Monday, September 21, 2009

Guns, butter, words, deeds and Afghanistan: Talk sense or shut up, go deep or go home.

It is most heartening to see that the 20-month-old consensus of silence that has united Canada's political leaders on the question of Afghanistan is at long last receiving some public notice. It is a very good thing, even if that attention has to come in such forms as Senator Colin Kenny's ahistorical gibberish about Vietnam, which he now justifies with an exercise in retroactive self-exculpation with the argument that he was just trying to get attention.

The sounds of crickets is all we've heard since the January, 2008 release of the sobering and no-nonsense report of the John Manley panel, which should have provided the basis for a proper public debate about what Canada's role might be at the 2011 term-end of the Afghanistan Compact. Instead, the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democrats used the opportunity as a convenient excuse to keep shtum about the whole thing. Even during the last federal election, the politicians were loathe to even mention the name of the country where so many of our soldiers are dying. The question is: Why?

The silence of the New Democrats is easy to understand. Much to the dismay of the NDP's few members who have remained true to the bedrock principles of progressive internationalism, the NDP's "troops out" posture is an abject abdication to the senility of American counterculture pieties. It relies almost wholly on an imperviousness to reality, a pacifism of the objectively pro-fascist kind and an inexcuseable bigotry about the mythically incorrigible, anti-democratic nature of Afghan culture, all propped up by leftish conspiracy theories of the "it's all about oil" variety. Nothing the NDP says to justify itself will withstand even the slightest scrutiny. So, fair play to the New Democrats. Best be quiet about it.

The silence of the Liberal Party is attributable to the most pedestrian sort of cunning. It's all about what the polls say, and the knowledge that Afghanistan is best left alone unless it presents a fleeting opportunity to make a quick hit in the form of aggro, gotcha points or calumny heaped upon the governing Conservatives. This requires hay-making and moving on right quick, lest some cheeky journalist linger on the subject long enough to ask who the imposter is and how long the Liberals intend to keep the cruise-missile intellectual formerly known as Michael Ignatieff hidden away in that secret Ottawa dungeon where he's bound and gagged and chained to a wall.

Prime Minister Harper, meanwhile. is routinely and roundly rebuked, most wickedly and astutely by Conservative Party members and supporters, for his stunning failure to "sell" the mission. That he has failed utterly in this obligation is a true thing, so far as it goes. But the critique usually rests on three dubious assumptions: that there is anything in it for him to do so, that it would make any difference in the press no matter how hard he tried, and that it is with any fervour that he really believes in a "mission" he inherited from the Liberals in the first place.

You don't have to parse everything Harper has ever said on the subject to notice that he doesn't speak only as a Conservative, but as the prime minister of a big, rich country that shouldn't be troubled by such an embarrassing question as whether its soldiers should even be in Afghanistan. After all, the United Nations wants us there, the Afghan government wants us there, and the Afghan people want us there. With soldiers from such countries as Lithuania, Albania, Luxembourg and Estonia in the game, it would be rather too shy-making for a Canadian prime minister to have to say, sorry, but we're a bit squeamish about playing in your league, so we'll just cuddle in our blankies up here in the bleachers if it's all the same to you.

The main problem Harper will have in any attempt to "sell" the Afghan mission is that it requires him to speak in a language with which conservatives of his tendencies are mostly unfamiliar. Foreign-policy neoconservatives are eloquently conversant in a dialect of it, and with its lottery windfall acquisition of Christopher Alexander, the Conservative Party might soon hear a variant of the language spoken more clearly from its own ranks, in a distinctly Canadian accent. But it hasn't been in the habits of Tories to articulate the righteousness of liberation struggles in faraway places, or to argue for national sacrifice in the cause of the emancipation of a distant people from the grip of violent misogyny, illiteracy and religious tyranny. They just don't speak the language.

So I cut the Tories some tiny bit of slack here, and notice that for now, it is at least heartening that Governor-General Michaëlle Jean speaks the language so fluently and gracefully. It's also the language that John Manley spoke when he released his report in January, 2008: Our presence in Afghanistan is fully justified whether considered from the point of view of international law, humanitarian needs, or Canadian and global interests in security. If we're not willing to lend our military resources when asked to so by the United Nations, in a mission coordinated by NATO, in a country whose democratically elected government wants us, and whose citizens desperately need us, then we wonder: where and when would Canada do so?

