Pubdate: Thu, 01 Mar 2007
Source: This Magazine (Canada)
Copyright: 2007 Red Maple Foundation
Author: Jared Ferrie
Note: Jared Ferrie is a Vancouver-based journalist who travels when he's 
able. His work has appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the 
South China Morning Post and


Why Canada Shouldn't Pull Its Troops Out Of Afghanistan

Camp Julien was set down on a barren plain on the outskirts of Kabul, 
against a stark, mountainous backdrop. Across the road sat the ghostly, 
bombed-out remnants of Afghanistan's royal palace. Once a majestic building 
surrounded by immaculate gardens, it was now a looming reminder of 
destruction wrought by decades of war.

In sturdy canvas tents within the heavily fortified camp, about 1,700 
Canadian soldiers slept side-by-side in cots. Everything they ate or drank 
was shipped in. The only time they left was to go on patrol.

I found myself at Camp Julien on Canada Day 2004, having just arrived for a 
sixmonth position with a media development organization. The occasion 
provided a rare opportunity for Canadians living in the country to wander 
around the base and mingle with soldiers who lived a strangely insular 

Like the troops, we were allotted two cans of beer for the evening's 
festivities, which included a heavy-metal cover band and a Quebecois 
comedian. One beer was free, the other we paid for. We ate rubbery lobster, 
then we went to a party in Kabul.

Hosted by a French NGO, the party was held in the well-kept garden of an 
exquisite house. Alcohol was free, and the mostly European and North 
American crowd of development workers danced to electronic music that 
bounced off the mud walls of the compound. The phrase "fiddling while Rome 
burns" did not come to mind at the time.

It was a period of optimism perhaps unrivalled in recent Afghan history. 
The Taliban had been chased out, girls were returning to school, money was 
flowing into reconstruction projects, and the country's first democratic 
elections were about to be held.

In Canada, there was little opposition to the government's decision to 
contribute soldiers to an international security force, especially in the 
wake of 9/11. It seemed in line with previous peacekeeping-type missions, 
and casualties were still low. It would have been difficult then to imagine 
the intense combat and barrage of suicide bombers Canadian soldiers would 
soon face. As the violence has escalated over the past year, so too have 
calls to bring the troops home. In 2002, three out of four Canadians 
supported our role in Afghanistan; today we are split down the middle. In 
January, Innovative Research Group found support to be at 58 percent.

Canadian casualties have skyrocketed in the two years since troops left the 
relative safety of Camp Julien for the volatile southern province of 
Kandahar, where the Taliban has re-emerged in strength. Canada lost 36 
soldiers and a diplomat last year, compared to one casualty in each of the 
previous two years.

Afghans, too, are losing confidence in the reconstruction process. A 
wide-ranging World Public Opinion (WPO) poll revealed that in 2006, only 62 
percent of those surveyed said the country was going in the right 
direction, down from 83 percent the previous year.

"The Taliban is far from winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan 
people," said WPO's Stephen Weber in a December 14 release, "but there are 
signs that the Karzai government and NATO are gradually losing them."

The debate on Parliament Hill and around the country grows more heated with 
every maple-leafdraped coffin sent home. From the right comes a blindly 
patriotic cry to stay the course in Afghanistan, while many on the left 
accuse Ottawa of abandoning our tradition of peacekeeping in order to join 
America's so-called war on terror.

Left-wing organizations--including, now, the federal NDP--have endorsed the 
"troops out" position. But they have so far failed to articulate a clear 
vision of what would happen to Afghanistan without the Canadian presence. 
Meanwhile, the Conservatives ignore warnings from analysts and opposition 
parties that Canada needs to focus more of its efforts on reconstruction 
and less on combat. For example, in the December 20 Toronto Star, Prime 
Minister Stephen Harper said he would not change the nature of Canada's 
mission in the face of demands from opposition parties, even if means the 
defeat of his government.

Distress over the fact of Canadian soldiers dying in a complicated war on 
the other side of the world is understandable. But there is a certain irony 
in where that unease has led.

The NDP and others now argue for an immediate withdrawal of Canadian 
troops. But pulling troops out of Kandahar would simply open the door to 
another Taliban takeover. There is also a real danger that the return of 
the Taliban would lead to civil war, since anti-Taliban warlords would 
almost certainly call up their militias again. It's an odd position for the 
left, which has always prided itself on a commitment to social justice, to 
advocate a policy that could result in the suffering of millions of Afghans.

