Poor Denise Savoie (Apparently It's All Donald Rumsfeld's Fault)
You can catch me debating NDP MP Denise Savoie (Victoria) this evening on CBC' Radio's As It Happens, at about 7 p.m. (7:30 in Newfoundland). The debate was about Afghanistan. I hope they post it (update: they did, it's here).
I like Denise. She's my MP, and she's a nice person. But on the matter of Afghanistan, Canada's obligations to the United Nations, and this country's contribution to the UN's 39-member International Security Assistance Force, she's completely clueless. Which, sad to say, makes her a fairly ordinary NDP MP. She may actually be one of the smarter ones, maybe even smarter on these subjects than NDP leader Jack Layton, which isn't saying much. Actually, it's saying nothing at all.
Anyway, I was asked to set out the position of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, and explain my own objections to the NDP's position, which, adumbrated by Savoie, goes like this: 1. Withdraw Canada's troops now. 2. Plead for some sort of alternative program of "robust diplomatic engagement" (i.e. negotiations) with the Taliban.
My position is that these are non-solutions, and to argue for them requires an enormous degree of ignorance and no small degree of self-delusion: The NDP's ideas have already been tried, and they have already failed catastrophically. This is why UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon describes the ground that the NDP has staked out as "a misjudgement of historic proportions. " It's because the position demands "the repetition of a mistake that has already had terrible consequences."
Quite apart from the earth-rattling mistake the "international community" made when it abandoned the Afghan people to the Taliban in the first place, Canada has already tried withdrawing its troops. We already did that once. After joining with NATO in driving out the Taliban, we joined an exodus of foreign troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2002. Canada withdrew its troops, our meagre successes were slammed into reverse, and the whole country started sliding back into barbarism again. Canadian soldiers returned to Kabul, and only Kabul, in 2003, where we confined ourselves to various light duties around town while the rest of the country went to the dogs.
It was only after the Afghan Women's Network began to mobilize across Afghanistan, and roused demands that ISAF help extend the rule of law throughout the country, that NATO was forced to face its mistake. It wasn't until February of 2006 that Canada took the lead for security in Kandahar. By this time, the Taliban had re-armed, regrouped, and was back at its grisly business of throat-slitting and head-chopping and terror. We've all been living with the "troops out" consequences ever since.
But to be a loyal New Democrat, one must ignore these facts, pretend that troop-withdrawal is some sort of new and innovative idea, cleave to the party line, and just go along with Jack Layton's revisionism: "For six years, the Liberals and Conservatives have had Canada involved in a counter-insurgency combat mission in southern Afghanistan." You will also have to advocate the failed and delusional idea that negotiating with the Taliban is also an untried and imaginative alternative to Jack's fictional account of what our soldiers have been doing in Afghanistan.
Long before the NDP stumbled upon the idea of "robust diplomatic engagements" with the Taliban and their ilk, the strategy had been tried, and had been proved a total calamity. As soon as Hamid Karzai was elected president, he tried to revive the truce-talk approach and began offering talks with the Taliban leadership. Last September, he went so far as to offer to share power with the Taliban. The Taliban made it explicitly clear then, and have continued to make it clear ever since, that they aren't interested in negotiating at all. They are interested in imposing an opium-financed, 7th century, death-cult theocracy upon the Afghan people, in defiance of the entire world.
The UN tried negotiations, too, relentlessly and to absolutely no avail, from 1994 to 2001. The result was hell on earth for the Afghan people, with truces that never lasted, tens of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, and eventually a couple of famous buildings in New York destroyed with all the innocents in them.
The NDP says we should try this again. And bring our troops home again, too. To maintain these delusions, it is also necessary to abdicate yourself from reality so much that you have to pretend that the hard work required to achieve the objectives of the UN-brokered, 60-nation Afghanistan Compact, and the necessary work of keeping Canada's promises to the Afghan people, and living up to Canada's UN commitments in Afghanistan, is all merely fighting in "George Bush's war." Or, in Savoie's version, Donald Rumsfeld's war.
In the real world, it is only because of foreign troops in Afghanistan, under the UN's mandate, that Afghanistan has managed to secure for itself an embryonic democracy. It is only because of the security provided by foreign troops that the Afghans have managed to build enough schools over the past five years to enrol 6.4 million of their children, including 1.5 million girls. It is only because our soldiers are there, keeping the Taliban pinned down in the south and east, that almost 90 per cent of Afghanistan's 398 districts are more or less at peace and free from violence and bloodshed.
True, Naomi Klein is not Afghanistan's minister of cultural affairs. But more than 1,000 civil-military cooperation projects are underway nonetheless, along with 20,000 rural development projects. Childhood mortality since 2001 has dropped by 26 per cent. Health-care access is now available to 80 per cent of the population, up from eight per cent five years ago. The country is beginning to stand on its own feet. Afghanistan didn't even have a regular army five years ago. Now we're churning out 1,000 military graduates a week.
You have to completely ignore and deny all this progress for the NDP's position to survive the harsh light of day, and none of this progress would have happened in the first place if the NDP had been listened to, and all of this progress will be undone if the NDP gets its way. The UN wants us there. More than 80 per cent of the Afghan people support the Karzai government, and that government wants our soldiers there. Nearly three quarters of the Afghan people reject the NDP's position - they want our soldiers there.
Yes, peace negotiations with the Taliban would be nice, and it's always been my position that it would be great if we could see something like that happen some day. But I also wish that the NDP did not have to lie to itself in its claim to the mantle of multilateralism in global affairs, progress in women's rights, the advance of social justice, and the cause of peace. It would be nice if the NDP was unafraid to show some real leadership for once, and was untroubled by the challenge of formulating a legitimately progressive position on Afghanistan, and was unashamed to stand solidly with the Afghan people as they struggle against the forces of reaction in their shattered country.
But we live in the real world. If our politics aren't grounded in the real world, then it's all just play-acting, and Canadians who tart themselves up in these troops-out costumes have no right to sneer at Afghanistan's emerging democracy. They should leave politics to the grownups.