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'Despicable murderers and scumbags': Canada in Afghanistan
A Change of Tone
On July 11, 2005, Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff General Hillier discussed the forces arrayed against NATO forces in Afghanistan with great nuance and understanding: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags, I'll tell you that right up front. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties.”
This was not Canadian officialdom’s typical line on operations abroad. Canada’s Haiti mission, for example, is framed in terms of ‘helping’ Haitians with democracy. Although the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Haiti, Denis Coderre, occasionally uses violent language about ‘terrorists’ (following the normal practice of presenting such labels without evidence) to describe Haiti’s ousted Lavalas government, for the most part Canada’s foreign policy is presented to the public as ‘peacekeeping’, helping those ‘failed states’ to build ‘capacity’. Canadian military operations are likewise presented as somehow peaceable.
Hillier was explicitly trying to dispel this idea, and not merely with the tactics of demonization (‘destable scumbags’), fear and racism (‘they detest our freedoms’), and repetition (‘they detest our liberties’). Hillier also wanted to dispel ideas about what the Canadian military is supposed to do in Afghanistan and elsewhere: “We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people."
Hillier continued the fear campaign: "Osama bin Laden, some time ago, indicated Canada was a target," he said on Canadian TV. "As a responsible citizen of the world we have been involved in the campaign against terrorism, and, of course, we try to bring stability to places that are unstable and therefore have acted as hotbeds for supporting terrorism. All that, I think, does make us a target".
To use military language, Hillier created an opening that Major General Andrew Leslie exploited at a conference called ‘Handcuffs and Hand Grenades’ in August. "Afghanistan is a 20-year venture," he said, but "There are things worth fighting for. There are things worth dying for. There are things worth killing for." Explaining why Canada had to be in Afghanistan for 20 years, Leslie said it was because "Every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you."
It doesn’t take a military genius to recognize that Hillier and Leslie are making self-contradictory statements. If every time Canada kills someone overseas it’s creating 15 more, does that make the 15 more ‘detestable scumbags’? If killing is so incredibly counterproductive, does it make sense to proudly announce that ‘our job is to be able to kill people’? And if every killing of these ‘detestable scumbags’ creates 15 more, should that really be considered a goal ‘worth killing for’?
Hillier and Leslie’s comments can be understood as media operations intended to legitimize a more aggressive military role for Canada in the world. That their speeches sound like warmed-over plagiarism from American neoconservatives should not be surprising, since the US is the only possible model Canada could have for aggressive militarism. But the comments by the generals are more aggressive than Canada’s official foreign policy doctrine. That doctrine was more systematically expounded by Canada’s Foreign Minister, Bill Graham, in a speech in September on Canada’s Afghan Mission1.
In it, Graham describes the ideology motivating Canada’s more aggressive posture. The idea is that there are ‘failed states’ from which danger ‘leaks out’ into other areas. Afghanistan fits into this scheme as a country with an “unfortunate history of war and misrule… culminating in the rule of the Taliban and their support for all al-Qaeda and their attack on New York.”
While there may seem to be a large space between Graham’s ‘helping’ approach and Hillier/Leslie’s ‘kill people’ approach, Canada’s real foreign policy path is narrow: it involves supporting and legitimizing US foreign policy, whether through ‘failed state’ rhetoric, military support, or profitable arms manufacturing. Canada’s Afghan mission fits the bill.
Canada in Afghanistan
Canada sent 800 soldiers to Kandahar to join operations with the United States in 2002. In April of that year, Canada took its worst casualties in the mission when 4 Canadians were killed by bombs from a US F-16.
According to Graham, Canada then ‘spearheaded the effort to have NATO take over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul’ from the United Nations. Today ISAF has 8,000 troops from 35 countries, with Canada sending some 2,600 troops. In August 2005, Canada sent another 250 troops to Kandahar, along with officials from the Canadian International Development Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Foreign Affairs. In February 2006, Canada will be adding a headquarters in Kandahar, with 350 troops commanding the international force and an addition 1,000 troops as a 1-year task force.
Given that Canada has roughly the same population as Afghanistan and very limited military resources, the Afghanistan deployment is a major foreign policy effort.
NATO’s Real Mission in Afghanistan: Serving US Interests
ISAF was taken over by NATO in August 2003, in its first ever mission outside the Euro-Atlantic region. ISAF was initially established by the United Nations to ostensibly provide security in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, but its greatest failure was that it was restricted to the capital, Kabul because of strong pressure from the US. In rural provinces, which comprise the majority of Afghanistan, peace keeping troops could have made a huge difference. Instead these areas are overrun by US backed militias, warlords, local commanders, and US troops engaged in their “hunt” for Al Qaeda and Taliban. US troops collaborate directly with local authoritarian warlords, rewarding them with weapons and aid in exchange for “intelligence” on Al Qaeda and Taliban.
As a result, since the fall of the Taliban, the country has become a progressively more dangerous place – this year more US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan than in any previous year, and warlords are more entrenched than ever. If ISAF’s real goal was peace-keeping, US actions have directly hindered them. Or perhaps peace-keeping was not the real ISAF mission.