In a December interview, Afghanistan's development minister, Mohammed Ehsan 
Zia, pleaded with Canadians not to rush to judgment. "Our journey is long 
and the road is bumpy, so we request them to be patient," said Zia, who had 
travelled to Canada to explain where $1 billion in Canadian aid is going. 
"We do not feel proud of the presence of Canadian soldiers on our soil for 
security. As a nation, we want to take charge of our own affairs, but we 
need help at this time."

Two years after leaving Afghanistan, back in Vancouver, I attended a CBC 
forum on Canada's role in Kandahar. The panel included Omar Samad, 
Afghanistan's ambassador to Canada. In an interview the previous day I had 
asked Samad if he was surprised at the strength of the Taliban resurgence.

"We all probably did not have the right assumptions in the first three or 
four years following the fall of the Taliban about what the remnants of the 
Taliban were up to," he said by phone from Ottawa. "They were actually 
regrouping, retraining and rearming, and looking for new sources of funding 
and recruits."

Samad found irony in the fact that the growing Taliban insurgency is being 
matched by louder calls in Canada to bring the troops home. In the late 
1990s, he and other Afghans had tried in vain to prod the West into action 
by highlighting the atrocities being committed by the Taliban regime.

"Nobody was listening or hearing their cries," he said. "Now the same 
people who claim to be supporting the disadvantaged in the world are 
advocating the return of the oppressor--at least indirectly advocating the 
return of the oppressor--by saying we should leave Afghanistan."

At the CBC forum, Samad was confronted by Mable Elmore, co-chair of 
Vancouver's Stop War Coalition, which wants the immediate withdrawal of all 
Canadian troops. She ran down a list of concerns, including the presence of 
warlords in Samad's government.

"Where were you when the children of Afghanistan could not go to school?" 
Samad demanded in response. "Where were you when women were being executed 
in sports stadiums by the Taliban?"

When the forum was over, Elmore said she'd heard nothing to change her 
mind. "The role the Canadian military is playing is contributing to 
deteriorating conditions," she said.

But if Canadian troops pulled out of Kandahar, wouldn't the Taliban take 
over, I asked repeatedly.

"That's a good question," she finally offered, explaining that her 
coalition needs to discuss such issues further.

Elmore wasn't the first activist to dodge that question. Last spring, for 
example, I talked with Cindy Sheehan, the well-known American anti-war 
spokesperson whose son was killed in Iraq. The Council of Canadians brought 
her to Canada to lend support to the growing movement to bring troops home 
from Afghanistan. I asked her if withdrawing international forces could 
actually lead to increased violence, pointing out that the country is one 
of the most fractious and well armed in the world. "Are we having an 
interview or are we having a debate?" she responded.

Sheehan's reaction on its own would have held little significance, but this 
unwillingness to grapple with the consequences of withdrawing troops seems 
common, if not endemic, among those opposing the war.

The Conservative government seems no better equipped to face up to the 
complexity of Afghanistan, as Senlis Council founder Norine MacDonald 
learned in Ottawa last fall. Senlis, an international policy think-tank, is 
probably the most authoritative source of information on what's happening 
on the ground in Kandahar.

MacDonald, a Canadian lawyer, has spent much of the past two years in 
Kandahar interviewing Afghans to learn what they think about conditions in 
the province. Senlis has documented increasing frustration with the 
international community's failure to bring security and rebuild the south. 
In September, the group sounded the alarm about Afghans on the verge of 
starvation in camps just kilometres from the Canadian military base in 

On October 26, MacDonald presented her group's findings to the Standing 
Committee on National Defence. While opposition MPs appeared interested and 
requested further briefings, the Conservative MPs seemed intent on 
undermining the credibility of her research.

"The questions we got from the Conservative members of the committee were 
more around either denying that there was extreme poverty in Kandahar, or 
what you would call a kill-the-messenger type of attack on our 
organization," said MacDonald. "Even if they don't agree with our policies 
or our recommendations, we think they should be interested in any 
information from any source about what's really going on in Kandahar."

A couple weeks later, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor launched a national 
tour to sell the mission to Canadians. After a speech at a Vancouver Board 
of Trade luncheon, he reacted defensively when The Globe and Mail's Jane 
Armstrong asked him about deteriorating security conditions in Kandahar, 
where she had just returned from assignment. He insisted that security was 
not getting worse.

The previous day, a joint report of UN, Afghan government and coalition 
officials had estimated that 3,700 Afghans had been killed in 2006, 
including about 1,000 civilians. That's about four times the number killed 
in 2005.

The Taliban's influence is now keenly felt in southern Afghanistan, 
according to MacDonald. "The Taliban have psychological control in Kandahar 
now. So what that looks like is, all the men are growing beards. No one 
goes out without a beard. No one goes out at night. There are roadblocks 
and fighting inside Kandahar city. People are making their decisions about 
how to live their lives on their understanding of Taliban rules."

