Saturday, April 21, 2007

Manicheans in Ottawa

Parallel to the ongoing debate in the US over troop withdrawal from Iraq, Ottawa has been going through a similar process, with the Liberal Party proposing a bill that calls for a definite withdrawal from southern Afghanistan in 2009. The Conservative government, however, has refused to say whether it will respect that deadline, with some party members saying that Canada has a duty to remain in Afghanistan until the job is done and that it should stand by the “war on terror” (the British government has endeavoured to ban the term “war on terror,” deeming it unconstructive; it seems, however, that Canada has yet to make that intellectual journey).

Using language that is disturbingly reminiscent of that of a famous (or infamous) president south of the border, chief government whip Jay Hill (Conservative) said that “in a fight against evil, there are no conditions for a withdrawal: you either win or you lose,” buttressing his argument by comparing Canada’s mission in Afghanistan to World War I and World War II.

Setting aside for the moment the altogether false analogies in Hill’s comparisons to the two world wars, his Manichean perspective on the mission in Afghanistan (and, it follows, in the “war on terrorism”) tells us that we are fighting “evil,” as restrictive a description of the enemy as is possible. This presupposes, as some elements within the Canadian government have argued for a while, that terrorists are apolitical and have no grievances, and in the Afghan case specifically, it bans the possibility that some, if not many, elements may not perceive NATO’s presence in their country as that of a benefactor or liberator, as was the case in Vietnam and certainly is the case in Iraq today. These elements are evil, pure and simple.

This point of view implies that these monsters cannot be reasoned with and that a diplomatic approach is impossible. The only solution, therefore, cannot but be a military one. And once a government has decided it cannot lose and has embarked on a purely military way to address the problem, “winning,” if we follow Hill’s logic (note that he fails to provide a definition of the sought end state), means exterminating every single individual who opposes Canada’s and NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, their country.

The problems facing Afghanistan are immense, perhaps intractable. From the little that Canadians are able to gather, progress in the country has been, at best, slow, and the so-called improvements in the quality of life of Afghans trumpeted by Ottawa (see, for example, the Provincial Reconstruction Team section on the Department of National Defense Web site at are not easily quantifiable, are certainly fragile, and could at times verge on propaganda (for example, DND says that 4.6 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, but fails to mention if their quality of life and security upon returning has improved, if they have jobs and so on. Another example is the mention that the economy has tripled, without reference to distribution of wealth. Sixty thousand soldiers have been demobilized, we are told, but we do not know of these individuals have been given jobs in return. All that say that it is easy to throw numbers in such a way as to give the illusion of progress).

Ottawa must engage in a serious debate on whether it should remain committed to Afghanistan. But no matter what decision it ultimately makes, there should be no room for the Bush-like view of reality in terms of “good” and “evil.” The world just doesn’t work that way. Some — perhaps a lot — of people don’t want us there. Others have grievances resulting from a long history or brutal colonialism; others have lost loves ones — including innocent bystanders — on the receiving end of our guns. That anger, that hatred, doesn’t mean they are “evil.”

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