Tuesday, August 12, 2008

First, A Brave Soldier's Story. Then, We Examine A Delusion.

My decision to deploy to Afghanistan was, more than any other reason, made after learning about the country’s almost incomprehensible infant, child, and maternal mortality rates. 

Approximately 1,900 mothers die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth per 100,000 live births – second only to Sierra Leone for the worst maternal mortality ratio in the world.

In an Afghan woman’s lifetime, she has a one-in-eight chance of dying as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. . .

Read it all here. It's a heartbreaking but hopeful report from Tylere Couture, one of the bravest and best of my comrades in the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee. Be warned, though. It really is heartbreaking.

I should probably also warn you in advance before reading this, in Tyee (an online daily for which I'm still officially a columnist, although I've had cause to stay away for a while) that you'll want a strong stomach, especially if you know some basic facts about Afghanistan (it is not a country in the Middle East, for instance).

I was reminded of the Tyee piece by Tylere's essay, not just because of the dramatic contrast in clarity, honesty, competence and tone, but also by Tylere's conclusion: "I hope that in Canada we will begin to discuss more issues like this, as opposed to so many debates on the value of our presence in Afghanistan becoming plagued with partisan arguments on false extremes."

I hope so too. "Partisan arguments on false extremes" would be a charitable way to describe the Tyee column, which is so bad that I have to confess that I feel a sincere sympathy for its author, Murray Dobbin. I can't remember the last time I witnessed anyone so absurdly thrashing about, so painfully far out of his depth on a subject. Reading it is almost like watching a grown man drown in a child's inflatable play-pool, and I couldn't help wincing in embarrassment for him. It is as though the Tyee site was hacked by some especially witty right-wing smart-alec who left behind a parody of an "anti-war" polemic. It is that bad.

Dobbin's column sets out to argue that the Afghan mission may have transformed Canada in some dramatic, historic, way. Maybe so, but Dobbin never actually gets around to presenting any factual evidence to support this claim. You can't say there's anything really factual about Canada's "massive increases in military spending, completely distorting the role of government," because in fact, Canada's current military spending is 1.1 per cent of GDP, about an eighth of what it was in the 1950s, and a smaller GDP share than even the early 1990s. You know who spends almost twice as much on their military, per capita, as Canada? The tiny wee precious Netherlands.

So what other evidence for Canada's horribly "Americanized" culture does Dobbin offer? Apparently, Canadian soldiers have been observed in attendance at "cultural events." Are we supposed to be sad that there was an official Canadian Forces contingent that marched in the recent Toronto Gay Pride parade? This does not make me sad. It makes me happy, and proud to be a Canadian, and acutely alert to just how unAmericanized we are in this country, in light of the fathomless unlikelihood of any such parade entrants being spotted any time soon, at any civic celebration of any sort, anywhere in Americaland. And what did the CBC do wrong, anyway? Did the CBC broadcast film of these soldiers being warmly welcomed in the parade? Is that a bad thing?

I laughed out loud at the bit about Karzai, the U.S. puppet and narco-president who has no base of support in his country: Karzai was wildly popular when he won the presidency, and as recently as last year his approval rating was 71 per cent (pdf), a miracle even The Lord Our God Obama should never be expected to conjure.

Then the bit about how Afghanistan is "threatening to become an even wider regional conflict involving Pakistan": Where has poor Dobbin been all these years? The Afghan agony has been part of "a wider regional conflict" for decades, and Pakistan has always been a central protagonist and a key predator in that conflict. The Taliban itself was pretty well a creation of Pakistan's intelligence service. Pakistan's ISI funded and armed the initial Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, and Pakistan provides the safe havens from which the Taliban mounts its assaults, even now.

The main thrust of Dobbin's effort seems to be to create the illusion of a "real reason" Canada is in Afghanistan that the rest of us are too dumb to have figured out, and these exertions cause him to lose himself utterly in the netherworld of Truther, Illuminati, and Ziocon Conspiracy territory. Apparently, the reason we're in Afghanistan has got nothing to do with the fact that Canada is a member of the United Nations, and is a responsible and wealthy democracy, and is consequently one of the roughly 40 member countries in the UN-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. No, it's nothing to do with all that. It's because of "the American pipeline." That's right, kids. It's all about oil. Always was. It's all about "the pipeline the U.S. has wanted all along."

Just one problem. This Unocal oil pipeline? There is no such pipeline.

It doesn't exist. There are no plans for this pipeline to exist. It never existed, and Karzai never worked for Unocal, either - that's yet another urban legend the Skull and Bones obsessives have been trafficking ever since a single inaccurate and mistranslated sentence (which was immediately refuted) appeared in Le Monde several years ago. It's a bit like that bubble-headed Roswell alien in the Youtube videos. Je suis désolé. Il n'existe pas.

This doesn't stop Dobbin, though. Nevermind the real work that Tylere Couture and so many of his fellow soldiers are really doing in Kandahar. Dobbin says that what Tylere and his fellow soldiers are actually up to is the sordid work of providing "a private protection force for the American pipeline." And who is the unimpeachable authority Dobbin cites to back these weird and outlandish claims? Eric Margolis, for mercy's sake. Margolis is one of Dobbin's favourite authorities - Dobbin quotes him all the time - so it might be helpful to know that this drooling crackpot, probably the closest thing to an all-out neo-fascist writing in the Canadian media these days, is a Taliban-admiring, snake-oil selling, Yankee millionaire lunatic and a founding editor of Pat Buchanan's American Conservative magazine.

