Canadian military forces are currently deployed in Afghanistan. In the Canadian Throne Speech of April 4, 2006, the federal Government stated that it is “committed to supporting Canada’s core values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights around the world.” The government also declared that it “stands firmly behind the vital role being played by our troops in Afghanistan today. The dedicated Canadians in Afghanistan deserve all of our support as they risk their lives to defend our national interests, combat global terrorism and help the Afghan people make a new start as a free, democratic and peaceful country.”
Why our role in this conflict is considered vital and what our national interests in Afghanistan are have never been satisfactorily explained. Neither has clarification been provided on how the occupation of Afghanistan is combating global terrorism. Does our government truly believe that the fiercely independent tribal societies of Afghanistan will somehow coalesce into a “free, democratic and peaceful country” under Canadian tutelage?
For centuries, only kings and warrior emperors have been able to unify the ethnically diverse peoples of the region. This has been achieved through military conquest – suppressing individual freedoms and suspending human rights, those “core values” of our Canadian sensibility. The vast majority of Afghanistan’s population is comprised of Islamic tribal communities led by independent warlords beyond the control of the central government based in Kabul, which was established under the constitution of 2004. They have no cultural tradition or experience of what we in the western world think of as “democracy”. The people subsist on meager yields of grain crops such as wheat, as well as various fruits and nuts. Grazing sheep is a staple of Afghan life in a country of steep-sloped mountains, supplying skins, wool and meat for food. Afghanistan’s most important cash crop, however, is the opium poppy. Despite civil war and occupation, this country is still the world’s largest producer of opium, from which more than eighty percent of the world’s heroin is derived. The largest markets for Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade are Pakistan, the United States and India. According to United Nations statistics for 2006, 2.9 million Afghans were directly involved in the narcotics trade, estimated to be worth 3 billion dollars. Opium poppy cultivation in 2006 reached an estimated record 6,100 tons, almost twice the harvest of 2005, even though the country was under occupation by United Nations forces. This amounts to some fifty percent of the country’s gross national product. Somehow, it seems, the “war on terrorism” in Afghanistan has lost us the “war on drugs” in that same country, a fact no one in a position of authority seems inclined to discuss publicly. Perhaps more embarrassing still would be reminding the public of the fact that the Taliban government overthrown in 2001 had banned opium production in 2000, if only to eliminate their rivals’ source of income.
In October of 2006, NATO assumed full responsibility from the United Nations for security throughout the entire country. NATO’s troop strength of 35,000, drawn from 26 member countries, (2,500 of which are Canadian), is clustered primarily around the major cities of the south and the northeast: Kandahar, Ghazni, Kabul and Jalalabad. In 2003, Afghanistan had an estimated population of more than twenty three million people dispersed throughout an area of more than 652,000 square miles. The ethnic composition of its people is roughly 38% Pashtun, 25% Tadzhik, 19% Hazara, with a mix of additional ethnicities comprising the remaining 18%. To expect a meagre NATO military force of 35,000 to maintain control over such a vast area while simultaneously pacifying such a widely dispersed, diverse and hostile population until we can “win their hearts and minds” seems entirely unrealistic. Yet, without critical analysis, both our media and government insist that this is our achievable objective in Afghanistan.
Repeated attempts were made by the British Empire in the nineteenth century to establish its influence over Afghanistan through force of arms. The First Afghan War of 1839-42, ended in disaster. It wasn’t concluded until 4,500 British and Indian troops, along with 12,000 families and camp followers, were slaughtered at Kabul between January 6 and January 13, 1842. In 1878, the British again invaded Afghanistan and once again, after a protracted series of bloody engagements, were forced to withdraw in September 1880. A century later the Russians would also learn that, while the Afghan people could be defeated in open battles and their cities occupied, foreign armies could not hold the country or subdue its turbulent people for very long.
In 2006 alone, more than 2,800 deaths from car bombings and other terrorist attacks occurred in the country. In their attempts to control insurgent activity and to maintain order, NATO forces have been mistakenly shooting innocent civilians while raiding homes, while confronting dissidents in the streets of various cities and while waylaying unsuspecting travelers at security checkpoints.
A growing number of accidental civilian deaths are also being caused by a reliance on air strikes called in for support during battles with suspected Taliban rebels, further alienating the Afghan population.
It would appear that our struggle to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people will not be ending any time soon.