Friday, March 17, 2006

The Case for the Debate on Afghanistan

As strange as it may seem to some, as a supporter of our mission in Afghanistan, I am also a supporter of a debate of that mission in Parliament. I could go into the details of how I think such a debate would actually strengthen support for that mission and our troops rather than harm it. I could tell you how I think stiffling debate and wrapping it American-style jingoism and "cut and run" strawman attacks on the opposition will actually erode suppor and divide the country.

No, I will simply point out two things:

1) The NDP has been consistent in calling for this debate since before, and indeed during, the election campaign

"If Paul Martin wants to involve Canada directly in a war in Afghanistan, then he must spell out what our goals are, what our commitments will be, and when and how we will get out.We then require a real national debate, and a
clear democratic decision taken by Parliament."

Jack Layton, Dartmouth Nova Scotia, December 8, 2005

2) Notice the first line of that press release:

"In Brussels earlier today, foreign ministers from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries agreed to expand the presence of the alliance's troops in Afghanistan. NATO proposes to deploy some 6,000 additional troops to the south of the country." (empahsis mine)

From NATO itself:

"The revised operational plan for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan Government in extending its authority and influence across the country." (empahsis mine)

In other words, NATO revised and updated its plans. The mission changed. The mission changed after the so-called "informational debates" conducted in Parliamentary Committee in November of 2005. It changed in the middle of an election campaign, when the House was not sitting. These changes, therefore, have not been debated in Parliament or committee, since Parliament has not sat since those changes to the mission were made.

All of which begs the questions like:

How does this affect the current mission?
Does Canada need to supply more troops?
Do our troops have the correct equipment, training and logistical support for this?
Does this change affect the long term plans? How?
Is this change a good idea?

In short, we need a debate in Parliament (not committee) . That is what happens in a free and democratic society. These are important quesions that the public at large needs answers to so they can continue to support the mission. We are, after all, still a democracy. Perhaps someone should remind the Prime Minister of that.

I think the case for our continued presence in Afghanistan is a strong one and can easily withstand debate. I think the morale of our troops on the ground is not so fragile that it cannot withstand a debate - after all, we are exercising our democratic rights which is why they are there in the first place.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Case for Afghanistan

Others have given the political, treaty and other justifications - I will try to put it in a slightly different context.

According to Mullah Omar himself, the Taliban are

"a simple band of dedicated youths determined to establish the laws of God on Earth and prepared to sacrifice everthing in pursuit of that goal...The Taliban will fight until there is no blood in Afghanistan left to be shed and Islam becomes the way of life for our people" 'Ghost Wars' by Steve Coll, page 289

Of course, the Taliban meant their particular version of Whabist-inspired Islam, not the mainstream. So how did a goup of fanatical religous students ("taliban" means student) become a force that could repress Afghanistan for years and be involved in the most daring terrorist attack in recent memory?

Chaos and anarchy.

Afghanistan in the early 1990s was a governed by a number of corrupt warlords, loosely tied together by their opposition to the Soviets and then to the government of former Soviet-puppet Najibullah. They clung to their old regional, tribal and ethnic loyalties - Pashtun vs Tajik, Durrani vs Panjishiri - and the country was, by 1994 essentially an ungovernable no-mans land of banditry. Women and girls were regulary kidnapped and raped, merchants robbed and traveller murdered. The country was being used as a training ground for Arab terrorists with connections to Osama binLaden and others.

For the average Afghani, life was hell.

In 1994, in Kandahar province, a group of "seekers of knowledge" began vigilante justice. They apprehended and administered traditional Islamic justice to rapists and bandits - death by beheading, stoning and the public cutting off of hands. This endeared them to the merchants, who were loosing goods, drivers and daughters to bandits and kidnappers. The merchants began to fund them. Kandahar became safer as the Taliban roamed for village to village, asserting their authority, killing any warlords that refused. This further appealed to the local Durrani Pashtuns, the clan of the Afghan royal family and the deposed King Zahir Shah, since many of these actions paralelled their own history and myths.

