Our tragic and pathetic Afghanistan adventure is a dramatic commentary on the state of Canadian politics and democracy. Despite all the evidence that continuing to stay in this benighted country is worse than pointless, despite the fact that the majority of Canadians want to get out sooner rather than later and despite the fact that even Stephen Harper recognizes that the Karzai regime is one of the most repugnant and corrupt Canadians have ever been asked to support we are unable as a nation to extricate ourselves from this deadly mess.
Anti-war protesters hold a rally in front of the White House on Monday, October 5, 2009. (Photo: Sloan/Getty)
If it were just a matter of embarrassment it would be bad enough. But every day we stay there we actually make things worse. As Jack Layton pointed out recently even the “good” we think we are doing is bad. Some Canadians cling to the illusion that training Afghan soldiers will somehow help Afghanistan and its people. Yet as Layton reminded us, over 20 percent of those we train abandon the army.
No one knows what happens to them – until they show up as dead Taliban fighters. What would you do if you were trained as a soldier to support a drug-infested cleptocracy utterly incapable of governing or providing services to the people? Add to that the incredibly low pay, defective or non-existent equipment, and an inept officer class disinterested in proving leadership and it is amazing anyone stays in the army. The Taliban pays more. Given that both employers are utterly repugnant, why not get higher pay?
It is the deep and intractable corruption of the Karzai government which makes a farce out the training program that Canada will now effectively lead. The tragedy is that virtually everyone knows it is bound to fail and everyone is equally committed to lying about it: the soldiers on the ground, their officers and the politicians – Ignatieff and Harper – who support it.
The Afghan war/occupation not only further corrupts and destroys Afghanistan; it corrupts Canadian politics by obliging everyone to be involved in a Big Lie. We have to lie about everything: the likelihood of improvement, the objectives of our partner, the US; the building of democracy, the role of oil and gas pipelines, the liberation of women, Afghanis’ attitude towards Canadian soldiers, our commitment to the Geneva Convention, and the story we tell Canadian soldiers about why they are there. Nothing but lies and everyone one of them corrosive of our political culture and international image.
And the one thing that many Canadians cling to in support of the war is being also in doubt. Canadians are understandably supportive of individual Canadian soldiers because they are Canadians – our neighbours or the sons and daughters of people we know – and the residual respect they retain from their peacekeeping past. “Our” government is asking them to do an ugly job.
But the image of the honourable and ethical soldier which forms the core of Canadian view of the Canadian military is under repeated scrutiny and increasing doubt. The whole issue of Canadian soldiers handing over Afghan prisoners – many of them innocent of anything other than being Afghans – to the brutal and torture-prone Afghan intelligence service raised serious questions about the behaviour and ethics of the rank and file soldier.
Even the lowest ranking soldier has a duty not only to obey the Geneva Convention – and first knowing what it says – but also to immediately expose the breaking of the convention by anyone in the military. Given the widespread practice of turning over prisoners to the National Directorate of Security (the Afghan intelligence service) – and at a much higher rate than other NATO soldiers – it is clear than dozens if not hundreds of rank and file soldiers completely failed in their duty. They were, in fact, complicit in war crimes.
Then two years ago a soldier from the military’s special-forces unit, JTF2, approached the army’s ombudsman with serious allegations of military “war crimes.” In his complaint he suggested that the only solution to the problem was to withdraw the unit entirely from the conflict. The Ombudsman’s office described the soldier’s allegations: “He adds that he feels more and more of his peers are being encouraged to commit war crimes by the chain of command. …He says this intervention was not aimed at having ‘the guys who pulled the trigger’ investigated. They are being incited to do these things by the chain of command.”
The chain of command now has about as much credibility s the chain of Command of the RCMP – the other band of morally-challenged Canadians who have the legal authority to shoot and kill people. Both sets of officers seem to have lost their ethical core. The most recent example of moral failure is the military’s blatant whitewash of its actions as exposed by a former Afghan translator for the military.
The translator, Ahmadshah Malgarai, testified before a Commons committee in 2010 that in June, 2007 Canadian soldiers shot an unarmed Afghan teen in the back of the head. They then tried to cover it up. He also told the committee:
“I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS [National Directorate of Security] when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear. If the interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture.”
He also made allegations against named individuals, including a foreign affairs civilian, about their presence during an incident in which an Afghan Colonel refused to take custody of a wounded detainee – but offered to shoot him instead. The military investigators claim they found no evidence to back any of the allegations. Yet more lies?
Of course it is Malgarai’s word against the military’s but in observing nine years of involvement in Afghanistan it’s a lot easier to believe Malgarai than it is the army brass. Why would he put himself at such risk if he were not telling the truth? Malgarai claims his identity was revealed to the Taliban as punishment for his allegations and that subsequent death threats forced him to flee the country. I believe him.
Dishonourable wars – and most are – dishonour everyone involved and make liars out of the most senior people justifying the conflict. This war is incredibly destructive not only of the country being attacked and occupied but it corrodes every Canadian institution involved: the military, the civil service, Parliament, political leaders, the media and those in academia recruited to supply justification for an unjustifiable war.
This will be the legacy Canada’s participation in Afghanistan. When it is finally over in 2014 – almost three times as long as any other Canadian conflict – the sober analysis will leave a bad taste in Canadian mouths for a very long time. That is why Layton’s message is the only one that withstands the moral test: a complete NATO and Western military withdrawal places the future of Afghanistan back in the hands of Afghans where it belongs. Would it be pretty? Hardly. There is no good solution. But the alternative is ten more years of failure, lack of government services, corruption, civilian death, election fraud, heroin exports, and the corrosion of our own values and institutions.