Canada in Afghanistan

For many Canadian partisans of The Mission in Afghanistan, Canada is just fighting the good fight. Their attitudes are curiously anachronistic, as if our boys have gone off to stick it to Jerry. There are yellow-ribbon support-our-troops stickers on many cars; there’s home town pride. Embedded correspondents produce little more than a stream of human interest pieces, as if Afghanistan was some enormous Katrina aftermath. You’d probably find something similar in Norway, Finland, and other Nice Countries that have sent troops over there. Perhaps Americans would feel the same way were the whole Afghanistan question not obscured by the much more spectacular disaster of Iraq.

The opponents of The Mission sound wimpy. They say it’s not a peace-keeping operation– so what? Is nothing else ever justified, under any circumstances? They point out that the mission doesn’t have popular support. Again, so what? Can’t something unpopular be right? They claim it helps the Americans, but the Americans, really, are beyond help, and Canadian assistance isn’t about to turn US idiocy into success. They protest that civilians are being killed. True: one might add that ‘collateral damage’ is a rather abstract way to describe tearing off a child’s face and going ‘oops’. However all modern wars, because they involve air power, inevitably involve collateral damage, so only a complete pacifist could find this objection decisive. Should we not tell other countries or societies how to run their lives, ever? How about Rwanda?

On top of this, the entire opposition to the Afghan war worships at the altar of Supporting our Troops (Bring Them Home!). This is either hypocrisy or nonsense. If you support the troops, you must support them where they are, not where you might wish them to be. So someone might ask: do you or don’t you wish that the troops who are in fact now in Afghanistan remain safe? If you do wish that they remain safe, you wish them to possess that huge military asset, invulnerability. You want their armor and air support and heavy weapons to protect them. This can only mean that you hope they kill any Afghan who threatens their lives. Push come to shove, you want them to win all their battles. This, as an anti-war stance, is nonsense. “Support our troops, bring them home” is not an anti-war slogan, it is mere evasion. But if you don’t wish them to remain safe, then you don’t really support the troops. You’re a hypocrite: you can’t support them if you don’t hope to keep them from harm. No one I know admits to this attitude.

In other words, there is no serious opposition to the Afghan war, for much the same reason that the opposition to the Iraq war has been so feeble: the ‘opponents’ of The Mission agree with its promoters that the troops, its cutting edge, should be protected at any cost. Moreover the complaints about the mission are just that–mere complaints, making bogus appeals to principles which no one holds unconditionally anyway. No one has shown that in *these* conditions, the principles are so terribly important that The Mission should end.

Yet the West’s war in Afghanistan is an outrage–contemptible in its conception and shameful in its execution. If this isn’t obvious, it’s because the invaders don’t seem to be violating any sacred principle or (to give them the benefit of a doubt) acting from bad motives. Instead, The Mission fairly screams that it will fail, and failure, in these circumstances, is a huge, bone-headed crime. The troops who make this crime happen can be viewed with a certain sympathy, but they should never be supported in any way.

Contemptible strategies

The big justification for The Mission is that we are fighting, as the infantile phrase goes, the Bad Guys, the Taliban. There’s something criminally dishonest about this. Here’s an inexact parallel which tries to get at what’s wrong.

Suppose the Taliban are bad like TB, not cancer–you lead an awful life, but usually you live. Now suppose there,s TB in your town. I come to believe that TB is a scourge of your society, and fighting TB should be your number 1 priority. I could eliminate TB in your town by providing 100mg of a certain drug to each inhabitant, but I have no intention of allocating resources on that scale. So, on the cheap, I provide 10mg of the drug per person. This may bring some temporary relief; it may even cure a very few exceptionally healthy people, but of course what it won,t eliminate TB, and those helped are very likely to get it again, later. I use this distribution of drugs to justify my military occupation of your town. I kill inhabitants who oppose my TB program, on the grounds that they,re an obstacle to curing your society.

The contemptible wrongness of my actions is elusive. I have no bad intentions or motives; I’ve violated no inviolable principles. But there is something repugnantly shoddy about my good intentions. It’s not that I’m trying to do something bad. It’s that I’m not really trying to do something good, only pretending to do so. I pretend, first of all, to myself. I’ve embarked on an enterprize that I know will have terrible costs to others, and which will achieve nothing. This looks a bit like the sort of gamble we just have to take from time to time. But it isn’t a gamble, because I know my strategy will fail. I choose to ignore this, and pretend my efforts are serious. In short I’m trying to hold two obviously clashing beliefs. One is that after much struggle I will succeed; the other is that I’ve invested much too little in the ‘struggle’ to succeed. I don’t want to relinquish either of them. Academics call this cognitive dissonance.

