Sunday, October 05, 2008

Jack Layton and Afghanistan: The Latest Dispatches From A Parallel Universe

NDP Leader Jack Layton says he is “heartened” that a British commander believes that the war in Afghanistan is not winnable and that there should be a dialogue with the Taliban.

Setting aside the moral vacuum one would have to inhabit to be "heartened" to hear that the Afghan struggle is not winnable, there are two immediate problems with that sentence. The first is that the British commander in question, Brig.-Gen. Carleton-Smith, did not say the war is not winnable. The second is that he did not say, as the sentence necessarily implies, that we should leave off the "war" stuff and just negotiate with the Taliban.

I know we're all supposed to tolerate the dumbing-down of election-campaign news "in this era of Googles," but I'm sorry, this is absolutely ridiculous. Carleton-Smith didn't even say anything newsworthy.

As is evident from the second paragraph of the Times of London article where Carleton-Smith's comments first appeared, what's happening here is that the Times is trying to extricate itself from the embarrassment of having taken seriously a "parody" of a second-hand report from a French diplomat about an opinion a British diplomat denies he ever expressed in a rumpus that originally appeared in an obscure French satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné.

And now, the Times' efforts to dig itself out of that hole by digging itself deeper into it are sending such tremors through the news wires that Jack Layton has taken the opportunity to enlist some deadline-harried campaign reporters in his claim that he's been right about Afghanistan all along, and is thus heartened that some British general has finally seen the light and agrees with him.

Unfortunately for all concerned, when you get through the spins, all that's left is a guy named Carleton-Smith has reiterated the Karzai government's long-standing approach to the Taliban "insurgency," and has reiterated the long-standing approach underlying the purpose of the UN-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan - an approach Jack Layton loudly and irrationally opposes.

If Layton no longer opposes the UN-ISAF strategy, then that would be big news. If Carleton-Smith really agrees with Jack Layton, that would be huge news. But for either of these things to be true, you'd have to be living in a parallel universe.

Nobody has ever said there was a "military solution" to the problems that beset Afghanistan, and in this way, the Globe story is just another in a long line of free passes the news media has handed Layton on the question. But this one is particularly absurd.

It's not just because Layton is being allowed to get away with the rubbish about a British general agreeing with him. It's because Layton is now suggesting that the NDP's position is merely that "the prosecution of the continued war effort has got to be changed." In fact, for more than two years, rather than counsel some change in the way the "war" is prosecuted (which could be the basis of a respectable and useful left-wing critique, if the NDP could actually get around to formulating one), the NDP has opted instead for hippie sloganeering. It's all "George Bush's war," support our troops, bring them home.

All along, the UN-sanctioned ISAF mission in Afghanistan has been carrying out the explicit and detailed instructions enumerated in the Afghanistan Compact - a covenant between the Afghan government and 60 donor nations. All along, it has been about building up a functioning state sufficient to hold its own, militarily, against warlordism, banditry, and Islamist terror. That's the approach Carleton-Smith is explaining here. That is precisely the approach Layton most noticeably and foolishly opposes.

Layton would truly have something to be "heartened" about had Carleton-Smith said that we should all renege on our commitments under the Afghanistan Compact, and that Canada should renege on its commitments to the UN, and to the beleaguered Afghan government, and just sit down with the Taliban and cut the quickest deal to get the 39-member ISAF coalition out of there. That is, after all, exactly what Layton has counseled. But that is not what Carleton-Smith is saying. Not even close.

And let's not forget that the Taliban isn't interested in negotiations, and they've made that clear, but still, Carleton-Smith quite reasonably hopes and expects that eventually, the Taliban leadership will be crushed to the point at which its only choice is to negotiate or die. Let's also not forget that this is a prospect that isn't even possible to contemplate under Layton's approach, which requires that the Taliban's international adversaries should first withdraw their troops, and then disarm themselves, and then return with some sort of list of demands.

Carleton-Smith makes it clear that ISAF's military role is to keep hammering at the Taliban, "reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.” This is not what Layton has called for. Layton has called for the opposite. What Carelton-Smith calls for is the good sense of an approach that Layton has churlishly dismissed as a "George Bush-style seek and kill mission."