The problem was, of course, that none of it was true. There were many stories and runours, but an actual eyewitness never seemed to materialize. It was all a well crafted myth to help gain popular support for the Taliban - the group was most certainly a creation of the Pakistani intelligence service the ISI and funded by the rich Shieks of Saudi intelligence (who also assisted Osama bin Laden).

But at that point it hardly mattered. The common Afghani, tired of nearly 20 years of war and a daily life of death and anarchy welcomed the safety, even at the price of the strict Islam force on them by the Taliban. Exiled Afghanis, like Hamid Karzai, and other opponents of the corrupt government in Kabul, like Abdul Haq, saw the Taliban as the warriors who would return the King to power. Pakistan, of course, saw them as an Islamist partner and buffer against Russia.

In short, the Taliban gained much of its early, widespread support because Afghanistan was failed state with corrupt rulers and warlords, and it had fallen chaos. This occured in no small part because of the US foriegn policy of the 1980s - funding and assiting any group or bandit that was "not Communist" - and then abruptly cutting off all the funding when the Soviet Union fell in 1990. Abandoned by its former benefactor, Afghanistan sank into civil war and chaos that was harldy noticed in the outside world.

From this volitile mixture is what made the Taliban possible and gave Osama bin Laden his fighters. Desparation, anarchy and fear are the perfect breeding ground for the radicalism that fosters terrorist movements and gives them their foot soldiers. Add in Islamist governments in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with their own agendas simply influencing things, and the horror of the Taliban and Al Queda are all but innevitable.

We cannot repeat the mistakes of the 1990s. Afghanistan must no longer be the breeding and training ground for Islamist radicals. Afghanistan must not come under the influence of governments of this same ilk. This can only be accomplished if Afghanistan has a strong, popular and democratic central government and the Afghan people live in safety and have the infrastructure to carry on a normal life.

To fail will be to let history repeat itself.

Now, that means we do things differently. Its not quite combat and not quite peacekeeping. It is at times delivering medicine and building schools and at times hunting and killing insurgents. For those who are worried, we do more friendship building and security keeping, but we may still need be aggressive. Sometimes the best way to win hearts and minds is to kick ass and take names. Especially in a country with a history of anarchy that Afghanistan has. First, make sure the Afghanis are safe, then you can fix their house.

Given that I am clearly fully behind this mission, I do have a few questions, especially for the Right Hon. Stephen Harper:

1. Who exactly is saying we should "cut and run?" No Canadian political party is calling for a withdrawl, but merely a debate on the mission and its objectives, to reasure the public of our role. With casualties starting to come in, this might be a good idea. I might also point out that a fair number of Blogging Dippers and Progressive Bloggers support the mission as well. they include:

The Amazing Wonderdog
Hope and Onions
Sinister Thoughts

There are others, judging by the comments sections of this sample. So where is this alleged left-wing conspiracy to make us "cut and run" - I have not been able to find it. I suspect it is a political strawman, meant to smear the opposition, but I might just be paranoid.

2. Why exactly is it we are not going to have a debate on our roll in Afghanistan? Apparently not now and not ever. I personally think an informed public makes the right decisions most of the time. I believe a debate would actually strengthen our resolve and increase support for the mission. I mean, I might by the arguement that a debate now might be superflous, but not in August, when it is time to renew, not next February when this mission ends, not ever for Afghanistan? Not only is that how you loose support of the public, that kind of undemocratic grandstanding is how you lose political allies as well.

Afghanistan is too important to be used as a political football to deflect attention away from Harper's other scandals (see David Emerson) or to demonize your opponents (see question 1) in true Straussian fashion. Refusing to debate will surely polarize the country and cause the mission to lose valuable public support.

Prime Minister Harper did a good thing in visiting the troops, he shouldn't blow it now by playing silly political games and grandstanding.