Why Are We In Afghanistan?
May 6, 2008 by
Terry Glavin and Stan Persky
Filed under Latest
A recent story in the right-of-centre National Post (Bruce Hutchinson, “The honest anti-war position: Support,” Apr. 26, 2008), datelined from Vancouver, reported the somewhat surprising existence of what you could call a pro-troops group, the Canada-Afghanistan Solidarity Committee (CASC). The group caught the Post’s attention because some of its key members are avowedly left-wing, and because CASC has asserted that “the only honest ‘anti-war’ position is to support Canada’s military engagement in Afghanistan.”
While it is now commonly assumed that any group supporting the Canadian mission would have to be composed solely of conservatives, bellicose veterans, warmongers or worse, the Post story noted that “strange as it might seem,” CASC had a heavy presence on Canada’s west coast, “where the political landscape tilts sharply to the left.” The Post found it remarkable that CASC’s founders “include poets, environmentalists and local authors who will never be mistaken for conservatives, such as Terry Glavin and Stan Persky.”
True, but it’s also the case that CASC members come from pretty much across the political rainbow. Among CASC’s founders are former Progressive Conservative cabinet ministers John Fraser and Flora MacDonald, and former federal Liberal cabinet member and B.C. Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo.
Still, we’re grateful that the Post spelled our names right, at least once. Journalist Hutchinson: “Among the many books Mr. Pesky [sic] has written is Boyopolis: Sex and Politics in Gay Eastern Europe; one can assume it is not on [Canadian General] Rick Hillier’s bedside table.” We are happy to concede that Persky, spelled correctly or not, is indeed pretty “pesky” at times, and occasionally even “perky” (and we plead ignorance about what’s on General Hillier’s bedside table, although we hope it’s something like Clausewitz on War rather than one of Persky’s salacious texts).
We are happy the Post has noticed that at least some non-conservatives think there’s a point to Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan. The views of CASC’s founders have already appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, the Tyee, Vancouver’s 24 Hours metro daily, and on various radio programs, so we are especially pleased to welcome the Post to the scrum.
What worries us, however, is not the state of our media profile, but the fact that too few Canadians share our views with more than grudging approval (and depending on the state of the polls, a majority sometimes totally disagrees with us). So, we thought we should engage in a bit of dialogue as part of our obligation to provide an answer to the question, “Why is Canada in Afghanistan?” And then, we’ll go on to murkier political matters such as, “Why should the left support the Canadian mission?”, and then try to answer some really arcane questions like, “Is there still a political left in Canada and, if so, what sort of shape is it in?”
We’ll try to keep the latter analysis—to use Sigmund Freud’s terms— “terminable” rather than “interminable.”
Stan Persky: Last fall, in a college ethics class I was teaching, I was trying to make a perhaps obscure point about how the fundamental ethical question, “What should I do?” gradually but inevitably shades over into the question, “What should we do?” My would-be lesson for the day was how individual ethics is necessarily connected to political philosophy’s “we” questions, which is basically the question of, “How should we go about living together?” Since, at that moment, Canada was in the midst of a major debate about the country’s participation in the United Nations-authorized Afghanistan mission—and there were nightly lead stories on every TV station and on the front pages of every newspaper in the land—I innocently asked my students, “Why are we in Afghanistan?”, figuring that they would all have opinions on the subject.
The politer students looked up from their computer screens or turned off their cellphones or even pulled one earphone out of their iPod-connected ears. I was then treated to a display of typical Canadian politeness, one of our major national traits. The students knew we had troops fighting out there somewhere, but they politely claimed they didn’t know much about it. They knew it was all happening in some faraway Absurdistan, but weren’t exactly sure where it precisely was, although several of them politely offered to bring their recently-purchased Global Positioning System devices into play in order to locate it. When I asked, “Should we be in Afghanistan?”, the façade of politeness gave way to another national trait: they were simply flummoxed.
I worried. My worry went like this: if our best and brightest have only the foggiest notion of what we’re doing in Afghanistan, what do you suppose the national state of mind is on this question? So, for starters, I suggest that we offer a straightforward answer to the question, and that we don’t take anything for granted in terms of assuming knowledge. We can go on later to more complex matters, like 1) offering a balanced assessment of the virtues and faults of the present Afghan government and the views of its people, 2) determining the difference between the war in Afghanistan and the one in Iraq, and 3) figuring out why most of the Canadian left is vehemently opposed to Canadian participation in the Afghan mission. So, why don’t you get us started on the initial big question. Why are we in Afghanistan?
Terry Glavin: Well, there are, as you point out, at least two related questions to begin with here. It’s necessary to answer the “Why are we in Afghanistan?” question before we can sensibly approach the question “Should we be in Afghanistan?” And you’re right, it does help to consider the broader, philosophical question “What should we do?” as a kind of extension of the ethical question “What should I do?”
I’m not so dismayed when I encounter people who are, as you say, “flummoxed” by these questions. Given the sadly shallow level of debate about Afghanistan in this country, perhaps especially as it tends to unfold on campus, “flummoxed” might be evidence of an open and healthy state of mind. At least your students didn’t answer these questions with rote invocations of the names “George Bush” and “Haliburton” and the dyspeptic employment of words like “imperialism” and “occupation.” Count yourself lucky.
I do find it very curious, and not a tiny bit dismaying, that otherwise intelligent Canadians don’t know much of anything about Afghanistan. For starters, it’s far and away the most important recipient of Canadian “foreign aid” at the moment, and the mobilization of our soldiers there is as robust as anything our military has done in half a century. You’d think that by now we’d at least have the semblance of a consensus about an answer to the first question—the question of why we’re there.
