Saturday, April 28, 2007

Canada and Afghanistan: The Vancouver Debate

Thursday night’s debate in Vancouver renewed my hope that there is a way forward in this country, out of the fog of the New Democratic Party’s well-meaning incoherence, and out of the mire of the so-called anti-war movement, towards some kind of a consensus on how we might rededicate ourselves to the people of Afghanistan.

The debate, at the Alibi Room on Alexander Street, was a bracing contrast to the impression you get from the mainstream media, and from The Tyee comments-box bedlam, for that matter. There actually is a civil, intelligent, non-partisan and vigorous conversation about Afghanistan underway among Canadian liberals, progressives and leftists.

A few of the usual “anti-imperialist” gibberish-mongers showed up Thursday evening, but those who didn’t scurry away even before the discussion began (wouldn’t want to actually learn something, would we?) slithered out long before it was over (suffering the trauma of hearing overwhelming evidence of how wrong they are, I expect).

It was a good crowd, and I was especially happy to notice that a strong anti-fascist contingent had turned out, from across the spectrum - Ian King, and Jonathon Narvey, for instance. My happiness may have been slightly enhanced by the free whiskey that was made available to me but I would have been happy nonetheless.

My fellow panelists were Jared Ferrie, Lauryn Oates and Michael Byers.

Jared is a brave and thoughtful young journalist who’s just returned from his second sojourn in Afghanistan. Lauryn is a committed and articulate young women’s rights activist who’s spent the past several years doing difficult duty in Afghanistan, bringing desperately-needed resources to the women of that country. Byers is the academic director of the Liu Centre for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, and a senior adviser to the NDP on these kinds of questions. Lauryn stole the show.
Of course, I would say that. I’ve long been clear about my conviction that the kind of contribution we should be making as Canadian civilians – as trade unionists, progressives, feminists, socialists, and so on – is precisely the kind of inspiring and dedicated work that Lauren has dedicated her life to doing.

Jared was also tremendous. Jared cleaves to the undiminished virtue of relying upon facts and evidence to make sense of what’s happening in Afghanistan, and he persists in demanding answers to the important and uncomfortable questions - What would happen if we actually did bring the troops home? – that the “left” in this country is sadly reluctant to ask.

Michael was not exactly at the top of his game, but he should be forgiven for this, since he’d spent the week on a related file in which he speaks with authority and he'd been working night and day helping the national press gallery in its not-unjustified effort to unseat Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor over the Taliban-prisoners affair.
Michael was also working at a bit of a disadvantage, being alone among the four of us on the panel on such questions as whether Canada should encourage negotiations with the Taliban, and whether Canada should withdraw from counter-insurgency operations against the Taliban. At times, Michael was not exactly clear what he was proposing, and the crowd wasn’t with him, either. That said, he held up his end quite well.

What follows is a synopsis of my main arguments.

Afghanistan is on the front lines of a war that has been grinding its bloody way through the Muslim masses of the world for some time now. It is a war being waged by theocratic and "secular" fascists against modernity, against democracy, against the Jews, against the emancipation of women, against the liberation of gay people, and against everything that we, as Canadian socialists, progressives, liberals and democrats, have ever loved and believed in and fought for.

The Taliban were and are as savage, cruel, misogynist, violent and cunning as any of the battalions the enemy has deployed, and the people of Afghanistan continue to suffer their depredations. Canada has been honoured with the privilege and the opportunity to be fighting this war on the side of the Afghan people, at the request of the Afghan people, shoulder to shoulder with the Afghan people.