But here's where it gets worse than just funny, and where I almost hurt for Dobbin.

There really are plans for a pipeline. Two, in fact. But neither are oil pipelines - they're proposed natural gas pipelines, and neither are American. One exists on the drawing boards of energy planners working for Ahmadinejad's Iran, if you don't mind. You just can't get any less "American" than that. The Iranians want to sell natural gas to India. The other pipeline exists in the hopes of a consortium involving Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

If either of these pipelines ever gets built - which is a huge "if" to begin with - construction isn't expected to start until at least 2010. Canadian soldiers have no mandate to be in Kandahar beyond 2010. The gas won't be going to American markets, remember. It's Muslim gas from Muslim countries going through Muslim countries in Muslim pipelines, making money for Muslim governments. Ah yes, but a cunning Crusader ploy, Dobbin might ask us to surmise. But why, exactly, are these pipeline projects such bad ideas? Why are we supposed to be so sad?

Either pipeline would generate welcome revenues for the Afghan treasury. Even if it were true that Canadian soldiers just might be called upon to help with security for pipeline construction workers, or to patrol the pipeline right-of-way at some almost impossibly unforeseeable future date, I just can't seem to bring myself to regard this remote possibility as any more distressing than the sight of gay Canadian soldiers turned out in uniform for a parade in Toronto. Sorry. No sale.

I could go on and on, but it's just not worth taking the column that seriously. I'm already starting to feel cruel.

One last thing, though. Say Dobbin's right, and the Afghan mission really has changed Canada in some historic, fundamental way. How will historians look back on these times, and what big shift in the nature of Canada will they see?

It is my fear that the smart historians will notice that it was in Afghanistan that the Canadian Left's progressive internationalism died, and was buried, after autopsies revealed the cause of death as the replacement of international solidarity and socialist polemics with delusional windbaggery and the rote citing of neo-fascist drivel. Maybe we will even look back and remember the Afghan conflict as that critical historical moment when the mainstream "Left" in Canada ceased to be an effective force for progress entirely, and instead became a force of reaction and an irrelevant echo chamber for conspiracy theories and urban legends.

I certainly hope not. But you never know.

Meanwhile, in Kandahar, seeing to the enrolment of just one woman in a maternal and infant-health course is not just a profoundly meaningful and concrete act of solidarity, and it's not just an expression of progressive internationalism, either. It's a revolutionary act.

Over the past nine months, thanks the efforts of soldiers like Tylere Couture and rest of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team, Kandahar's Department of Public Health has delivered maternal and infant-health courses to about 800 women. That's 800 little revolutions.

So go right ahead and wring your hands about the Americanization of Canada, and feel free to wet your pants about imaginary pipelines while you're at it. There's work to be done, now, and that's why I'm sticking with people like Tylere Couture: Idealist, progressive, essayist, soldier.


Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

Aye, that column was a calumny. Dobbin was offensive and appalling, and so naive and dissembling. The truth is harder to accept - we have brave men and women who are fighting to right the wrongs we have committed and it hurts, so very painfully with every tearful loss, I admit that. The strident polemic of Dobbin does not acknowledge the fact that we have sinned grievously against people who deserved so much better from us.

12:10 AM  
Blogger IceClass said...

Tylere Couture for Pres...erm Prime Minister!

8:40 AM  
Blogger bp said...

'It is hard to imagine a less honourable "mission" on which to base such fundamental changes to the country'

Whatever one can say about the mistakes and errors made over the past 7 years, we've gone into the fourth-poorest country in the world, overthrown their violent theocracy, replaced it with a democracy, and are currently fighting and dying--and spending billions of dollars--to build schools, wells, irrigiation ditches and hospitals, allow its women to work and receive education, and create a functioning legal system, police department, and military.

I don't think I could conceive of a mission more noble in nature. If anything should worry a progressive, it's that we've promised Afghans something which we can't deliver. (I believe we can, but I can understand that worry.)

What's depressing isn't that there's fuckwits like Dobbin out there; of course there is. There always is. What's depressing is that The Tyee chooses to publish columns like that.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

Just wanted to say thanks for the link to the Harper's interview with Ahmed Rashid, the best-written damnation I've read yet of the true axis of evil (Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney) and the complicity of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the creation of the Taliban. For those who decry the mainstream media (Dirk et al) it is an illustration of the often-found meaningful contribution of our free press to an intelligent discourse within our body politic, irrespective of the partisan leanings of any publication's publisher or editor — as the great CP Scott said, "comment is free but the truth is sacred."

And Terry, I wouldn't worry either about whether the left or right is on-board with my particular philosophy on any subject. I gave up on political and religious ideologues a long time ago. They tend to twist the facts to suit their needs — as much as I loath quoting the "good book" it also gets it right often, as in: "The truth shall set you free."

12:07 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Kurt: Ahmed Rashid is the best. And his observations illustrate perfectly why we need good, clear, firm leadership on these issues. The gross negligence, pigheadedness, and shortsightedness of American policy in that region, especially during the Rumsfeld era, is a legacy the Afghans (and all of us) are still suffering. But note that Rashid was making the case that the Americans did not dispatch enough troops in the initial going, and they did not pursue the Taliban sufficiently, and they have failed to bring the fight to the Taliban redoubts in Pakistan. That is not the case against Rumsfeld you'll hear the from the "left".

"I wouldn't worry either about whether the left or right is on-board with my particular philosophy on any subject."


12:25 AM  

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