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Staying the course

Why Canada shouldn’t pull its troops out of Afghanistan


BY Jared Ferrie
Photography byLouie Palu/The Globe and Mail

Camp Julien was set down on a barren plain on the outskirts of Kabul, against a stark, mountainous backdrop. Across the road sat the ghostly, bombed-out remnants of Afghanistan’s royal palace. Once a majestic building surrounded by immaculate gardens, it was now a looming reminder of destruction wrought by decades of war.

In sturdy canvas tents within the heavily fortified camp, about 1,700 Canadian soldiers slept side-by-side in cots. Everything they ate or drank was shipped in. The only time they left was to go on patrol.

I found myself at Camp Julien on Canada Day 2004, having just arrived for a sixmonth position with a media development organization. The occasion provided a rare opportunity for Canadians living in the country to wander around the base and mingle with soldiers who lived a strangely insular existence.

Like the troops, we were allotted two cans of beer for the evening’s festivities, which included a heavy-metal cover band and a Québécois comedian. One beer was free, the other we paid for. We ate rubbery lobster, then we went to a party in Kabul.

Hosted by a French NGO, the party was held in the well-kept garden of an exquisite house. Alcohol was free, and the mostly European and North American crowd of development workers danced to electronic music that bounced off the mud walls of the compound. The phrase “fiddling while Rome burns” did not come to mind at the time.

It was a period of optimism perhaps unrivalled in recent Afghan history. The Taliban had been chased out, girls were returning to school, money was flowing into reconstruction projects, and the country’s first democratic elections were about to be held.

In Canada, there was little opposition to the government’s decision to contribute soldiers to an international security force, especially in the wake of 9/11. It seemed in line with previous peacekeeping-type missions, and casualties were still low. It would have been difficult then to imagine the intense combat and barrage of suicide bombers Canadian soldiers would soon face. As the violence has escalated over the past year, so too have calls to bring the troops home. In 2002, three out of four Canadians supported our role in Afghanistan; today we are split down the middle. In January, Innovative Research Group found support to be at 58 percent.

Canadian casualties have skyrocketed in the two years since troops left the relative safety of Camp Julien for the volatile southern province of Kandahar, where the Taliban has re-emerged in strength. Canada lost 36 soldiers and a diplomat last year, compared to one casualty in each of the previous two years.

Afghans, too, are losing confidence in the reconstruction process. A wide-ranging World Public Opinion (WPO) poll revealed that in 2006, only 62 percent of those surveyed said the country was going in the right direction, down from 83 percent the previous year.

“The Taliban is far from winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,” said WPO’s Stephen Weber in a December 14 release, “but there are signs that the Karzai government and NATO are gradually losing them.”

The debate on Parliament Hill and around the country grows more heated with every maple-leafdraped coffin sent home. From the right comes a blindly patriotic cry to stay the course in Afghanistan, while many on the left accuse Ottawa of abandoning our tradition of peacekeeping in order to join America’s so-called war on terror.

Left-wing organizations—including, now, the federal NDP—have endorsed the “troops out” position. But they have so far failed to articulate a clear vision of what would happen to Afghanistan without the Canadian presence. Meanwhile, the Conservatives ignore warnings from analysts and opposition parties that Canada needs to focus more of its efforts on reconstruction and less on combat. For example, in the December 20 Toronto Star, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he would not change the nature of Canada’s mission in the face of demands from opposition parties, even if means the defeat of his government.

Distress over the fact of Canadian soldiers dying in a complicated war on the other side of the world is understandable. But there is a certain irony in where that unease has led.

The NDP and others now argue for an immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops. But pulling troops out of Kandahar would simply open the door to another Taliban takeover. There is also a real danger that the return of the Taliban would lead to civil war, since anti-Taliban warlords would almost certainly call up their militias again. It’s an odd position for the left, which has always prided itself on a commitment to social justice, to advocate a policy that could result in the suffering of millions of Afghans.

In a December interview, Afghanistan’s development minister, Mohammed Ehsan Zia, pleaded with Canadians not to rush to judgment. “Our journey is long and the road is bumpy, so we request them to be patient,” said Zia, who had travelled to Canada to explain where $1 billion in Canadian aid is going. “We do not feel proud of the presence of Canadian soldiers on our soil for security. As a nation, we want to take charge of our own affairs, but we need help at this time.”