To my dismay, the "left" in Canada has by and large failed to properly comprehend the nature of this struggle. To put it charitably, the Canadian "left" has not demonstrated any noticeable leadership in this struggle, and indeed has, with notable exceptions, failed to join the struggle.
It is commonplace for popular NDP pamphleteers to engage in such disgraceful histrionics as to call the struggle in Afghanistan "an occupation being resisted by indigenous militants" and to casually dismiss as "lies" the great victories that Afghans have won, and continue to win, against overwhelming odds. The Taliban persists in beheading teachers and burning down hundreds of schools every year, but even so, enrolment among Afghan girls has gone up from less than six per cent - mostly in private, home-based operations - to 40 per cent. But it is a "lie" that Afghan girls are even going to school, we are told.
It has gotten so that well-regarded members of this country's leftish nomenklatura can get away with arguing that Canada and its NATO allies should pull out of Afghanistan - even though the likely consequence would be “a fascistic theocracy.” This open admission of moral bankruptcy will not cause you the slightest embarassment in fashionable Toronto parlours. Indeed, you will be drawn more affectionately to the bosom of Canada's pseudo-left commentariat.
All the better for your "left-wing" credentials, too, if you cite as your authority Eric Margolis, the millionaire Taliban-admirer and founding editor of Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine who you can now read at your leisure in the pages of Canadian Dimension. Endorsed by NDP leader Jack Layton as "thoughtful, persistent, challenging and unflinching," Canadian Dimension is the primary megaphone of a certain James Petras, who will be happy to tell you that Jewish bankers run American foreign policy and lured America into its Iraqi debacle. Petras will also explain how the culprits behind last year's "Mohammed cartoons" conniptions, which involved embassy-burnings and riots and at least 139 deaths, were - you guessed it - Mossad agents.
I'm sorry, but to notice this kind of thing, and to write about it, is not to "go over to the dark side." You don't have to be a neoconservative or a reactionary or a "gatekeeper to the Ziocon hegemony" to point out these things or to observe that the NDP has demonstrated an astonishing incoherence on the question of Afghanistan from the very beginning. It is not traitorous to find it difficult to stifle a chuckle at the spectacle of the NDP, for all its complaints about American influence in Canadian politics, conducting its affairs on the matter of Afghanistan as though it were a wholly-owned subsidiary of the American counterculture left.
The NDP started out in all this by opposing Canada's participation in the worldwide effort to drive the Taliban out of Kabul. Then, while propping up Paul Martin's minority Liberal government, the NDP demonstrated some tepid support for the Afghan mission. Then the NDP's Jack Layton declared the he opposed Canada pulling its weight in NATO's plan (first articulated by the Afghan Women's Network) to drive the Taliban from its remaining redoubts in Afghanistan's southern provinces.
Then came last year's NDP convention, where delegates adopted the exact wording of a brand-name American slogan referring to the U.S. occupation of Iraq: "Support Our Troops. Bring 'Em Home." It was billed as the NDP's "clearest message yet", but the NDP got its own convention resolution completely wrong. The NDP statement was that delegates had voted for an "immediate withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan," when in fact delegates had voted for the retreat of Canadian troops from the southern counter-insurgency operations. Then Layton surprised his party's "anti-war" supporters -- by saying that no new policy was adopted at the NDP convention.
As recently as April 19, on this very issue, the NDP completely contradicted itself, at least three times, in an official party statement about its position. You can't blame the right-wing news media for this. The NDP statement itself, paradoxically, also blasted the Liberals for engaging in a "flip flop" in its Afghanistan policy and said Canadians were demanding "clarity" on the Afghanistan question. This was just after the NDP had voted with the ruling Conservatives against a Liberal motion calling for Canada to rotate out of its NATO counter-insurgency role in the Afghan south by 2009.
But it doesn't matter much what I think about all this. What matters is what the people of Afghanistan think, and here's what we know about that.
Around the same time, another public opinion poll showed that 85 per cent of Afghans said living conditions had improved since the Taliban's rout, 75 per cent said security had improved, and 87 percent said the overthrow of the Taliban was a good thing. And by the way, as for the Afghan people being irredeemably backward and priest-ridden and reactionary: Nearly 90 per cent of Afghans believe women should be educated and should have the right to vote.
So let's be honest. Everything Canada has fought for in Afghanistan, everything our soldiers have died for, everything Afghanistan's women have won, and everything Afghanistan's progressives and democrats have won, will be lost if the so-called “anti-war” movement gets its way.
Last year, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Canada, Omar Samad, had this to say about the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan: “Their goal is to use time and a battle of nerves to tire us, to intimidate us, to make us doubt our objectives, to sow dissension and to turn it into a contentious political debate. In Afghanistan, this debate does not exist.”
It should be painfully obvious to observant grown-ups that the "anti-war" movement in Canada is playing a similar role on Canada's left: Intimidate, sow dissension, sow doubt, and turn the duty of solidarity we owe our Afghan comrades into a matter of "contentious political debate." That debate does not exist in Afghanistan, and it is disgraceful that the debate exists in Canada, especially on the Canadian left.
There is much debate to be had, alright, but our Afghan allies should be leading it, and we have anti-war, progressive, socialist Afghan counterparts to whom we might turn for guidance. And I don't mean RAWA, which by now almost certainly has a greater membership among the rich, white liberal ladies of Santa Barbara, California, than among the women of Afghanistan.
Most notably, among the Pashtun people of the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands who remain the Taliban's greatest victims, Canadian social-democrats have their counterparts - the young men and women of the Pakhtunkwa Milli Awami Party, who recognize the Taliban, not NATO, as the war-maker and the aggressor. You can bet that the NDP has not consulted with the Pakhtunkhwa, or sought their counsel in any way. You can bet that the NDP hasn't even heard of them.
You can betray our Afghan comrades if you like. Ignore the Pakhtunkhwa, ignore the Afghan Women's Network, ignore the United Nations, ignore W4WA. For your leadership and counsel on these thorny questions, go ahead and follow George Galloway and Zafar Bangash and Eric Walberg and all the rest. I ask only one thing. Spare me your pleadings.
Stop pretending you're a liberal, or a progressive, or a socialist, or a democrat, because you're none of these things. Just look at yourself. Spiffy new uniform you're wearing. Nice boots.
The rest of us are moving on. Just be careful you don't get in the way.
. . . Anyway, that's more or less what I said last Thursday. And I'm pleased to report that I was warmly received. . . or at least I made no new enemies. I made a few new friends, honoured some old friends, and enjoyed myself altogether.
Thanks to Richard Warnica and Vanessa Richmond who did a tremendous job organizing and moderating the panel. Mark Collins, who contributes here and here, deserves my thanks for his advice on certain complicated aspects of military policy. Thanks also to General Theory of Rubbish for some important sleuthing last week, and to Dave Oullette, whose La convergence entre la gauche radicale canadienne et les islamistes progresse advances last week's inquiries.