If I were to try to try to answer that question in a way that was intended as a kind of contribution to a proposed consensus, I’d want it to be as uncontroversial as possible. So it would look something like this:
We’re there because history put us there.
Canada is a member of NATO. Following the events of September 11, 2001, NATO invoked the self-defence clause (the all-for-one clause), and we remain in Afghanistan because we’re a member of the United Nations (and we’re one of the UN’s richest members) and the UN wants us there. The UN has explicitly asked us, in several Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, to be there, and to continue doing what we’re doing there.
Canada is in Afghanistan because we’re a member of the UN-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force, which consists of close to 40 NATO and non-NATO countries with soldiers in Afghanistan. We’re there because Canada is among the 50-or-so countries that signed the terms of the Afghanistan Compact, which sets out specific commitments in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, and in providing security in the country. We’re there because the Government of Afghanistan has asked us to be there.
That much should be without controversy. It should at least provide the basis of a conversation, before any “yes, but” chorus proceeds. If the basic facts aren’t the basis of a conversation, then there’s nothing to discuss.
But do these things mean that we should be there?
As you point out, this is the sort of question that is difficult to answer in any way that is held separate and apart from personal, ethical considerations. In that context, I don’t know of any way to answer the question, myself, except to say “yes, we should be there.”
We can get into arguments about what Canada should be doing in the work of development and reconstruction, exactly, and what specific roles our soldiers should be taking on, and how we might best make our contributions to security, infrastructure, and the rule of law in Afghanistan. But the “left” has largely absented itself from these discussions. By its default troops-out declarations, it has abdicated from any right to make contributions to these conversations. One cannot say Canada should leave Afghanistan, and then turn around and proceed to offer elaborate instructions about how Canada should behave in Afghanstan, and what Canada should and shouldn’t do there.
So we now move to the question of whether we should be there in the first place, and I can answer only in the affirmative, precisely because of the contents of the answer to the first question—the reasons why we are there. Those specific reasons involve some pretty basic duties of solidarity and global citizenship. And this is where the ethical dimension seems fairly straightforward to me.
Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. Prior to 2001, the Afghan people had already been brutalized by a quarter of a century of almost constant warfare and despotism of the most savage and merciless kind. The women were slaves. Almost a quarter of the country’s population had fled, and wandered the world as exiles, or survived in refugee camps.
Since the rout of the Taliban, a baker’s dozen of national public opinion polls and focus group surveys has been undertaken in the country, and they present overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that the Afghan people themselves want us to be there. Is it ethically possible to say “no” to them? I can’t see it.
But if we put the question slightly differently— “Are there good reasons to leave?”— there might be defensible answers. But when one surveys the “anti-war” arguments, two things become obvious.
The first is that on their own, the “anti-war” complaints rarely withstand any serious scrutiny at all. Secondly, just for argument’s sake, if we were to go so far as to grant all but the most lunatic “anti-war” arguments—and there is no dearth of those—they still don’t add up to a case for withdrawal. They don’t come close to justifying an abdication of our basic obligations of solidarity and citizenship as a member of the UN, as a member of NATO, as a member of ISAF, or as a signatory to the Afghanistan Compact.
As for the directly personal, ethical context, I approach these questions from a fairly conventional social-democratic and internationalist perspective, and what is probably a distinctly Canadian version of that perspective as well. So, when I try to assess the struggle in Afghanistan from that perspective—and in light of the left’s traditional understanding that shooting fascists is no vice—I can’t help but notice that our soldiers in Afghanistan are clearly engaged in the advance of the historic mission of the left.
Our soldiers are helping to hold a critical front in the global struggle against tyranny, slavery, mysogyny, illiteracy, and obscurantism. No self-respecting and well-informed person of the left can refuse to take sides in this kind of a struggle. And it should be expected that there will be armed elements of reaction, arrayed against the people in times like these—and in this case there are such armed reactionary groups, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Hezb-e Islami. One has to be prepared to take up arms against such elements—that’s what soldiers are for. We must stay and fight on.
Beyond that, things do get murky, and so I turn for guidance to our Afghan-Canadian comrades, and to our friends who have worked in Afghanistan. But none of these people ever says we should leave. The subject never even comes up.
Yes, some of the challenges we face there are terribly daunting, and desperately complicated, and worth arguing about. Some of these things leave me downright flummoxed.
But the last thing this means is we should leave.
SP: You mention “anti-war” arguments. I agree with you that we should skip the “most lunatic” pseudo-left arguments. The left has included a lunatic fringe ever since I was licking lollipops while Tommy Douglas orated from a hay baler. So, let’s stick to the relatively rational “anti-war” arguments with which we’re in disagreement. Very briefly, what are those arguments, and even more briefly, what’s our objection to them?
TG: To get at the “rational” arguments isn’t as easy as that, I’m afraid, so I’m not going to be able to be too brief. I regret to say that a degree of lunacy is actually quite commonplace, even in mainstream “anti-war” arguments, and that the term pseudo-left is adequate to take in a rather wide array of “anti-war” arguments.
Here’s some lunacy: We should withdraw because we’re only there to protect oil pipelines; because it’s part of a war the “west” is waging against Islam; because we’re imperialists engaged in a war of occupation against a Third World country, and we’re just trying to suck up to George Bush.
It’s easy to write off this stuff.
The oil pipelines don’t even exist. The signatories to the Afghanistan Compact, which sets out Canada’s marching orders in Afghanistan, include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and more than a dozen other Islamic states. The Taliban are not the Vietcong, and the Sixties are over. The stuff about George Bush? Jack Layton said that. He’s the leader of the New Democratic Party.
