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Abandoning Hypocrisy

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January 7, 2007

Abandoning Hypocrisy

Canada's foreign policy and Afghanistan

by Justin Podur

A Tim Horton's is unloaded from an American C-17 at Kandahar Airfield. It is, writes Justin Podur, "an affront and an insult to starving people."

Photo: Combat Camera, Carole Morissette

The following remarks are based on a talk delivered in September 2006.

Canada is fighting a counternarcotics campaign and a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Afghanistan currently supplies 90 per cent of the world's heroin. The narcotics Canada is fighting are a product of the occupation. They are a product of the alliances the Afghan government has made with the warlords who actually control the country. They are a product of the falsehood that Canada or the US is interested in 'development' in Afghanistan. They are a product of fact that the only hope a farmer has of earning a livelihood is through this crop that can bring a little cash (not a lot of cash, because no peasant ever gets rich from growing poppy in Afghanistan).

The Taliban, who ruled the country before the US and Canadian occupation, had banned the poppy. That's not praise for the Taliban -- they also banned music, sports, television and laughter. That isn't the solution to the problem either –- it can't be a solution to the livelihood of 2.3 million people, the 10 per cent of the Afghan population who rely on the poppy. Solutions to drug problems are clear enough and well-enough known: treatment for addiction; legalization and control; education; and support for the agrarian economy. But the drug war is a useful pretext for other agendas.

As for the counterinsurgency, the question of how Canada came to be involved in it is important. It is part of an evolution in Canadian foreign policy in recent years.

Canadian foreign policy used to be based on hypocrisy. Canada's leaders have always seen themselves, and presented themselves, as men of the West, involved in the wars the West was involved in, including colonial wars. But Canada has also tried to present itself as a country without a colonial history, an honest broker and peacekeeper that has, and deserves, the trust of the world.

From America's war against the Vietnamese and before, Canada has been a supply centre, a diplomatic supporter and a training ground (see Canada, Empire), but it shied away from direct military participation in colonial wars.

That started to change in the 1990s, for various reasons. Canada was in the process of adopting a "free trade" agreement that was integrating the economies of Canada and the US in new ways. Neo-liberalism was locking other countries into weakness and dependency on the US. Everywhere, the segment of the elite that sought a degree of independence was weakened. People who tried to fight back were told they were on the wrong side of history.

There are three stories about Canadian foreign policy during this period that illustrate the drift from hypocrisy.

A Canadian M777 artillery gun at Sperwan Ghar in Afghanistan. The stated focus of the NATO mission is "to help Afghans rebuild their lives, families, communities and nation."

Photo: Combat Camera, Yves Gemus

Back in the 1980s, there was a little 'blip' in Canadian support for Israel against the Palestinians. During the initial expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948, Canada followed Britain. During the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Canada followed the US. But in the 1980s, when Israel invaded Lebanon, when Israel was crushing the first Palestinian Intifada, some Canadian leaders -- Trudeau and Clark -- actually criticized Israel. But in the 1990s, when the Oslo Accords brought a phony "peace" to Palestine, Canada was able to return to its hypocritical role; supporting "peace" publicly, while supporting Israel privately -- and moving towards increasingly public support.

In 1990 and 1991, Mulroney rushed to Bush Sr.'s side when Bush ordered the beginning of the destruction of Iraq. Canada made sure that its warplanes and ships were active, involved in bombing the relatively defenceless Iraqi military and the completely defenceless Iraqi population. That campaign killed hundreds of thousands of people and was followed by sanctions against Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands more -- sanctions Canada participated in. The sanctions were followed by another invasion that has killed over a hundred thousand more, according to conservative and not-very-recent estimates.

In 1993, the Canadian Airborne Regiment was sent to Somalia. Here, too, Canada went with the US. The US was there to "Restore Hope," and killed several hundred (or was it several thousand?) Somalis in the process, before leaving ignominiously. Canada went along to support the mission. The story was familiar. Somalia was a "failed state." Canada had a "responsibility to protect" the people from evil. So Canada set up a base in a town called Belet Huen. The armed forces set up a well-supplied base in the middle of a miserably poor country, a country of desperate shortages and starving people. Some of those people started to sneak onto the base and steal supplies. If the Canadians were to lock them up, they'd have to lock up a lot of them. So they came up with a series of humiliating punishments: keeping them out under the sun under armed guard, tying them up, beating them up, shooting them, or torturing them. This culminated in a group of Canadian soldiers torturing a 16-year-old child to death over the course of a whole night. The child's name was Shidane Arone and his murder was recorded in a series of gruesome photographs that came to appear in the Canadian press. Today, Canadian commentators talk about the "Somalia Affair" as a national trauma -- for Canadians. This is narcissism. We focus on ourselves, rather than the victims of our actions. The same is true in Afghanistan.

