Canada can make a difference

Afghanistan’s so-called marriage law, much discussed in recent months, is a disgrace. It leads us to ask why Canadian and other soldiers are dying to support a government that denies women the freedom to control their own bodies. Reports about warlords in President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, prosperous opium farms and graft cracking the foundation of an economy our aid dollars are supposed to be reinforcing raise similar questions.

But the debate should not be about who is better, Karzai or the Taliban; the debate should be about Canada. What do we stand for, a country of 32 million in a world of more than six billion? Why did we send soldiers to this faraway point on the planet? And if we can answer those questions, and they lead us to see an obligation in Afghanistan, what should we be doing there?

Accidents of old empires favoured Canada with borders that allow us to be small-minded. We pretend the world’s problems are far away, and enjoy the protection of our oceans and the Americans. Our self-image as humanitarians and peacekeepers is sentimentality, not internationalism. The reality is that our development programs are modest, our diplomatic footprint is small and our military suffers from erratic support and direction. We have benefited from good luck, but are now reluctant to share it with others.

Where we are blessed, Afghanistan is cursed. It lies in a tidal zone of struggle between world powers: Persian, British, Soviet, American. Waves of conflict have scoured the country, stripping it of everything except the most hardened political organisms. Afghan villages are fortified barnacles that have survived. They are led by conservatives because most people who are repeatedly attacked tend to become conservative, wary for good reasons of strangers and new ideas. Where we benefited from the Enlightenment, from the struggles between religion and secularism, left and right, Afghanistan has seen the modern world as a legacy of weapons left behind by foreign armies.

Are the rights we enjoy universally relevant?

Great powers are forced by their range of global interests to be hypocrites, doing one thing in one country while advocating the opposite somewhere else. The United States has to justify engagement with Iran, isolation for Cuba and free trade for all unless it threatens U.S. markets. As a small country, Canada has the option of being consistent, of reflecting its principles in its foreign policy. We have a power born of our small size and the protection the Americans are forced to offer us, more or less regardless of our specific policies.

To start, we need to choose between pacifism – with its unavoidable twin, isolationism – and, on the other hand, engagement with an often violent world. Many Canadians deny there is a choice to make. They want Canada’s military restricted to unambiguous peacekeeping and our engagement to consist of worthy development programs. The first of several contradictions in this denial is that our development programs often require protection by someone else’s army.

If principled pacifism and isolationism are rejected, we need to define the terms of our engagement. It is not easy. There is a consensus on what we mean when we talk about good government in Canada: a commitment to rights and freedoms, obligations and the adequate provision of collective goods such as health care and education. Most of all, we mean a commitment to the rule of law, to the ideal that everyone will be subject to the same rules and the same punishments if they break those rules. We never reach that ideal but it serves as a goal and inspiration.

We would show little tolerance for any group in Canada that argued on cultural grounds for the execution of couples who married against their parents’ wishes (as in Afghanistan) or the right of aggrieved cultural majorities to practise genocide on ethnically defined minorities (as in Rwanda). But do we agree that the rights we enjoy are rights that everyone should enjoy? On the left, many insist on accommodating traditional culture; on the right, on leaving people alone. Why should our concern for human rights end for people living on the wrong side of arbitrary borders drawn long ago in Washington, Paris and London? Sometimes foreign intervention works, as did British intervention in Sierra Leone or Vietnamese intervention to overthrow the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.

That doesn’t mean Canada and other states should seek to intervene in every country where substantial human rights abuses exist. There is generally no stomach for such imperial overreach among Western citizens (the Taliban were left in peace until the 9/11 attacks), and in many cases the intervention does not work as intended (think U.S. interventions in Haiti). Opportunities for effective intervention are unusual but, when they are presented, we have no moral justification for refusing to take them on.

It is racist to say, as many on both left and right frequently do, that Afghans are inherently violent, or that democracy can never take root because of the country’s “culture” or “values.” These are excuses for leaving corrupt, extreme or violent elites in charge and letting them run a country in a way we would never recognize as legitimate in Canada. The essence of democracy is that the people choose their leaders and, in Helmand as in Halifax, this is a principle worth defending. We Canadians may collectively not be prepared to sustain the protracted costs, financial and human, of our Afghan mission. But we should not confuse a limited willingness to engage with the world with the self-justifying notion that the majority of Afghans want to be governed by drug-dealing warlords and the Taliban.

Clearly most Afghans today would not vote for legalizing gay marriage or separating religious authority from the state, and many oppose giving women fully equal rights. Today’s Afghan democracy would not be today’s Canadian democracy. But Afghans have shown support for voting by actually going to the polls; they have shown support for the education of girls by enrolling them in schools. In the face of rocks, threats and the ominous click of cell-phone cameras used to aid later abductions and murders, some men and women protested the recent marriage law on the streets of Kabul.

Because we entered this Afghan mission without a sense of ourselves and without a plan for military victory or for reconstruction, we are eroding our chances of reaching any goal. Most Canadians, and nearly all Afghans, agree that Afghanistan could use some of our peace, order and good government. Without peace there can be no order, and without order, no good government. These are not abstractions. There is no point building hospitals when armed groups are free to attack them, or registering girls for school only to make them an easier, concentrated target for suicide bombers.

If we Canadians decide that the rights we enjoy are universally relevant, and that circumstance has provided a reasonable prospect of their export to Afghanistan – in a way sadly absent from Burma, North Korea or much of sub-Saharan Africa – we must think carefully about where we are going, and exactly what we will do.

Making our mission work

To make our mission work: first define it, then commit to it. Defining our mission means accepting that the village and village leaders are the basis of Afghan society, and working to co-opt these men, one by one. This is the only way to reach military and, later, development goals. Our troops have done this, winning support through military protection and public works, but too often they have then been forced to leave, abandoning people who had risked their lives to side with us. Every time this happens we create an image of weakness, of being just another army passing through.

Defining our mission also means remembering an ancient military lesson. Only George W. Bush’s incompetence could have made this lesson seem revolutionary. After years of losing the Iraq war because he didn’t commit enough troops, the success of the “surge” is now mythical and its creator, General Petraeus, has become a latter-day incarnation of the legendary Chinese strategist Sun Tzu. But it’s just common sense: in a counterinsurgency more troops are the first necessary ingredient.

Committing to our mission means that if we are in Kandahar, we should stay in Kandahar. Build support, one village at a time, with consistent occupation, followed by development. That will earn us respect and give the Afghan public concrete reasons to support our presence. Let us be honest about what we are doing, and why.

Committing to our mission also means accepting the deaths that are an inevitable part of war, and forging an understanding of why they are worth incurring. Starting this discussion is the government’s responsibility and both the former Liberal and present Conservative governments deserve harsh criticism for dodging it. What’s the point of democracy if there’s no discussion about something as critical as sending soldiers to die?

Canada can make a difference in Afghanistan. We do not need to spend our time worrying about why the Americans are there; we need to know why we are there, and to plan a mission we can support with confidence. That means an ongoing Canadian presence in whatever part of the country we can afford to occupy, based first on providing security and then on providing for political and physical infrastructure.