Canada in Afghanistan
by Justin Podur
www.zmag.org, September 27, 2006
[Talk given at the Canadian launch
of Bleeding Afghanistan September 21, 2006]
Just over five years ago I visited Colombia
for the first time. I walked through some farmers' fields that
had been fumigated as part of the 'war on drugs'. Parents showed
me rashes on their children's skin. A little garden behind a grade
school had been destroyed. So had fields of yucca, plantain, beans,
corn. The farmers in Putumayo told us they didn't think of themselves
as cockroaches to be fumigated. Their crime was growing a little
bush called coca. I saw some of it. It struck me as fairly innocuous.
I even chewed a coca leaf. Nothing much happened - though I know
that coca leaf is very nutritious and kept Andean miners going
through centuries of backbreaking labour.
On that same trip I visited the US Embassy
to Colombia. The embassy staff told us that the chemicals they
were spraying on the peasants were safe. They explained Plan Colombia:
the US would give Colombia aid (1.3 billion dollars, though Colombia
ended up paying four times as much) and Colombia would buy American
military helicopters with it. The helicopters would accompany
planes that would fumigate Colombian peasants. This would supposedly
stop Americans from snorting cocaine.
The military attaché told us that
they were thinking about moving from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency.
You see, the Colombian guerrillas did not rely on popular support,
the US Embassy told us. They relied on drug money. So by fumigating
the peasants the US was actually starving the guerrillas and thus
contributing to peace in the country, all the while protecting
American children from the scourge of drugs.
We actually asked them about the paramilitaries.
These warlords were armed men, thousands of them in all parts
of the country, who worked very closely with the Colombian Army
and massacred, raped, and displaced millions of Colombians. They
threw peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians off the land
by brutal massacre and torture. They murdered unionists, human
rights activists, journalists, accusing anyone suspected of social
progress of being a guerrilla. They also happened to be drug traffickers,
deriving, according to confessions by paramilitary leaders at
the time, 70% of their revenue from the drug trade. They could
not have done that murder without the protection of the Colombian
government and the Colombian Army. The same Colombian Army who
the US was supporting in its counternarcotics and counterinsurgency
I'm telling this story because it raises
a question. How does a government that wants to fight a war against
a plant or a powder (or a tactic) measure success? If the point
was to reduce the availability of drugs, there's been no effect
but to raise the price and the profits for the cartels. If the
point was to destroy the guerrillas, well the guerrillas did spend
a couple of years laying low. They had held a lot of territory
and they were forced to give it up. But after five years they
are doing fine. They still have plenty of military capacity and
they operate in a very big country. They simply go where the army
On the other hand, if the point was to
displace people from resource rich territories, to destroy the
labor movement, and to hand key sectors of the economy, like the
state oil company, over to multinational corporations, the mission
was a success. And is a success. Today the paramilitaries are
being rehabilitated, rewarded for their work of massacring people
with amnesty and subsidies. The latest estimates are that 1/3
of the Colombian congress are controlled by the paras. And then
there's the president.
Plan Colombia was a failure by one measure
(fighting drugs or getting peace) and a success by another (handing
industries and territories over to multinationals). Let us not
be fooled by the stated goals. It is not about narcotics or insurgency.
So, here we are, talking about Afghanistan.
Afghanistan that supplies 90% of the world's heroin. Canada is
doing counternarcotics in Afghanistan, as well as counterinsurgency.
The drugs Canada is fighting are, of course, a product of the
occupation. They are a product of the alliances the Afghan government
has made, with the warlords who actually control the country.
They are a product of the sham, the falsehood, that Canada or
the US is interested in 'development' in Afghanistan. They are
a product of fact that the only hope a farmer has of earning a
livelihood is through this crop that can bring a little cash -
not a lot of cash, because no peasant ever gets rich from growing
poppy in Afghanistan or coca in Colombia. No no, the money ends
up in banks in the west - and in all of our hands. My Colombian
friend Manuel Rozental likes to pull a 20 dollar bill out when
he talks about this, and ask whether anyone in the audience knows
if it's drug money. If it has been laundered. The answer is, no,
no one can know.
Canada is fighting drugs that are a product
of the occupation because the Taliban, who ruled the country before
the US and Canadian occupation, had banned the poppy. That's not
praise for the Taliban - they also banned music, sports, television,
and laughter. That isn't the solution to the problem either -
it can't be a solution to the livelihood of 2.3 million people,
the 10% of the Afghan population, who rely on the poppy. Solutions
to drug problems are clear enough and well enough known - treatment
for addiction, legalization and control, education and support
for the agrarian economy. So long as our memories are short and
we can't see obvious connections, we won't realize that the drug
war is nothing but a useful pretext.
