Tuesday, September 16, 2008

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.

23 Comments:

Blogger Jim said...

Well done Terry. The audio has been posted already on the As It Happens website, as part 3 of tonight's show:

http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/latestshow.html

5:43 PM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Thanks Jim.

6:27 PM  
Blogger jaycurrie said...

Wow, listening to Denise I can't imagine how she could have arrived at any of her conclusions except as a matter of pure political expediency.

I admire your even temper. The temptation to resort to accurate invective must have been huge.

I am hoping the dear heart will knock on my door - as I am in the riding as well. First s.13, then Afghanistan and then AGW and taxing an element.

9:48 PM  
Blogger deaner said...

I heard the first part of the piece in the car - I'm glad to know it was posted. You presented your position very well, Terry

10:39 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

Well expressed, Terry. I couldn't have said it better, and I detest Bush and Rumsfeld too, but for different reasons apparently than the NDP.

12:05 AM  
Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

Is this your whole claim to fame? Your critique of the NDP position on Afghanistan?

Did you get the memo that Harper is pulling out also?

I don't get it. What is your real agenda?

6:27 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Olman:

"I don't get it."

Obviously not.

"What is your real agenda?"

To work with my fellow Freemasons and Opus Dei cultists to help the Jews take over the world.

Thanks for stopping by.

8:36 AM  
Blogger Billy Jack said...

Thought provoking. Thanks.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

I was honestly curious. I have some ambivalence towards our involvement in Afghanistan and thought you might be able to shed some light on it. Fortunately, your answer was sufficient to tell me that if I'm not already a member of your club, I'm not welcome.

Good luck with that!

8:49 AM  
Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

Just to clarify what I don't get: what I don't get is why do you care so much about the NDP's position on Afghanistan? You make a lot of strong points about our involvement in Afghanistan and then undermine them all by railing against the position of a party that will always be in the minority. What is your raison d'être, to argue for our continued involvement in Afghanistan or to rail resentfully against the NDP?

8:52 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"I have some ambivalence towards our involvement in Afghanistan and thought you might be able to shed some light on it."

If the fairly long post above doesn't shed any light on it for you, I doubt I will be able to help you, but I'll try, after allowing you that one last insult ("railing resentfully" about the NDP). So, as for ". . .what I don't get is why do you care so much about the NDP's position on Afghanistan?"

Here goes: Unlike your view ("a party that will always be in the minority"), I insist on taking the NDP seriously, and demanding from the NDP serious policies with serious intellectual content.

This is partly because the NDP has always been the party I have tended to support, or is at least the party that tends to address itself to, or claims to champion, the issues that most closely rally my own concerns.

More importantly, it happens to be my view that the Afghan cause is, or should be, the cause of the left: There is no internationalist project abroad in the world today that is as critical, or holds more promise, for the emancipation and liberation of so many people in a struggle against a direct and immediate and urgent threat from a fascist enemy. For all its complexities - the sinister "America-First" view that animates Washington, the tawdry "allies" we're forced to accommodate in Kabul, etc. - the Afghan cause - as explicitly enumerated in terms and objectives of the Afghanistan Compact - is a cause in the advancement of democracy, human rights, literacy, and modernity. It is against obscurantism, barbarism, and the most vile misogyny prevailing in the world today.

It should be no surprise to you that I consider it vital that Canada be at the forefront of the global campaign of solidarity with the Afghan people.

Further, what has most seriously enfeebled the public debate in Canada - one of the wealthiest of the UN's member states - is not just the absence of a robust, unforgiving "left-wing" critique and program to ensure that Ottawa is making the best and most effective contribution to the cause the Afghan people themselves have cried out for us to join. It is the presence of a "left wing" party that has quite successfully animated the debate by infantilizing it, by obscuring rather than illuminating the nature of the Afghan struggle, by tarting it all up in hippie piety and thus serving as a force for reaction on the question, rather than for progress.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Olman Feelyus said...

Ah, I see. Thanks for the explanation. So for you, Afghanistan is roughly akin to the Spanish Civil War. That's an interesting take, possibly a compelling one. I think you would make a more effective push, if you would move your sights away from the NDP (though I understand how from your perspective their position could be frustrating)and drop language like "hippie" "infantile". It sounded to me when I first came to your site that you were some kind of libertarian/neo-con disguised as a leftie. That's why I asked about your agenda.