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Two years after leaving Afghanistan, back in Vancouver, I attended a CBC forum on Canada’s role in Kandahar. The panel included Omar Samad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada. In an interview the previous day I had asked Samad if he was surprised at the strength of the Taliban resurgence.

“We all probably did not have the right assumptions in the first three or four years following the fall of the Taliban about what the remnants of the Taliban were up to,” he said by phone from Ottawa. “They were actually regrouping, retraining and rearming, and looking for new sources of funding and recruits.”

Samad found irony in the fact that the growing Taliban insurgency is being matched by louder calls in Canada to bring the troops home. In the late 1990s, he and other Afghans had tried in vain to prod the West into action by highlighting the atrocities being committed by the Taliban regime.

“Nobody was listening or hearing their cries,” he said. “Now the same people who claim to be supporting the disadvantaged in the world are advocating the return of the oppressor—at least indirectly advocating the return of the oppressor—by saying we should leave Afghanistan.”

At the CBC forum, Samad was confronted by Mable Elmore, co-chair of Vancouver’s Stop War Coalition, which wants the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian troops. She ran down a list of concerns, including the presence of warlords in Samad’s government.

“Where were you when the children of Afghanistan could not go to school?” Samad demanded in response. “Where were you when women were being executed in sports stadiums by the Taliban?”

When the forum was over, Elmore said she’d heard nothing to change her mind. “The role the Canadian military is playing is contributing to deteriorating conditions,” she said.

But if Canadian troops pulled out of Kandahar, wouldn’t the Taliban take over, I asked repeatedly.

“That’s a good question,” she finally offered, explaining that her coalition needs to discuss such issues further.

Elmore wasn’t the first activist to dodge that question. Last spring, for example, I talked with Cindy Sheehan, the well-known American anti-war spokesperson whose son was killed in Iraq. The Council of Canadians brought her to Canada to lend support to the growing movement to bring troops home from Afghanistan. I asked her if withdrawing international forces could actually lead to increased violence, pointing out that the country is one of the most fractious and well armed in the world. “Are we having an interview or are we having a debate?” she responded.

Sheehan’s reaction on its own would have held little significance, but this unwillingness to grapple with the consequences of withdrawing troops seems common, if not endemic, among those opposing the war.

The Conservative government seems no better equipped to face up to the complexity of Afghanistan, as Senlis Council founder Norine MacDonald learned in Ottawa last fall. Senlis, an international policy think-tank, is probably the most authoritative source of information on what’s happening on the ground in Kandahar.

MacDonald, a Canadian lawyer, has spent much of the past two years in Kandahar interviewing Afghans to learn what they think about conditions in the province. Senlis has documented increasing frustration with the international community’s failure to bring security and rebuild the south. In September, the group sounded the alarm about Afghans on the verge of starvation in camps just kilometres from the Canadian military base in Kandahar.

On October 26, MacDonald presented her group’s findings to the Standing Committee on National Defence. While opposition MPs appeared interested and requested further briefings, the Conservative MPs seemed intent on undermining the credibility of her research.

“The questions we got from the Conservative members of the committee were more around either denying that there was extreme poverty in Kandahar, or what you would call a kill-the-messenger type of attack on our organization,” said MacDonald. “Even if they don’t agree with our policies or our recommendations, we think they should be interested in any information from any source about what’s really going on in Kandahar.”

A couple weeks later, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor launched a national tour to sell the mission to Canadians. After a speech at a Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon, he reacted defensively when The Globe and Mail’s Jane Armstrong asked him about deteriorating security conditions in Kandahar, where she had just returned from assignment. He insisted that security was not getting worse.

The previous day, a joint report of UN, Afghan government and coalition officials had estimated that 3,700 Afghans had been killed in 2006, including about 1,000 civilians. That’s about four times the number killed in 2005.

The Taliban’s influence is now keenly felt in southern Afghanistan, according to MacDonald. “The Taliban have psychological control in Kandahar now. So what that looks like is, all the men are growing beards. No one goes out without a beard. No one goes out at night. There are roadblocks and fighting inside Kandahar city. People are making their decisions about how to live their lives on their understanding of Taliban rules.”