This should give you an idea why it’s not so easy to simply cull the lunatic arguments from the rational ones.
SP: Yes, as a member of the NDP on and off for the last three decades, I’ve been distressed by the social democrats’ position on the Afghan mission. The NDP’s call for complete withdrawal strikes me as vapid, shallow, and confused thinking, and perhaps more ominously, a kind of opportunistic bid for votes from Canadians weary of seeing the caskets of Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. For the moment, though, let’s pursue the rest of the array of “anti-war” stances.
TG: Alright. Just the other morning, I was being interviewed on a radio program about these very questions. It was one of those call-in affairs, and one person phoned in to say Canadian troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan because it’s none of our business, our army should be used only for the defence of Canadian territory, and most importantly—he was adamant about this—his tax dollars should not be spent on things he doesn’t support.
This is a far-right libertarian view, although you will also find this sort of posture masquerading in “left-wing” guise. I suppose one could say it is “rational,” but it also strikes me as at least slightly lunatic.
Here’s another example: “There is no military solution to the problem in Afghanistan.”
That sounds perfectly rational, and you hear it all the time. The thing is, no one is making the argument for a “military solution,” so how “rational” is it to declare as null a non-argument no one is even making?
Then there’s this one, often uttered in the form of a question: “Is this the right mission for Canada?” This is the foreign-policy version of the question: “Does this make my ass look big?”
The question is almost always answered with a melange of pieties that counsel something like vanity as the basis for Canada’s approach to its UN obligations, and it safely directs the course of inquiry to a prearranged destination: This is the wrong mission for Canada. What it really means is: There are Americans involved, so we must be on the wrong side. Sometimes the shorthand phrase “Canada’s international reputation” is randomly inserted into a sentence to express the same idea and achieve the same effect.
What you’ll notice about this line of argument is that it never actually contains a defensible reason to leave Afghanistan.
Then there’s the Rudyard Kipling collection: Afghanistan has never been conquered, the people are incorrigibly warlike, backward, and priest-ridden, you can’t impose democracy at gunpoint, just look what happened to the Russians, that kind of thing. The less one knows about Afghanistan, the more these arguments make sense. The more you know, the more you wonder why routine “anti-war” polemics require that the Afghan people are made into objects of caricature.
Here’s another “mainstream” argument, or at least it’s one the NDP uses, which is to say it certainly isn’t isolated to the lunatic fringe: NATO soldiers should be pulled out of Afghanistan and replaced by UN peacekeepers.
This is the one that comes in a backpack with a Maple Leaf on it. It’s a line that reflects an irrational nostalgia for the Cold War, when life was simple, Canadian soldiers wore blue helmets and kept an eye on proxy-war standoffs brokered by Moscow and Washington, and everyone liked us. If it was a movie, with Maoris, it would be called Once Were Teletubbies.
As an argument, it requires enormous revisionism to sustain (Canada’s peacekeeping missions were routinely bloody and drawn-out affairs), but the weird unreality of it is that NATO’s role in Afghanistan is already a function of the International Security Assistance Force, and ISAF is already a function of the UN. And with no ceasefire to enforce, no truce lines to patrol, and no peace to keep, there would be nothing for blue-helmeted “peacekeepers” to do except get shot at. Short answer: Afghanistan is not Cyprus.
This next one is closely related, because it more or less serves as the NDP’s way of answering the illogic of its non-existent peacekeeper option: Canada should withdraw its troops immediately, and focus on negotiating with the Taliban.
You could say that talking to the Taliban is an innovative approach, an imaginative “new” idea, and what’s the harm in trying, right? Get the UN in there. Talk peace. Sounds a bit quirky, but at least it’s rational, right?
Long before the NDP began proclaiming the virtues of peace talks, Canada had already helped organize a negotiated-surrender initiative that had demobilized something like 60,000 militants. The Karzai regime has been offering negotiations ever since it came to power, and had indeed engaged in some tentative talks with the Taliban long before the NDP championed the idea.
Leave aside the likelihood that nobody at the UN would take Canada seriously if we distinguished ourselves by becoming the first ISAF country to pull its soldiers from Afghanistan, turning its back on the UN, and NATO. Leave aside the fact that the NDP approach has been tried before, with the UN Special Mission to Afghanistan. It began in January, 1994. You will remember all the “peace” that followed. The initiative ended on September 11, 2001.
The only reason there are some Taliban leaders even thinking about negotiations these days is that as a conventional fighting force, the Taliban has been crushed, and this wouldn’t have happened in the first place if the “anti-war” movement had got its way.
Still, it’s nonetheless true that negotiations really could produce a kind of peace in Afghanistan. Hezb-e Islami has indicated that it might not slaughter everyone it encounters so long as it wins its bottom-line demand that the Afghan constitution be purged of any vestige of liberal-democratic content. And the Taliban have hinted that they might even settle for a partitioning of Afghanistan’s ten southern provinces into a Taliban slave-state.
But what strange dialect is it that one has to speak in order for the word “peace” to be the right word to describe this sort of thing? In what lexicon could betrayal of this magnitude be talked about as consistent with the “Canadian values” we keep hearing are at stake in these matters?
SP: I think Tacitus was there ahead of us: “…where they make a desert, and call it peace.”
TG: Aye. This brings us to the central dysfunction at the very core of the entire “anti-war” discourse. It unfolds within a kind of alternative reality, with its own rigid hierarchies of virtue, its own pass codes, its own self-referential, self-confirming feedback loops, and its very own vocabulary. You can make almost anything appear completely rational in this way, so long as you don’t let anything in from the outside world. It involves inverting the meanings of words, such that just talking about it requires frequent use of parentheses and the repetition of such qualifiers as “so-called”, merely to avoid becoming complicit in its fictions. It all brings to mind Primo Levi’s description of German civilians during World War II: “Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”
It starts with the very term “anti-war.”
