow the lead of Norway, a country widely respected for its leadership on diplomacy and aid to development.
The Liberals have something invested in their acquiescence to keep Canadian troops in Afghanistan. It was the government of Jean ChrÃ©tien that made Canada a party to the initial invasion of Afghanistan, and Paul Martin who in 2005 pushed Canada into a leading role in the counter-insurgency war by deploying troops to Kandahar.
The NDP and Bloc Quebecois may now attempt to use parliamentary rules to have a debate but there is little, if any, time for parliament to weigh in. In his usual Machiavellian fashion, Harper made theÂ announcement on Remembrance Day when parliament was down for the week. That was just eight days prior to a NATO meeting in Lisbon where he will deliver on his about face without having consulted Canadian parliamentarians, much less the Canadian people.
Elites for war, citizens opposed
The Liberal-Conservative elite accommodation extends to Canada’s corporate media as well, even though polls have shown that an overwhelming number of Canadians want the Afghan mission ended. In October, The Globe and Mail carried a series of articles regarding the future of Canada’s armed forces. The Globe admitted that the series was meant to oppose a strong public mood in favour of pulling back from overseas military interventions. The Afghan war, the paper conceded, has not gone well. But the newspaper believes that the war has been a testing ground creating a battle hardened Canadian military which can now use its muscle elsewhere. “Canada’s interests are global,” The Globe wrote. “Let us take full advantage of our military strength — and, quite literally, choose our battles.”
Polling since 2007 has shown consistently that international public opinion is largely opposed to the war in Afghanistan. Even a majority of respondents in seven out of 12 NATO member countries want troops withdrawn as soon as possible. In Canada, an Angus Reid poll conducted in October 2010 indicates that 55% of Canadians oppose our involvement in the war, while only 35% support it, the lowest level of support recorded by the poll in question in the past two years. Among Canadians, 34% have “strong opposition” to involvement in the war, three times higher than the number in “strong support”, standing at only 11 %. Our government does not see this popular opposition as something that should be heeded. It is perceived rather as a public relations problem that should be met by attempts to manipulate us. No doubt Canadian Football League playoff games and the Grey Cup will be used (again) to support the war, and commentator Don Cherry will continue to use his CBC Hockey Night in Canada broadcasts to shill for the war effort.
Canadian, Afghan fatalities
Canada has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost nine years. We have about 2,800 troops there and Harper’s plan, if he can be believed, is to have 750 of them remain as trainers and another 250 for support. In other words, more than one in three of our soldiers will remain.
The number of Canadian fatalities in Afghanistan is the largest for any single Canadian military mission since the Korean War. More than 150 members of the military and four Canadian civilians have been killedÂ — in per capita terms one of the highest death tolls among the occupying forces. Another 1,500 Canadian soldiers have been wounded, many losing arms and legs to roadside bombs. This number does not include the many soldiers who are returning with mental and psychological problems associated with the violence and mayhem that they have experienced.
NATO and even UN accounts rarely provide comprehensive information about the number of Afghan civilians killed and maimed. But a source called Unknown News estimates that as of August 2010, the number of civilian deaths was 8,800 and that 15,800 civilians had been seriously injured. The same source estimated that the combined death toll – NATO soldiers, Afghan soldiers and Afghan civiliansÂ — was 19,600 deaths and another 48,600 injured. That number of deaths is roughly equivalent to the population of the Canadian cities of Truro, Owen Sound or Duncan.
Lost dollars, vanishing democracy
The war has had other costs as well. The Harper government refuses to provide the financial tally but Kevin Page, the parliamentary budget officer, projects the costs through 2011 at about $18 billion. To place that into some perspective, the entire budget for the province of Saskatchewan in 2010 was $10.2 billion, and that of Manitoba was $10.7 billion. There have also been costs in the erosion of Canadian democracy. The government has shown its contempt for parliament by refusing to divulge records that would prove once and for all whether it was complicit in turning Afghan combatants over for torture at the hands of Afghan jailers. All of this secrecy is justified in the name of national security, an evasion used frequently by totalitarian leaders but unworthy of a modern democracy.
The common argument is that Canada cannot leave now because the job is not done. The same people may well be making the same argument in 2014. The foreign occupation will have to end sooner or later and when it does the so-called insurgents will still be there because Afghanistan is their homeland. NATO is placing its hopes on the shoulders of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was installed by the Americans and is widely despised. Journalist Brian Stewart, CBC TV’s former security and military specialist, wrote in March 2010: “After eight years and many billions of dollars spent trying to build a nation, there is still no Afghan government worthy of the name or deserving of domestic or international trust. Afghanistan is now the second most corrupt nation on earth, just after Somalia, according to Transparency International, a Berlin-based advocacy group. That represents a level of corruption difficult to imagine and this is why allies now see the Karzai government as a bigger threat to the stability of Afghanistan right now than even the Taliban insurgency.”
This is what the money of Canadians and the lives of our soldiers are supporting and ultimately it is aÂ campaign that we cannot win. We should leave now.