There is nothing to suggest that this new generation of Taliban is any less brutal than its predecessor. Last July, for example, Human Rights Watch warned of “attacks on schools by the Taliban and other groups that are intended to terrorize the civilian population.” Tactics also included suicide bombings, targeting civilians, attacks on aid workers and distributing threatening messages known as “night letters.”

There are good reasons why 82 percent of the Afghans surveyed by WPO continued to hold the view that overthrowing the Taliban was a good thing, and 77 percent described NATO forces as effective. In the face of the Taliban’s history of cruelty, MacDonald argued that withdrawing troops would be a betrayal.

“If the international community, NATO, leaves Afghanistan—if the Taliban and al-Qaeda have southern Afghanistan—we know what will happen because we’ve already seen it,” she said. “That basically makes us complicit in what will be a crime against humanity.”

Yet the call for withdrawal continues to grow as activists attack Canada’s role in the NATO mission. Mobilization Against War & Occupation (MAWO) is one of Vancouver’s most active groups, having collected more than 12,000 signatures on a petition to withdraw troops. But MAWO appears to oppose Canadian military intervention on principle. In November the group adopted a resolution condemning Canadian, UN or NATO action to protect the citizens of Darfur, Sudan. MAWO claims that humanrights concerns are just an imperialist smokescreen.

The NDP’s position has evolved from supporting the mission, to questioning its strategy, to calling for immediate withdrawal. The party came to its final conclusion at its September policy conference in Quebec City, where a Vancouver Island riding association proposed and then withdrew a motion accusing Canadian troops fighting in Afghanistan of “acting like terrorists.”

The current NDP position is a sharp departure from that voiced by Foreign Affairs Critic Alexa McDonough last June during a World Peace Forum event at the University of British Columbia. She mentioned serious concerns about Canada’s role, including handing prisoners to U.S. Special Forces. But she insisted that international troops were needed for security.

Many of the audience members—probably most—were dissatisfied with such a nuanced argument. Some, like James Clark of Toronto’s Stop the War Coalition, stood up to condemn the presence of Canadian and other international forces.

McDonough appeared mildly exasperated with some of the arguments put forth by what were her party’s natural constituents. “We need to be concerned about disarming the warlords. Who’s going to do that? This is dangerous work, folks,” said the Halifax MP. “I think we’ve got a problem with a knee-jerk reaction to the military that we need to confront.”

If the NDP faced the same reaction from voters across the country, then its decision to take a harder line can be understood as a ploy for electoral support.

There is no denying the magnitude of the issues raised by those opposed to the mission. NATO itself admitted in early January that too many civilians were killed in 2006. That statement came after pleas by Karzai to stop killing Afghans. In December, Karzai broke down in tears at a press conference as he lamented the deaths of children at the hands of NATO forces as well as “terrorists coming from Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban poses a major challenge to those attempting to fight insurgents who slip over the border with impunity. The worst-kept secret in the region is that Taliban leaders are based in Pakistan, safe from NATO forces.

Pakistan’s efforts against them have been “nonexistent or ineffectual,” according to a November 2 International Crisis Group report. Until this situation changes, international efforts will be about “containment at best.”

Perhaps an even bigger barrier to security and reconstruction is the opium trade. It fuels the Taliban, as well as lining the pockets of everyone from policemen to government officials.

Poppy cultivation also feeds the families of farmers, especially in areas where little else will grow. A program implemented by the U.S., British and Afghan governments to eradicate the drug trade by plowing under farmers’ poppy fields has been an abject failure, alienating local populations as production rates skyrocketed.

“What you see is classic U.S. war-on-drugs policy being applied in Afghanistan,” said MacDonald. “We’ve said that stuff doesn’t work elsewhere and surely doesn’t work in Afghanistan when you’ve got … the Taliban and al-Qaeda waiting for you to make a mistake.”

The Senlis Council has been lobbying for a pilot program to license poppy production for pain medication. There is a large, unmet demand for drugs like codeine and morphine, especially in developing countries, according to the Council’s research.

Poppy licensing is not the panacea to solve southern Afghanistan’s drug problem, but it “will send a very positive signal that we are trying to figure out how to help them with this opium problem,” MacDonald argued.