So much for counternarcotics. We can take
it up later if people are interested. We should talk about counterinsurgency.
How did Canada get involved in a counterinsurgency?
What drove the Canadian government and the Canadian military to
think they could take 2,200 soldiers to Afghanistan for some purpose
there? How did this come to pass?
The Drift from Hypocrisy
Canadian foreign policy used to be based
on hypocrisy. Oh, there is plenty of continuity. Canada's leaders
have always seen themselves, and presented themselves, as men
of the West, involved in the wars the West was involved in. Including
colonial wars. Especially colonial wars. The relationship of the
Canadian state to indigenous people has been one of intensifying
colonialism. So it should be no surprise that Canada has taken
the side of the powerful and shows contempt for the world's peoples
internationally. But Canada has also tried to present itself as
a country without a colonial history, an honest broker and peacekeeper
that has, and deserves, the trust of the world.
Harper's recent utterances about how we
can't back down an inch in the war in Afghanistan and must support
the Americans and the Israelis or fear the consequences - these
have a new element, but they are not so new as they might seem.
Take Paul Martin, for example. Martin said to the House of Commons
in 1965, as External Affairs Secretary:
"Vietnam is a test case. I suggest
that if the North Vietnamese aggression with Chinese connivance
succeeds, it will only be a matter of time before the next victim
is selected If the US were to leave Vietnam at the present time,
what would happen to that country?" (Levant pg. 30, quoted
in my "Canada for Anti-Imperialists").
That's Paul Martin, Sr., by the way. Lester
B. Pearson talked about "aggression" by the Vietnamese
against France, in Vietnam, as early as the 1950s.
That was the public diplomacy. Canada
acted as the US's representative on the body that was monitoring
the US war on Vietnam, the International Control Commission. Canada
was also a supply center and a training ground throughout that
war - a war that killed 2-5 million people throughout Indochina.
Canada was a supply centre, a diplomatic
supporter, and a training ground - but it shied away from direct
military participation in colonial wars.
That started to change in the 1990s, for
various reasons. Canada was in the process of adopting a 'free
trade' agreement that was integrating the economies of Canada
and the US in new ways. Neoliberalism was locking other countries
into weakness and dependency on the US. Everywhere, the segment
of the elite that sought a degree of independence was weakened.
People who tried to fight back were told they were on the wrong
side of history.
There are three stories about Canadian
foreign policy in this period that should be shared.
Back in the 1980s, there was a little
'blip' in Canadian support for Israel against the Palestinians.
During the initial expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, Canada
followed Britain. During the Israeli occupation of the West Bank
and Gaza in 1967, Canada followed the US. But in the 1980s, when
Israel invaded Lebanon, when Israel was crushing the first Palestinian
Intifada, some Canadian leaders - Trudeau and Clark - actually
criticized Israel. But in the 1990s, when the Oslo Accords brought
a phony "peace" to Palestine, Canada was able to return
to its hypocritical role: supporting "peace" publicly,
while supporting Israel privately - and moving towards increasingly
public support, on which more in a minute.
In 1990/1, Mulroney rushed to Bush's side
when Bush started the destruction of Iraq. That's Bush Sr., by
the way. Canada made sure that its warplanes and ships were active,
involved in bombing the relatively defenceless Iraqi military
and the completely defenceless Iraqi population. That campaign
killed hundreds of thousands of people and was followed by sanctions
against Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands more - sanctions
Canada participated in. The sanctions were followed by another
invasion that has killed over a hundred thousand more, by conservative
and not-very-recent estimates. But we'll come back to that 2003
In 1993, the Canadian Airborne Regiment
was sent to Somalia. This one is worth remembering. Here, too,
Canada went with the US. The US was there to "Restore Hope",
and killed several hundred (or was it several thousand) Somalis
in the process, before leaving ignominiously. Canada went along
to support the mission. The story was familiar. Somalia was a
"failed state". Canada had a "responsibility to
protect" the people from evil. So Canada set up a base in
a town called Belet Huen. A well-supplied base in the middle of
a miserably poor country, a country of desperate shortages and
starving people. Some of those people started to sneak on to the
base and steal supplies. If the Canadians were to lock them up,
they'd have to lock up a lot of them. So they came up with punishments.
Humiliations - keeping them out under the sun under armed guard.
