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Fresh Start on Afghanistan Debate

Manley report: No one gets off easy, and that's good.

Terry Glavin 23 Jan

Widely-published, Victoria-based writer Terry Glavin contributes this occasional column, Dissent, to The Tyee. His most recent book is Waiting for the Macaws and Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions (Penguin).

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Harper: grow a spine.

It just might be that yesterday's report from John Manley's independent panel on Canada's role in Afghanistan will turn out to be the very thing this country needed: a kind of blueprint to build a sensible, non-partisan national consensus about how Canada should conduct itself in that poor, blighted country.

There's still hope.

But for it to happen, Canadians, and especially Canada's political leaders, will have to squarely face the hard, horrible and inconvenient truths that Manley and his panelists so thoroughly canvassed.

The report is essential reading for a clear understanding of what we're up against. It's the most serious and wide-ranging review of this country's engagement in Afghanistan since Canadian soldiers first set foot there in early 2002.

For any sort of national consensus to emerge from this, we're all going to have to start thinking very clearly about how to address the central question facing Canada, which the panel report put this way:

"At its core, the aim of Canadian policy is to leave Afghanistan to Afghans, in a country better governed, more peaceful and more secure. How can Canada, with others, best contribute to accomplishing that result within the limits of Canadian capacity and influence?"

To get to that particular conversation, however, will require a degree of humility, candour and leadership that none of Canada's national party leaders have shown on the Afghanistan question thus far.

To do list for leaders

It means New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton will have to stop the hippie-speak about "George Bush's war" and start brushing up on some basic facts. Reacting to the panel's report Tuesday, Layton's first words, in an official statement, were: "For six years, the Liberals and Conservatives have had Canada involved in a counter-insurgency combat mission in southern Afghanistan." Actually, it was only a little more than two years ago that Canadian soldiers finally moved out of Kabul to take over in Kandahar.

It means Liberal leader Stephane Dion will have to abandon his sophomoric and illogical fixation with a 2009 departure date -- or any fixed departure date -- for Canadian soldiers in Kandahar. He might also dust off some of those stirring campaign speeches he once made about the necessity of a "Marshall Plan" for Afghanistan.

It means the next time Green Party leader Elizabeth May feels the urge to blame "ISAF forces from a Christian/crusader heritage" for the depredations of violent jihadists in Afghanistan, she might first recall that there are hundreds of brave Muslim soldiers from ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan, from such countries as Turkey and Azerbaijan.

She might be reminded as well that Canada has no "crusader" heritage, and that the signatories to the Afghan Compact, which sets ISAF's agenda, include Iran, Jordan, Qatar and several other Muslim-majority countries. And that Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, Arif Lalani, is himself a Muslim.

Harper's hash

It also means Prime Minister Stephen Harper will have to suck it up, grow a spine, and fix the mess he's made of the Afghan mission.

Harper has never shown any convincing moral dedication to the mission in the first place, his supine posture to the White House and his now-mothballed "hawk" persona notwithstanding, and he has made a complete hash of it from the outset.

Manley properly excoriated the Harper government for its conduct:

The weird muzzling of Canadian aid officials and diplomats. Ottawa's bizarre inability to engage in anything resembling a straightforward accounting of the mission's risks. Its absurd hobbling of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Afghanistan. The cabinet's irresponsible inattention to the equipment and transportation requirements of Canadian soldiers on Kandahar's front lines.

And on and on.

My role in new group

Whatever one makes of their criticisms, Manley and his fellow panelists produced a document that doesn't come close to the "stay the course" mandate we were told Harper handpicked them to provide, and which the same pundits even now insist is all the panel produced.

I'm fairly happy with it. And here I make a necessary confession.

I was privileged to co-author a submission to the Manley panel on behalf of the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, a newly formed group of Canadian feminists, academics, campus activists, writers, former politicians, and concerned citizens. Manley's basic findings and recommendations are more than sufficiently consistent with what we recommended.

The Solidarity Committee's several dozen founders are a polyglot bunch: conservatives, socialists, liberals, Muslims, Jews, the lot.

They will have a diversity of ideas about the Manley panel report, and about any number of things. In this column I speak for no one but myself, but one thing all the committee's founding members shared was a simple but important proposition about Afghanistan: Human rights are universal, the United Nations wants us there, and a military component is vital and necessary.

What most Afghans want

There was another thing that united the small group that got the committee going, and it was our discovery that we were all fairly disgusted that all these years since 2002, there was still an almost complete absence of Afghan people, Afghan-Canadians, and Afghan opinion, generally, in Canada's mass media.

Read Canada's dailies and you'd think that the entire country was populated solely by President Hamid Karzai, a bunch of pro-American warlords, hordes of Taliban throat-slitters, and a certain quixotic and romantic personality, Malalai Joya, MP.

So, we set out to find what the Afghan people themselves had to say about their hopes for their country, and about the engagement of soldiers from nearly 40 nations on their soil.

What we found, for starters, was a dozen major national public opinion polls carried out in Afghanistan, along with regional opinion surveys and focus-group analyses. And they all added up to one unmistakable conclusion.

The Afghan people want democracy, they want to control their own destiny, and they want peace, security, and jobs. They're fed up to the teeth with all the savage misogynists and gunmen and religious fanatics who persist in terrorizing them. They don't want the Taliban back. And they want us to stay until we've finished our work there.

'We want you to stay'

Inconveniently, this completely contradicts the fashionable caricature of the Afghan people as incorrigibly reactionary and irredeemably priest-ridden basket cases who want nothing of democracy or modernity and want Canadian soldiers the hell out, fast.

It's something that Manley's panelists also noticed. "Whenever we asked Afghans what they thought ISAF or Canada should do," the panel report states, "there was never any hesitation: `We want you to stay; we need you to stay.' "

This is terribly inconvenient for all the "troops-out" polemicists and their similarly isolationist paleo-conservative chums who have so effectively framed Canada's public discourse about Afghanistan to date.

But it is a fact, nonetheless. And no less inconvenient for the "anti-war" left is the fact that the Afghan people are waging a liberation struggle. They're fighting imperialism -- of an Islamist kind. They're fighting for democracy, for literacy, and for the rule of law, and against barbarism, obscurantism and oppression.

Just ask them.

This truth is especially inconvenient for the left, precisely because this struggle is what used to be called the historic mission of the left. Its fruit, bitter though it has often been, is what the left contributed to human history.

Time for new debate

Funny thing about history. You can't start over.

We didn't choose the cruel alignment of historical and political forces that put our soldiers in Afghanistan. We didn't create the conditions that rendered our penchant for "peacekeeping" moot there.

And we can't pretend that the demand for "negotiations"' with the Taliban is anything more than a mélange of public naiveté and political sleight-of-hand. The Karzai regime, with Canada's backing, had already negotiated the surrender and rehabilitation of nearly 60,000 mujahideen fighters, Taliban militiamen and gunmen of various types long before the notion of talking with the Taliban got all trendy. The door is still open. It never closed.

One important thing we can do, though, is to move to a wholly new kind of debate in Canada about our country's role in Afghanistan. The Manley panel has laid the groundwork for precisely that.

If a new kind of debate emerges, it's got to be firmly rooted in a commitment to the universality of human rights. It's going to have to include a lot more Afghan voices, particularly women's voices. Most importantly, it's got to put behind us the sordid and crippling debates we've been having, for far too long, about how quickly we might simply extricate ourselves from their messy affairs.

There's still hope.

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