Ask anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan what they think would happen if the “anti-war” movement had its way and foreign troops were simply pulled out of that poor country. They will tell you it would mean total war.
It is not for nothing that UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon calls the demand for troop withdrawal a “misjudgment of historic proportions.” The Senlis Council’s Norine Macdonald, a fierce critic of the Karzai regime who has spent more time in Kandahar than in Canada over the past five years, says it would be like giving Germany back to the Nazis. You can even ask the eccentric Afghan MP Malalai Joya, the patron saint of Canadian “anti-war” activists. Even she admits that the result would be a convulsion of bloodshed.
It would mean war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt, and I regret to say that this war-is-peace delusion is not a condition peculiar to Canada’s lunatic fringe. It is commonplace on the left.
SP: Actually, I sort of tried to ask Malalai Joya something like that. I attended a luncheon in Vancouver put on last fall by NDP Vancouver East MP Libby Davies at which Joya was the featured guest. I was expecting that there would be some real discussion of the issues and that I would come away, at the least, with a better understanding of the NDP’s call for troop withdrawal. Well, it turned out not to be a discussion, but an event “honouring” Joya, which meant that you were already supposed to know the answers, and not ask questions.
In fact, there were a couple of pro forma questions at the end. The luncheon took place just as a front page story in the Globe reported that the latest results of public polling in Afghanistan clearly showed that the foreign troops were not regarded as occupiers and/or repressive (which is something, by the way, that similar popular polling in Iraq doesn’t show), and so Joya was asked if the poll results were accurate. Maybe there was a translation problem, but I just couldn’t figure out what her answer was, other than that it circled around the question. Then she was asked whether Canadian troops should be in Afghanistan, and again the answer was less than coherent. As near as I could understand it, she said, If Canadians are just in Afghanistan as puppets of the U.S., then that was bad, but if we weren’t puppets then maybe there was a role of some sort. Well, I couldn’t figure out if she was merely trying to please her NDP hosts or if it was simply political bafflegab. And that’s also the problem I’m having with various thinkers in the political party of which I’m a member.
TG: I know. It’s exceedingly strange. Jonathon Narvey, a co-founder of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, had the same experience with Joya. After a lengthy conversation with her, he came away no more enlightened about what she wants from us than when his interview with her began.
But “anti-war” polemicists do sometimes lapse out of the dialect and reveal something of their true politics. You tell me, but I don’t think James Laxer, the writer, academic and elder of the NDP’s famous “waffle” rebellion, is right-wing. But what does Laxer say about these things? He says foreign troops should be pulled from Afghanistan no matter that it would be like giving Germany back to the Nazis, no matter that the result, in his own words, is “a fascistic theocracy.”
Is this a “rational” anti-war argument? What is even remotely “progressive” about this?
A few weeks ago I got a call from Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission. She wanted to talk to me about the unseemly enthusiasm for negotiating with the Taliban that has lately become the vogue in Canada.
Samar would prefer to focus on extending the writ of the law and the protection of human rights to every corner of her country. But, of course, she said, negotiations are better than war. The question is, who is involved in the talks? What do we concede? Do we write off the very real advances Afghans have made in the realm of women’s rights, democracy, education, and health, just so rich countries like Canada can go back to feeling untroubled by the obligations of basic human solidarity?
In Afghanistan, it is the most reactionary, corrupt and clerical-fascist elements associated with the Karzai regime that tend to be most enthusiastic about striking a “peace” deal with the Taliban, Hezb-e Islami and the rest. In Canada, it is the so-called “anti-war” movement—in other words, the “left”—that has most vigorously taken up this line.
We should be honest about this. Negotiations actually could produce something we could call “peace,” if we weren’t too fussy about finding the proper word for it. All the soldiers could go home. And Afghan girls would be sent home from school. There would be millions of refugees wandering the world again. With the armies of nearly 40 countries in full retreat, and Afghanistan reverting to the “host for terrorist and extremist groups” that the United Nations has warned would result, we could expect new and bloody vistas opening up to emboldened Islamist reactionaries, from the Pillars of Hercules all the way to the Banda Sea.
What sort of “progressive” vision is this?
If this is what it means to be left-wing nowadays, then the left has ceased to be on the side of progress, and objectively, if not subjectively, it sides with the forces of reaction.
I have some of my own tentative ideas about how this state of affairs has come to pass. But enough out of me.
Tell me what you think.
SP: Ok, I’ve got two things on my mind, and one of them is a question about what you’ve just said concerning the “very real advances” in Afghanistan that have resulted from the U.N.-supported intervention. I’ll come back to my question in a second.
First, though, one of the things I’ve been most disturbed by among my friends in the leftist anti-war movement is their tendency to conflate the Canadian mission in Afghanistan with the war in Iraq. Now, I know there are people who take the view that both interventions are politically desirable and legitimate, but those aren’t the people I’m thinking about. I’m more concerned about people who want to elide the differences between the conflicts, and assert that both are illegitimate and reactionary. This conflation strikes me as a distortion of reality, and makes me wonder about the mental health of some of the left.
The differences between the Iraq and Afghanistan situations that should be recognized are, briefly, as follows. The American-led war in Iraq is not U.N. sanctioned; Iraq under Saddam Hussein might have been a horror to its people, but it wasn’t a clear and present international danger that called for eradication; the motives upon which the war was predicated, namely, the existence of so-called “weapons of mass destruction” and a linkage between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda, were totally false; and finally, public opinion polls in Iraq indicate that the Iraqi population really does regard the foreign troops as an occupation, even if they’re very uncertain about what would happen if the occupiers left. None of that is true in Afghanistan.