So, if there is some news here, it's either that Layton has had some astonishing change of heart, or he's been lying to us all along, which would mean, either way, that the Globe and Mail and the CBC and the rest just missed the biggest story of the campaign so far, if not the biggest story in Jack Layton's entire career. More likely, there is no real news here at all.

More likely, this is a non-story about a non-event arising from something Jack Layton says he happily agrees with in what a British brigadier-general did not in fact say, and it all started with the bad news judgment involved in taking seriously a translation of a report in a French satirical magazine about a second-hand account by a French diplomat, which is merely a disputed version of a statement a British envoy denies ever having made in the first place.

But that is what we call political "journalism" these days. It's supposed to help us make our decisions when we go to the polls.

Good luck with it.

UPDATE: Bob Rae talks some sense.

UPDATE II: Afghan Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, in a statement that exposes the folly of Jack Layton's proclamations, but closely echoes Carleton-Smith's observation, says: The war will be won by political, economic and military means.

UPDATE III: For any of you who still think that the "progressive" way forward in Afghanistan is to withdraw our troops and then return with complimentary Raffi CDs and offers to facilitate love-ins among the warring factions, here's something you might not have noticed: A senior Taliban officer is spurning calls for negotiation from Afghanistan's government, calling President Hamid Karzai a U.S. "puppet" amid rumblings that peace talks could be in the offing.


Blogger cyirush said...

Great post, Terry.
Would you mind if I cross-posted/linked it at the Shotgun, where some of the young libertarians
take the 'Taliban Jack' line seriously?
What a shame that Harper and Ignatieff and others have allowed this issue to be taken over by NDP and the Greens.

3:11 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

As ye like, Craig.

5:02 PM  
Blogger cyirush said...


5:38 PM  
Blogger Bernard said...

What it comes down to is the fact that the people in Afghanistan are far away poor foreigners that do not live like middle class Canadians.

For most people in the western world, dead people in the third world do not matter.

In Canada we hear about every soldier that dies over there, but we do not hear about all the people being killed by the Taliban and their ilk.

Wealthy western nations have a responsibility to help people in the rest of the world lead decent lives. This does not mean piles of aid money, but allowing the stability to exist in the nation so that the people can succeed.

If the war is lost over according to Jack, why not give a new home to everyone in Afghanistan that wants to leave in Canada?

The reality is that 99% of Canadians would be more upset about a cold latte from Starbucks than the death of 100 000 people in Afghanistan. I know this is true because more than that many people have died in the wars there in the last 10 years and people in Canada do not care.

People in Canada believe in their hearts that poor dark skinned lives are not worth the price of a cup of coffee.

Canada happily stood by and allowed Rwanda to happen - black people are valueless to Canadians. A dead puppy on a gulf island causes outrage, a million dead humans in Africa means nothing.

If we are to have a military in Canada, the place they should be is in places like Afghanistan.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Thanks for your sober assessment, Bernard. I fear you may be right about Canadians' callous disregard for the sufferings of others but I am not yet convinced it is as commonplace as you say.

What is commonplace, however, is a defeatist cynicism, which is hammered into us at every hand's turn, leaving us to believe that war and suffering constitute the natural state of the world, and that there is no point in trying, and that to try at all is to be reckless, naive, or imperialist. So it is not so much that people don't care, as it is a matter of people having accepted the lie that there is no point in caring, or in trying.

That is how the "status quo" sustains itself, but even more sinister is that the main resistance on offer consists of an assemblage of means - consumer choices, political parties, neighborhoods, polemical styles, identity-complexes - by which one can pretend to confront it all by retreating into the illusion of personal virtue. This doesn't change the world, but it isn't intended to. It is merely to allow one to say, from safe within one's virtuous minority, to all one sees outside, 'not in my name.'

I've spoken to sufficient numbers of Afghans, Canadian soldiers, pro-Afghan activists and others to confidently hold to the hope that if we keep faith with the people of Afghanistan, the people will win.

So I'm sticking with that until I learn otherwise.

9:25 PM  
Blogger James O'Hearn said...

From what I gather, Carlton-Smith is only advocating the common sense counter-insurgency strategy the British learned the hard way in Kenya, Northern Ireland, and other parts of the old British Empire.

