Thursday, December 11, 2008

Time To Talk About Afghanistan

With Canada's death toll in Afghanistan now at 100 I thought this would be an appropriate time to share my opinion about our mission there. I waited a few days because I can only imagine the heartache and grief being experienced by friends and family of the fallen, not just the most recent, but all 100. This past Monday I was listening to CBC Radio and heard an interview with the father of a soldier recently killed. He was retelling the story of the day the call came. It was gut wrenching hearing the emotion in this man's voice as he spoke of his wife taking the call, and hearing her pleading:

"Oh God please, tell me he's alright".

I have no first hand experience to draw on in this area, and cannot begin to comprehend the degree of anguish and pain that comes from hearing about a loved one being killed in a war so far away. The closest touch point I have is through my mother. She lost her older brother in the Korean War where he was serving as a stretcher bearer with the Princess Pats. I don't recall my mother talking about 'Uncle Alec' when I was young, but in later years she talked of him often. November 11th was always an emotional day for her, and she made a point of attending the Remembrance Day services each year at her church.

A while back I came across something Mom had written about her experience:

By Ruth E. Cawsey
My story begins on my bed in Ottawa where I went to get away from everyone and hung on to the mattress for dear life
so I wouldn’t fly off in a rage and run outside and commit bloody murder. That’s how angry I was when I heard my brother had been blown to bits in Korea. I couldn’t even find Korea on a map a few months earlier and could have cared less about the war or who was there. That all changed when my brother was sent to Korea with the Princess Patricia‘s Canadian Light Infantry. His name was Alex but everyone called him Alec. Alex wasn’t perfect and even embarrassed me sometimes but he was as close to a hero as I could get at 15. At 21 who knows what was ahead for him but he never found out, at least in this life. I find it comforting to believe in an afterlife, but then I grew up hearing those verses from scripture about Jesus going to prepare a place for us. You see, My Dad was a United Church Minister and quoting from Scripture was second nature in our house. I’m sure there was a lot of Scripture quoting going on downstairs as friends and neighbors gathered to say they were sorry.

I fell asleep on my bed thinking about an after life and wakened to the on going confusion downstairs but felt strangely calm. All my rage had vanished. I don’t remember a dream but I do believe there was divine intervention. It was 1953 and I never understood my rage or the eerie calm when I wakened until several years later.

That's all she wrote, at least that I can find. I think she was intending to write more but she passed away in August of 2007, so I'll never know.

It was this experience that pushed my Mom into being a passionate advocate for peace. And it is a trait she passed along to me. I joined her at a peace rally once in Toronto, to protest cruise missile testing in Canada...we were marching as part of a United Church group and behind us were punks carrying "##CK WAR" signs. My Mom wasn't there on a lark, she was there because of her brother. It is in that vein that I wish to share my thoughts on our mission.

Language is an important tool when it comes to marketing, and equally important when it comes to framing a political argument. The beautifully crafted "Support The Troops" is a case in point. Who would dare not support those individuals who have put their lives on the line and are serving abroad at the behest of their nation's leaders?

The inference is that anyone who is against Canadian involvement in Afghanistan, that they're not supportive of the men and women in uniform. Canada's is a volunteer army after all, and by all accounts the men and women serving in Afghanistan believe that they are providing a vital service, both in ensuring Canada's security and in ensuring a better life for ordinary Afghanistan citizens. Call it "nation building" if you will, another beautiful turn of phrase. Still about half of all Canadians want our troops to come home according to recent polling numbers. Does that mean that half the population of this country doesn't support our troops? Not in the least. There are many who believe that the entire pretext for the invasion of Afghanistan was and is false.

Why do we have troops in Afghanistan and are the reasons legitimate? Those are two very pertinent questions. If our troops are over there for reasons other than what they've been told, or if the reasons given aren't legitimate then there certainly would be strong justification for ending the mission and bringing our troops home.