In February 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, I trudged through the streets of Vancouver with a hundred thousand or so other people in an anti-war demonstration. But today, when I stand on a streetcorner as the anti-war demo passes me by, and I see them calling for withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, and all the way to Pango-Pango or wherever, that’s when I start to get flummoxed about the left. I had a similar sense during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. The Canadian left seemed set against any intervention whatsoever, even if doing nothing resulted in genocide in Bosnia or Kosovo. That strikes me as deeply distorted, and certainly not very leftist thinking. I realize there’s more to say about global intervention and the left, both practically and theoretically, and perhaps we’ll get to that, but for now my point is, the inability to distinguish between situations is one of the prominent features of the the leftist anti-war position that leaves me in disagreement.
But let me get to my last question about Afghanistan. A recent story in the Globe by a usually knowledgeable writer (Doug Saunders, “Corruption eats away at Afghan government,” May 3, 2008) painted a dire picture of the Karzai government. My question is that old political election chestnut, “Are you better off now than you were 4, or 8 years ago?” That is, what are the improvements in Afghanistan, and how do they stack up against the undeniable failings of the present regime?
TG: Well, this is happily serendipitous—Doug Saunders is a journalist I have a tremendous amount of respect for, and I’m very pleased to see he’s spending more time in Afghanistan. We briefly corresponded after an essay I wrote about the same subject we’ve just touched on here—the infantilization of the internationalist left, and what to do about it—appeared in the Globe a couple of years ago.
But I don’t want to gloss over the observation you make about the “anti-war” tendency to elide the differences between the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is perfectly reasonable and sensible to have opposed the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, but still to have looked forward to an eventual intervention to help Iraqis overthrow the Baathist regime. Still, apples and oranges, as you say—but it’s important to understand that the anti-war leadership deliberately conflates Iraq with Afghanistan. This is not just some naive mistake, or innocent ignorance of basic geoography. It’s explicit policy.
The leaders of the Canadian Peace Alliance—Canada’s national umbrella “anti-war” group—along with leaders of the Toronto Stop the War Coalition and other “anti-war” groups, meet annually in Cairo for strategy sessions with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other such famous pacifist outfits. At these gatherings, these “anti-war” leaders have explicitly pledged not just to conflate Afghanistan with Iraq, but to conflate Afghanistan with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and to conflate militant Islamism with anti-capitalism, and to conflate “Islamophobic” incidents in Canada into all this as well. Vancouver’s Stopwar Coalition has gone so far as to describe the banning of Palestinian terrorist groups in Canada as McCarthyism, thereby conflating Jew-killing with Communist Party membership. And the Mobilization Against War and Occcupation openly counsels the left to take the side of armed Islamists “wherever Islam is fighting against imperialism.”
But back to Saunders.
Last January, in an obituary for neoconservative foreign policy, arising from Francis Fukuyama’s conclusion that it died in Iraq, Doug asked this intriguing question about the foreign-policy neocons: “Did they represent, for those of us who consider ourselves progressives, the only group of conservatives who are ever likely to share our values?”
My answer would have to be no, for a variety of reasons, not least because sensible Canadian left-progressives contentedly share some values with Canadian conservatives of the Red Tory kind. But Saunders pointed a way out of the neoconservative graveyard that follows a path that I expect you’d find the more unapologetically left-wing members of the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee would want the left to take, towards “a more socially-focussed form of nation-building” with “elements of a social-democratic, progressive foreign policy.”
In Doug’s recent inquiries into the state of Afghanistan under Hamid Karzai, let’s first look at one of his earlier reports (“Is TV Censorship in Kabul Really a Sign of Re-Talibanization?” April 26, 2008). It noted widespread fury in the country after two daytime Bollywood soap operas were ordered off the air because they were “un-Islamic.” Saunders pointed out that the real reason was that the programs are Tolo TV’s top generators of advertising revenue. Half of Afghanistan television viewers devotedly follow the soaps. The real target here is Tolo TV. For starters, it runs a wildly popular show, Laugh Bazaar, where stand-up comics regularly skewer corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.
Afghanistan’s new media is engaging the people in a conversation the government can’t control. This is a grave threat to corrupt politicians, and the big problem here isn’t that Islamist extremists are returning to power in Afghanistan. The soap-opera ban came from Information Minister Abdul Karim Khurram, one of Karzai’s most committed enemies. Behind the banning of Bollywood soaps you’ll find the same motivation that’s left a brave young journalist, Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, facing a death sentence. The charge is he was circulating “un-Islamic” material. It’s completely bogus. When the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee started looking into his case, what we learned from friends in Kabul was that Sayed’s brother, Ibrahim, who is also a journalist, had been fearlessly pursuing stories about government corruption. State officials are trying to get at Ibrahim by going after his brother.
The Saunders’ article you point to (“Corruption eats away at Afghan government,” May 3, 2008) is one of clearest treatments of the Afghan corruption dilemma that I’ve ever read. For one, Saunders’ investigation shows that corruption occurs on a far greater scale than is generally reported in the Canadian news media. Saunders also puts it all in its proper historical and political context: In a country that had been ravaged by war for a quarter of a century, anyone of any stature and influence is likely to be a “warlord.” In areas of the country where the economy pretty well runs on opium, anyone of any economic means is likely to have been living off the avails. Gul Agha Sherzai, who admits to once having made up to $1 million a week in the opium trade, is now governor of Nangarhar province. To be fair, he appears to be doing a fairly decent job of it.
