Friday, May 23, 2008

In the National Post, About Afghanistan: 'It's Our Generation's Spanish Civil War'

In today's National Post, where I set out the left-wing case for supporting Canada's engagement in Afghanistan, the headline picks up from my reference to a remark by the British linguist and historian Fred Halliday, who casts the historic “anti-war” misjudgment in these terms:

“To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century.”
I go on to observe:

What this means is that the heirs and successors of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion — the brave Canadian volunteers who went to Spain to fight Franco’s fascists — are to be found today not in the main ranks of the left, but among the courageous young men and women of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the Vandoos, and all those other Canadian regiments that are holding the banner high in Afghanistan. It means that Canadian soldiers, and not Canada’s “anti-war” politicians and polemicists, are at the vanguard of the historic mission of the left. I would have been proud of those soldiers anyway, but as someone who counts himself among the left-wing founders of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, I am doubly proud of them.

A much more elaborate set of arguments along these lines unfolds in a conversation I had recently with Stan Persky, at Dooney's Cafe.

The Solidarity Committee first came to the Post's attention here.

To be clear, the Committee is by no means an exclusively "left-wing" group, as I hope my Post essay makes plain. We have all kinds of members, including soldiers: The photograph above - some kids clowning around in Kandahar - was taken by one of our more recent members, Tylere Couture, who works with a Civilian-Military (CIMIC) operation of the Canadian-led Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. Keep an eye on the CASC site in the coming days for Tylere's reports, and more of his photography.

13 Comments:

Blogger Roland Dodds said...

A really admirable piece Transmontanus.

3:50 PM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

An opponent to our mission is taken on, superbly, at Milnet.ca.

Mark
Ottawa

4:09 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

For the Canadians who risk their lives in Afghanistan -- from soldiers to aid workers -- as well as their families, most of these arguments were accepted long before the decision was made to sign up.

There is a problem that the goals of the mission remain to be defined. But if we assume these goals will be defined, or even magically materialize as we proceed, there still remains one question lacking an answer. For those who have the most at stake -- who are not theorists, partisans, ideologues or even idealists, but who are the soldiers, workers or their loved ones, for whom the cost is flesh and blood, this question is the only one that matters. The question is, is the goal attainable.

Without this question being answered, all the rest is so much maundering. Anyone who risks the lives of others without being able to answer this is irresponsible, and I suggest that all those who are as committed to Afghanistan as Mr. Glavin should either put aside their keyboards and go, or send their own sons and daughters.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

'I suggest that all those who are as committed to Afghanistan as Mr. Glavin should either put aside their keyboards and go, or send their own sons and daughters."

This is the stupidest argument one can make against the mission. It's the one to make when all else fails. It's a passive-aggressive insult, and it makes sense as an argument only in the most vulgar, far-right, extremist libertarian context, which is where hippies often end up - it's the proposition that there should be no national or collective action, just individual actions. The bit about "send their own sons and daughters" is a giveaway. Nobody is sending their sons or daughters to Afghanistan. The soldiers there are grownups, and they are there of their own free will.

The suggestion that "the goals of the mission remain to be defined" is, similarly, merely stupid. The goals of the mission are defined by the benchmarks set out in clear and plain language in the Afghanistan Compact.

"The question is, is the goal attainable."

Yes. Obviously. The goals set out in the Afghanistan Compact are being achieved, slowly and painfully, much to the chagrin and the the disgrace of the "anti-war" crowd.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

Glavin wrote: "Nobody is sending their sons or daughters to Afghanistan. The soldiers there are grownups, and they are there of their own free will."

This parent of two soldiers, whose family gatherings are spent debating this difficult mission, and who has read numerous academic and popular books about Afghanistan and attended numerous academic conferences and community events on this issue, responds to Glavin's knee-jerk vitriol: True, soldiers are adults. But they're not robots. They're part of a family, part of a neighbourhood, part of a democratic country. Sending them to war -- and Afghanistan is a war -- is, ultimately, a democratic decision. The quality of the debate and the clarity of the goals are part of balancing this risk. As a parent of those who may put their lives on the line, so others may live, I have a stake in this debate and refused to be arbitrarily dismissed.