Initially the justification for the invasion was simple. I'm sure many people will remember George W. Bush's assertion that the reason was clear, to get Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive". It was Bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan, and the refusal of Taliban rulers to hand him over which provided the initial justification for invasion. If that is or ever was the objective, then the mission has been an abject failure. We are now told that Bin Laden is irrelevant and some even doubt he's still alive, video evidence and writings attributed to him notwithstanding.

Another oft cited justification is the so called "Bush Doctrine" of preemptive invasion. After the events of 9/11 the Bush administration has used that event to justify the invasion of foreign countries. We're told, and Bush recently reaffirmed this...that by taking the fight "to them", that we're precluding another attack at home. The argument is that its better to have the battle waged on their territory as opposed to ours. The difficulty with this argument is that we're not talking about traditional warfare, with armies opposing each other across a battlefield. Terrorists are shadowy enemies who strike in small numbers, often with the intention of dying themselves. Had the numerous warnings issued by FBI agents and US security agents been heeded instead of ignored, 9/11 never would have happened. Wouldn't it be better spending the billions of dollars our involvement in Afghanistan is costing on heightened security? Who would dare ignore warnings of potential terrorists training to fly but not land airplanes now? As subsequent attacks in Britain and Spain have shown, fighting the enemy on 'their turf' does nothing to ensure that terrorist attacks won't happen here. In fact some argue that our very presence in Afghanistan makes us more of a target.

Another favorite bromide is the treatment of women in Afghanistan, and this resonates much more than the argument of preemptive strikes in my view. Women have made enormous strides in the west when compared to their sisters in countries like Afghanistan. In the past 50-100 years women here in Canada have gone from being near chattel with no voting rights to full participants in society. There are those who would argue that we haven't yet achieved true gender equality here, but compared to a nation like Afghanistan, there's no comparison.

Is that the reason our troops are there? I find that hard to believe when we tolerate so many other nations with records every bit as bad in terms of their treatment of women. If you want an example of an oppressive nation, where women enjoy few if any rights check out Uzbekistan. Or what about countries like Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, they're hardly beacons of gender equality. Its disingenous to argue that you're fighting for human rights on the one hand while enjoying friendly relations with other nations that abuse human rights.

So, if not to get Bin Laden, or to ensure our safety by taking the fight 'to them', or to improve human rights? Then why?

Before answering I'll ask you to consider some recent history. 1980 to be specific when many western nations boycotted the Moscow Olympics. Why did western nations refuse to participate in a sporting competion in Moscow? The reason was because the Soviets had invaded and were occupying Afghanistan. In addition to financing, supporting and training the likes of Osama Bin Laden and his mujahadeen to combat the Soviets, the US and many of her allies refused to participate in the Olympics.

Why did the Soviets invade? Was it to get Osama? To hit them first before they attacked the Motherland? To improve human rights? No, the reason was then as it is now. Resources, specifically gas and oil.

How long will Afghanistan need to be occupied? From what I'm reading efforts to build a massive natural gas pipeline through the southern part of the country are being totally stalled due to insurgent attacks. My best guess is that we will see argruments for continued involvement until such a time (if ever) that military power is able to secure the area needed to construct this pipeline so that the natural gas can be moved through to Pakistan and India.

Imagine that, fighting a war over issues that are neither high minded nor altruistic. Hard to imagine morale and elistment soaring if that was the stated objective. Come serve your country, Risk your life, We need that gas!!! Of course in the game that is geopolitics or 'realpolitik' this is usually the case. Wars are fought for economic reasons, with the true rationale buried under a mountain of rhetoric and propoganda designed to get young men and women to lay down their lives and make parents proud when their children die in the service of their nation's military.

I hope you enjoyed reading my blog and I welcome your comments, I read them all. If you think this piece would be of interest to anyone you’re most welcome to pass it along via email or through a social network like FaceBook, just click on the ‘Share This’ icon below.

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