February 08, 2011

Canadians fail to know why we fight

If you ask citizens on any given Canadian street the reasons for our Afghan adventure, you’ll get a depressing litany of answers. Most simply don’t know. Quite a few point to conspiracy theories about “their oil” and 9-11. Occasionally a rational answer comes, such as “to give them democracy”, or “to help the afghans.” Then there’s “to fight terrorists on their own soil”, and “because the Americans twisted our wrists.”

What is absolutely stunning is that even when you even get an answer, it’s never the same one. We are sending our sons, and some daughters, to fight without even knowing the object. Canada does not often take up arms. Before Afghanistan, not a single shot of Canadian artillery had been fired in anger since the Korean War. So what is so important enough to us in far-off central Asia for force of arms?

War-making is not unlike other political decisions. It is a combination of factors and yes, quite a bit of happenstance. Initially, we embarked on this mission because the United States was attacked. The US is our ally in NATO, a military organization which calls for an attack on one to be an attack on all. Should one of its members be attacked, all have signed an oath to partake in retaliation. It is an artefact of the Cold War, yes, but a useful, valuable and noble one at that.

Once the terrorist strikes of 2001 were deemed an act of war by another country (a point of contention for some), we were bound by international law and national honour to join our US brothers in destroying the Taliban regime. The interesting twist is the cultural and political baggage that came next. In reality, the Taliban was routed from power in a matter of weeks, by NATO air raids and paid-off Afghan warlords. So why are we still in the beleaguered “state” ten years after the fact?

The awkward truth is that no one wants to be there. There is absolutely nothing worth fighting for in Afghanistan – other than protecting our image as the most powerful military alliance in the world. No democracy has ever sprung from a situation as dire as the Afghan one. There is no state to speak of. There is no nation, no law, and no comprehension of Western “rational” governmental rule. No less importantly, there is also glaring lack of cultural affinity for democracy there. For instance, even the most technocratic organization in Afghanistan – its national military, only has marginal literacy rates. How can modern democracy thrive when its citizens cannot even read a ballot – even less a statement of political platform?

Afghanistan is a collection of “medieval” towns, valleys, tribes and religious groups located within a geographic space not even delimited by national edict. Rather, Afghanistan’s borders are the product of the fact that other countries have borders “bordering” this space. The sooner Western populations realize that Afghanistan is Asia’s Somalia, the sooner we can move the debate past the political cantrip of how can we turn it into a democracy. The work there is not to turn the Afghan state into a democracy. It’s to actually build the Afghan state. And our policy makers already know the obvious: The only way to turn Afghanistan into a modern state is the same way we did it at home. By force of arms and the will of tyrants.

Unfortunately that is not a palpable idea in the humanitarian and democratic political climate of Western states. Wouldn’t we be hypocrites if we allowed a dictatorship to rise in the place of the Taliban? Wouldn’t we be “no better than our enemies?” – The answer to that question is that there is seldom space for morals in international relations. Even those involving our precious democracies. Besides. Democracy is a flower that blooms best in its own soil. Not that of foreign “benefactors”.

So if not democracy, what?

Pride and culture. We’ve gone to war to defend our allies. But we are a democratic, “enlightened”, and very wealthy alliance. How could we bomb a poor defenceless (by our standards) country without helping them up afterwards? We simply couldn’t live with our democratic selves. Politicians know better than to tell Canadians the inconvenient reality that we went to Afghanistan because of a political contract. We have to fabricate the usual ideological tirade about humanitarian ideals and the spread of democracy. The problem is that this lie creates the need for increased commitment to the conflict.

And with every Canadian soldier who dies in combat, there is an additional reason to gamble more. Who wants to tell the army that they paid in blood for nothing? So we have to win, you see? Or at least look like we won. When the Soviets left Afghanistan, they did so with much fanfare, parades and victory speeches. But in reality their advanced imperial military was routed by a modest amount of “natives” with Enfields, Kalashnikovs, knowledge of the lay of the land, and the stubborn will to refuse being ruled by others.

So how do we do that here? How do we convince ourselves we won without even having something to win? We befuddle ourselves with mock-objectives. With bureaucratic decision-making and political grand-standing. We tell ourselves that our mission will be completed at the end of 2011. Now if it’s completed, we won, right? When bureaucracy rules, we don’t do victories. We do exit strategies.

No battle was ever won simply by sticking around until it was over. Someone has to reach into the carcass of the enemy and tear out his still-beating political heart. War is that ugly. So what war takes is what we kind, humanitarian and peaceful Canadians cannot bear: Guts and grit. It takes the will shoot someone for no better reason than the fact that he was in the way. In 2011 we will tell ourselves we weathered the storm, did all we could, pat ourselves on the back and be routed by a modest amount of “natives” with Enfields, Kalashnikovs, knowledge of the lay of the land, and the stubborn will to refuse being ruled by others.

And that’s because we didn’t obey rule number one of military strategy: Selection and Maintenance of the Aim. No Canadian citizen can tell you why we’re there because there is no reason. We are there because we went there in the first place. We don’t know what to fight for, so we’ll never win.

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