There is nothing to suggest that this new generation of Taliban is any less 
brutal than its predecessor. Last July, for example, Human Rights Watch 
warned of "attacks on schools by the Taliban and other groups that are 
intended to terrorize the civilian population." Tactics also included 
suicide bombings, targeting civilians, attacks on aid workers and 
distributing threatening messages known as "night letters."

There are good reasons why 82 percent of the Afghans surveyed by WPO 
continued to hold the view that overthrowing the Taliban was a good thing, 
and 77 percent described NATO forces as effective. In the face of the 
Taliban's history of cruelty, MacDonald argued that withdrawing troops 
would be a betrayal.

"If the international community, NATO, leaves Afghanistan--if the Taliban 
and al-Qaeda have southern Afghanistan--we know what will happen because 
we've already seen it," she said. "That basically makes us complicit in 
what will be a crime against humanity."

Yet the call for withdrawal continues to grow as activists attack Canada's 
role in the NATO mission. Mobilization Against War & Occupation (MAWO) is 
one of Vancouver's most active groups, having collected more than 12,000 
signatures on a petition to withdraw troops. But MAWO appears to oppose 
Canadian military intervention on principle. In November the group adopted 
a resolution condemning Canadian, UN or NATO action to protect the citizens 
of Darfur, Sudan. MAWO claims that humanrights concerns are just an 
imperialist smokescreen.

The NDP's position has evolved from supporting the mission, to questioning 
its strategy, to calling for immediate withdrawal. The party came to its 
final conclusion at its September policy conference in Quebec City, where a 
Vancouver Island riding association proposed and then withdrew a motion 
accusing Canadian troops fighting in Afghanistan of "acting like terrorists."

The current NDP position is a sharp departure from that voiced by Foreign 
Affairs Critic Alexa McDonough last June during a World Peace Forum event 
at the University of British Columbia. She mentioned serious concerns about 
Canada's role, including handing prisoners to U.S. Special Forces. But she 
insisted that international troops were needed for security.

Many of the audience members--probably most--were dissatisfied with such a 
nuanced argument. Some, like James Clark of Toronto's Stop the War 
Coalition, stood up to condemn the presence of Canadian and other 
international forces.

McDonough appeared mildly exasperated with some of the arguments put forth 
by what were her party's natural constituents. "We need to be concerned 
about disarming the warlords. Who's going to do that? This is dangerous 
work, folks," said the Halifax MP. "I think we've got a problem with a 
knee-jerk reaction to the military that we need to confront."

If the NDP faced the same reaction from voters across the country, then its 
decision to take a harder line can be understood as a ploy for electoral 

There is no denying the magnitude of the issues raised by those opposed to 
the mission. NATO itself admitted in early January that too many civilians 
were killed in 2006. That statement came after pleas by Karzai to stop 
killing Afghans. In December, Karzai broke down in tears at a press 
conference as he lamented the deaths of children at the hands of NATO 
forces as well as "terrorists coming from Pakistan."

Pakistan's relationship with the Taliban poses a major challenge to those 
attempting to fight insurgents who slip over the border with impunity. The 
worst-kept secret in the region is that Taliban leaders are based in 
Pakistan, safe from NATO forces.

Pakistan's efforts against them have been "nonexistent or ineffectual," 
according to a November 2 International Crisis Group report. Until this 
situation changes, international efforts will be about "containment at best."

Perhaps an even bigger barrier to security and reconstruction is the opium 
trade. It fuels the Taliban, as well as lining the pockets of everyone from 
policemen to government officials.

Poppy cultivation also feeds the families of farmers, especially in areas 
where little else will grow. A program implemented by the U.S., British and 
Afghan governments to eradicate the drug trade by plowing under farmers' 
poppy fields has been an abject failure, alienating local populations as 
production rates skyrocketed.

"What you see is classic U.S. war-on-drugs policy being applied in 
Afghanistan," said MacDonald. "We've said that stuff doesn't work elsewhere 
and surely doesn't work in Afghanistan when you've got ... the Taliban and 
al-Qaeda waiting for you to make a mistake."

The Senlis Council has been lobbying for a pilot program to license poppy 
production for pain medication. There is a large, unmet demand for drugs 
like codeine and morphine, especially in developing countries, according to 
the Council's research.

Poppy licensing is not the panacea to solve southern Afghanistan's drug 
problem, but it "will send a very positive signal that we are trying to 
figure out how to help them with this opium problem," MacDonald argued.

