Monday, January 25, 2010

Actually-Existing Amnesia.

Good old Akaash Maharaj. Nice to hear from him again, and this time with a very well written essay, nicely argued, refreshingly mindful of the consensus about Afghanistan that once actually existed in Canada's political class, and sensibly acute to the need to forge a new national consensus based in the cold, real world. Hard knocks and all that. Top hole.

The only problem with the course Maharaj counsels is that in his attempt to affect a hard-headedness that he would claim eludes everyone else, he exhibits the same amnesia that he sees afflicting everyone else.

It is simply not true that "the popular narrative" in Canada holds that "we went to Afghanistan as peacekeepers, to foster liberal-democratic political development, advance the status of women and provide humanitarian assistance." This may well be a "reassuring storyline" in the company you would expect a bright young Liberal like Maharaj to keep, but there has not been anything close to a national consensus about Afghanistan in this country since perhaps 2003. That project has been dry-docked by revenge-fantasy blustering about Al Qaida, blubbering about the unseemliness of our necessary alliance with American interests, and blundering about in the barnacle growth of backpack maple leaves and what have you. To borrow the same phrasing Maharaj employs, it is, if anything, these competing and conflicting narratives that have rendered Canadian debates about Afghanistan into "complete and utter nonsense."

Neither is it true that Afghans have an expression, "You have the watches, but we have the time," the error that Maharaj makes as his beginning sentence. This is actually an expression peculiar to certain pundits whose analyses are to be found in Canada's daily newspapers. Its only relevance or accuracy is in the way it is derivative of a Taliban platitude. Afghans despise the Taliban, and if they have any expression that even remotely resembles the one Maharaj so blithely attributes to them, it is the one that goes, "Ever since the Cold War, you have had all the half-baked analyses, and we have all the graves to prove it."

Ending his essay with another cliche, the one about truth being war's first casualty, doesn't exactly clinch the truth Maharaj is claiming for his case, either, but Maharaj is quite right in his general claim about the reasons why Canada went along with the United Nations and NATO and resorted to the means of warfare to uproot the Taliban in the first place. He casts a helpfully cold eye on the straightforward calculus that prevailed in the autumn of 2001. There is certainly nothing cynical in acknowledging the narrow self-interest that finally turned the civilized world's attentions back to Afghanistan and to the horrors it played such a pivotal role in visiting upon the masses of Afghan innocents in the first place. The world's rich countries provided all the guns. The Afghan people provided all the deaths, more than a million of them, long before the morning of September 11, 2001.

What seems to escape his notice entirely, however, is that there is in fact a "storyline" that is based in reality, as well as idealism and self-interest, but this one demands a rather more nuanced view than you'll get from an argument to the effect that "we" went to Afghanistan to drop bombs on our enemies and not to build daycare centres. On that matter, Maharaj claims far too much credit for NATO by wholly ignoring the fact that the Taliban's rout was accomplished almost solely by Afghans themselves, weeks before any NATO soldiers were tramping through the ruins of Afghanistan's ancient cities. Worse, Maharaj claims next to nothing for the accomplishments and utterly transformed purposes that have bound the UN, NATO, the US and Canada and the Afghan people, since those early days.

It took the Americans far too long to change their own storyline from "We don't do nation-building" to "We were wrong, we better bloody well help build a nation here." Hope and change and all that. But no matter how much snark or platitude we might like to heap on Canada's contributions since 2001, Canadians have the least excuse to suffer any amnesia about our actually-existing reasons for being in Afghanistan, now.

It is not a "comforting political myth" that Canada and 42 other UN member states are engaged in some bloody rough slogging in Afghanistan in order to carry out the ambitious purposes of the 2006 Afghanistan Compact, which is all about nation-building and only secondarily about "war fighting." It is not a myth at all, comforting or otherwise, that nation-building, for the sake of Afghan progress as well as our own national security, has been the main reason why we have been in Afghanistan since the December, 2001 Bonn Agreement.

Maharaj seems to have completely forgotten about all of this, as though nothing has happened since his glory days as the Liberal Party's national policy chairman, when the first Canadian soldiers headed off to Afghanistan to kill and to be killed. And that is the kind of amnesia that has so crippled Canadian debates. That is the reason why the foreign ministers and senior civilian and military officials of more than 60 countries are meeting in London on Thursday to chart a way forward in Afghanistan, while in Canada - where it has even become fashionable to assert that our soldiers have been dying in that country to protect oil pipelines or gas pipelines or something - nobody seems to know that this is even happening. This is less a symptom of amnesia than of senility.

There has been absolutely no debate about what Canada might propose in London, even though Canada, perhaps more than any other country in the 43-member International Security Assistance Force, can claim that despite itself it has not shirked its solemn obligations as a member of the UN, or as a member in good standing of the civilized and democratic countries of the world, or as a friend of the Afghan people. Indeed, there has been barely a back-pages notice in any of our daily newspapers that anything of consequence will be happening this week in London at all.

But welcome back, Maharaj. My best wishes to you. Let me take this opportunity to encourage you to re-dedicate yourself to Liberal thinking, especially as regards the party's Afghanistan policy. After all, I am sure you would not want your party's policy to become nothing better than a cowardly exercise in excuse-making for the knives in the backs of the legions of brave young Afghan democrats, secularists and feminists who have believed our promises and taken risks rather more fraught with black consequence than the backchat that might be provoked by penning the occasional op-ed while living a comfortable life in Canada.

On the very subject of cures for Afghan amnesia, you might want to avail Michael Ignatieff of your counseling services. He seems to have lately forgotten that he is in possession of a spine. He should not be a reluctant therapy patient, given the obvious liberal spinelessness that his adversaries have chosen to adopt as a political virtue on the subject of Afghanistan. A bit of memory-jogging, and Ignatieff would profit enormously.

At any rate, best of luck, and warmest regards.

UPDATE: Here, here. "It is time partisanship be suspended so the decisions can be made to give Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan the best chance of enduring success beyond the troops’ return."


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