In overseas wars with automatic weapons, helicopters and tanks, home fronts are as crucial as battlefields. Home-front foot soldiers like us provide the immense financing and social-emotional forces driving specialized armies.
Unfortunately, this means many here at home also embrace unquestioning obedience, as if lives depended on our ignoring complex questions and shooting first.Â It’s exemplified in recent columns defending our military’s role in Afghanistan being fired out by Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP Keith Martin.
Martin’s won five elections and become one of this region’s most prominent politicians, while occasionally defying his parties and adopting humanitarian and environmental issues. He’s currently the federal Opposition Critic for International Cooperation.
So one expects his Afghanistan writings to exhibit some political sophistication. Instead, they’re typical of the dangerous, misinformed jingoism becoming common amongst us.
In one column, Martin recounts how a teacher educated girls, but the Taliban executed him. Ergo: We’re in Afghanistan defending women’s rights.
However, I emailed his article with questions to the oldest, most active Afghan women’s organization, renowned for defying the Taliban, the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. Their response, from “Friba” (they still operate partly clandestinely), was lengthy and impassioned (read the entire text here).
RAWA sees Canadian troops, like U.S. troops, as extensions of the U.S. government, not as “friends” of Afghan women, writes Friba.
The reasons are many. During the 80s, the U.S. supported violent extremists in Afghanistan, including Bin Laden and the Taliban, so they’d attack Soviet occupiers. “The US government helped all those dirty fundamentalist bands in the past who are now the main obstacle towards peace, freedom and stability,” says Friba.
When the Taliban seized power and became anti-U.S., the U.S. government intensified support for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a hodgepodge of estranged ex-soldiers, ethnic-minority religious extremists, and drug warlords.
Friba describes them as “treacherous rapists and murderers” and “terrorist bandits”.
Desperate for Afghan allies since 2001, Friba says U.S. occupiers have greased these partners’ machinations during dubious election and appointment processes.
“Today all of the key leaders of the Northern Alliance are in power and have key positions in the government,” she writes, listing names. “Now the NAâ€¦ are ruling the country backed by the US! They are worse than the Taliban and Arab terrorists.”
“By bringing the warlords back to power,” concludes Friba, “the US has replaced one misogynist fundamentalist regime with anotherâ€¦ Things have not been changed to positive in our land.”
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International similarly report widespread “severe” and “systematic” discrimination, harassment and assaults against Afghan women by their own government, soldiers and justice system. “[A] civil servant has too much on his mind to deal with women’s rights,” explains Kandahar’s governor. (Also see this coverage of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, and this from Al-Jazeera.)
Despite some improvements, even egalitarian promises in Afghanistan’s new constitution defer to suspicious Article 3, “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.”
So what are we defending? What’s our plan?
Martin answers that former Liberal defence minister Bill Graham “detailed” it all. Martin reassures us that (contrary to suggestions we’re merely pleasing the U.S., or laying groundwork for Bush’s Caspian Sea oil pipeline and mid-east military base), “Canadian troops are in Afghanistan under the N.A.T.O. banner”, protecting citizens from drug warlord-terrorist networks. We’re helping “destroy their opium production” and building a “stable, democratic nation”.
In March, though, Graham conceded to the Ottawa Citizen his explanations had been inadequate, adding, “The present defence minister will have to explain to Canadians why this mission is important.”
And if we’re protecting citizens under N.A.T.O., Martin should tell our government. Their oft-updated website, www.canada-afghanistan.gc.ca, explains Canadian Forces “were relocated to Kandaharâ€¦ as part of the United States-led campaign against terrorism”. Meanwhile, human rights groups lament that even soldiers actually working under U.N.-N.A.T.O. have authorization to protect themselves, their projects and the government, but not civilians.
Furthermore, opium production has increased thirteen-fold since we arrived, breaking historical records in 2004 and 2005. Terrorists? Actually, reinforcing RAWA, a Commissioner of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission told the Christian Science Monitor so many police, governors and ministers are involved in the opium trade that Afghanistan’s become a “narco-state”. The Taliban and Al Qaeda, meanwhile, are more financially dependent on Saudi oil barons, Pakistan and Iran.
This paints a more complicated, unsettling picture: We’re putting drug warlords and zealots into government. “Allies in the war on terror” backstab us in a growing regional war. We’re funding terrorism whenever we fuel up. We’re creating another Islamo-fascist state like we helped create in Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Friba advises we stop supporting any warlords. She feels sorry for our casualties. “If Canadians.. come with their own initiatives without acting under the US agenda, they will definitely feel the support and sympathies of Afghan people.”
Instead, our top general declares we’re fighting indefinitely, and dumps our POWs in Afghan prisons notorious for torture. Martin dismisses these facts and glorifies our role with a political naivete that would be laughable if it wasn’t lethal. How blithely we can sometimes cobble incomplete facts and flimsy arguments together to justify sacrificing lives and killing peopleÂ!
Regardless whom you believe, we must base decisions on Afghanistan’s real complexities. But foot soldier Martin declares debates about whether our troops should fight there “moot”. Speaking for many on the home front, he argues “the decision has already been made” and we must simply provide “steely support”.
Personally, I suspect our troops would appreciate some intelligent thinking behind them, too.
Originally published in Focus, May 2006.