Canadaâ€™s eight-year war in Afghanistan is losing support no matter how much money and effort our government and military invest in trying to convince us that it is noble and worthwhile. A growing number of people believe either that the war is a tragic waste of lives and money or that it is simply not one that intruders to Afghanistan can win. Letâ€™s start with the family of Private Jonathan Couturier, 23, the 131st Canadian soldier killed in the Afghan war — about 500 more have been wounded, not to mention the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians. His family has said publicly that Couturier told his brother that the Canadian mission was “a bit useless” and that young soldiers were simply “wasting their time over there.”
Robert Fowler, much in the news lately, is another person who believes that Canada is wasting lives and coin in Afghanistan. Fowler, a highly respected career diplomat, now retired, was Canadaâ€™s former ambassador to the United Nations. He was on a UN mission to Niger in December 2008 when he was kidnapped by operatives of Al-Qaeda and held for 130 days. Thankfully he was released. CBC Television host Peter Mansbridge has interviewed Fowler at length about his ordeal. Mansbridge asked him if being kidnapped and held by Al-Qaeda changed the way in which he sees Canadaâ€™s role. Here is some of the exchange:
Fowler:Â I cannot object to the objectives in Afghanistan, but I just don’t think in the West that we are prepared to invest the blood or the treasure to get this done.
Mansbridge: Did this reinforce that view?
Fowler: Yes, it did. It’s more than blood and treasure because it’s alsoâ€¦it’s not just commitment and the wasting of our youth and the enormous, enormous cost in difficult financial times, it’s to get it done, we will have to do some unpleasant things, I mean, some deeply hardâ€¦ This is not a nice war.
Mansbridge: But is it worth doing?
Fowler: That’s the issue. . . I can show you a lot of places in this world where you can put girls in schools without killing people. It’s a noble objective, Afghanistan, but a lot of people have tried it before. I mean, if you, in the abstract, Peter, asked me to define a more complex, challenging mission, I couldn’t do it. Afghanistan is about as far as Canada’s ken as anything I can think of. The culture is as foreign to us as anything you can imagine . . . it strikes me as rather extreme that one goes out and looks for particularly complex misery to fix. There’s lots of things to fix that can be done more efficiently and probably more effectively.
Why are Canadians in Kandahar?
The esteemed journalist Robert Fisk is even more blunt. He was in Ottawa last winter promoting a new book and he spoke to a packed house. Fisk has lived and worked in the Middle East for decades and is as much an historian as he is a journalist. â€œWhy are Canadians in Kandahar? You will say, to build bridges and roads but your soldiers are coming home dead.â€
Fisk chastised Canadian politicians and journalists who promote the war as a romantic adventure. â€œThis is lethal. None of your leaders has been in a war. You have got to leave Afghanistan. It does not belong to you. As long as you fight in Muslim countries you are no longer safe at home. If we send more troops anywhere in the Middle East we are mad.â€Â Fisk added that he has never been an â€œembeddedâ€ journalist â€“ one who lives and travels with the military and submits to censorship. All of the mainstream Canadian journalists in Afghanistan are embedded, a practice that many of them used to criticize.
A grim assessment
While the Canadian military and politicians continue in their attempts to sell the war as a success, General Stanley McChrystal, the top American military commander in Afghanistan, provided a grim assessment to his superiors in August and it was leaked to the media in September. â€œThe situation in Afghanistan is serious; neither success nor failure can be taken for granted,â€ the general wrote. â€œAlthough considerable effort and sacrifice have resulted in some progress, many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.â€ His solution? He wants more troops (generals always do) to add to the 68,000 soldiers on the ground now.
â€œMurderers and scumbagsâ€
The war began in October 2001 when a U.S. and British military operation was launched in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S. The stated purpose was to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy Al-Qaeda, and remove the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Bin Laden remains free and is almost certain no longer in Afghanistan. Canadaâ€™s combat role began early in 2002 with 140 soldiers sent by the Liberal government and it escalated after General Rick Hillier became chief of defence staff in February 2004. Hillier used Afghanistan as his lever to win an increase in military spending and to shift the culture and reality of Canadaâ€™s armed forces from peacekeeping to an army bent on killing. He described the Taliban as â€œdetestable murderers and scumbags.â€ A new military recruiting campaign featured another Hillier quote: â€œWe are the Canadian forces and our job is to kill people.â€
Stephen Harper was elected with a minority government early in 2006 and was keen, as he saw it, to enhance Canadaâ€™s clout in the world by projecting hard power. Our involvement in Afghanistan, he said, was â€œraising Canada’s leadership role, once again, in the United Nations and in the world community where we used to have an important leadership role.” That assertion is debatable to begin with and even less appealing with each Canadian roadside death in Afghanistan, but nonetheless Parliament voted in 2008 to extend our fighting presence there from 2009 to 2011. There will now be increasing pressure from the Americans and from some within Canada for us to extend again, but the war has become increasingly unpopular with citizens.
The polling company EKOS reported on July 16, 2009 that 54% of Canadians oppose participation in the military mission in Afghanistan, while 34% support and 12% have no opinion.Â â€œWe have been polling on this question since the mission began,â€ said EKOS president Frank Graves. â€œThe public outlook on Afghanistan has undergone a steady and radical transformation. From overwhelming public support at the outset of the mission we have seen an inexorable reversal to overwhelming public opposition. Opposition has grown from a trivial mid-teen level to nearly well over 50 percent.â€
This opposition by ordinary Canadians is remarkable given the elite and media consensus that supports, and even celebrates the war. The Conservative and Liberal parties, and even the NDP have voted in favour of having soldiers fight in Afghanistan until 2011. Newspaper and broadcast pundits are mainly in favour. Hockey Night in Canada has featured the continuing spectacle of commentator Don Cherry shilling for the war. On one Grey Cup Sunday, the trophy was ferried from Hamilton to Toronto aboard a military boat then taken to the stadium riding on an army tank. The Stanley Cup was sent to Afghanistan. Hockey star Sidney Crosby toured a battleship in Halifax harbour when he took the Cup back to his home province of Nova Scotia this past summer. Recently, CBC Television featured Peter MacKay, the defence minister, participating for two days in a military boot camp — but it wasn’t for real. As Robert Fisk reminds us, â€œNone of your leaders has ever been in a war.â€
The frame that has been created by the political and military elite with the complicity of most media is that Canadaâ€™s war is heroic and necessary to make the world safer and help eliminate terrorism. News anchors report on red shirt days and in Ottawa city buses carry decals that say: â€œSupport our troops.â€ The inference, indeed the frequent allegation, is that if one does not support the war as our political leaders have conceived it and our commanders are fighting it, one is against the men and women in the military. This is a false and crude frame but it has been used with some success. Instinctively, however, a growing majority of Canadians understand that it is a hoax, despite the best efforts of slick people to convince us otherwise.