Blind Spot: Afghanistan in Canada’s Federal Election

There are only so many catastrophes a citizen can deal with. Canada’s election started off as a non-election based on The Strong Leadership of Stephen Harper, but as it turned out, Strong Leadership hadn’t counted on the environment being a hot button, which it was. Coincidentally, there occurred a global economic meltdown that Strong Leadership tried to finesse, which didn’t play too well in the provinces, the North American auto manufacturing industry disaster in Ontario not being amenable to Strong Leadership, just to pick one example.

Meanwhile, Canada’s foreign policy, already a festering mash of incompetence, head-in-the-tar-sands ignorance, and Pollyana-ish magical thinking, has erupted in several thousand Canadian troops being holed up in Kandahar on a mission of completely opaque legality, morality, and practicality. If we "won," what would it look like, and who is "we"?

On Election Day, Oct. 14, the Vancouver Province reprinted an article from the British Daily Telegraph, bastion of British imperial thinking and Conrad Black’s emporium before he got put in the slammer, decrying the "defeatist" thinking of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith. OK, was the withdrawal of Canadian troops from the beaches at Dieppe [.pdf] "defeatist"? Should Canadians have fought to the last man, given that the original plan was stupid? On the same day, the day of the Canadian federal election, an article appeared in the Globe and Mail, a newspaper endorsing Stephen Harper, laying out in startling clarity the reality that Kabul is close to being a city under siege, that supply lines for NATO forces are being strangled, and that the whole thing is starting to smell like a rerun of the "retreat from Kabul." This is not trivial information. This isn’t business as usual but rather (like the Bear Stearns failed bailout) news of impending disaster, and salt in the wounds of 100 Canadian deaths in Afghanistan, many more seriously injured, and a cost of at least $C18 billion at a time when Canada’s economy is based on commodities supplied to the United States and China. This is not evidence of Strong Leadership; this is an abdication of responsibility.

I’m not saying it’s all Harper’s fault, I’m just saying he has tried to paper it over as if it didn’t exist, which is criminal negligence. (I choose the term "criminal" deliberately in the context of collusion in a war crime, the prima facie war crime being transfer of Afghan prisoners from Canadian custody in circumstances prohibited by the Third Geneva Convention).

As a result of the election, almost nothing has changed. A renewed Conservative minority is almost by definition emasculated, given the opposition in Quebec and general disgruntlement elsewhere. Since the Conservatives didn’t have a platform to begin with, never mind a foreign policy, the new Parliament seems certain to be a dog’s breakfast in which Stephen Harper will have to cooperate or die. He might prefer death. Many of us feel the same way.

Meanwhile back in Kandahar, NATO, ISAF – call it what you will – is holding down the fort while violence grows around it. Tell me how this ends. Plan "A" is completely unclear – unless you think the Afghanistan Compact [.pdf] means something – and Plan B doesn’t exist. Mr. Harper doesn’t have a plan C, nor does Mr. Dion. Mr. Layton wants to bring the troops home, which is the only other plan I’ve seen – make that the Only Plan. As for Gen. Rick Hillier – recently retired architect and cheerleader for this disaster, greatly beloved by the troops and state organs like the National Post – his plan is to contemplate the future from a desk at Gowlings, a well-connected law firm that has acted for the American government among other illustrious clients, a future that includes motivational speaking, a book contract with HarperCollins, and being the chancellor of Memorial University in Newfoundland, rather than, for example, clearing mines in Afghanistan.

Scenes from Vietnam: helicopters on embassy roofs, desperate people trying to get to safety, news of encroaching hordes, savage retribution, and the eventual return of diplomacy. People in Afghanistan, like people everywhere else, might want to determine their own future. Maybe we should ask them what they want. A poll conducted in Afghanistan in 2007 showed, in the words of the Globe and Mail exactly a year ago:

"A strong majority of Afghans approve of the presence of NATO-led troops in their country, including from Canada, and want the foreign soldiers to remain to fight the Taliban and support reconstruction efforts."

Weird. Maybe it’s even true. But the poll was conducted on behalf of the Globe and Mail, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, La Presse, and the Munk Center for International Studies and the Center for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies – "two respected academic think tanks at the University of Toronto" – by Environics Research. The cost of the survey was not made public, the impetus for the project was not made clear, and the survey itself has sunk without a trace, not being published in any peer-reviewed journal of which I am aware. I asked the CBC about this survey and received no reply. Even weirder, the survey was actually contracted out to D3 Systems of Langley, Va., (about, oh, 20 minutes’ drive from CIA headquarters, not that that means anything) which has among its clients, at least its publicly acknowledged clients, Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the RAND Corporation, and NATO. I’m not saying I smell a rat, just that I think the published survey is conveniently opaque and at odds with all subsequent events in Afghanistan. If Canadians really want to know what Afghans want, they should ask for a second opinion from an unbiased organization not based in Virginia.

Canadians should ask for a second opinion. Somebody’s got to. After all, we’re supposedly there in self-defense.