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Canadian Drones Patrol Afghan Airspace

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January 28, 2009

Canadian Drones Patrol Afghan Airspace

Unmanned warplanes stretch the definition of "nation building"

by Stefan Christoff

Highway 401, the section between the military base in Trenton and Toronto, has been disputably renamed "The Highway of Heroes" in honour of Canada’s fallen soldiers in Afghanistan. Crowds gather to pay tribute as Canadian soldiers' corpses – now numbering 106 – are transfered from Trenton to Toronto. Close to 20,000 Afghan deaths are estimated in the same war. Canada's recent deployment of warplanes over Afghanistan illustrate an extension of combat operations in spite of widespread opposition in Canada to the war. Photo: Luc Bourgeois

MONTREAL–War is rising to new heights over Afghanistan. Flying thousands of feet over the frontlines of Kandahar are several new unmanned military planes recently activated by the Canadian Army.

Beyond reach of the human eye, the advanced spy aircraft, the Heron, will monitor territory throughout southern Afghanistan from dizzying altitudes, delivering information for military strikes.

In early December two Afghans were killed in a targeted attack by Canadian forces on the basis of information gathered by the spy drones. According to military officials the Afghans killed were members of the Taliban. However, this has not been independently verified.

Far beyond the visual capacities of local Afghan authorities, the Heron will provide hyper details on human movements and activities allowing "ground forces to see...in real time [the] images acquired by the aircraft's sensors on a laptop on the ground," according to the Canadian Army.

Highly advanced spy aircrafts hovering over Afghanistan, collecting information on local movements, serve as a poignant reminder of Canada's role as a foreign military force in the country, operating beyond the domain of 'nation building' or reconstruction efforts.

Canada’s multi-million dollar unmanned spy airplanes are a direct result of recommendations stemming from the Conservative-government-initiated commission on Canada’s role in Afghanistan, headed by former Liberal cabinet minister John Manley. The commission's report paved the way for the controversial extension of combat operations until 2011.

"There simply are not enough troops to ensure that the job can be properly done in Kandahar province...We hope that this [report] is not a poison pill," said Manley at a media conference after the release of the report. The report specifically outlined Canada’s acquisition of “high-performance unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” before February 2009 as a condition to extend the mission.

According to multiple opinion polls, the majority of people in Canada oppose the war in Afghanistan. It was the technicalities of war, however, and not the essential nature or context of the Canadian military presence in the country that were the subject of critique in the government-sponsored report.

“Operations on the ground in Afghanistan are easier for the Canadian government to present in their narrative of humanitarian war,” said Sophie Schoen, a Montreal-based anti-war activist with Block the Empire.

However, according to Schoen, “Canada’s military role in the sky makes it clear that the mission is not humanitarian. [The recent] expansions of military capabilities in the air is indicative of the real nature of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan and our role as an occupying force.”

Operating from the skies allows Canada a huge technological advantage over local guerrillas in southern Afghanistan. The advantage of aerial combat is especially important in light of recent events that suggest the US-backed government in Kabul is losing political control over major regions in the country, including Kandahar, where Canadian forces are stationed.

Last June, militias staged a spectacular jailbreak at the main prison in Kandahar, freeing up to 1,000 prisoners by blowing through the prison walls with explosives. This action set a new benchmark for the growing capacities of rebels in southern Afghanistan.

Hundreds have been killed in southern Afghanistan this past year, while US and Canadian military officials – as in Iraq – continue to ignore demands from human rights organizations that they keep records on civilian deaths.

“The number of civilians killed by the international forces in Afghanistan remains significantly underreported,” stated Amnesty International in a 2008 report.

“Taliban is a label applied to any male over 18 that the Canadian Army kills in Afghanistan, a term that is so broadly applied it is absurd,” said Schoen. "Generally this term, Taliban, is used without any verification and is used to cover up killings carried out by Canadian forces."

The spy drones that fly over Kandahar providing details for Canadian military strikes are adding another military layer to the thousands of foreign troops already occupying the country.

After decades of conflict in Afghanistan and thousands of civilian deaths since the 2001 US-led invasion, one key point has been clearly repeated by progressive voices inside Afghanistan: military-driven solutions delivered by foreign forces will not provide safety or stability for the country.

“We need liberation, not occupation,” said Malalai Joya, celebrated member of the Afghan Parliament, in a recent interview. “Afghans have a long history of fighting foreign occupation and if the[...]occupation lasts longer we may witness many mass resistance movements against it.”

A version of this article was originally published by the community newspaper, Sada al-Mashrek, based in Montreal.

Stefan Christoff is a community organizer and journalist based in Montreal and a member of Tadamon!, a collective of social justice activists in Montreal working for justice in the Middle East.

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