Blogger dirk604 said...

I agree it was quite an interesting talk.I was very pleased to have finally "met" you.
I wish I could have hung around a bit longer and talked...
Your blog entry was quit long and there are many points I would have liked to respond to.
But this is just not the right format.
I have found that trying to "debate" on-line is just to cumbersome and often things get misunderstood,which leads to further misunderstandings and assumptions.
Anyway,again thanks for the book,perhaps one day we might be able to have face to face,over a drink,or in some other setting more conducive to engaging conversation.

4:45 PM  
Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

Let's hope, Terry, that you are right and Canada will not leave Afghanistan. Your report really encourages.

I hope that the whiskey was drinkable, too.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

The problem is that, our media based in Toronto, wants Canada out.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Nice to have met you too, Dirk. And yes, one day again, properly, over a drink.

And Snoops: The whiskey was John Jameson's, which is more than adequate. I suppose it would come in handy in that Greenlandik igloo if the Elders were to order me there. After reading what's happened to Sandmonkey, I'm reminded that I have nothing much to complain about at all.

And Steve's right, too.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Roundhead said...

Hello -

fine comments on the Afghanistan debate, from a left-perspective.

I'm curious, you used the term "forces of darkness" to refer to so-called neo-cons.

Do you think these forces are darker than those of the taliban, or were using this term ironically?

8:39 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Roundhead: Ye read it too quickly, lad. I was just having fun with the accusation that I have "gone over to the dark side" by noticing, publicly , what I consider to be certain fatal weaknesses in the NDP approach to the Afghanistan question. For these and similar observations I have been called a neoconservative, an "Aspernazi whore," and many other things, my personal favourite being "Left Gatekeeper to the Ziocon Hegemony."


9:48 AM  
Blogger Roundhead said...

thanks Terry...

"Aspernazi"? nice.

I'm hardly a fan of the Aspers, but really really low that one.

11:06 AM  
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