As a new year begins, let’s ask a simple question: Why are Canadian soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan? The government says we’re helping to rebuild the country, establish democracy and maintain stability. It adds that, “Canada’s overarching goal is to prevent Afghanistan from relapsing into a failed state that gives terrorists and terrorist organizations a safe haven.” Last July, the chief of Canada’s defence staff put things more bluntly. Rick Hillier made it clear that in fighting the Afghan part of his War on Terrorism, George Bush can count on the Canadian military. “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people,” Hillier told reporters in Ottawa. He added that the people our soldiers hope to kill in Afghanistan “are detestable murderers and scumbags… They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.” Perhaps Hillier had forgotten that these “murderers and scumbags” received money and sophisticated weapons from the US, Britain and China in the 1980s to help them fight against Soviet occupation. In those days, Western media portrayed Hillier’s “scumbags” as fearless freedom fighters who finally forced the Russian Bear to turn tail and run.
Now that Canada is helping to maintain the NATO occupation of Afghanistan, there’s been remarkably little debate about our participation in a war that began less than a month after the September 11th attacks. Since October 2001, Canada has assigned over 20 warships and more than 14,000 sailors, soldiers and air force personnel to what the government calls “the international campaign against terrorism.” In February 2002, Canada dispatched 750 soldiers to Afghanistan. At first, they patrolled mainly around the capital, Kabul. But now, Canada has about 600 troops in the more dangerous southern city of Kandahar. Soon, another 2,000 Canadian soldiers will arrive in southern Afghanistan as Canada takes command of a NATO brigade that will include British and Dutch forces.
So far, eight Canadian soldiers have died and many have been wounded or injured, yet politicians aren’t saying much about the war during the federal election campaign. A month ago, NDP leader Jack Layton called for an explanation of government policy. “We appear to be drifting from our original mission there — which was to provide security in the capital region — and into a combat role side-by-side with American troops,” Layton said. “If Paul Martin wants to involve Canada directly in a war in Afghanistan, then he must spell out what our goals are, what our commitments will be, and when and how we will get out.”
As the war grinds on, the mainstream media convey the impression that even though Afghanistan is a dangerous place, NATO soldiers have things under control. British reporter Robert Fisk calls that a “fantasy.” In his recent tome, The Great War for Civilization, Fisk writes about an Afghanistan where American-paid warlords are raping and murdering their enemies, where Afghan women are still shrouded for the most part in their burqas, where opium production is now making Afghanistan the world’s number one exporter, and where Afghan civilians are sometimes being killed at the rate of up to a hundred a week. Fisk continues, “By 2005, the Taliban were back and so was al-Qaeda, killing American soldiers rather than Russians.” And Canadian soldiers too, he might have added; victims of an official fantasy that invading and occupying one of the world’s poorest counties will somehow make the rich world safer.
Maybe Paul Martin should read the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Afghanistan, a country “that has long been a prize sought by empire builders, and for millennia great armies have attempted to subdue it, leaving traces of their efforts in great monuments now fallen to ruin. The country’s forbidding landscape of deserts and mountains has laid many imperial ambitions to rest, as has the tireless resistance of its fiercely independent peoples.” So then, let’s ask the question again: Why are Canadian soldiers fighting and dying in Afghanistan?
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