One of the most outrageously corrupt and opium-wealthy Afghan politicians who shows up in Saunders’ story is President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, who is the chief representative of Kandahar province in Kabul. And where have we heard his name lately?
In the past few days, there have been reports that some Canadian military commanders in Kandahar appear to be engaging in a sensible experiment, supported by ordinary Afghans: they’re reaching out to low-level Taliban fighters in the hopes of convincing them to put down their guns and come down from the hills. This has set off a flurry in Canadian newspapers to the effect that Jack Layton was right all along, and we should be talking to the Taliban. But who in Kandahar is most loudly applauding the proposition that these informal entreaties be ramped up to full-blown deal-making with the Taliban? Ahmed Wali Karzai is who. And no wonder.
Saunders also reported this: “Unfortunately, the corruption now has reached even the highest-ranking elected officials. . . The President sees them as an instrument for re-election himself, so he doesn’t dare touch them.” Who said that? The Speaker of the Afghan Parliament, Yunus Quanooni, who may run for president one day. That should give you at least a glimpse of an answer to the very pertinent question you ask about whether things are better now than they were before the Taliban was sent packing.
Then there’s the fact that one of the biggest fears around the Tolo TV studio these days is whether they’ll be getting more censorship grief when they start airing an Afghan version of Yes, Minister. And what were the Afghan people doing while Canada’s “anti-war” movement was staging its troops-out demonstrations a couple of months ago, with Jack Layton showing up at a Canadian Peace Alliance rally to make his usual George Bush speech? Eleven million people—one third of the Afghan population—were glued to their television sets, watching the runoffs in the Afghan Star contest, engaging in furious debates about who was the best, and text-messaging their votes. Would the winner be the young Pashtun songstress Lima Sahar, or the Tadjik crooner Rafi Naabzada?
The prize went to Naabzada. And a good choice, if you ask me.
Under the Taliban, nobody was allowed to watch television. Nobody was even allowed to sing. Women weren’t allowed outside, unaccompanied by a man. Women were beaten if they showed so much as an ankle underneath the tents they were forced to wear. Now, even in bloody Kandahar, the people say they don’t want our soldiers to leave. Across Afghanistan, poll after poll has shown that the people say life is better, prospects for women are much, much better, the economy is better, and the government is better. Things are better.
Are the people satisfied? No. They want more, better, and faster, and they deserve what they’re demanding. But there are millions of girls attending school now, 100,000 women have begun their own small businesses with World Bank micro-loans, and one of every four Afghan MPs is a woman. In 2004, only one in ten Afghans had access to medical services—now it’s eight in ten. Three out of every four children under the age of five have been immunized against childhood diseases. More than 17,000 communities have benefitted from new wells, schools, and roads. More than a billion square metres of ground has been cleared of landmines. There are now ten universities open across the country, and seven national television stations, and several newspapers.
What has the Canadian “left” contributed to this great progress? What has the New Democratic Party done, or the Canadian Labour Congress, or the CLC’s 136 labour councils, or the 80 student unions affiliated to the Canadian Federation of Students? Nothing. And if we’d listened to the “left,” none of this progress would have happened. If the”anti-war” movement had gotten its way, and the ISAF armies had just packed up and left, all this progress would have started running backwards, fast, until it was gone.
You tell me, Stan. Is this what it means to be on the left?
SP: What the left’s response to Afghanistan has meant for me is that I find myself asking (not for the first time in my life, I assure you), What is the left in Canada?, and, What should the Canadian left be?
First off, the left is not and never has been a monolithic entity, and it exists in a country that struck me, ever since I began participating in Canadian public life in the 1960s, as fundamentally inclined toward moderate social democracy, irrespective of party label, although of course the NDP is the official social democratic party entity. However, a lot of Liberal Party policies and some of the views of the former Progressive Conservative Party also struck me as social democratic in character. And that’s no accident.
As many Canadian historians have pointed out, the very nature of the country’s geographic vastness and its political location (the obvious fact of being next door to the U.S.), as well as our own political history, has necessitated a considerable degree of public ownership and services, in health care, public welfare, communications, infrastructure, transportation systems, education and the like, albeit with a much greater degree of uncertainty about the question of public participation in industry and other business sectors. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s “repatriation” of the Constitution in the early 1980s, emphasizing civil liberties, rule of law, and judicial independence, seemed to me to be very much of a piece within the national context.
About the only new political development outside the traditional Canadian spectrum was the invention in the late 1980s of the Reform, then Canadian Alliance, then Conservative Party entities, and the resultant minority government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Both in its advocacy of what’s known as “social conservatism” (anti-abortion, anti-feminism, anti-gays, etc.) and its economic policies (essentially, unregulated American-style capitalism and the reduction of government and taxes, especially for the capitalist sector), it struck me as something new (and to me, unwelcome) in Canadian politics. So, my simplest concern as a leftist is the reconstruction of the social democratic state in Canada.
There is also a left-of-the-NDP left, and both of us have had a lot of life-experience among various independent presses, leftist Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), specific issue campaigns, broad movements and the like. There are a variety of possible positions on the left. About the only one I would write off is that of the more extreme groups, although like you, I sometimes have a hard time identifying the extremists without a scorecard. But the extremists are the only ones I exclude from a notion of plausible positions on the left.
One simplified way of looking at matters that I’m inclined towards is to divide up the discussion into national domestic policy, the thing I’ve just been talking about when I refer to the social democratic state, and foreign policy, or what we leftists call “international solidarity.” Like you, I believe that these two aspects have to be sensibly integrated into a worldview. It’s the latter question, international solidarity, that we’ve been considering in talking about the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. The problem with most of the Canadian left on international solidarity questions, as I see it, has to do with how the left reads the notion of American imperialism.