After his Vancouver Board of Trade speech, Defence Minister O’Connor was asked what he thought of the idea. “You just can’t go in and destroy farmers’ crops without giving them something,” he admitted.

But he also noted that Britain is officially responsible for working with the Afghan government on the drug problem.

MacDonald argued that Canada must take an active role in resolving the opium problem. “Canada has said they’re not going to be involved in counter narcotics,” she said. “But nevertheless, they have stood idly by while the U.S. has led this massive crop eradication campaign in Kandahar. And the Canadian troops are paying the price for that, because it fuels the insurgency, and the Afghan people are paying the price for that because there was no alternate livelihood program in place.”

Although the drug industry is booming as never before, it has long been a fixture of the Afghan economy, helping to fund warlords who fought each other in a brutal factional war in the mid-1990s. Many of those men now hold official positions.

The Karzai administration has been harshly criticized for failing to take on the warlords, notably by the courageous female MP Malalai Joya. But for all its flaws, the current Afghan government’s human rights record is light years ahead of any in the past three decades. And despite their growing dissatisfaction with the level of corruption and the pace of reconstruction, nine out of 10 Afghans surveyed by WPO rated Karzai positively.

Rural Development Minister Zia explained that it has taken five years since the Taliban was pushed out just to lay the foundations for security, good governance and development.

Ambassador Samad said the next five years will be crucial for the government to show Afghans progress. If the international community abandons Afghanistan, the results will be grim, he warned. “We would have a new cycle of violence and conflict in Afghanistan, the outcome of which would be disastrous for that country and that region, and I think for the world.”

Samad is undoubtedly aware of how fragile his government is, and how dependent on countries like Canada it is for survival. But mere survival is not enough to create lasting change. The key to stability is providing Afghans with decent living conditions.

“There definitely is resentment by the people, dissatisfaction with the fact the government is weak, that institutions are not able to deliver the services that people need and expect,” Samad admitted.

He noted that “overall Canada is very generous,” but called for more funding from international donors for reconstruction.

The erosion of faith in reconstruction is actually a pretty damning indictment of the international community, given the fairly simple expectations most Afghans have for a better life.

Last summer, during his successful campaign for the Liberal leadership, Stéphane Dion told a group of Simon Fraser University students that Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan, similar to the one that rebuilt Europe after the Second World War.

It occurred to me that activists calling for the withdrawal of troops might put their resources to better use by lobbying the Canadian government to take the lead in an international effort to devise such a plan.

But we need to understand there are no quick fixes in Afghanistan, only long-term solutions. Even a massive, sustained reconstruction effort is unlikely to yield the relatively swift results of the Marshall Plan. As devastated as Europe was, it had a history of industrialization and an educated citizenry ready to make the leap into a globalized world. Afghanistan has been ripped apart by decades of war, which turned ethnic, tribal, religious and political groups against each other. And in rural areas, people continue to live in much the same conditions as they have for hundreds of years. It will take perhaps generations for Afghanistan to recover and advance. But that desperately needed transformation can only come about through strengthening domestic institutions and civil society, a process that depends on international support, which at present requires a military component.

In the face of such daunting challenges, Canadians’ reservations about the mission are to be expected. But before raising the call to withdraw troops, we might consider those whose lives have unquestionably improved because of the security provided by international forces. As tenuous as it is, this stability has allowed the Afghan government and international organizations to deliver the basics–education, employment, health care—to a substantial portion of the population.

If Afghanistan’s history has poisoned the present, it has also fostered a resiliency.

For a time, during my stay in Kabul, I had a Dari teacher named Abdullah. He’d lost one of his legs at the knee during the 1990s when rockets rained down on Kabul as different factions waged bloody battles for control of sections of the city. He mentioned that he’d grown up in a house in the neighbourhood where we were living. One night his family fled in the heat of a battle. When they returned, their home was partially demolished and it had been looted. His family lost everything.

Abdullah said all this with a smile on his face and then started laughing. After a moment of speechlessness, I began laughing too, because it seemed ludicrous that he’d find his own tragedy so funny. Wasn’t his family saddened by their loss?

“But we are still here,” he exclaimed, holding out his hands as if to say, “Look, here I am!”

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Jared Ferrie is a Vancouver-based journalist who travels when he’s able. His work has appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the South China Morning Post and TheTyee.ca.


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