Glavin wrote, "The suggestion that "the goals of the mission remain to be defined" is, similarly, merely stupid." He says the answer to my question, is the goal attainable, "obvious."

Calling "stupid" a debater who raises an issue that many respected analysts of Afghanistan also raise, is not worthy of debate, and brings Glavin's credibility into question. Many big thinkers do not at all think the answer is "obvious."

Recruitment in the CAF is the biggest issue facing it after Afghanistan; the attrition rate is horrific. If Glavin et al want Canadians to sign on and shoulder this mission, I suggest as a first step raising the level of debate and answering the questions of those who care about the men and women who risk their lives. Suggesting that those who ask questions are "vulgar, far-right, extremist libertarian(s)" or "hippies" is less than helpful, and also less than I've come to expect from the usually erudite, thoughtful Glavin.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

I did not suggest that "those who ask questions" are 'vulgar, far-right, extremist libertarian(s) or hippies', and I won't be accused of doing any such thing. I was referring specifically to your gratuitous insult in the form of the proposition that those of us who support Canada's engagement in Afghanistan "should either put aside their keyboards and go, or send their own sons and daughters." I'll say it again: The only way that makes any sense is as a vulgar, far-right libertarian argument.

I have many many questions of my own, and since that National Post essay appeared I've answered at least two dozen respectful emails, some from people who more or less agree with me, and some from people who don't - but almost all of these people have managed to express their own questions and doubts without insulting me.

I won't be "arbitrarily dismissed," either. And just because you don't share my perspective doesn't make my view "knee jerk vitriol." It happens to be my view that it is stupid to say "the goals of the mission remain to be defined"; if you've really informed yourself as well as you claim, you would have known this to be a silly thing to say.

I'm afraid I have lost my patience about the shallow level of debates in this country about Afghanistan, especially all the ludicrous "anti-war" gibberish. I regret that I have no tolerance left for people who insult me rather than engage me in the observations I make about the struggle there.

I wish your children all the very best, and hope they remain safe from all harm.

5:34 PM  
Blogger Deborah said...

It is NOT shallow to question the viability of the Afghanistan mission, no matter how it is defined. Afghanistan is burdened by its ancient history of tribal and international warfare, a modern history of military failure by the Russians, the recent and ongoing history of the American failures after initiating the mission (as NATO's entirely-justified response to 9/11), and ongoing issues of governance and entrenched religious views that are apparently in conflict with any reading of human rights. Its effectively-open border with Pakistan means the mission target must include Pakistan, which no organization, from the UN to NATO, has indicated it has the stomach to deal with. It's all too, too much for this space and so I offer merely two examples.
A recent Globe and Mail story,"Corruption eats away at Afghan government," can be found here:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080502.afghan03/BNStory/International/

Reporters Without Borders, an international press rights organization, is one of the many organizations voicing concern about abuses of human rights by the Afghanistan government that Canadian soldiers are dying to support. The press organization for example is alarmed at "the growing number of attacks and threats against women journalists," and outraged that a young male journalism student faces a death sentence for asking a question in class about women's rights under Islam:
http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27103

We can all agree that everyone in Canada is well-intentioned. But the questions remain. What are we trying to do in Afghanistan? Can it be done?

Dismissing these critical questions dishonours the soldiers, and aid workers, who bear the highest cost.

Talk is cheap. Unfortunately, life and death decisions are being made on the basis of cheap talk -- and in Parliament almost no talk at all -- by people who send others to risk their lives -- and who do not heed the tragic lessons of history.

"Ludicrous "anti-war" gibberish?" No, it's called democratic debate.

6:32 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"It is NOT shallow to question the viability of the Afghanistan mission, no matter how it is defined."

I never said it was. What I wrote was that the goals of the mission - meaning the ISAF mission, which is the mission Canadian soldiers are part of - are set out in the Afghanistan Compact, and they are being achieved, slowly and painfully.

One would have to be a clairvoyant to know for certain whether the Afghanistan Compact objectives will be fully realized, and how long that might take. I'm no clairvoyant.