The two problems with Afghanistan are when we went in (way too late; at America's behest) and history (Afghanistan breaks empires). These are major issues for me, though I generally believe Canada should take a stronger role internationally.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

By the way, as an example of the NDP's absurd illiteracy on the subject, viz Rumsfeld: The expansion of the NATO-ISAF mission, in which Canadian soldiers are playing such a disproportionately brave role, was undertaken in defiance of Rumsfeld, not, as Savoie asserts, in service of a Rumsfeld strategy.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"So for you, Afghanistan is roughly akin to the Spanish Civil War."

There are some useful comparisons that can be drawn, yes.

Afghanistan breaks empires, yes. That is what the Afghans are doing at the moment, and we're helping them do it. But be careful not to get drawn into the "Afghanistan has never been defeated" trope. There is no country in the world that has been defeated as many times as Afghanistan has.

As for "drop language like 'hippie' 'infantile'. . .

Nah.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

"Nah." BZ.

Mark
Ottawa

5:10 PM  
Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

Terry:

I was thinking you might try to get Denise Lavoie to go with you to Afghanistan and suit action to words by being the first Canadian to extend to the Taliban the respect and dignity they crave. She might even take a shot at launching the robust diplomatic engagement she so confidently advocates. She might even teach Bush and Rumsfeld a thing or two about how to win people and make friends.

I don't like to be too sarcastic, but I wonder about her very verbose confidence in the alternative to the American way. Would she be so self-righteously enthusiastic about it if she didn't know that the Americans are not going to abandon Afghanistan to the tender mercies of the taliban. It's easy to "do the right thing" (decamp under pretense of superior morality) when you know someone else is going to make up for your moral failures.

Superb presentation, TG. If you don't mind my saying so.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Thanks, Contentious. Loved your post on Laurie Booth.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Andony Melathopoulos said...

Great interview Terry.

I have been thinking about how to translate this into an attack of the Conservatives. Here is my first attempt... its a polemic... maybe it doesn't work:

The opportunism of the Harper government on Afghanistan was revealed last week when Harper announced a firm 2011 deadline on withdrawal. Pundits have largely attributed this move as a way to gain seats in Quebec, where the war is unpopular, and deflect debate on the mission.

Now it should be clear. It is not because democracy has rooted itself or the government has reached a point where it can manage its own affairs. In fact, the announcement came after a year of worsening security and only days after a Taliban threat to escalate the violence should Canadians not vote for withdrawal. No, the Harper government never really cared about these things..

How did he explain it? Harper framed his announcement in the same "blame-the-victim" language that underpins his entire election platform: if the Afghan's can't pull up their own bootstraps and manage their own security than too bad for them. This is the same position he takes on child care: "here is a few hundred bucks... your on your own (this is a national program?). Here is a tax cut. Heres ia a few cents less on diesel. We are not in the business of government".

What we desperately needed was a national debate on Afghanistan. Afghanistan badly needs more international support to help prevent it from descending, again, into the misery of Taliban rule. It needs a lot more money, many more troops and multilateral resolve. Canada can, and has, helped with all of these. Harper's announcement closes the door on this debate and reveals that the Conservatives never really cared about the mission. They clearly only ever cared how the mission would serve their larger ends, ends which do not include the international advancement of human rights... a position we should now reoccupy.

8:14 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

Andony:

I agree with you on several points.

Most importantly, I agree that Stephen Harper never really got the point of the Afghan mission to begin with. After having inherited the mission from the Liberals, he immediately began to try and "rebrand" it in the most paleoconservative terms: It was about protecting Canada's national security interests, stopping the advance of global terror, and so on. I don't mean to say Harper is all heartless and callous, but I do think it is fair to say he saw Canada's contribution mainly as a way to secure the affections of the Bush White House, and to distance himself from the rather muscular but "soft power" internationalism that had begun to emerge under the Liberals (the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, the Ottawa landmines treaty, our efforts in Northern Sudan, etc.)

I recall one especially embarrassing moment, when Harper and Karzai were sharing a platform somewhere, and he said something along the lines of, "We're helping you put out the fire in your house so the fire doesn't spread to ours."

Well gee, thanks neighbour, I could almost hear Karzai thinking - I guess it isn't enough for you that my people are dying in that fire.

This is the sort of thing that the Conservatives have done to drag down the level of the Canadian debates about Afghanistan (already infantilized by the NDP, and to a lesser extent, the Liberals). It is not so bad as the conduct of the NDP, I regret to say, but it has not helped that the Conservatives have proved incapable of adequately explaining and describing the mission in the generous and humanitarian language that Canadians so well understand.