Tying them up. Beating them up. Shooting them. Torturing them.
Eventually, torturing a 16-year old child to death over the course
of a whole night. There is a picture of the child, Shidane Arone,
being held up by the neck, by a baton, by a Canadian soldier.
You can find it if you like. It was the first thing that I remembered
when I saw the pictures from Abu Ghraib. I remembered the photo
of Shidane Arone - I was in high school when that photo came out.
If you read the debates and discussions
about Canada in Afghanistan you have heard about the moral dilemma
Canadian soldiers face when they capture "suspected guerrillas".
Should the Canadians turn them over to the Afghan government,
when they might be tortured? The most radical commentators dare
to suggest that perhaps Canada should not turn them over to the
US, given the US's record on torture (Maher Arar's case springs
to mind). But can the Canadians turn them over to themselves?
Today Canadian commentators talk about
the "Somalia Affair" as a national trauma - for Canadians.
It is narcissism. We focus on ourselves, rather than the victims.
The same is true in Afghanistan.
That was the period of hypocrisy in Canadian
foreign policy. That period is over now. The last hiccup of it
was the second destruction of Iraq in 2003. Canada performed,
and continues to perform, its historical services of supply centre,
training ground, and diplomatic supporter. But the US wanted more
from its allies, and that meant Canada had to 'mend fences'. How
did it 'mend fences'? On the bones of Haitians, first - a story
I won't have time to tell here - and on the bones of Palestinians,
and Lebanese, and Afghans. Afghans, because everyone recognized
that the principal way Canada was going to help the US invasion
of Iraq was by relieving the US in Afghanistan. It isn't much
relief: 2,200 troops in a mission that involves some 36,000 troops,
including 20,000 Americans. But it goes some way, presumably,
to 'mending fences'.
Canada's first move towards abandoning
hypocrisy was joining the invasion of Afghanistan. But until recently,
Canada was pretending that the Afghan mission was of the innocent
peacekeeping variety that was done in Somalia, for example.
The second move towards abandoning hypocrisy
happened in December 2004, on the heels of the Bush visit to Ottawa.
That's Bush Jr., by the way. Previously, Canada had abstained
from several votes requiring Israel to comply with its obligations
under international law and withdraw from the territories it occupied
in 1967. Canada's Ambassador to the UN at the time, Allan Rock,
said that the "value added" of the committees trying
to put Palestinian rights on the agenda at the UN was "questionable"
and that the process was biased - against Israel. So Canada started
to vote against Palestinian rights.
Next, six months later, in July 2005,
Canada's Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier put the "peacekeeping"
and "failed states" story to bed with a rhetorical flourish.
Talking about the Afghans on the receiving end of Canada's military,
he said: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags. They
detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our
liberties We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able
to kill people." Hillier was concentrating his fire directly
on the Canadian myth that we are innocent peacekeepers. He was
doing that because he wants to see Canada involved in a counterinsurgency
that he knows is going to be bloody and brutal. Like Harper, he
hopes that by talking tough he can increase people's tolerance
These moves by the Liberals preceding
the Tories' rise to power, set Harper up nicely. He was the first
to cut all aid to the Palestinians earlier this year, to starve
them for the election they held shortly after the one that brought
him to power. This summer, when Israel destroyed Gaza's power
plant and massacred hundreds of Palestinians from the air, Harper
called the response "measured". While Israel was massacring
civilians in Lebanon, suffering largely military casualties at
the hands of Hizbullah, Peter MacKay was calling the resistance
"cold-blooded killers" and a "cancer on Lebanon."
If you listen carefully you'll notice
that something has happened over the past few years: Canada is
no longer talking out of both sides of its mouth. Canada has committed
itself, openly, to colonialism. And in the process, Canada has
talked itself into its own colonial war.
Canada's Afghan War
Now back to the first question of the
talk. How did this happen?
One thing that is striking about oppressed
people is how patient and how forgiving they are. Palestinians
waited seven years, after Oslo, for the Israelis to fulfill their
end of the bargain - to dismantle the settlements, to stop acting
like an occupier and a colonizer. They waited seven years before
the current Intifada began, and even then it took the most drastic
provocation, Sharon visiting al-Aqsa, six years ago less one week.
Afghans are patient, too.
Hillier was talking tough in July of 2005,
but even back then Afghans were waiting. There had been terrible
abuses by the occupiers. Tortures, indiscriminate bombings, disrespect
and callous driving that killed people regularly. But Afghans
had lived through plenty of hard times, and if some fraction of
the promises of development and security had been sincere, things
may have been different. I won't dwell on this, Sonali and Jim
will talk about it more. But people had placed faith in politics,
people had hoped that disarmament would actually happen, and they
were willing to sacrifice a great deal to move forward.