Willful myopia helps us manage these clashing beliefs. We see our killings of Afghan civilians as a series of mistakes, of setbacks, and so they are. But we we know these mistakes will continue to happen, and we refuse even to estimate their eventual, total cost to the Afghan people . Instead, we go on about our noble sacrifice. That sacrifice includes going thousands of miles to kill others, often as not people who did us no harm. We make like we’ve done their grieving, often starving, maimed or crippled friends and relatives and neighbours a great big favour. They did not ask for this favour, and the sacrifice we impose on them dwarfs our own. Our blood-drenched dishonesty is nothing if not contemptible.

But how do we know we will fail?

Foreseeable failure

You can always say: we don’t know for *sure* that we will fail. Well, we also don’t know for sure that 10% of the recommended minimum dose for the treatment of TB won’t cure the patient, but we’re sure enough. We can be about that sure that The Mission will not cure Afghanistan of its ills, or do much for our own. That’s because no one even proposes troop commitments anything remotely like what we believe is necessary for success. When the US invaded Iraq, military people told us that vastly more troops would be needed. If there was some excuse for dismissing such advice in 2003–and few would see any such excuse–there is none now. Once again, military analysts suggest troop levels orders of magnitude greater than anyone contemplates. Afghanistan is as large as Iraq; its population is slightly larger. Its people have more experience in irregular warfare, and its topography is better suited to guerrilla operations. Its languages and cultures are, to Western invaders, an even greater obstacle to intelligence gathering than the Arabic of Iraq. Its fighters have a sanctuary in Pakistan such as the Iraqis can only envy. And no one is going to push Pakistan around too much, because it has nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.

Respectable military thinking holds that, even with allies, The Mission might take half a million men. A Rand Corporation study in 2003 stated you need 20 soldiers per 1000 inhabitants for that sort of thing. Based on RAND’s population figure for Afghanistan of 27,755,775, this, yields a force of about 500,000.(*) Defense expert Craig T. Cobane does not dispute the calculation, but adds: “That number was totally unfeasible and impractical.”(**) In 2001, mainstream publications like the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times echoed the 500,000 figure. Nothing and no one has discredited this estimate; it’s studiously ignored. Current ‘coalition’ forces number 30,000 to 50,000.

If no one likes to mention the 500,000 figure any more, it’s probably because we also realize that nothing remotely like that number will be provided. The US speaks of increasing its commitment by 3200 men, not 320,000. Other countries are at least as cautious; it’s not even clear how long they,re willing to maintain their current contributions. So no one expects the West to remake Afghanistan on its own. Afghanistan is, in this respect, like the town with TB.

Precisely because Western military planners agree they don’t have enough troops, it has always been assumed that, as Musharraf says, we will use the locals as canon fodder, and this is what has been done ever since the Americans invaded in 2001. This of course means that Western powers must cooperate with the local powers that be. And this in turn means that even military ‘success’ will bring failure of The Mission.

What could possibly count as success? Not simply defeating the Taliban, but creating conditions which ensure that Afghanistan won’t host some similar group once the West packs up and leaves. Usually this objective is dressed up as rebuilding the country, eliminating the drug trade, creating a democratic society, and–especially popular in North America–stopping the oppression of women. Perhaps none of this is meant seriously, and the real reason NATO is in Afghanistan is to please the Americans: perhaps European and Canadian governments have terrified themselves by defying America over Iraq. But whatever the objectives, none can be attained. The reason is well known but rarely said out loud: attaining any of them requires real control of the whole country, not the illusion of control maintained with the assistance of various warlords.

The notion that some national army will supplant the warlords is a non-starter, because these same warlords are an essential element in the national government. Nothing they don’t want–not least the extinction of their own power–can happen in such circumstances. However much Western troops and their fawning journalists may vaunt the military prowess of Our Side, we are weak, and we cooperate from weakness.

One spectacular sign of this cooperation from weakness is the opium renaissance that has flowered under Western occupation. But the costs of cooperation go far beyond this. Because Western troops are colossally ignorant of the country, they have on several occasions fought innocent people, because anyone can bring destruction to his enemies by labelling them ‘Taliban’. More important, military weakness on the ground means reliance on air power, inevitably applied with the wishful thinking that passes for tactical intelligence: a desire to hit the enemy becomes a belief that the enemy have been located, even when those located are civilians. Quite often, civilians are knowingly killed to get at enemy hiding amongst them.

