What are we doing there?

The theme of this issue: What binds us… And here at home, what binds Canadians? Would it be too obvious to say, “understanding”. Or too negative to say, “the war”. Or too hopeful to say, “the will to do no harm”? Last year I interviewed Vietnam War Veteran, Winter Soldier, Scott Camil here. As a Winter Soldier, and founding member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Scott Camil has spent the greater part of his life helping people understand what the experience of war means for civilians and soldiers. As Scott spoke to me I began wondering what our war meant for Canada, fighting in Afghanistan under NATO but also under US command, performing search and kill operations on Al Qaeda and Taliban targets. I recall vaguely wondering as to the whereabouts of Canada’s Winter Soldiers. On March 13th, 2008, I wondered again. Because after 5 years of bloody war in Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians and soldiers were gathering together once more, in a manner very much like the first Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971. They were coming together to bring home the terrible, often unspeakable reality of what this war means for the people still trying to survive it. Through testimony and documented evidence, people were there to embody the violent, inescapable nature of counter insurgency military intervention. If you haven’t heard the Winter Soldiers speak, you can do so here:


So I went looking for Canada’s Winter Soldiers, but I couldn’t find any. As I continued to search, I recalled General Hillier, Canada’s former Chief of Defense, labeling insurgents in Afghanistan, “detestable murderers and scumbags”. I wondered about the degree to which Canadian Winter Soldiers would feel recognized and understood by Canadians. A recent poll reported a majority of Canadians were opposed to extending Canada’s mission. But some Canadians believe more soldiers and more counter insurgency will eventually bring peace. Many are awaiting the conditions that would permit us to swap the counter-insurgency hat for the peacekeeping hat, for the reconstruction hat. More than a few despair whilst trying to fathom how military objectives and humanitarian objectives go together.

Is it safe to say too that many of us are dithering over the war because we don’t fully understand what’s going on? Because we need all the facts; we need them all in the same place; we need them in parliament. We needed them on March 13th (note the date) when Parliament debated and voted to extend the mission to 2011. The Manley Report and Stephen Harper had neglected to disclose the year’s $871 million extra to bankroll the mission, bringing the total cost of the war in one year to $1.915 billion.

With all this ambivalence, dithering, mumbling and evasion, I just wanted to know: Is the Canadian contribution helping ordinary Afghans? Or ordinary Canadians, for that matter? The widely publicized poll by Environics, viewable here, reported a majority of Afghans want a foreign presence to help stabilize the country (a foreign force the main press rapidly misunderstood to be Canada). Less publicized was the 74 % of Afghans who want negotiations with the Taliban; and the more than 50% who want a coalition government that includes the Taliban. The poll also reported 43% wanted NATO to stay until the Taliban were crushed. The thought of a poll, however, carried out in a country tormented by war, with a minority literacy rate, did give me pause. So the people I reckoned best placed to tell us what’s happening and what people think might not be so many corporately inclined media magnates, politicians and faceless pollsters but rather in-the-flesh Afghan civilians and the foreign soldiers who have lived through counter insurgency operations and their aftermath.

Scott Camil took 24 pages of notes when he attended the new Winter Soldier investigation from March 13th through March 16th in Silver Spring, Maryland. The tactics veterans testified to in the panel entitled The Rules of Engagement were all too familiar to Scott. He recalled, “You end up with what is called a dead man’s spiral. The harder our troops fight to survive, the more they err; the more people they drive into the arms of those trying to kill our troops, the more casualties.” Troops usually can’t tell the difference between fighters and civilians and in this regard shoot blindly feeling it’s better to be safe than sorry. Though counter insurgency is rarely safe: Canada has lost 82 soldiers in Afghanistan. And there’s plenty of time to feel sorry, or disturbed: Veteran Affairs reports that over the past five years, the number of clients with a psychiatric condition has tripled, increasing from 3,501 to 10,252. Among US vets in Iraq and Afghanistan more than 6000 have taken their own lives. At this time, post traumatic stress disorder is currently suffered by in excess of 300,000 US troops. You can read the report here.

Listening to the testimonies of Iraq civilians, Scott Camil wrote of how it “stung his soul” every time he heard how their children had been terrorized. Michael Skinner of The Afghanistan Canada Research Group (ACRG) toured Afghanistan in June and July 2007 to document and report what local Afghans think of the international intervention in their country. Part of this project involved setting up video cameras in universities, market places, street corners etc. to record the opinions of passers-by. You can read it here.