The analysis of a lot of the current left stems, I think, from a reading of the works of linguist and political philosopher Noam Chomsky, which offers an interpretation of the U.S. as historically a proto-fascist country. I don’t agree with Chomsky’s interpretation, but I think it explains something about the views of the Canadian left, which strike me as unnuanced and crude. The result is that anything the U.S. is involved in is a priori defined as imperial aggression, and something we should have no part of.
Now, it’s certainly true that there is an American imperium, and the Bush presidency is a particularly intense period of pre-emptive aggression, for a variety of specific historical reasons, including the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By the way, I think the Bush administration should be understood as a period or phase in U.S. history, and not as an eternal representation of U.S. policy, as many people have been prone to do. The truth of the matter is that the U.S., at least among voters, is pretty evenly divided, half and half, and this is expressed not only in political policy, but especially through what are known as “culture wars.” But an indicator of the temporality I see in the Bush period is the enthusiasm that the Barack Obama presidential candidacy has ignited among the young. So, America is not monolithic, but divided, and we of course have an interest in seeing the progressive side succeed. Still, there is a critique of American imperial power to be made, and insofar as Canadian leftists tell a cautionary tale, their advice of severe prudence should be taken into account.
But it also should be recognized that the context today is broader. There are issues that are world concerns, and the United Nations is their appropriate forum. Among the fruits of “globalization,” for all its better and worse effects in the world, the notion of selective political intervention has become more plausible. Of course, there is a long tradition of respect for national sovereignty, and that is the basic default position, even when that sovereignty is exercised undemocratically.
What we’ve learned is that particular political circumstances, such as those involving crimes against humanity, call for international intervention. The intervention is usually phased, beginning with economic sanctions, and can be extended all the way up to and including military action. The last requires the utmost prudence. In the last quarter-century, the paradigm case was, I guess, apartheid in South Africa. Both the left, as well as liberals, and people of other political stripes, were able to agree on the significance of the issue, and the case for intervention, which primarily took economic forms, in accordance with the requests of South Africans opposing the apartheid regime.
Since the fall of communism, the left (in Canada) has been confused. We’re sort of okay when it comes to calling for international solidarity on environmental questions, or opposing the worst features of globalization, since all of that conveniently fits into the orthodox leftist analysis of American imperialism. We’ve been through a period in the 1990s of “identity politics,” as it’s called (or more negatively, “tribalism” and “political correctness”), and here the left has been distracted and less than coherent. And when it comes to sites of crimes against humanity, especially where the U.S. has an interest, we’re, to use a word that’s popped up during our discussion, flummoxed. In the past, before the fall of communism, the left was prompt to oppose attempts by the U.S. to suppress potential revolutionary situations, particularly in Latin America, but the left was also too prone to turn a blind eye to equally egregious acts in nominally socialist regimes, whether it was excusing Soviet suppression of its dissidents, or romanticizing various disastrous Maoist campaigns in China, or being reluctant to recognize communist genocide in Cambodia. One American liberal historian, Tony Judt, calls the period since 1989 “the years the locusts ate,” and he pointedly asks, “What have we learned, if anything?” (See the New York Review, May 1, 2008.)
When it comes to Afghanistan, I’m afraid the answer, with respect to the left, is, not much. In a sense, I’m tempted to say, the left has lost its mind. Not that it’s gone bonkers, but that it’s not thinking clearly. There’s a further temptation in the face of this to lean toward becoming just a grumpy non-left old codger. But I’m not prepared to cede the concept of “left,” and I don’t think you are either. So, I remain a leftist—a combination of on-the-ground social democrat and what Marx sneeringly called a “utopian communist”—who is in disagreement with a lot of his colleagues, who are also leftists.
The response of most of the left to the Canadian mission in Afghanistan strikes me as kneejerk, and there doesn’t seem to be a lot of tolerance for disagreement. I haven’t been at the centre of the debate, and consequently I have observed the left’s response from the periphery with bemusement and disappointment. But I know you’ve been more directly engaged in debates about Afghanistan, Israeli and Palestinian policy, and questions about natural and cultural extinction. My impression is that your effort to engage the left in debate has been fairly bruising, and not a matter of mere bemusement.
So, my leftist bottom line is: a campaign to restore the social democratic state in Canada, and international solidarity, proceeding with all due caution. That notion of international solidarity includes support for the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. And like you, I haven’t heard a persuasive leftist (or rightest) case against it.
How about you wrapping up this discussion with a few reflections on how you see (and have experienced) the present edition of the Canadian left? Since it, too, is an historical entity, I assume it’s possible to imagine it achieving a more coherent picture and program. I also assume that’s part of why we’re having this conversation.
TG: Well, I’ll certainly give it a try.
To start with, your assessment of the trajectory of the left in recent years is fairly consistent with mine. We all make mistakes, and it’s quite right to forgive one another our mistakes. But—at the risk of unfairly generalizing—it’s the left’s refusal to learn from its mistakes that leaves me completely cold, so you’re far more generous than I’m inclined to be.
I’m certainly more than content with your general outline of what a reconsolidated Canadian left might look like. The first order of business would have to be the integration of “domestic” and “foreign” policy into a whole new unapologetically Canadian worldview. This would be a damn good start. There is one minor but important difference I think I have with your view of the Reform Party phenomenon, but I’ll come back to that later.
The thing that colours my perspective, giving it a hue perhaps a bit more “red” than yours, is that I really do find myself seized of a real sense of urgency these days. I’ve come to conclude that the challenges we’re facing—right now, Stan— are every bit as daunting as the challenges our people faced during the darkest moments of the 20th century, when our parents and grandparents waged their great struggle against fascism. There is some rather urgent, even “militant” work to be done, and quickly.
