Canada in Afghanistan

Has nobody questioned whether Canada’s Prime Minister should be making “surprise” trips to Afghanistan? Since when are foreign policy decisions in a democratic country conducted in secrecy and revealed as surprises, like sexy underwear or chocolates on your birthday?

“We don’t make a commitment and then run away at the first sign of trouble,” Stephen Harper said, defending his decision not to debate whether Canadian troops should be engaging in a combat role in Afghanistan.

I must have missed something. We, as in the Canadian public–hello, remember us?–never made that commitment in the first place. That decision was made, without public consultation, by the previous Liberal government. That’s the same Liberal government that I recall Harper once criticizing for abuse of executive privilege.

“Perhaps the previous government should have had a vote on the deployment,” Harper has said, “but that was not their decision. The decision was taken and we can’t change our opinion when the troops are in danger.”

And so the reason we’re in Afghanistan is like that old Boy Scouts song, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here.” Clearly, this same policy of refusing to “cut and run” from commitments made by the previous Liberal government does not apply to the popular national day care program, which the Harper government has cancelled against the wishes of the majority of Canadians.

There might have been a time when Canada, and even the U.S., could have done some good in Afghanistan. Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the morality of invading a sovereign nation before diplomatic means had been exhausted. If we begin with the coalition ousting of the Taliban as a fait accompli–one that was indeed popular with many Afghanis who saw the Taliban as unwelcome interlopers from Pakistan–there was a brief period in which Canada could have played a positive role in the country. That was our window of opportunity.

Instead, all the occupying forces together have failed to live up to even their basic obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Chief among the obligations that an occupying power has towards those designated as a “protected” people is, of course, security. This much, at least, the Canadian and U.S. governments have understood.

The main problem has been with the narrow military sense in which “security” for Afghanis has been prioritized. “Security,” after all, is not simply about being protected from “bad guys,” to borrow George W. Bush’s phrase. It’s also about knowing where your next meal is coming from, having access to clean water and health care, and being able to earn an independent living.

It’s these latter aspects of security that the neo-cons orchestrating the war from Washington have failed to provide. Hell, they barely provide them to their own citizens.

Canada’s efforts on this score, though wide-ranging and aided by some no doubt truly exceptional individuals, have similarly fallen fall short of what is needed.

As a result, since the arrival of Canadian troops in Afghanistan, things have only steadily worsened for Afghanis. There is less security, the warlords are back, the heroin trade has resumed, and what is called an “insurgency” looks more everyday like yet another civil war.

The window of opportunity for Canada to do some good in Afghanistan has long closed. Good intentions or not, we are now occupiers.

“When we send troops into the field, I expect Canadians to support those troops,” Stephen Harper has said.

I beg to differ. Supporting the men and women who serve in Canada’s military does not mean placing them stupidly in perilous situations from which no good can come. If Harper really wants to support our troops, he should get them out of Afghanistan, where they are not wanted and where their presence becomes more counterproductive with each passing day.

JASON KUNIN lives and teaches in Toronto. He can be reached at