I wonder what Smilin' Jack would have to say about Robert D. Kaplan's latest piece in the Atlantic?

I wonder what Smilin' Jack would have to say about a Pakistan rent apart by civil war and the destabilization of a region so important to so many Canadians today.

Honestly, it amazes me how short term and jingo-istic some of our Canadian political leaders can be. Between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which were a part of the old Mughal Empire, the population is more than fifty times the size of Canada's, with rapidly expanding markets that, in the presence of long term stability, would represent an unprecedented economic opportunity for a nation that sacrificed so much to bring peace to the region.

Japan and Germany are both G-7 economies, which would never had been the case if not for the foresighted nature of the Marshall Plan.

3:41 AM  
Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Excellent, Terry. Now we have Globe and Mail "reporting" by Graeme Smith and Doug Saunders at its best, feverishly trying to link Harper with Bush:

That places Britain, with at least 3,500 troops [7,000 actually, but do Globe reporters know or care?] standing alongside Canada's forces in southern Afghanistan, in direct conflict with U.S. leaders, who continue to argue strenuously that the war can only be won by substantially defeating the Taliban. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers have endorsed that view, although most other NATO nations have favoured negotiations.

Brig. Carleton-Smith's words are the most explicit expression yet of a view that has become dominant in many member nations of NATO's International Security Assistance Force.

That view effectively isolates the United States, the biggest donor of money and troops to the war. Starting later this month, the U.S. Afghanistan strategy will be designed by General David Petreus, who devised the "surge" of extra troops in Iraq last year and who has become the head of U.S. Central Command in order to shift the country's priorities toward the Afghan war.

Prime Minister Harper has previously sided with the Americans on such questions, refusing any suggestion of direct negotiations with the Taliban and ridiculing politicians who have suggested a political solution. Conservatives gave NDP Leader Jack Layton the nickname "Taliban Jack" for lobbying in favour of negotiations in recent years, and the moniker became popular among Canadian troops as a derisive shorthand for politicians who don't support the war.

During last week's election debate, however, Mr. Harper avoided discussing the possibility of a victory and suggested that Canada's goals now involve empowering Afghan forces rather than totally defeating the Taliban: "If we are to truly pacify that country and see its evolution, we have to train the Afghan army and police so that they are credibly able to take greater responsibility for their own security."..


5:12 AM  
Blogger SnoopyTheGoon said...

I have to take an exception to the title of this post. What parallel universe are we talking about?

It is strictly perpendicular for all I can see.


6:16 AM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...


Is there any "news" in any of this? That's the question I'm grappling with. It is utterly ridiculous to suggest, as Jack Layton did two years ago, that "negotations' with the Taliban are an alternative to a robust military strategy under ISAF. If there is any serious person who is suggesting this, outside the NDP circle, I'd like to know who it is.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Alec said...

==> Setting aside the moral vacuum one would have to inhabit to be "heartened" to hear that the Afghan struggle is not winnable,

No, let's not. Let's concentrate upon it with all the intensity of a diamond-tipped auger. Let's just say that it were true, what would any partially formed moral creature feel? Aghast, horror, despondency at such medievalist thugs gaining the ascendency. What would Layton do? Why, cheer and have a street-party!

The sound we can hear is those even partially formed moral creatures grinding their morning coffee beans in their teeth and Jack Jones gnawing on his walking stick.

However, even before I read Brigadier General Carleton-Smith's *actual* remarks, I guessed he was *not* saying that the sort of people who break girls' teachers between motorcycles [1] or executing their prospective students [2], i.e. Afghans who wish for the same rights and opportunities which Layton assumes for himself, could win. Just that we should not be bloody stupid and not alienate those who don't 100% agree with yer man on the street in Edinburgh or Ontario. Well, knock me down with a feather, even Harry Flashman would have agreed.

You, Terry, makes a point about (certain) Canadians' "callous disregard for the sufferings of others". What I read that as is that, after decades of reaping the benefits of globalization and modernity under the Pax Americana, they're baulking at the moral taint of getting involving in it (that said, how many actually have rellies in those serving in the forces?).



11:10 AM  

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