The ACRG report describes how Canadian troops are systematically failing to “win hearts and minds”. 11,000 Afghans, many civilians, have been killed since 2001; countless others have been wounded and maimed. During battle, the Canadian Forces regularly call in air and artillery support to indiscriminately bombard targets where insurgents may be sheltered among civilians. And when Canadian Forces evacuate a village, searching for insurgents, they destroy every building and water well and only allow villagers to return to the little that’s left days later. Many villagers in this way have become refugees, or gone to fight for the other side.

Many Afghans were to remark, in so many words, “If you come as a guest we will treat you with the greatest hospitality but if you come as an invader we will resist and ultimately overcome your force.” But Canada is in their country with the full consent of the sovereign government in Kabul. Though who is Canada protecting the Afghan people from when some of the most important government posts are held by warlords who stand accused by international human rights organizations of gross violations and of stealing billions of dollars in foreign aid?

What does any of the above have to do with Canada’s participation in the reconstruction of Afghanistan? The international forces claim that they cannot construct development projects without first stabilizing the security situation, though most of Kabul has in fact been secure since 2001. The ACRG report raw sewage flowing through the streets, and in a CIDA funded hospital, 28 children sharing 8 beds. Another typical scene: “We also witnessed the construction of a new shopping centre across the street from a bombed-out school. After six years of occupation, students still study in this shell of a school without protection from the weather, but a tiny minority of wealthy Afghans and international workers will soon have a new place to shops”.

Despite the Minister of National Defense, Peter Mackay’s, cheerful claims that, “More than 80% of Afghans have access to basic health care today,” CIDA’s own figures show 1 in every 4 children still dies before the age of 5, many from severe diarrhea. After 6 years of occupation only 29% of people in Kabul have access to safe drinking water. While there are, incredibly, at this moment 3 million Afghans starving because wheat and flour prices have risen between 60 and 80%.

Oxfam points to one sad reason for the failure to rebuild adequate infrastructure: Failure to separate humanitarian aid from military aid means that schools built by the latter are twice as likely to be targeted by militants as those built by civilian agencies. Increasing amounts of aid money are being put in the hands of the military and yet how can aid not be compromised when it’s carrying a gun?

And what of the much lauded claims of a rise in the rights of women? More soberly, The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reports that girls only represent 3% of pupils, and a mere fraction of that beyond the 6th grade. While Afghan women told the ACRG that women remain largely invisible in the public realm of Afghan society and that they are not hopeful that this will change under the current theocratic regime. In 2006, Malalai Joya, an Afghan MP, told a convention of the National Democratic Party that there had been “no fundamental change in the plight of the Afghan people”. She reported that “the entire country is living under the shadow of guns and warlordism.” On a humanitarian level, can a slight increase in female literacy and a small female presence in parliament justify the increasing destabilization of the region and concomitant violence and suffering that greatly impacts women’s lives?

Another question: If we’re doing a lousy job of saving Afghan lives, and endangering Canadian soldiers, are we at least there for reasons of Canadian national defense? Michael Byers, holding the Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, has reminded Parliamentarians, that the Taliban do not pose an existential threat to the existence of Canada. Here he explains that they’re not about to invade or develop WMD. “And if the Al Qaeda threat were truly serious Washington would not have shifted its focus to Iraq. Nor would General Musharraf be allowed to conclude deals with pro-Taliban militants along the border of Afghanistan, while denying NATO forces access to that region.”

Defense analyst Steven Staples, recently carried out a study for The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives: Here he shows that Canada now ranks 6th in the world for military spending. Contrary to an abiding notion I once had about my country, Canada is a major military power. The military is very big business. Many Afghans told the ACRG that they believe Canadian and international businesses in the military and development sectors profit from the war and reconstruction at the expense of most Afghans. It’s interesting to note that Afghanistan is rich in resources. Forty four state enterprises with an estimated net asset value of US$614 million will soon be sold (Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, 2006). Canada is a leading miner in the world. The World Bank estimates, “the annual value of Afghanistan’s mineral reserves could reach at least US$253 million up from the current US$60 million” (AREU 2006).

NDP leader Jack Layton has pointed out that both Liberals and Conservatives agree that the war will not be resolved by military combat. They must understand that diplomacy will sooner or later prove to be the only sure fire way of bringing peace. So what are they waiting for? What is the Canadian Peace Movement waiting for? Are we waiting for Canadian Winter Soldiers to remind us that like business and pleasure, and oil and water, counterinsurgency and humanitarian aid simply don’t mix. Will we need Winter Soldiers to show us that Canada’s heart is in the hands of corporate interests?