Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan, announced new restrictions on freedom of the press last week.
It’s not clear why he bothered since press freedom was already a myth in that country.
Reporters and editors risk assault, harassment, death threats, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and murder.
A day after Karzai’s announcement, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper was telling the families of soldiers serving in Afghanistan that opposition questions about the torture of prisoners only served to detract from the good work our troops are doing.
Karzai’s method of stifling dissent is the more direct of the two, involving as it does the threat of incarceration in some of the world’s most notorious dungeons, but there’s a lot to be said for Harper’s way.
Beating the “support the troops” drum worked for George W. Bush long after the mainstream US press began to report on illegal detention of prisoners, assaults on civilian populations, the use of food and water as weapons, torture, chemical warfare, and Bush’s repeated lying about the reasons for it all.
Supported by a cheerleader press, Bush got away with exploiting military families for their public relations value just as Harper is doing now.
Lately the American public has been crying foul.
Iraq has passed the tipping point of blood and lies, and it’s no longer possible to wave a flag at the bad news and make it go away.
Canada may have come to this point in the past two weeks as the detainee torture story was dragged out, one corrected misstatement at a time.
Looking like vindictive liars on the torture issue and scam artists on climate change, Harper and crew took a plummet in the opinion polls, falling level with the floundering Liberals for the first time in over a year.
Still, nobody rose high enough in the same polls to want to force an election.
When enough water has passed under the bridge, the public may forget that human rights experts have asked the International Court to investigate our defence minister and our military chief of staff for war crimes.
Some measurable success in Afghanistan might tip the polls back toward Harper.
But what are the chances?
What would success even look like? Observers are lining up to ring the warning bell. We’re engaged in a war of occupation without an occupying force, a reconstruction project choked for funds and a failing counterinsurgency against an ever-stronger enemy.
Our alliances have been so badly mismanaged that the insurgent forces escape across the border into Pakistan, a country which is supposed to be on our side.
Mounting civilian casualties and very little change in social conditions are eroding faith in the occupation forces, and the people are turning to the Taliban.
While NATO military commanders spout optimism to the press, the insurgency threatens to overwhelm our ground forces.
More and more the troops are forced to resort to calling in air strikes, a notoriously undiscriminating form of warfare. According to Human Rights Watch, in 2006 “there were serious concerns about NATO’s ability to distinguish between combatants and civilians due to extensive reliance on aerial bombardment”.
Last year, 3,000 Afghan civilians died in the fighting, double the number from 2005, and so did 170 foreign soldiers.
The war displaced more than 80,000 people.
There are no reliable figures on deaths on the resistance side, or the numbers of guilty and innocent languishing in dungeons and suffering in torture chambers.
Afghanistan looks more like Iraq every day: a country destroyed by an ill-conceived, poorly-planned invasion undertaken in the post-9/11 furor, supported by lies and destined for failure.
Much is made of the evil practices of the Taliban, both in power and as a resistance movement.
In southern Afghanistan we are fighting on the side of tribal chiefs with human rights records every bit as vicious, but with the full support of the Karzai government — which of course has the full support of NATO. Several warlords with equally bloody hands sit in the national parliament for which our troops are killing and dying.
The warlords and their political allies are at work today dismantling even that thin veneer of democracy we’re supposed to be upholding.
America today is struggling with the question of how to disengage itself from the shambles in Iraq.
Do they simply march away and leave the people to slaughter each other, or keep sending young Americans to cruise the broken streets like ducks in a gallery till they’re all used up?
It’s an impossible situation, and if we keep on as we’re going, we’ll soon be facing the same question in Afghanistan.
So what’s it to be, Canada?
Business as usual, hunting “detestable murderers and scumbags” along the Pakistan border as casualties mount and human rights vanish?
Or will we admit that Afghanistan is a problem that can’t be solved with bombs, whether roadside or aerial, and start to negotiate a peace?
Harper and his supporters can twaddle all they want about supporting the troops. With no road to peace in sight, they’re supporting them to death.