Where and when indeed, and while Canadian politicians are too timid to talk about Afghanistan, lately the Americans appear incapable of talking about anything else. Today it's all about General Stanley McChrystal's 66-page assessment of the prospects in Afghanistan, leaked to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. McChrystal expands upon the radical shift in military policy that he has already directed ISAF to adopt, and unsurprisingly, he calls for more troops. And as for language and words, McChrystal also suggests that it would be a good idea for ISAF brass to learn a bit of Pashto and Dari. But here's where he gets to the heart of the matter: "A perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

When it comes to the best way for Canada to make some use of itself to the Afghan people in their long march back from barbarism and savagery, this is more important than bread or roses, or guns, or butter. It's all about language, and words. It is the one thing that struck me as the pivot point for victory during all my visits and interviews in Afghanistan last year. It's right there in front of our noses. It's so close we don't see it.

Among Afghans, the big fear isn't the spectre of Taliban militias rolling across the landscape and recapturing Kabul. It's the stink of a looming betrayal that emanates from the defeatism abroad in rich countries like Canada. It forces a fatal feedback loop into play. It entraps the bravest Afghans - if it's all coming to an end, there's no point in sticking one's neck out. It also fuels the "corruption" that plagues the country - if this isn't going to last, then you might as well get it while the getting's good.

We have no cause to doubt the resolve of the Afghan people. It's our own resolve that's the problem, and while peace in Afghanistan may require more soldiers and firepower, not less, all the troops in the world will do no greater service to the Afghan people and their cause than plain words, spoken in plain language: We will not betray you. We will not abandon you. We will not surrender. We will not retreat.

Any Canadian politician who is not capable of speaking these words clearly and plainly should do the country and the world a favour and just shut the hell up.


Blogger Paul said...

Great piece Terry.

As far as Harper and the CPC go, I think that their silence can be attributed to one thing ... not wanting to offend the GTA and Quebec voting blocks. Quebec in particular is massively pacifist, so anything even appearing to push the mission will cost one dearly in Quebec ridings. "Selling" the mission, in my opinion, was sacrificed to grovelling for votes in Quebec.

3:37 PM  
Blogger said...

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8:08 PM  
Blogger said...

Hell, even NATO's Sec-Gen was pretty damned clear (although I don't know if he can pull it off given the political pressures in the member countries):
"We must stay in Afghanistan as long as necessary, and we will stay as long as necessary. Let no one think that a run for the exits is an option. It is not."
(Source: Reuters, 9 Sept 09)

8:11 PM  
Blogger LB said...

What nonsense you speak,trying to legitimize taking part in something that is not legitimate for anyone. How can we maintain the perogative to justify,use,rely on and support armed force, while denying that right for others? It is illogical and contradictory and we witness it as only escalating violence. If we really are a more evolved society, we must CONSISTENTLY demonstrate it. The "support"of troops referred to is really a means to address our own unease and guilt in asking them to threaten,hurt and kill others, to benefit some, at the expense of humanity as a whole. We know we have no right to ask this of anyone and we are ashamed to.We are misleading them. It is cowardly and it is time for you Terry, to speak out,identify and support those people and organzations that are taking the real unarmed risks required to really assist Afghanistan to establish a real security for all of us, and to incorporate them into your OWN life.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Keep it up Terry..Let's hope for a solid debate..

10:22 PM  
Blogger J. L. Krueger said...

You are clueless. Not even the courage of your convictions to have a real profile. Exactly how many minutes have you spent in Afghanistan? I've been here for 17 months...unarmed.

We've not done a good enough job protecting the people here, but rest assured most that I talk to don't want to see us go. Whatever the current imperfections, it's preferrable to the likely alternative that would ensue should we leave.

Great piece Terry. And you hit it on the head about the impending sense of betrayal that many Afghans feel.

1:55 AM  

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