After his Vancouver Board of Trade speech, Defence Minister O'Connor was 
asked what he thought of the idea. "You just can't go in and destroy 
farmers' crops without giving them something," he admitted.

But he also noted that Britain is officially responsible for working with 
the Afghan government on the drug problem.

MacDonald argued that Canada must take an active role in resolving the 
opium problem. "Canada has said they're not going to be involved in counter 
narcotics," she said. "But nevertheless, they have stood idly by while the 
U.S. has led this massive crop eradication campaign in Kandahar. And the 
Canadian troops are paying the price for that, because it fuels the 
insurgency, and the Afghan people are paying the price for that because 
there was no alternate livelihood program in place."

Although the drug industry is booming as never before, it has long been a 
fixture of the Afghan economy, helping to fund warlords who fought each 
other in a brutal factional war in the mid-1990s. Many of those men now 
hold official positions.

The Karzai administration has been harshly criticized for failing to take 
on the warlords, notably by the courageous female MP Malalai Joya. But for 
all its flaws, the current Afghan government's human rights record is light 
years ahead of any in the past three decades. And despite their growing 
dissatisfaction with the level of corruption and the pace of 
reconstruction, nine out of 10 Afghans surveyed by WPO rated Karzai positively.

Rural Development Minister Zia explained that it has taken five years since 
the Taliban was pushed out just to lay the foundations for security, good 
governance and development.

Ambassador Samad said the next five years will be crucial for the 
government to show Afghans progress. If the international community 
abandons Afghanistan, the results will be grim, he warned. "We would have a 
new cycle of violence and conflict in Afghanistan, the outcome of which 
would be disastrous for that country and that region, and I think for the 

Samad is undoubtedly aware of how fragile his government is, and how 
dependent on countries like Canada it is for survival. But mere survival is 
not enough to create lasting change. The key to stability is providing 
Afghans with decent living conditions.

"There definitely is resentment by the people, dissatisfaction with the 
fact the government is weak, that institutions are not able to deliver the 
services that people need and expect," Samad admitted.

He noted that "overall Canada is very generous," but called for more 
funding from international donors for reconstruction.

The erosion of faith in reconstruction is actually a pretty damning 
indictment of the international community, given the fairly simple 
expectations most Afghans have for a better life.

Last summer, during his successful campaign for the Liberal leadership, 
Stephane Dion told a group of Simon Fraser University students that 
Afghanistan needs a Marshall Plan, similar to the one that rebuilt Europe 
after the Second World War.

It occurred to me that activists calling for the withdrawal of troops might 
put their resources to better use by lobbying the Canadian government to 
take the lead in an international effort to devise such a plan.

But we need to understand there are no quick fixes in Afghanistan, only 
long-term solutions. Even a massive, sustained reconstruction effort is 
unlikely to yield the relatively swift results of the Marshall Plan. As 
devastated as Europe was, it had a history of industrialization and an 
educated citizenry ready to make the leap into a globalized world. 
Afghanistan has been ripped apart by decades of war, which turned ethnic, 
tribal, religious and political groups against each other. And in rural 
areas, people continue to live in much the same conditions as they have for 
hundreds of years. It will take perhaps generations for Afghanistan to 
recover and advance. But that desperately needed transformation can only 
come about through strengthening domestic institutions and civil society, a 
process that depends on international support, which at present requires a 
military component.

In the face of such daunting challenges, Canadians' reservations about the 
mission are to be expected. But before raising the call to withdraw troops, 
we might consider those whose lives have unquestionably improved because of 
the security provided by international forces. As tenuous as it is, this 
stability has allowed the Afghan government and international organizations 
to deliver the basics-education, employment, health care--to a substantial 
portion of the population.

If Afghanistan's history has poisoned the present, it has also fostered a 

For a time, during my stay in Kabul, I had a Dari teacher named Abdullah. 
He'd lost one of his legs at the knee during the 1990s when rockets rained 
down on Kabul as different factions waged bloody battles for control of 
sections of the city. He mentioned that he'd grown up in a house in the 
neighbourhood where we were living. One night his family fled in the heat 
of a battle. When they returned, their home was partially demolished and it 
had been looted. His family lost everything.

Abdullah said all this with a smile on his face and then started laughing. 
After a moment of speechlessness, I began laughing too, because it seemed 
ludicrous that he'd find his own tragedy so funny. Wasn't his family 
saddened by their loss?

"But we are still here," he exclaimed, holding out his hands as if to say, 
"Look, here I am!"

Jared Ferrie is a Vancouver-based journalist who travels when he's able. 
His work has appeared in publications including the Toronto Star, the South 
China Morning Post and
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