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Afghanistan & Canadian Interests

Spring 2009 Nez À Nez

Afghanistan & Canadian Interests

Proposition: Canada (still) has national interests at stake in Afghanistan

Gordon Smith is the Director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria (in favour): Of course, Canada has critical national interests at stake in Afghanistan. Those interests very much parallel those announced by President Obama on March 27, 2009. This means – although few Canadians have thought about it – that Canada also has critical national interests in neighbouring Pakistan. That is a subject, however, for another day. Al Qaeda has not been defeated. Indeed, until recently, Al Qaeda held two Canadians in North Africa. Al Qaeda poses a threat to Canada – directly and indirectly. This cannot be ignored, nor can dealing with it responsibly be turned over to others.

It is in Canada’s interest that Afghanistan and the bordering regions of Pakistan not again be used as a base from which global terrorist attacks can be launched: think of London, Madrid, Bali and Mumbai, as well as 9/11. This is Canada’s foremost interest in the region. And this entails continuing to make a military contribution, as well as assisting in strengthening Afghanistan’s government and its institutions so that the country can take care of itself in a few years. It is also in Canada’s interest to see stronger cooperation amongst the countries in the region, including China and Iran. Canada needs, however, to improve its focus on the essential elements.

Saeed Rahnema is an award-winning professor of political science at York University (against): While it would be pointless to refute that Canada now has national interests in Afghanistan, it is important to recognize why this is the case. To perhaps state the obvious, the wrong policies of the past have consequences for the present and for the future. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien accepted some involvement in Afghanistan to make up for its lack of support for America’s invasion of Iraq. As ill-advised as this was, the involvement was less extensive than is the case today. But Paul Martin expanded Canada’s military presence there, to be followed by Stephen Harper’s almost enthusiastic policy of committing even more Canadian troops – and casualties – to Afghanistan.

If the Canadian government had not given in to the pressures of the Bush Administration, and not involved itself militarily in Afghanistan, today Canada would not have a ‘critical national interest at stake’ in that country. In the same manner, if the Canadian government had joined the ‘coalition’ to invade Iraq, now Iraq would also be of ‘critical national interest’ to Canada. Unfortunately, Canada now has much at stake in Afghanistan in the face of the serious threats from the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Canada cannot achieve much by continuing what it has been doing to date. With the new US surge in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the Obama Administration is pushing Canada, among other NATO allies, to not only continue, but also to increase its military presence there. Canada should not give in to these pressures. The US government created this mess, and it is not up to Canada to clean it up. For most of the last century, Canada was able to establish a strong track record and reputation of peacekeeping and peacemaking, and as a nation it needs to regain its independent foreign policy and return to that tradition.

By getting involved in a combat mission, and thereby walking away from its history of peacekeeping, Canada has lost much of its international reputation and prestige. On a BBC panel in Brussels on 28 March, 2009, prior to the Hague international conference on Afghanistan, in response to a statement about the American position and Canada’s plans in Afghanistan, the Swedish Foreign Minister stated: “Canada is the US!” – instigating loud laughter among the international audience. This is the new image of Canada, produced as a result of the wrong policies of the present Conservative government – contrary to the far more respectable global image in the age of Trudeau or even Chrétien. Canada can change this image, and would, as a consequence, be far more effective in its traditional role. Canada would be in a much better position to help its allies by focussing its efforts and policies on helping the people of Afghanistan establish a democratic and secular state through involvement in training, education and development.

GS: I agree that we begin with where we are. But I am not sure that, even if we had not committed troops to Afghanistan, we would today have no interests at stake. When the US is threatened, Canada has no choice but to respond. The alternative is that the Canadian-US border looks like the US-Mexican border.

But I would argue that we are not only threatened by Al Qaeda indirectly, but directly as well. Certainly that is what Al Qaeda spokesmen maintain.

The ‘war on terrorism’ made no sense. Democracies defending themselves against a threat posed – through much of the world by Al Qaeda – is a matter of national interest. The problem will not go away if it is simply ignored.

The US made major mistakes when Bush decided to go into Iraq, rather than finishing off Osama Bin Laden when there was an opportunity to do so, but to say “the US has created this mess” is a tremendous oversimplification.

I am all in favour of an independent foreign policy for Canada, and in favour of peacekeeping and peacemaking, but sometimes this involves the use of force. Helping build democracy, better governance, education and development are all good things to do. But they require a modicum of security. And security is on the decrease in Afghanistan.

Moreover, there is, as mentioned, the very serious matter of Pakistan. Even if all foreign forces exited Afghanistan tomorrow, does that mean that the Taliban and Al Qaeda would down tools in the border regions, and now also Karachi? I think not.

