This January, Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor told an Edmonton symposium on the war in Afghanistan that, “this government will not allow Canadians to be killed without retribution.”
At a press conference after the event, O’Connor would later deny he was speaking of revenge, but addressing the symposium audience, largely made up of military men, his remarks left little room for doubt.
“When the Taliban or al-Qaeda came out of Afghanistan,” he said, “they attacked the twin towers and in those twin towers, 25 Canadians were killed.”
He went on to say that he didn’t believe the previous government would have agreed to join the coalition if it hadn’t been for those 25 deaths. Somebody had to pay.
Leaving aside the accuracy of O’Connor’s beliefs about his predecessors’ motivation, he’s the minister today, and Canada’s defence policy flows through, if not from, him.
When he tells the home crowd that we’re in Afghanistan to get retribution for Canadian deaths in the Trade Towers, believe it.
When later, away from the heat of oratory and in front of a less sympathetic audience, he waffles a bit, you may believe that too, if you choose.
Now, a report commissioned by the Foreign Affairs department and “obtained” by the Toronto Star advises the government to be less “American” in its approach to promoting the war.
The report suggests that government members avoid Yankee words like freedom, liberty, and democracy, and switch to softer Canadian-sounding words like rebuilding, restoring, reconstruction, hope, opportunity and “enhancing the lives of women and children.”
Don’t expect to hear much more about retribution in the near future. Just as with recent attempts to paint themselves green, the government’s response to growing public impatience with the Afghan debacle is not to change anything significant about what they do, but to concentrate more carefully on what they say.
But if Canada’s at war with the Taliban to extract retribution for September 11, then surely so is our closest ally.
And if the whole damn war is about retribution for 3,000 deaths, why wasn’t it over years ago?
By biblical standards the US avenged their 3,000 civilians in the initial bombing attacks, and Canadian forces have certainly covered our 25 by now.
But then retribution can mean so much more than an eye for an eye.
That’s why the Geneva Conventions go out of their way to prohibit reprisals — they tend to lead to bloodbaths.
Let’s assume that O’Connor is guilty of little more than careless use of language.
When he said retribution, maybe he really did mean reconstruction, or making Afghanistan safer for women and children.
That still leaves the question, what have we been up to for all this time?
How has the greatest military power on earth got so bogged down chasing a handful of militants around in the mountains?
Whatever became of American invincibility that this war continues five years after it began, longer than US involvement in both world wars put together?
Why does the poppy grow unmolested in the fields of Helmland?
Both sides in Afghanistan are pumping up the rhetoric in preparation for the spring offensive.
The Taliban’s claims to have 10,000 fighters and 3,000 suicide bombers are probably overblown, but expect bloody days ahead while the grey heads in Ottawa ponder over how to describe the mission to the public.
Canadians who were killing and dying for retribution yesterday and for freedom and democracy today will be killing and dying for reconstruction, hope, and opportunity tomorrow.
Here’s another way of looking at the war in Afghanistan; it bears some remarkable similarities to colonization.
A coalition of wealthy powers invades one of the poorest countries in the world.
After a swift bloody invasion, a period of occupation occurs, during which resistance is sporadic and swiftly dealt with.
A small, largely corrupt, native middle class benefits from colonization.
The occupying army undertakes goodwill projects, typically the building of a road, a school or a hospital.
These are useful from a propaganda point of view, particularly if the resistance can be counted on to blow them up.
Some colonies produce great wealth immediately, others are colonized for strategic reasons.
There are no diamond mines in Afghanistan, no oil fields, no great forests to exploit.
Afghanistan just happens to sit surrounded by some of the most significant real estate on Earth.
If, as predicted, the US attacks Iran this year, they will have one big war from Iraq to Afghanistan.
To Afghanistan’s north, oil-rich, land-bound American satellite states with leaders as nasty as the Taliban ever were; to the south the military dictatorship Pakistan, friendly to the US, with several key ports on the Arabian Sea.
And until all of that strategic potential bears fruit, there’s plenty of money in the poppy crop to keep the local henchmen onside.
In the summer of 2001, the Taliban tried to warn the US that Al Qaeda was planning a major attack.
Fearful of exactly what is happening today, they asked the Americans to remove the terrorist organization from Afghan soil, and were turned down.
After September 11, the US demanded that Afghanistan turn over Osama Bin Laden for prosecution.
When the Taliban asked to see the evidence to support this extradition request, the US sent bombers instead.
Ask yourself, who owes Canada retribution for our dead?