When asked what ISAF does on an on-going basis, NATO/ISAF spokesperson stationed in Kabul, Major Karen Tissot Van Patot (who is Canadian), said that ISAF’s goal is to “provide a secure and stable environment.”2 When pressed for details, she explained that in Kabul is where ISAF’s headquarters is located, ISAF and the Afghan central government work closely: “We work together… [we provide] whatever they need. Whatever they ask for… We’re here at the behest of the government to provide them with assistance.”
Given that the Afghan government is propped up by the US, it’s fair to conclude that NATO is in Afghanistan at the behest of the US government. This includes strategically providing the Karzai government with security for the US-designed nation-wide presidential and parliamentary elections which attracted international media attention.
The real goal is not peace keeping, rather an illusion of peacekeeping so that the US’s actions in Afghanistan appear successful. ISAF’s intense propaganda efforts attest to this. Kabul city sports huge billboards advertising ISAF’s contributions to the Afghan people. ISAF also runs radio and TV stations in the local languages to highlight the benevolence of the foreign troops. At the heart of NATO’s job as ISAF is an effort to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people. This benefits all Western forces present, including the US.
NATO’s main propaganda effort is in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which are groups of soldiers engaged in a strange mix of providing security, carrying out small reconstruction and humanitarian projects, and eliciting intelligence information. US troops pioneered the use of PRTs, and NATO forces are following suit. In response to years of calls from aid agencies, human rights groups, and even the Karzai government, ISAF began expanding its mandate outside Kabul. But instead of real peace keeping, the expansion was done through the use of PRTs. Today, ISAF has 10 PRTs in various Afghan provinces.
The aid provided by PRTs is minuscule compared to the nation’s needs, and far more expensive than that provided by aid agencies. Ultimately the main goal of PRTs is to impress upon the Afghans that Western forces are there to help them through delivery of food, construction of schools, wells, etc. Meanwhile PRTs have angered many aid agencies who bitterly complain that mixing military and humanitarian projects jeopardizes aid workers, and holds the receiving population hostage to military demands. InterAction, a coalition of 159 organizations including Doctors Without Borders, CARE, and Oxfam America “does not believe the military members of the PRTs should be engaged in humanitarian and reconstruction activities.”3
Ultimately, NATO, (and Canadian) forces serve US interests in Afghanistan. NATO has had to re-invent itself to suit US needs, and create a role for itself in a post-Cold War world. In October 2001, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson declared his hope that NATO would be part of whatever response the US decided upon after 9-11: “We stand together. Europe and North America are one single security space…the events of September 11 have not invalidated NATO's pre-September agenda. If anything, they have reinforced the logic of that agenda…if the US Congress asks the Europeans "what have you done for me lately?" -- we should be ready to give a decent answer.4
If the United States justifies its international aggression in terms of its own national interests and security (as Hillier and Leslie were trying to do for Canada), Canada’s politicians prefer to suggest that the real beneficiaries are in the countries targeted for intervention. Bill Graham expressed it this way: “When I hear voices who call for the withdrawal of our troops, who suggest that we are engaged there in a war against Islam, as a recent visiting British politician suggested, I say: Let them talk to the Afghans, Afghans who are Muslims themselves, Afghans who want us there to help them transform their country and allow them to live decent lives; to allow them to conduct fair and democratic elections free from fear and intimidation.”
‘Let them talk to the Afghans’, indeed. Doing so might yield different prescriptions than Graham’s, however.
Most Afghans want an end to war and justice for war crimes. In 2004, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), a government funded agency, conducted a nationwide survey of the Afghan people. Their results were published in a report entitled “A Call for Justice,”5 which showed that a majority of Afghans consider themselves victims of war, whether at the hands of the Mujahadeen, the Taliban, and/or the Soviet Union, and want an end to war, and justice for war crimes. Western governments like Canada could provide constructive help to the Afghan people to bring war criminals and their benefactors to justice. The trouble is that the main benefactors are the US and its allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Another strong desire among Afghans is nation-wide disarmament. In 2004, Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC), a coalition of humanitarian organizations, published a report based on another survey called, “Take the Guns Away.”6 When asked what the most important thing to do to improve security in Afghanistan was, 65% of Afghans surveyed said disarmament. This number was much higher, 87%, in the province of Mazar-e-Sharif where US-backed warlords often clashed. Western nations could fully fund disarmament projects in Afghanistan. Instead highly selective and politicized disarmament has taken place, leaving intact most of the privately-run warlord militias. Full disarmament would run counter to the US practice of condoning arms proliferation at best, and actually proliferating arms at worst.
The most frequently mentioned human rights desired by respondents of the HRRAC survey included: “ethnic, religious and gender equality; political rights such as the right to participate in free and fair elections; and the right to education.” Even though the Bush administration often cites that millions of Afghan girls are now attending school, there are very few schools in rural areas, and those that are in operation have curriculums limited to Islamic studies, reminiscent of Taliban-era education for boys. RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Their schools, which teach a balanced curriculum based on gender, ethnic and religious tolerance, and women’s rights, are facing closure due to lack of funds. Western nations could greatly benefit Afghanistan by fully funding schools designed and led by Afghan women. To date, only a small fraction of aid to Afghanistan goes toward education.