SR: To understand the complexities of the situation and avoid “oversimplification,” we first need to overcome historical misperceptions. The American “mess” I refer to has a much longer history than Bush not “finishing off Osama Bin Laden” in 2003 or so. It goes back to the latter part of 1970s – to the old superpower rivalries – when the Americans mobilized, unleashed and supported Islamic fundamentalists – among them their ally at the time, Osama Bin Laden. It is an indisputable fact that, after the Soviet defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan, Americans too abandoned the country, leaving it in ruins and in the hands of religious/tribal warlords and the influence of the corrupt Pakistani military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). And the mess did not end there, but rather continued after the US invasion of Afghanistan. The Americans’ full support in bringing back to power the fundamentalist Mujahedeen and criminal warlords, and putting in place an unpopular puppet government, are cases in point. The Pakistan situation is also part of this same mess. In both countries, Americans sought allies among reactionary forces and the military, and never tried to look for democratic and secular progressive forces. The mess is undeniably American, and unfortunately, Canada, among others, was dragged into it.

It is also undeniably true that the world now faces a zealous adversary in Afghanistan and Pakistan – an adversary which, given the chance, would impose its obscurantist worldview. The formal alliance between the Taliban and Al Qaeda needs to be confronted very seriously. My point is that Canada, despite its tarnished image, can play a more important and more effective role in Afghanistan, thereby leaving the military operation to Americans, who can easily replace two battalions or so. If the Americans ‘win’ in Afghanistan – whatever that means – the only way to ensure that the country does not once again slip back into the hands of the Taliban or their successors is to support, develop and invest in the foundations of democracy. Canada should, and still could, support its allies through projects, programmes and efforts in Afghanistan that focus on economic and social development.

Canada should leave the military operations and the massive associated human and financial costs, and try to regain its traditional role and global status. It also needs to get a better and more critical understanding of its development efforts, many of which have been wasted for lack of a clear vision and institutional constraints.

GS: I fully agree with your history, Saeed. And we both agree that the real question is what should be done now, and by whom. My view is that Canada should end the current level and form of military engagement in 2011, but that it should be prepared to stay on militarily in a training role. Canada need not remain in a ‘search and destroy’ role. There will be security needs, however, and we have a responsibility to make a contribution. It would be too easy to say that we will only focus on democracy-building and development. Indeed, there are real questions which need to be asked as to how to do the latter effectively. Democracy and development require security.

We also need to be more clear-headed about the prospects of separating Al Qaeda elements from the Taliban, and ‘extreme’ Taliban from ‘accidental’ or ‘opportunistic’ Taliban. And we need to think though what Canada can do (non-militarily) in Pakistan. As a member of NATO, the G8 and the increasingly important G20, Canada has a voice and some influence. Indeed, if it plays its cards well – working with other like-minded governments – it can have considerable influence. And while Canada does indeed have a history of peacekeepers, it also certainly has a long and proud tradition of a people who have fought where its interests and those of its closest friends are at stake.

SR: There is no doubt that, without security, and in face of the brutalities of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, no development project can become operational. You build schools for girls, they come and blow them up and summarily execute the teachers, as they have done so many times. (We should, of course, remember that this was also the policy of the Mujahedeen warlords in the 1980s – the same groups that are now in power.) No doubt, the situation is very complex, and it takes time and the right policies to resolve it gradually.

One policy which is lurking around these days is the search for ‘good’ Islamist fundamentalists. The policy of rapprochement with ‘good’ Taliban, which points to the miserable failures of the American, Canadian and other NATO allies in Afghanistan, is misguided. It involves major concessions and compromises to these backward elements, and has serious implications for human rights – among them the rights of women.

In terms of zealotry and ruthlessness, there are few differences between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and indeed among the Taliban themselves. Obviously, I am speaking of their leadership, and not the operatives and orderlies who easily change sides depending on who is more powerful. This idea was first put forward by Hamid Karzai, who wishes to stay in power at all costs. The latest episode in this fiasco was his attempt to appease the Hezara and the Taliban through the legalization of one of the most archaic aspects of the Shari’a regarding rape within marriage. His move, however, created a backlash and led to condemnations by most NATO members.

The policy of appeasing the Taliban was also followed by the Pakistani government in the Swat border region. Western governments, while they may rhetorically condemn these legalized sanctions, in reality do not seem to care much insofar as these can reduce their burdens in the region. This is where we witness the amazing hypocrisy of advocating ‘democracy for the Muslim world’ – while in practice giving concessions to Islamists and ignoring the secular forces of these societies, whose existence is even denied. We have witnessed this throughout the region.

In Pakistan, where, as a result of more extensive and longer-standing development processes than those in Afghanistan, secular forces are stronger, the gradual

Talibanization of some regions of the country has created a major backlash. After the recent public lashing of a young woman, we saw a series of demonstrations by women and men condemning the action and demanding the suppression of the Taliban.

One can only hope that the post-Bush US Administration under Obama will recognize that aligning with corrupt civilian and military functionaries, and appeasing religious fundamentalists, will not solve the region’s ever-expanding crises. Empowering secular, progressive forces is the only solution to this ordeal. We should hope that the Canadian government will also do the same, and leave its lingering Bush-era foreign policy behind.


Gordon Smith is the Director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria. He has held a number of senior positions in the Canadian government, including Ambassador to NATO and Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister.

Saeed Rahnema is an award-winning professor of political science at York University. He has served as the Director of the York School of Public Policy and Administration, as a member of UN Development Program, and as a Director of the Middle East Economic Association.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press/Stephen Thorne)

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