Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More dead in Afghanistan...

I was going to start off by mentioning that what prompted this entry was recent the death of Pte. Kevin McKay in Afghanistan, and his homecoming down the 'Highway of Heroes' on the weekend. It looks like another Canadian soldier,  however, was killed in Afghanistan just today. I honestly don't know how many that makes now... somewhere between 140 and 150?

I never approved of Canada taking part in the invasion of Afghanistan, not even at the beginning. I had an argument with my dad about it. He's not a big jingoistic warhead or anything, but he did spend over 20 years in the service and so he has his own perspective about the place and uses of the military that differs from mine – I will quite freely admit here that I've never had to serve the country in that capacity. But that in and of itself doesn't invalidate my opinion... or shouldn't, anyway.

In what I've heard referred to as "mission drift", a lot of people have forgotten why Canada took part in the invasion of Afghanistan in October, 2001. It wasn't to get rid of the Taliban, although that's become the standard line the "truth" has morphed into. No, we entered Afghanistan to aid in apprehending Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda agents suspected to be responsible for the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, about a month earlier (and I will admit, as much as I opposed it, that standing on principle and saying "no" to the US at that moment in time was nearly impossible — look at the scorn heaped on France two years later over Iraq — and the world of Realpolitik has taken us someplace we really shouldn't have gone). What actually happened, if you recall, was that the US demanded of the Afghan government the handover of these people. The Afghans responded by saying first that they did not know the whereabouts of these people, and that secondly, even if they did, they would have to be shown the evidence in order to extradite them under international law. The United States and its blue-eyed posse basically replied, "Badges? We don't need no steenking badges!" and off we all went; due process and respect for the sovereignty of (non-Western, non-nuclear) nations be damned. Well, Osama's still out there, somewhere, so I guess the Afghans weren't lying about not knowing where the guy is, because after eight and half years, we don't know, either. And so we've conveniently put that out of our minds and the war in Afghanistan has become about liberating the place and instilling democracy. You know, for its own good... the way we used to force Christianity on other countries for their own good. But of course, that was wrong. What we're doing now couldn't possibly be wrong... because it's good, right?...

We come to these questions of absolutes. And I've heard people say that there are some ways of living that are inherently better than others. I heard it from Churchill with his crack about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. I heard it recently during a rum-fueled debate I had with a friend about our role in Afghanistan (and its original reason had apparently slipped his mind, too; he was under the misapprehension that we were "peacekeeping" there – a very recent, and very wrong, misuse of a valued term for a beautiful idea). It's unquestionable that there are things that human beings in general naturally find more agreeable; the problem comes in assuming that everything one happens to find agreeable or valuable is therefore desirable for all humanity, at all times, and in all circumstances. It also ignores that fact that there is no society human beings can forge in which everyone is happy, in which no one is disadvantaged, in which there are no winners and losers, no parasitism and no victims. They exist in our own culture, though we, naturally, wave them off blithely as ragged ends to an otherwise perfect tapestry we can't remedy, or whose fault is in themselves rather than the nature of our society. But we're all too eager to point to the faults and monstrousness of other societies as endemic and curable... by us.

The obvious example here is the Taliban. Are the Taliban bad guys? Do they do awful things? Would I want to live in a country run by people like them? Well, to answer the last question, no, I wouldn't. I wasn't brought up in a country like that. But that's the point: for people who were, that's the norm; indeed, it may even be to them a sensible and desirable way to live. There are myriad ways for human beings to group themselves and govern themselves in societies, and people triumph, progress, fail, and suffer in different ways in all of them. I can have my own preferences for how to live, and wish for others to share it, without granting myself the right to bring that about by force. Those are not the same things.

Consider the virtual miracle of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. It seemed to happen so suddenly that we could hardly believe it. Victor Hugo's immortal words, " Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come" were never more blazingly illustrated. But I would remind champions of spreading democracy at the point of a bayonet that Eastern Europe was not "liberated" by the Western world bombing it back to the Stone Age. What the Western world provided was an example, a measure of success, and a standard of conduct that people could point to and aspire to; in the long run, a sea the apparatchiks could not hold back. But we didn't liberate Eastern Europe: the peoples of Eastern Europe did: slowly at first – risings in East Germany, a failed revolution in Hungary, the Prague Spring – but later, with increasing speed, as Eastern economies ossified and labour movements like Solidary sprang up that could not be countered without fear of more revolution. The idea's time had come. They were persuaded of the merits of our system, and acted to adopt them, and in the end they joined us. But the peoples of those countries did it themselves.

What I mean by this is that we have no more right to impose what we believe to be good, right, and just on Afghanistan than we did in Eastern Europe. If our way of life and our values are attractive to the people of Afghanistan, then they will take root there. But it will be the right, and the duty, of Afghans to bring that change about; it is neither our right nor our duty to insist from behind rifles, naval bombardment, or dropped from 50,000 feet. The corollary of this is to simply imagine the shoe being on the other foot. If it were the Taliban (who, after all, are certainly as convinced of the correctness of their values and their inherent superiority to those of ours) who were possessed of nuclear weapons, supersonic aircraft, and deep blue navies capable of arriving at our shores, would they then be right to invade us and instill their values here for "our own good"? If that idea makes you uncomfortable, then so should the idea that it's right when we do it.

There are other examples. The British Empire dispensed with slavery without a civil war, and over a generation before the United States finally undertook to do so. During the mid-19th century, it's unquestionable that the British Empire was powerful enough to have militarily enforced that moral on the United States – or at least, certainly have given it a damn good try. But they didn't. Why not? Because there existed a respect for similarly-complexioned country; one that caused them to agree to disagree. In the end, the appeal to what people felt to be true, deep down, about doing unto others won out, though it took four years of terrible war. If you don't think the British would have been justified in invading the United States to force an end to slavery, how can you justify the invasion of Afghanistan on the basis that it will, supposedly, end discrimination against women?

Similarly, the former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, was recently in Britain for medical care. During his stay there, a crusading judge in Spain issued a warrant for his arrest and extradition to Spain on the basis of crimes against humanity, for which the man has immunity at home. The British squirmed, hummed and hawed, but in the end, denied the request and let the man go home. This was almost certainly the wrong thing to do, but the British had their (cynical) reasons, and did what they did. It was their right as a sovereign state. Even if it were possible, would Spain have been justified in simply bombing London flat and demanding the British hand over Pinochet, simply because they said so? If you don't think so, then ask yourself how doing exactly the same thing to Afghanistan over Osama bin Laden can be right.

We have now been in Afghanistan longer than we were in the Second World War. Half again as long, in fact. We are "successful" only where Allied boots are actually on the ground. The moment they move on, that part of Afghanistan reverts to being whatever it is that Afghanistan is meant to be, by the will of the people who actually live there. This lesson has been learned time and time again in the modern age, and yet, somehow, forgotten time and time again. It's as though each generation has to learn it over again, but still won't credit it, thinking instead that the previous generation simply got something wrong, and that this time, it'll be different...

We can't "win" in Afghanistan because there's nothing to win. Canadian and Allied soldiers will continue to die in their hundreds and thousands fighting for a catch-22 — forcing democracy on someone — until we finally swallow our pride, admit that it was a fool's errand, and give the country back to the people who own it – to decide for themselves, among themselves, what it will and will not be – to make it in their own image, whatever that might be. That's exactly the same right we claim for ourselves, and it's the one we really do have a duty to provide.

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