Wednesday, December 9, 2009

not who we think we are

Canadians have a self-image of themselves as well-meaning, liberal, polite and open. Canada as a nation is often seen in much the same way. Yet every so often a series of events collide that forces us to question some of these core precepts. The past 2 weeks has seen 3 sets of events that force me, once again, to ask a fundamental question: who do we think we are?

The first event was the spectacular testimony of Richard Colvin, who claimed to have repeatedly warned his superiors while he was posted in Afghanistan that Afghan detainees held by Canadian forces were being tortured upon their transfer to Afghan custody. The subsequent attack upon Colvin by senior government and military figures was staggering, and was clearly designed to deflect attention away from the central issue: were Canadian forces complicit in the torture of innocent Afghans?

What surprises me about this issue, though, is that in any event it deflects attention away from an even more central question: are Canadian soldiers complicit in the deaths of innocent Afghans. This question is not asked because we already know the answer: yes, of course they are. That the Canadian military kills innocent people is not the image that Canadians have of their armed forces; but the blue-capped Canadian peacekeeper is a thing of the past, replaced by a war-fighting machine that is currently involved in a mission that cannot be won and which has produced tens of thousands of dead non-combatants. Is this who we think we are?

The second event has been the series of racist attacks targeting international students in central Peterborough, where Trent University is located. Is Canada a country that respects difference? Canadians think they do; but these attacks say otherwise. They say that there are many places in Canada where the right to be different should not be assumed but instead remains an ongoing struggle. It says that Canada is not what it thinks it is, and Canadians are not who we think we are.

The third event is the Copenhagen conference on climate change. Writing in The Guardian George Monbiot described Canada as a 'corrupt petro-state'. There is more than an element of truth here: Canada is amongst the worst contributors to global warming on a per capita basis, the government's plan to deal with greenhouse gas emissions is derisory, and the government continues to promote the Alberta Tar Sands project, one of the dirtiest energy projects in the history of the past 2 centuries. Canadians as despoilers of the environment? It's not who we think we are.

Canadians, like people everywhere, need to face up to the realities of their country. Only then can improvements be made, and the reality start to begin to match the aspirations that Canadians have for themselves.

Friday, December 4, 2009

37000 won't work

Earlier this week US President Barack Obama announced, after a long and often heated debate within the US administration, that an additional 30000 US troops would be sent to Afghanistan by the summer of 2010. This morning in Brussels NATO foreign ministers were able to agree that an additional 7000 soldiers would be sent to supplement US and NATO forces already operating in the country. So, by next summer 140000 foreign soldiers will be fighting in Afghanistan. The plan is that the military surge will create the conditions for a transition to an improved security situation, which can then be reinforced by a civilian surge that takes advantage of improved security to kick-start development efforts in the country, particularly in agriculture, creating the preconditions by which the US can begin to exit the country in July 2011.

This plan will not work. The mission in Afghanistan will end in failure, for a very straightforward reason: from the beginning the US and its allies have profoundly misunderstood the nature of Afghan civil society.

Following the September 11 attacks the US overthrew the Taliban government that had been harbouring Osama bin Laden; but they did not do this on their own. They supported the Northern Alliance, a grouping of former Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara mujahideen fighters, which retook the major cities of Afghanistan from the Taliban, including Kabul. The factions of the Northern Alliance then sought to strongly control Afghan politics by facilitating the establishment of a government notionally led by a Pakhtun, Hamid Karzai, but dominated by elements of the Northern Alliance. It is this alignment that to this day controls the rudimentary state that exists in parts of urban Afghanistan; it is this group that rigged the last presidential election so that Karzai, who allows them to act with impunity, could remain in office. They control this restricted state in order to further one objective, and that is lining their pockets. Afghanistan in December 2009 is little more than a corrupt narco-state run by the warlords and criminals that used to control the Northern Alliance.

In supporting a corrupt and anti-democratic government the US and its allies have alienated the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan: the Pakhtuns. Granted, it was the Pakhtuns that formed the militant base of the Taliban, and it is the Pakhtun that form the base of the current insurgency. But it was also the Pakhtuns that militantly opposed the Taliban in its very heartland: the prolonged history of radical Pakhtun nationalism demonstrates some of the deeply anti-authoritarian tendencies within Pakhtun civil society, tendencies that Mullah Omar unsuccessfully tried to stamp out during the years of Taliban rule.

The alienation of progressive Pakhtuns was then reinforced by 'collateral damage': according to Human Rights Watch the numbers of non-combatant deaths over the past 8 years in Afghanistan has been 65000, of whom the vast majority have been Pakhtun; only 2000 insurgents have been killed. So the 'mission' in Afghanistan has since 2001 become progressively little more than an all-out one-sided assault on the Pakhtun by forces aligned with an illegitimate government dominated by druglords and criminals. It is little wonder that this has generated resistance amongst the Pakhtun; resistance that the West terms Taliban but which is in fact a far more complex manifestation of Afghan realities.

The Pakhtuns have never accepted occupation, and they never will. The international mission in Afghanistan will fail because it is in support of a regime that does not enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of the very population in whose name it is supposed to rule.