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Let’s talk about ‘our’ war in Afghanistan

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands before the Canadian peacekeepers, shoves both hands in his pockets and mumbles, “You are standing up for…

Prime Minister Stephen Harper stands before the Canadian peacekeepers, shoves both hands in his pockets and mumbles, “You are standing up for Canadian values.”

I ask myself, What Canadian values?

Harper shifts his weight from one foot to the other and continues, “You have put yourself on the line to defend our national interests.”

I ask myself, What national interests?

With both feet firmly planted in the soil of Afghanistan he now gets down to it.

“Your work,” he says, “is important because it is in our national interest to see Afghanistan become a free, democratic, and peaceful country.

“Before its liberation, under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan often served as an incubator for al-Qaeda and other terror organizations.

“This reality hit home with brutal force on 9-11, when two dozen Canadians lost their lives suddenly and senselessly in the destruction of the World Trade Centre.”

There we have it.

The World Trade Centre.

That’s it.

That symbol of an ever-increasing global economy is why our soldiers are there, why Harper is there.

(It is no accident that Pakistani Prime Minister Shau Aziz’s first words upon Harper’s arrival there were: “It is important that our country have a free-trade deal with Canada.”)

What is really at stake here for Canadians?

What is the downside for us?

This peacekeeping mission will fail. The US has, without doubt, lost the war in neighbouring Iraq and that spells disaster for all troops — combat or humanitarian — in Afghanistan.

The relative stability that allowed Canadian peacekeepers to slip into Kabul was only possible as long as Iraq did not descend into full-scale civil war.

It has. The US will “cut and run.” This of course will further destabilize Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Within the next few weeks the Bush administration will announce and begin to implement its timed withdrawal from Iraq.

It will say this is now possible because the Iraqi fighters are quite capable of keeping warring factions apart in a civil war.

Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. But Americans — and now Canadians, it seems — have short memories.

The truth of the matter is that no military combat force has won a war against a fully entrenched, well-armed and highly trained insurgency — ever. Bush, Rumsfeld, Franks — and I would hope Harper — know this.

Make no bones about it. America is on the way out in Iraq. The dramatic changes about to take place in Afghanistan as a result of the US retreat in Iraq do not bode well for our peacekeepers.

Events will unfold quickly on the ground in Afghanistan and America’s role there is not well defined.

If we are not careful, our mission will quickly make the transition from peacekeeping to combat, if for no other reason than to keep our soldiers alive.

There is an ever-increasing likelihood we will have to fight our way out of Kabul.

For this reason alone Canadians are entitled to a full debate on our role in the Middle East.

Americans, of course, were not privy to such a public process.

Bush as commander-and-chief has, by default at least, the right to make war as long as it is not a declared war.

If war is declared — Iraq and Vietnam were not — the congress is then given the responsibility of making the ultimate decision, but that of course requires debate in the halls of congress.

Bush literally jumped on the “opportunity” that the attack on the World Trade Centre gave his administration to seize control of Iraq’s oil fields — something his father had refused to do.

Now, just as quickly, and without the opportunity to debate the matter, we find ourselves in the middle of a hornet’s nest right along side the Bush war machine.

Without the US’s illegal occupation of Iraq, we would not find ourselves entrenched in Afghanistan. And without a US victory in Iraq, we are dead in the water in Afghanistan.

Canadians need to know this and Harper is obligated to be the messenger.

In terms of world opinion, Canada, by taking on the Afghanistan role, must also be willing to assume responsibility for what New York Times journalist James Risen refers to as “an ill-formed yet global Sunni Muslim insurgency.”

This poorly defined enemy has become — through the mere fact that it is so poorly defined — America’s military excuse to unsettle the world’s economy.

Under these circumstances, Canada will make few friends.

Beyond that, our involvement in America’s war against an Islamic insurgency has serious legal ramifications in the US and here at home.

Clandestine America’s military operations that set about to detain and interrogate Iraqi and Afghani prisoners through what has now been described as “renditions,” are grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.

And under a 1996 US law, “a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions constitutes a war crime under federal law.”

In fact, according to Risen, “the CIA’s Inspector General has issued a criminal referral to the Justice department on the matter.”

So as Stephen Harper sets out for all Canadians the vital national interests and the sincere Canadian values that justify in his mind the importance of our peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, he is obligated, it seems to me, to be forthright on the drawbacks of such a mission as well.

The rhetoric of war (we will not cut and run … we will not sit on the sidelines) must be quickly replaced by the thoughtfulness of a civil society.

If not, we may inadvertently stumble into a deep geopolitical chasm from which it may be very difficult to extricate ourselves.

I, for one, welcome a robust debate on what the Afghanistan conflict is all about.

What are the possible avenues for resolution?

What Canadian values and what national interests are at stake?

When all of that is out on the table perhaps I will get some clarification on what troubles me most about this mission.

How and to what end do armed military combatants serve the much greater and more important notion of pacifism?

For if peace — and I can see no other alternative — is brought about by policies of peacefulness, and therefore if our role in Afghanistan is intended to make us more peaceable, why then do we enter the wilderness armed to the teeth.

The goal of a military presence is always one of victory (we will not cut and run). And the victory, once secured, justifies the violence that won it.

On the other hand, true peacemaking provides us with a real alternative to war.

And herein is the crux of the debate. What national interests and what Canadian values must we be willing to take on if Canada is to move beyond peacekeeping and toward peacemaking?

Let’s talk about it.

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