the stopwatch war

Last Thursday, the Liberal Party of Canada introduced a bill in Parliament that would limit Canada’s current mission in Afghanistan to two more…

Last Thursday, the Liberal Party of Canada introduced a bill in Parliament that would limit Canada’s current mission in Afghanistan to two more years, the period to which we are already committed.

Or at least, that’s the time period to which we are openly committed.

On TV a few days earlier, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor had let slip that “Afghanistan and these type of engagements are the future for 10, 15 years.”

Not surprisingly, the government rejected the Liberal motion, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper trotting out his favourite set piece about Liberal flip-flops.

Whether or not it represents a flip-flop, the Liberal motion is wrongheaded. Wars don’t end on a planned date.

An army leaves the field either because it has won or lost, or because its masters no longer see the battle as worthwhile.

If our forces are doing the right thing in hunting the Taliban today, why should they quit in two years if the hunt isn’t over?

The question for Canadians is not when the timer dings on this war, but whether we ought to be fighting it in the first place.

Are we, as O’Connor and Harper would have us believe, making life better for Afghans, returning stability to the region, and protecting the world from terrorism?

Or are we engaged in a modern colonial war, led by Harper’s good friend and role model, George W. Bush, whose purpose is to secure the region for America’s financial and political interests?

The Bush-Harper position on Afghanistan is that the Taliban supported and hosted Al Qaeda training camps, and so shared responsibility for the World Trade Centre attacks.

The war against them is supported by a UN Security Council resolution and is necessary to protect a burgeoning democracy in a desperately poor country and to stabilize a volatile region. The world is safer, they say, with the Taliban out of power.

Before the invasion Afghanistan was as stable as it had been in decades.

The rulers were religious fanatics; they subjugated women in the most abominable ways, and kept the country firmly in the Dark Ages, but it was nothing if not stable.

The Taliban had tamed the warlords, banished the opium trade, and put an end to years of civil war and banditry.

Women’s groups in Afghanistan had been pleading for international help, not in the form of bombs and tanks, but as foreign aid tied to reform and development.

But other than some unfruitful negotiations over a proposed natural gas pipeline, there was very little international interest in the Taliban or in Afghan poverty until after September 11, 2001.

As soon as Osama bin Laden was identified as Suspect Number One, Bush demanded that the Taliban hand him over. As national governments generally do before extraditing even the worst criminals, the Taliban asked to see the evidence.

No delay is acceptable, Bush pronounced, and promptly sent in the bombers.

The government that was subsequently installed is a strange hodgepodge of committed reformers, opportunists, former Taliban and old warlords, led by an expatriate Afghan selected for the job by the White House.

Its influence is limited outside of Kabul, and in much of the country, as one farmer put it, “whoever has a gun is the law”.

Instability reigns, the poppy blossoms, and for most Afghans poverty and religious fanaticism are still the defining characteristics of their lives. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda has found new homes in Pakistan, our ally, and in the chaos that was once Iraq.

Because the Afghan war is part of Bush’s so-called War on Terror, we are bound by his gunslinger with-us-or-against-us rules, which means that there can be no negotiations with the Taliban.

Since we can’t talk to them, we have no way of knowing whether, if pressed, they might agree to a negotiated ceasefire.

There can be no winning such a war without obliterating the enemy. If you won’t talk to them, you have to kill them all. But the presence of the invading army is a great recruitment tool for the resistance, and new fighters are always coming along.

So unless we change course, O’Connor’s estimate of 10 or 15 more years may have been, so to speak, conservative.

There’s not much enlightenment to be had from the government side in last week’s debate. As usual, its only defence is to go on the offensive against the Liberals.

Conservative whip Jay Hill went so far as to equate the current war with both world wars, and to suggest that the Liberals would have “cut and run” from the fight against Hitler.

Could we put to rest the notion that either side was fighting for freedom in the Great War? Can we stop, once and for all, equating that terrible, futile clash of dying empires with the war against the Nazis?

Giving up that bit of heroic self-delusion might just help us to see the present case more clearly.

The lesson of the Great War was that once people begin to slaughter each other over lies, they get locked into the slaughter, and so go on killing long after the lies have been exposed.

Sadly, the War on Terror promises to prove the same point. 

Let’s not expect too much leadership from the current government of Canada on this issue.

When a Liberal member called on Hill to take back the Nazi slur, the government whip’s response was, “Ah blow it out your ear”.