But the promises of development were insincere.
Since 2001, the 'international community' has spent $82.5B on
military operations, $7.3B in aid and development. The Canadian
figures are similarly skewed. The CIDA aid figures are in the
hundreds of millions and most of them have not actually been spent.
The military budgets are in the billions and forever rising.
Remember how, in Belet Huen, the presence
of a well-equipped base in the midst of such poverty led to theft,
and then to abuse and torture? What effect does setting up a camp
with a Tim Horton's then have? How much of an insult is that?
We read reports every few days of two,
three, four Canadian soldiers killed. Read a little further and
you'll see a few dozen or a few hundred "suspected Taliban"
were also killed, in US air strikes with Canadians "mopping
Remember Major General Andrew Leslie,
earlier this year, telling reporters that "every time you
kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who
will come after you." Are we doing that math?
Canada's population is about the same
size as Afghanistan's, and the country is halfway around the world.
Even if Hillier's wildest recruitment dreams are fulfilled, does
he really believe that Canada can "pacify" a population
that is very quickly beginning to believe it wants nothing to
do with us? Does he believe Canada, with its 2,200 troops, can
"succeed" where the USSR, with three divisions, tens
of thousands of troops, failed? And would he kill a million Afghans
and displace 5 million to do it, as the USSR did?
Hillier would, like Harper, no doubt answer
my rhetorical question with one of his own. Do you want the Taliban
back? No, I'd say. Not the Taliban and not the warlords who the
Americans returned to power, either. Not when there are Afghans
who have been giving their lives, their souls, people whose feet
Harper and Hillier are not fit to touch, to fight for and build
their country. But Canada is not there to work with such people.
Canada is not in Afghanistan to support them, even though they
are there - and Sonali and Jim will tell you more about them and
I'm concluding now, returning to that
first trip to Colombia five years ago. The night before we left
for the paramilitary controlled zone I met someone who is now
a good friend of mine, Hector Mondragon. What I understand about
Colombia is due to him, and a few others. He told us that night
that he could name hundreds of friends that had been killed in
that country's war. He said that night that Colombia's problems
were like a fire. The US was pouring gasoline on the fire. A fire,
he said, that Colombians were giving their lives trying to put
Afghanistan is like that. Canada is pouring
gasoline on a fire. And Afghans have been giving their lives to
try to put it out.
Let us not be fooled by stated goals.
Canada's counternarcotics have placed Afghanistan at the centre
of the world's opium trade. Canada's counterinsurgency has the
Taliban controlling half the country, and going from strength
to strength. Canada's development program has led to massive hunger
and starvation, right under the noses of the Canadian military
presence in the south and within a distance to smell Tim Horton's
coffee and donuts. With Canada guaranteeing security, schools
are being burned all over the south.
No, Canada should go, should apologize
for what it has done and make amends, stop killing people and
calling whoever is killed 'Taliban', stop letting young Canadians
who have no idea kill and get killed so that colonial powers can
And Canada will go. For all the bluster
of Harper and Hillier, the military realities are stark and there
are at least some, even in Canada, who know it. Canada will go.
But what will Canadians learn? Will we come to think of Afghanistan
as a 'national trauma', in which we were scarred, forgetting our
victims, like we did in Somalia? Will we say that was a bad bit
of business, but at least we managed to mend fences? At least
we stopped being hypocritical?
Maybe that's what an anti-imperialist
movement could do. It could help Canadians learn that we are not
actually innocent peacekeepers and never have been. It could help
Canadians learn that the traumas we cause in the world are actually
worse than the ones we suffer in it. It could help us learn that
our place isn't cheering for slaughter but fighting against it.
Harper, like Martin before him, is energetic
and internationalist. They moved quickly on Afghanistan, on Palestine,
on Lebanon, on Haiti, against indigenous people here, at Six Nations.
They have plenty of cards yet to play.
But they couldn't dislodge Six Nations
from the blockade.
They could not stop Haitians from having
an election and protecting its results.
They could not stop the Lebanese from
repelling the Israeli invasion.
They could not stop the Palestinians from
surviving and remaining on their lands despite the most savage
onslaughts over 60 years.
They won't stop Afghanistan from being
free, and if we have a fraction of that kind of courage, their
game will be up.
Come to the CAIA conference on October
6-8. Be on the streets on October 28.