These idiotic practices show no sign of going away. They are accompanied by a failure to provide basic security in the country, and the much more important failure to provide *long-term* security. Everyone, including the Western powers, knows that sooner or later they will leave, and the same factions that ran the country piecemeal before will run it again. (In most areas, they run things right now.) So the idea of winning hearts and minds is ridiculous. This might not matter in a truly massive military occupation, but it certainly matters in occupation on the cheap. And Western powers will never opt for a massive military occupation because, even then, the prospects of long-term success are uncertain, and the expense colossal. Moreover a full-scale occupation would not only erase any pretense of an independent Afghan government, but involve massive bloodshed. All this might be politically acceptable to secure something really vital, like the Arabian peninsula, but not a backwater like Afghanistan.

What of fighting terror? There can be no long-term gains here either. The Taliban alliance with Al Qaeda cannot very well be broken in Afghanistan when it has moved to Pakistan, and even if it could, such alliances would simply reproduce themselves with warlords who remain when the Western troops leave. That’s not all. No one even claims that the retention of bases in the region is essential to the operation of anti-Western terrorists, so one wonders on what basis this military occupation can present itself as an important anti-terrorist operation. It seems more likely that the ever popular ‘surgical’ operations against known individual terrorists are what’s needed, and that the invasion is simply an excuse for the inability to mount enough such operations to make any difference. So even if we accept that terror can be fought with military force, the problem seems to be bad intelligence, and that’s not solved by troops stomping all over the landscape in a country that for centuries has excelled at confounding occupying armies.

We have seen all this in Iraq. It’s all old news. We know that Rumsfeld’s bluster about high-tech war on the cheap, with few troops, was a fantasy, and that the conventional, sky-high estimates of what’s required reflect reality. We know, whatever we say, that The Mission will fail. It may be a good cause, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because its objectives are out of reach.

We hear a lot about commitment. Canadian Prime Minister Steve Harper, like Blair before him and like Bush, tells us that we’ve made a commitment to the Afghan people, and we must not leave them in the lurch. It’s common to hear this from soldiers, too. This is, at best, self-deception. Suppose I promise to rebuild your bridge and allocate, from the very beginning, one tenth of the manpower and materials necessary to rebuild it. Then I have either made no commitment in the first place–just spoken some words without substance–or I made one without ever intending to keep it. Take your pick. Under either interpretation, this is sleaze masquerading as virtue. If after over five years the West can do no better than this–

Afghan children chew on mud they scratch from the walls of their homes to stave off hunger.

— the idea that we will achieve something in Afghanistan is a dream. We know it, and we need to wake up from it.


The criminality of The Mission extends beyond our own actions. The West has inserted itself as the dominant military power in Afghanistan. It holds the capital, the airports, and the main transportation routes. It props up a puppet government. It asserts its power everywhere. This makes the West the effective sovereign in the country, which in turn makes the West responsible for every single thing that goes on there. Except for the sort of everyday crime that no society can eliminate, this includes what would have gone on even if the West had not invaded: a ruler is responsible for the security and welfare of those ruled. Instead of fulfilling this responsibility, the West brought all the agony of war, and virtually none of the benefits of civil society, to a country that posed no substantial threat. The invaders did this knowing it was all for nothing, just as the TB criminals knew that.

The Mission, then, is a well-intentioned atrocity, so obviously futile that it shames all who join or support it in any way. They say that ignorance of the law is no excuse: the wilful disregard involved in the creation of a disaster is no excuse either. No rhetoric and no UN or international seal of good housekeeping can ever change this.

Our responsibilities therefore involve opposing the mission and everything that contributes to its success. This requires real opposition, not support-our-troops cowardice, not human interest reporting, not entertaining ‘our brave fighting men and women over there’. If the war is a crime, then Steve Harper and the other Western leaders can’t be the only criminals. The mature, competent adults who volunteer for the armed forces and fight in Afghanistan, who actually wreak the death and destruction, have to be criminals as well. This doesn’t preclude having sympathy for them. Some of my friends have gone wrong and committed serious crimes, in one case a murder. I still care about them and wish they hadn’t made bad choices. But they did, and I didn’t try to make them feel good about it.


(*) “Burden of Victory: The Painful Arithmetic of Stability Operations”, By James T. Quinlivan,

(**) “A 2003 RAND report noted there were twenty peacekeepers per thousand people in Kosovo. To reach a comparable number in Afghanistan would require 500,000 peacekeepers. That number was totally unfeasible and impractical.” Cobane’s article appeared in Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management Journal, 6/22/2005, available at

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at:



Michael Neumann is a professor of philosophy at a Canadian university.  He is the author of What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche and The Case Against Israel.  He also contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism.  He can be reached at