Where I'd disagree with you, I think, is that I am not so hard on Harper about the 2011 pull-out imbroglio. He was more or less just restating the Conservative-Liberal consensus following the Manley Panel recommendations. He did a lousy job of it, but the media badly misreported his comments; for instance he did not say troops out by 2011, he said 'combat role in Kandahar over' by 2011 - and this wasn't especially newsworthy, even.

Like you, I disagree that our troop presence decisions should be based, in advance, on arbitrary deadlines.

But still.

Cheers,

t

9:46 AM  
Blogger Andony Melathopoulos said...

Thanks Terry... as usual I appreciate your clear head and particular knowledge of these issues. I wasn't sure how to handle the "the 2011 pull-out imbroglio", but I will steer clear of making it out to be more than it is in future.

One question: is it too much of a stretch to be equating the following statement with the broader Conservative ideology of self-responsibility in government policy:

"Not only have we done our bit at that point, I think our goal has to be after six years to see the government of Afghanistan able to carry the lion's share of responsibility for its own security".

Although this end is ultimately desirable, I was always under the impression that this was going to take a long and concerted effort. Am I setting up a strawman?

10:21 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"Not only have we done our bit at that point, I think our goal has to be after six years to see the government of Afghanistan able to carry the lion's share of responsibility for its own security".

I don't think you're setting up a straw man; I think the news media did that already, we've all been saddled with it.

If you look at Harper's statement there, it's this grammatical absurdity that caused the problem: "Not only have we done our bit at that point."

The thing is, we won't know if we will have done our bit by then, and the only way to know is to evaluate the benchmarks and deadlines of the Afghanistan Compact, which refer to a date of "end 2010", to determine whether the benchmarks were sufficient, and whether the objectives were adequately achieved by those benchmarks.

My guess is that the Compact will prove to have been overconfident in its military/police benchmarks. But we've still got at least two years to get the ANA up to par.

No matter: Afghanistan is going to require all sorts of help, from all sorts of international partners, for at least another generation. But then, the same can be said for almost every country in the "developing world".

10:36 AM  
Blogger Andony Melathopoulos said...

One more thing: I really appreciated your observation that the misrecognition of the mission by the NDP is a bigger problem than the misrecognition by the Conservatives. This is an important point that my original post lapses on. Good for you for identifying it.

I ask myself, "why the temporary lapse, why the dishonesty when formulating a position on the Conservatives". I find myself wobbling through this election. I dearly want the NDP to do well and grow, but I feel at odds with its general political posture... its laziness. Desperation sets in.

In this respect I have been thinking about Adolph Reed's most recent piece in the Black Agenda Report, "Where Obamaism is Going?", and its critique of supressing criticism of Obama for fear of a Republican government.

"Frankly, I've begun to suspect that the election year version of the "now is not the time" argument and its sibling, the "get him elected first then hold him accountable" line, as well as their first cousin, "Well, that's what they all have to do to get elected," reflect nothing better than denial of the grim reality that we can't expect anything from them or make any demands of them. After all, how can we hold them accountable once they're in office if we can't do it when they're running, when we technically have something we can withhold or deliver?"

I really liked your comments earlier in the thread: "I insist on taking the NDP seriously, and demanding from the NDP serious policies with serious intellectual content".

This is clearly the only way forward... but it ain't easy.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Transmontanus said...

"why the temporary lapse, why the dishonesty . . .I dearly want the NDP to do well and grow, but I feel at odds with its general political posture..."

That's where I'm at, too, pretty well. More specifically, I want the Left to do well and grow, but to a great extent it has retreated from its historic mission, and in many cases - in Canada's case, most noticeably in the NDP's position on Afghanistan - it is no longer a force for progress at all.

Among the writers and academics who have most seriously considered the questions you raise are Paul Berman and Nick Cohen, in my view. For a consistent progressive voice - which is unafraid to acknowledge the phenomenon - I'd say Dissent magazine in the U.S. is pretty good. For a more radical analysis, Platypus 1917, a sort of Marxist think tank centered at around the University of Chicago, is quite provocative and thoughtful. Here's a Platypus analysis of Adolph Reed you might find interesting:

http://tinyurl.com/549wn8

In the meantime, Andony, don't despair!

11:34 AM  

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