Thursday, May 18, 2006


Parliament has agreed, by a slim margin, that we should continue our military adventure in Afghanistan until 2009--and who knows how much longer after that. Bush's "war on terror" is, by definition, endless, like the great wars in Orwell's 1984:

Since about that time, war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war....But to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one. At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.

Now Canada is further enmeshed in the international policy and narrow interests of the US, which, as history reminds us, has engaged itself in wars, proxy wars and
invasions almost since it declared independence.

The vote was won with the assistance of people like Michael Ignatieff, an outspoken defender of the American imperial mission, described in the press rather confusingly today as a "senior Liberal." (I'm out of the labour movement, where seniority actually means something.)

So, folks, what are we fighting for? (Cue Country Joe and the Fish).

Some facts:

  • Afghanistan was ruled until recently by one of the most brutal regimes in the world: the Taliban. Women suffered grievously under their rule. The weekend entertainment was to trek down to the local stadium to watch the public amputations. On perhaps a relatively lighter note, men went to jail for trimming their beards and kite-flying was prohibited. It was a country ruled by a cult of religious insanity.

  • Where did the Taliban spring from? That's where things get interesting. Afghanistan had a USSR-backed government, later overthrown. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in their own version of quagmire. The US and other interests backed the armed opposition, some of whose fragments coalesced into the Taliban. They call this sort of thing "blow-back."

  • Needless to say, this nutbar republic attracted the interest of figures such as Osama bin Laden. The rest is recent history. After 9/11, George W. Bush discovered, for the first time, that women were being mistreated by the Taliban, and had his wife wax eloquent about it, just as his regime was making things tougher for women at home.

  • Strictly speaking, the US did not invade Afghanistan: they provided air support and materiel for the Northern Alliance, which eventually triumphed over the Taliban and took power. Elections were then held. The US and its partners are now trying to shape the new government into a mirror-image of themselves. They've had to rap the knuckles of the new President, Hamadi Karzai, over the threatened execution of a Christian convert. Bad optics, however you look at it; maintaining cosmetic freedom eventually trumped separation of powers, but Karzai has now appointed a religious fundamentalist to head up the new Supreme Court. Perhaps the executions can begin after what Henry Kissinger once called a "decent interval."

    My point is this: we're now involved in a civil war between rival gangs of hard men in a failed state. These things tend to go on forever. And the more we extend our mission, the more difficult it will be to extricate ourselves.

    I notice that one Warren Kinsella (who shall get no link from me) has applauded the Parliamentary vote, claiming that it's "the right thing to do" because it's only a matter of time before terrorists blow up one of our subways. I'm a little unclear on the logic of that, because it could be argued that the latter might well happen as a result of us merrily pacing the US in its mid-East and Far East romps. Massive civilian casualties tend to make people crazy. The survivors are not likely to make neat distinctions between Canadians and Americans when they embark on suicide missions, distinctions that, in any case, Stephen Harper is hell-bent on erasing.

    Make no mistake: if I could have wished away Mullah Omar or Saddam Hussein I would have had no hesitation in doing so. Their dismal records speak loudly for themselves. But that does not, or should not, lead inexorably to the notion that the US has some sort of global manifest destiny to invade countries at will to get rid of stinkers. On closer examination, we find that those stinkers have usually arrived at their positions of power because of the US, and that other stinkers are ignored on the world stage altogether because they are allies of the US. The last century of Latin American history provides more than enough examples to make this point.

    The other point is that invasions and wars of attrition do not bring out the best in subject populations, their state institutions or their leaders. Afghanistan is just such a case. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to assume that the US behaves altruistically when it ventures forth periodically to conduct regime change (an assumption I shall refrain from making), the results of these interventions have tended to be nothing short of disastrous in human terms.

    So what do we do about corrupt and cruel leaders around the world? Perhaps stop installing them, for one. Stop propping them up when it's convenient, and overthrowing them when it isn't, for another.

    In the meantime, here we are, well and truly implicated in a war without end against "terrorism," that empty signifier. A war that is, in fact, for the purpose of furthering US imperial domination around the globe. We're just one of the privileged nations joining in for reasons of ideology and Realpolitik, and we're making ourselves a target for the damned of the earth.

    Is there still time to ask why?
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