The least we could do

Until the defence of Afghanistan can be left to the Afghans, somebody has to do the fighting

The least we could do

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Watching Peter MacKay at the press conference confirming that Canadian troops would indeed remain in Afghanistan past the 2011 deadline, albeit in a “classroom” role, I was reminded how much of human behaviour is governed by the furniture.

He was, after all, behind a desk, in a briefing room. There were microphones, and flags, and reporters seated in rows. We are familiar with such scenes, and we associate them with official statements of some seriousness. And so everyone felt obliged to act as if there were some reason to believe a word of what MacKay was saying: as if there were some more-than-accidental likelihood of the policy the government chooses to pursue in future corresponding to the policy being announced today.

Why? Why would we attach any credibility to a formal announcement of policy by a minister of national defence with troops in the field? Just because he said it? There is some context here, after all. The policy the minister was announcing is the diametric opposite of the one that every minister in this government, including the Prime Minister, had sworn blood oaths to for the last two years: that every last soldier, apart from the odd embassy guard, would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by July 2011—no ifs, ands, or training missions. Which policy was itself the diametric opposite to that to which the government had previously committed itself, namely that we would not “cut and run” from Afghanistan before the job was done, that such missions could not be subject to “arbitrary timetables.”

So, the government having now cut and run from cut and run, the opposition can be forgiven for being a little suspicious. Yet it is hard to forgive them more than that. It is craven enough that the government could only be shamed into extending the mission by the approaching prospect of this week’s NATO summit. And it is frankly humiliating, in a nation that boasts of having been born at Vimy Ridge, to hear ministers assuring the public that, no, under no circumstances would any of our forces be allowed out of the compound at Kabul.

But to the opposition—and by opposition I mean here the NDP and the Bloc, the Liberals now finding themselves in agreement with the government, or rather with the government agreeing with them—even that is too much. All of Afghanistan, the NDP solemnly reminded everyone after the minister’s statement, is a war zone: even behind the wire, there is at least a chance that some of our soldiers might be shot at. The Prime Minister had promised, NDP defence critic Jack Harris thundered, that after 2011 it would be a “civilian-only mission.”

Huh? If Afghanistan is too dangerous a place for our troops, then how is it safe for civilians? How, particularly if the civilians have no troops to protect them?

Ah, but of course they will have troops to protect them: just somebody else’s troops. This is the uncomfortable reality of the Canadian position, whether we cut and run or stay and train. Whatever Canada does or does not do in 2011, the rest of the UN-authorized, NATO-sponsored International Security Assistance Force is staying there at least until 2014, and probably beyond. And while everyone agrees that eventually the defence of Afghanistan must be left to the Afghans, until then somebody has to do the fighting. The Americans, for example, don’t get to go home—or hide in the classroom. So why do we?

I know it’s popular nowadays to say “we’ve done our part,” or even “more than our fair share.” And if there were a process by which NATO collectively agreed to rotate its forces, there might be something to it. But such is not the case. NATO right now is a shambles, its members deserting the mission in ragged disarray—and us amongst them, or threatening to be. To be sure, the training fig leaf has spared us the indignity of an all-out Canadian retreat. But it is the next thing to it.

We should be clear about two things. One: our troops want to be there. We have to stop thinking of them as scared 19-year-old conscripts, as in Vietnam or the Second World War. These are professional fighting men and women, who have trained for this job for years. They’re not like you or me. They’re highly motivated, intensely idealistic adrenalin junkies. The casualties we have taken—129 killed by enemy action since 2002, compared to the 211 police officers and firefighters killed across Canada in the same period—they regard, not as inexplicable tragedies, but as occupational hazards.

And two, there is a strategic imperative to the Afghanistan mission, and it isn’t about teaching Afghan girls to read—or even Afghanistan. It’s about Pakistan: nuclear-armed, barely governable Pakistan, beset by its own Taliban insurgency and uncertain how to respond, at least so long as its next door neighbour remains in play. Right now, it is Pakistan that is destabilizing Afghanistan. But let Afghanistan fall, and it will be the reverse.

So it’s no wonder that Canada came under such intense pressure from the more serious NATO states. If we turn tail, it will be that much harder to persuade the others to stay. Indeed, it is hard to imagine they will be satisfied with the coat-holding role described, but will persist in imploring us to return, after a decent interval, to the field of battle. The country’s honour will depend on the hope the government is once again lying to us.

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