I am well aware of the problems you set out. I am well aware of the Globe story you refer to, and am well aware also of the case of Sayed Parvez Kambaksh, the young journalist you mention; the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee has protested his treatment, and in our small way, we've tried to raise awareness about his case.

"But the questions remain. What are we trying to do in Afghanistan? Can it be done?"

No. The answer to the first question does not "remain." It is a matter of public record. It is set out explicitly in the Afghanistan Compact. The answer to the second question is, I believe - based on all the available evidence to date - yes.

Can we (should we?) remake Afghanistan in Canada's image and likeness? No, on both counts.

"Talk is cheap."

Indeed. Talking without resort to the facts, and with gratuitous insults, is cheaper still.

There are all kinds of "tragic lessons of history" at work here, and ludicrous "anti-war" gibberish does not contribute to rational democratic debate. It subtracts from it. On this, I would hope we might agree.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

I respect what Dorothy has to say. But believe Canada has our hearts in respect. I have been there and believe that we have human rights in perspective.
I'm too old to be of any use over there as much as I'd love to serve. I know children of my friends and friends of my children who have served in Afghanistan who believe in the mission. One of them sent back an Afghan wardrobe for his infant son and it warmed my heart to see him dressed in traditional Afghan haberdashery.
It's all about human rights, and damn the religious zealots and political ideologues. We owe a huge debt to the Afghans for what we made them suffer for all those years. We're all human beings.
Please read their history. Then read Nelofer Pazira's Bed of Red Flowers, Christina Lamb's books and journalistic reports, and The Kite Runner (and watch the movie, a wonderful allegory) and you will appreciate that our soldiers are not fighting a war in the GWB sense but rather keeping the bigots from harming the innocents.

12:10 AM  
Blogger IceClass said...

Nice work Terry.
Funny where those bloody hippies end up eh?

8:09 AM  
Blogger The New Centrist said...

Some on the left consider Iraq in the same light:

"Fallujah is the Guernica of the Arab world"
--Tariq Ali

¿Viva la Insurgencía?: The Spanish Civil War and the Legacy of the Totalitarian International Brigades
http://newcentrist.wordpress.com/2007/07/06/%C2%BFviva-la-insurgencia-the-spanish-civil-war-and-the-legacy-of-the-totalitarian-international-brigades/

I don't hold the volunteers in the same light as I used to but I enjoyed reading your article. An important point to note is the forces known as the "insurgents" in the Spanish Civil War were the fascists.

8:12 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Kurt, Iceclass, Centrist:

Further to the Spain-Afghanistan comparison, this is the fully quote from Halliday:

"My view is that the kind of position which the New Left Review and Tariq [Ali] have adopted in terms of the conflict in the Middle East is an extremely reactionary, right-wing one. It starts with Afghanistan. To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world, since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century. It was the kitchen in which the contradictions of the contemporary world, and many of the violent evils of the century, were cooked and then spread out. Just as Italian and German fascism trained in Spain for the broader conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean,the militant jihadi Islamists, of whom bin Laden was a part, received their training, their primal experiences, in Afghanistan. They have been carrying out this broad jihad across the Middle East and elsewhere ever since, including, of course, the attacks of September 11th. You cannot understand this unless you go back to Afghanistan in the 1980s.

"But who was responsible? Pakistani intelligence, Saudi Arabia and the United States. Read Bob Woodward’s book on Casey, The Veil, or Steven Cole’s book on Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The U.S. was deeply implicated. My view is that anybody who could not see that issue then, or in retrospect, is objectively on the Right. And I think Tariq is objectively on the Right. He’s colluded with the most reactionary forces in the region, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. He has given his rhetorical support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq—who have no interest in democracy or in progress for the people of Iraq whatsoever, whether it’s the Baathists, with their record of 30 years of dictatorship, or the foreign Sunnis with their own authoritarian project. The position of the New Left Review is that the future of humanity lies in the back streets of Fallujah."

8:38 AM  
Blogger L said...

How about this for an attainable, near-term goal: drive the Scholars from the south of Afghanistan. Seal the border with Pakistan. Stabilize the Republic so at least one part of the Muslim world has its freedom. And be ready to confront the worldwide Islamist/clerical-fascist whenever another front opens: as it will...?

11:58 AM  

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