Tuesday, December 9, 2008

senseless sacrifice

On 5 December 2008 a grisly milestone was passed in Canada's war in southern Afghanistan: the 100th solider to be killed died as a consequence of a roadside improvised explosive device.

This weblog has previously argued why the war in Kandahar being fought by Canada's army is a mistake. Canada is not 'fighting global terrorism' or sustaining 'peace in Canada', as the Canadian government has suggested. It is fighting local Pakhtun tribesmen who see the Canadians as a foreign occupying force. Moreover, the local Pakhtuns are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their ability to fight, having won a number of set-piece battles in both Kandahar and neighbouring Helmand province. Fighting in Afghanistan in general, and southern Afghanistan in particular, is getting heavier, not lighter, as time goes by, and more, not fewer, foreign soldiers are dying as more and more of the country falls out of the control of NATO forces. Increasingly, NATO military commanders suggest that the war is not about winning, but about containing an acceptable level of violence. Indeed, given the deep unpopularity of the massively corrupt government of President Hamid Karzai, a former friend of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, even achieving an acceptable level of violence may be a difficult, if not impossible task. Insurgents now target heavily-guarded areas of Kabul, the previously safe capital, and increasingly international non-governmental organizations are being targeted.

It is, without a doubt, true that Afghans have better access to health care, to education, and to economic opportunities than was previously the case. However, it is also true that much of the country remains desperately poor, and is unlikely to see its prospects improve during the next 15 years. Hunger is widespread. Finally, of course, there is death: we have no idea of knowing how many Afghans have died during the war (I have seen numbers of around 13000 bandied about), but we know that many that have died have died at the hands of the occupation forces, by accident. Wedding parties have been bombed, drivers have been shot, goat hearders have been strafed. A recent attack in Shah Wali Kowt in Kandahar killed 3 dozen villagers. The price of a life in rural Afghanistan is just under US$2000--that is what the U.S. government pays in compensation for the death of an innocent bystander in the countryside. Those who are injured typically get paid around US$140.

It is the death of innocents, along with tribal grievances, that drives the insurgency--as I forecast would be the case in October of 2001. For many--most?--rural Afghans, NATO forces are no different than the Soviet occupiers of the 1980s; indeed, in some instances, the Soviet occupation is viewed more positively than the NATO occupation, for the government was more coherent. Let us hope that it does not take another 100 dead Canadian soliders to make the government realize this.

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