The last hiccup of hypocrisy in Canadian foreign policy was the second destruction of Iraq in 2003. Canada performed, and continues to perform, its historical services of supply centre, training ground and diplomatic supporter. But the US wanted more from its allies and that meant Canada had to 'mend fences,' and it did so on the bones of Haitians, Palestinians, the Lebanese and Afghans. The primary way Canada helped the US invasion of Iraq was by relieving the US in Afghanistan. It isn't much relief: 2,200 troops in a mission that involves some 36,000 troops, including 20,000 Americans. But it goes some way, presumably, to 'mending fences.'

This 'fence-mending' began the new period of Canadian foreign policy, in which Canada has abandoned hypocrisy outright.

Canada's first move towards abandoning hypocrisy was joining the invasion of Afghanistan; until recently, Canada was pretending that the Afghan mission was of the innocent peacekeeping variety that was done in Somalia.

The second move towards abandoning hypocrisy happened in December 2004, on the heels of Bush Jr.'s visit to Ottawa. Previously, Canada had abstained from several votes requiring Israel to comply with its obligations under international law by withdrawing from the territories it occupied in 1967. Canada's Ambassador to the UN at the time, Allan Rock, said that the "value added" of the committees trying to put Palestinian rights on the agenda at the UN was "questionable" and that the process was biased –- against Israel. So Canada started to vote against Palestinian rights.

Next, six months later, in July 2005, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff Rick Hillier put the "peacekeeping" and "failed states" story to bed with a rhetorical flourish. Talking about the Afghans on the receiving end of Canada's military, he said: "These are detestable murderers and scumbags. They detest our freedoms, they detest our society, they detest our liberties... We are the Canadian Forces and our job is to be able to kill people." Hillier was concentrating his fire directly on the Canadian myth that we are innocent peacekeepers. He was doing that because he wants to see Canada involved in a counterinsurgency that he knows is going to be bloody and brutal. Like Harper, he hopes that by talking tough he can increase the public's tolerance for blood.

These moves by the Liberals preceding the Tories' rise to power set Harper up nicely. He was the first to cut all aid to the Palestinians earlier this year, to starve them for the election they held shortly after the one that brought him to power. This summer, when Israel destroyed Gaza's power plant and massacred hundreds of Palestinians from the air, Harper called the response "measured." While Israel was massacring civilians in Lebanon, suffering largely military casualties at the hands of Hezbollah, Peter MacKay was calling the resistance "cold-blooded killers" and a "cancer on Lebanon."

The abandonment of hypocrisy led Canada directly into this counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. The escalation of the war in recent months is probably because the many promises made of development and peace in Afghanistan were demonstrated to be lies. Having demonstrated that its interest in Afghanistan is "to be able to kill people," Canada ought to have been able to anticipate the consequences.

Since 2001, the 'international community' has spent $82.5 billion on military operations and $7.3 billion on aid and development. The Canadian figures are similarly skewed. The CIDA aid figures are in the hundreds of millions and most of it has not actually been spent. The military budgets are in the billions and forever rising. Canada has set up Tim Horton's in its well-equipped camps in the midst of a massive humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. This is an affront and an insult to starving people. Canadian soldiers follow the US Air Force, "mopping up" people who are called "suspected Taliban" when they are killed by the dozen or hundred. Major General Andrew Leslie earlier this year told reporters that, "every time you kill an angry young man overseas, you're creating 15 more who will come after you." Despite demonstrating this understanding, the Major General's military machine continues to kill.

By any decent measure, Canada's mission in Afghanistan is an outrage. By the measures claimed by Canada and the US, the mission is a failure. Canada's counternarcotics have placed Afghanistan at the centre of the world's opium trade. Canada's counterinsurgency has the Taliban controlling half the country and going from strength to strength. Canada's development program has led to massive hunger and starvation, right under the noses of the Canadian military presence in the south and within a distance to smell Tim Horton's coffee and donuts. With Canada guaranteeing security, schools are being burned all over the south.

Canada should leave; should apologize for what it has done and make amends; should stop killing people and calling whoever is killed 'Taliban'; and should stop letting young Canadians who have no idea kill and get killed so that colonial powers can 'mend fences.'

And Canada will leave. For all the bluster of Harper and Hillier, the military realities are stark and there are at least some, even in Canada, who know it. It would be tragic if Canadians come to think of Afghanistan as a 'national trauma' in which we were scarred, forgetting our victims like we did in Somalia. If, instead, Canadians could learn that Canada is not an innocent peacekeeper and never was, that the traumas we cause are worse than the ones we suffer and that our place isn't cheering for slaughter but fighting against it, we could actually make the world safer.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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