Much is made of women’s rights after the fall of the Taliban. It is indeed true that some women, particularly in Kabul, enjoy greater freedom to appear in public, dress the way they want, and have the right to housing, jobs, education, and healthcare. However, for millions of Afghan women outside Kabul this means very little. A woman in a rural province had no education, healthcare, or employment before the Taliban came to power. She then had those things legally denied to her by the Taliban. After the fall of the Taliban, she still has no education, healthcare, or employment even though she has legal rights. For all practical purposes, her life is no different compared to before or during the Taliban. Western nations could truly support Afghan women’s rights by moving beyond token, high-profile projects, and instead funding on a mass scale, easily accessible education, healthcare and jobs for all women in Afghanistan. These projects should be designed and run by Afghan women who best understand what they need.
The largest segment of Afghanistan’s economy is based on the drug trade, revived by US-backed warlords and regional commanders. Instead of criminalizing poor farmers for growing poppies, Western nations could help Afghans reduce their dependency on a drug economy by providing full compensation to farmers who have gone into debt to grow and harvest opium. Additionally, farmers could be assisted with alternative and sustainable farming to benefit their families and their country.
However, focusing on constructive projects such as those mentioned above, would benefit only the Afghans, and not US, Canadian, or NATO interests. They would strengthen the people of Afghanistan and enrich their democratic development, while weakening the power of US and Afghan warlords.
Why is Canada involved?
The Canadian foreign policy establishment’s doctrine of ‘failed states’ and benevolent Canada’s ‘responsibility to protect’ puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The doctrine suggests that the reasons for Canada’s intervention are to be found in the countries intervened in: Afghanistan suffered from ‘misrule’, Haiti is a ‘failed state’. In fact, the reasons for Canada’s intervention can be found in the relationship between Canada and the United States.
During the United States invasion of Vietnam, Canadian corporations made profits supplying the American military and Canadian diplomats ran interference for the US in the ‘International Control Commission’, a ‘neutral’ body that was supposed to monitor the conflict between the US and the Vietnamese. Then, as now, Canada’s image as more multilateral, less militaristic and imperialistic, was a useful counterpoint to the aggressive posture of the US. Canada could use its good reputation to play the ‘good cop’ to the US ‘bad cop’, thus providing a tactical option to accomplish US foreign policy goals.
The same relationship holds today. Canada presents itself as a friend to those countries it is intervening in, with a ‘3-D approach’ (defence, diplomacy, and development assistance) as an option over the more unilateral and aggressive approach of the US. If Canadian corporations like Bell win a $1 billion dollar contract with the US military to supply helicopters, or CAE wins a $20 million dollar contract to supply combat simulation technology, perhaps that is just another ‘dimension’ to be added to the 3-D approach.
Because the real reasons for intervention are not help and solidarity, Canada’s deployment in Afghanistan has little relationship to what the people of that country need. Instead, under the guise of helping Afghanistan, Canada is actually providing a kind face to US contravention of the laws of war. After mountains of evidence about US torture and murder of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Canada’s own experience with its troops torturing a youth to death in Somalia in the 1990s) Canadian troops are capturing and handing people over to the US in Afghanistan. The US, the ‘detainee authority’ in Afghanistan, defines people it captures as ‘unlawful combatants’ and denies them Geneva Convention protections. If pronouncements by Rumsfeld or Bush about ‘hating our freedom’ found their Canadian echo in Hillier and Leslie, Attorney-General Gonzales’s comment about the Geneva Conventions being ‘quaint’ found its Canadian echo in Brigadier General Mike Ward, who in September 2005 talked to the Canadian Press about how Canadian forces have killed, and captured, in Afghanistan, in coordination with the US. On the US record of torture of detainees and the use of the ‘unlawful combatant’ label to justify contravening the Geneva Conventions, Ward said: "It's the fact of the treatment that we specifically get into detail about, not whether in fact their status is identified as `prisoner of war' or `unlawful combatant'."
Where the US military leads in the “war on terror”, Canada follows. The Canadian engagement in Afghanistan enables Canada to be a useful tool of American imperialism, a junior member of the “winning team”. The price of empire is high for all involved: those whose sovereignty is violated get the worst of it, facing hunger, disease, bombs, and death. For the violators, though, there is a steady diet of fear and racism as well as the erosion of democracy, ethics, and basic logic. That Canada is experiencing such erosion is evidenced by Andrew Leslie being able to hold up a claim that killing young men overseas is worth dying for.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the co-Director of the Afghan Women’s Mission and the host/producer of Uprising, which airs Monday-Friday on KPFK, Pacifica radio in Los Angeles. She visited Afghanistan in February 2005. She has co-authored a book about US policy in Afghanistan due out in Spring 2006.
Justin Podur is a writer and editor at ZNet, and a regular contributor to Z Magazine and other publications. He has reported from Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Israel/Palestine, and other countries. He is based in Toronto.