what are we fighting for

In September 1992, Afghan warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim led an attack on a civilian neighbourhood of Kabul.

In September 1992, Afghan warlord Mohammad Qasim Fahim led an attack on a civilian neighbourhood of Kabul. In what independent journalist Tom Coghlan describes as “a bout of murder, rape, and looting,” his troops killed 800 civilian men, women and children. In May of 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that Qasin Fahim will be is running mate in the upcoming federal election.

Qasim Fahim’s career as a warlord didn’t end with the so-called Afshar massacre. A known gangster and alleged narcotics kingpin, he has retained his private army and made himself one of the richest men in Afghanistan. A political opportunist, he has served in the Soviet-backed secret police, the US-backed Mujahideen, the Northern Alliance, and the 2001 interim government.

Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as the world’s fourth most corrupt country. It is a place where government jobs are bought and sold, where heroin traffickers build ostentatious mansions in the middle of the capital and then lease them to foreign governments and NGOs. It is a land where torture is commonplace and the law belongs to whoever has the most guns.

Small wonder then, that the people’s support for the Karzai government is weak. According to the Independent’s Patrick Coburn, “Given the government’s lack of legitimacy, and its inability to provide basic services, the Taliban does not have to do much to destabilize the country.” Indeed, Coburn says, the Taliban, though still feared and hated by many Afghans, are able to control most of the country in large part because the people hate and distrust the Karzai government and its foreign backers just as much.

This week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed regret for the deaths of at least a hundred civilians whose homes were struck by American bombs. President Barack Obama also expressed his sympathy. US officials originally denied the incident occurred, but changed their story when confronted with mass graves containing dozens of men, women and children.

The public narrative surrounding the war in Afghanistan hasn’t changed much since G.W. Bush was in power. The Taliban are evil, so the story goes, and the US and its allies are fighting to drive them out and to nurture democracy. There’s not much argument about the first statement; there’s nothing like a ruthless gang of religious fanatics for pure evil. The problem with this story today is the same problem it had in 2001: depending on who you ask, our allies are either not much better, or no better at all.

Obama’s war plan is based on Bush’s supposedly successful “surge” in Iraq. With “more boots on the ground” he promises to crush the Taliban. But the Afghan people know that those boots not only march, they also kick in doors. The men in those boots call in airstrikes. Civilians die, and will continue to die, under the bombs. That is what happens when you escalate a war.

On April 14, 2009, 21-year old Canadian soldier Karine Blais died in a roadside bomb attack. Blais was described by a hometown acquaintance as “a confident and bright young woman … highly spoken of, full of energy and very helpful.” Blais adds her name to the list of 118 young Canadians killed and the many hundreds more wounded or shell-shocked in the name of preserving democracy and advancing human rights in Afghanistan. But where is that democracy? Where are those human rights?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a written statement declaring that Canadians are “extremely proud” of Trooper Blais’s sacrifice, and that we will be “forever grateful” for the two weeks she spent at war before she lost her young life. Of what precisely are we so proud? That we sent yet another 21-year-old to her death in support of a corrupt government that no one wants? That Canada, in order to become, as Harper has said, “a player” on the international scene, has demonstrated the military will to sacrifice our youth for Afghanistan, but not the political will to push our allies toward a genuine democracy with some chance of success.

Now the Taliban are in control of key parts of neighbouring Pakistan, another corrupt “democracy” supported by Western military aid. US military sources are describing the situation as an emergency, in large part because the Pakistani government could fall, and its nuclear arsenal could find its way into Taliban hands.

The US and its allies can never defeat the Taliban unless they offer the people of Afghanistan a trustworthy alternative. For eight years we have poured our resources into supporting the Northern Alliance, whose past is filled with atrocities, whose present is brutal and corrupt, and whose foreseeable future is only more of the same. It hasn’t worked, it won’t work, and we must stop it now.

It’s comforting to believe that the Canadians who die in Afghanistan are all heroes, that they have given their young lives in a worthy cause. The trouble is, as long as we’re opposing the cruelty and fanaticism of the Taliban by supporting the cruelty and corruption of the Karzai regime, it’s a pack of lies.

Let’s bring them home, alive.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.