As you say, I’ve been spending a great deal of time these past few years chasing down the implications of natural-resource depletion, the collapse of biological and lingustic diversity, the implications of globalization, crop monoculture, and so on. In the past five years, I’ve written from Central America, Singapore, Nagaland, Calcutta, Russia (twice), Buryatia, Norway, China, and elsewhere. Billions of people live in in the most grinding and precarious poverty. There are far more slaves in the world today than there ever were. I’ve become convinced that the conditions that prevail in the global economy today are precisely the conditions that prevailed in the years and months immediately preceding The Great Hunger in Ireland in the mid-1800s. The spectre of despotism and failed states and mass famine are very real threats that loom large over much of the world.
But I’m still optimistic, and I remain convinced that, as it was in the 19th and 20th centuries, the answers to the mortal threats that face masses of humanity lie at least partly in the traditions of the left. If I’m right, then socialists should pick up where the neoconservatives left off, and “we” shouldn’t be squeamish about imposing “our” values abroad—as though basic human dignity and liberty are “our” values alone, whoever “we” are. Remember the old labour slogan, “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all”? More of that, please.
We need to revive effective international workers’ solidarity. We need to be prepared to harness the interventionist power of the state, at the global level, to avert the crises of global capitalism. We should enforce international law in aid of the women’s liberation struggle, and the struggle for independent trade unions. We should end slavery. If we can do this in cooperation with friends to the “right” of us, all the better.
But what is the state of the “left,” or what passes for the left in the “west,” in the centres of wealth and power in the industrialized world? These days, I keep finding myself coming back to a letter George Orwell wrote to Cyril Connolly, in 1938: “Everything one writes now is overshadowed by this ghastly feeling that we are rushing towards a precipice, and though we shan’t actually prevent ourselves or anyone else from going over, must put up some sort of fight.” And in my thinking about Afghanistan, I find myself haunted by the analysis of the brilliant Mid-East scholar and linguist Fred Halliday: “To my mind, Afghanistan is central to the history of the Left, and to the history of the world since the 1980s. It is to the early 21st century, to the years we’re now living through, what the Spanish Civil War was to Europe in the mid and late 20th century.”
By an unexpected turn of events, it just so happens that it has fallen to Canada to play a role in this drama. It has fallen to Canadian soldiers to defend a critically strategic front line in Kandahar. The British writer David Aaronovitch has pointedly argued that if Canada pulled out of Kandahar, the mayhem that would result could well panic the British and the Dutch, leaving only the Americans to fight a losing rearguard battle by bombing villages from the air. And in this way, things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and you know the rest. Something slouches toward Bethlehem.
But to drag out the Second Coming metaphor just a bit more, what happens when we look to the leadership of the Canadian left is that we discover that it lacks all conviction. It wants to retreat from the fight, and to make excuses for itself as it does this, and it engages in elaborate justifications for its timidity, because it’s worried that its ass looks too big. This is not to say there are no respectable “domestic” social-democratic ideas on offer from, say, the New Democrats. But even so, to my ears, they have taken on a decidedly tinny and conservative sound, as though the purpose was to consolidate the NDP’s support base, and to hell with eveyone else. It’s like the “socialism in one country” policy from the 1920s— that final nail in the Bolshevik coffin.
But how to answer your question about where we might situate the contemporary Canadian left, in its historic context? My answer is, you can’t.
Yes, the NDP still talks a good line on higher minimum-wage levels and more generous assistance to students. But you can dig right down to Canada’s deepest socialist roots, and you won’t find any recognizeable antecedents for the parochial, narcissistic politics of the NDP’s “left-wing” constituency today. If one wanted to be really cruel, one might say that what’s at work here is a recessive gene from the naive-pacifist minority among the NDP’s 193os’-era predecessors in the Cooperative Commonweath Federation. But I won’t do that, because that would sully the memory of the CCF dead, and I’m sure they’re busy enough spinning in their graves to be bothered by me.
The cultural milieu we have come to understand as “left-wing” politics in Canada, especially as it is manifest in “anti-war” politics, is wholly new. This is where I may differ with you in your assessement of the Reform phenomenon. True, the prairie Reformers were wholly outside the bounds of conventional Canadian conservativism. But their forerunners can be found in the “politics of resentment” that had long afflicted Alberta and British Columbia. The Reformers could also count some great-grandpappies among the west’s Social Credit movement, which enjoyed a long-standing, national Parliamentary presence in the form of Quebec’s Creditistes. And in the Reformers’ pro-American pronouncements, you could hear at least a faint echo of similar affections for American ideas, and American markets, that once most noticeably animated the Liberal Party.
Contemporary “anti-war” politics stands not just outside the best traditions of the Canadian left. It stands outside the traditions of the Canadian left, period. You’re quite right that the confusions of 1989 have a lot to do with it. And the sheer trauma of watching airplanes plunging into those towers in New York probably has something to do with it, too. Perhaps a few years down the road some brilliant sociologist will convincingly diagnose a kind of mass psychosis. For now, I’ll settle for a more straightforward explanation, and I’ve argued that we can find just that in what the Canadian philosopher-journalists Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter have to say. In the contemporary left, they say, the politics of the counterculture have thoroughly eclipsed socialism and class politics.
I’d go farther, and say identity politics has supplanted the politics of solidarity, and the national self-loathing associated with “cultural relativism” has wholly undermined progressive internationalism. Along the way, the counterculture left also jettisoned the old, bedrock progressive conception of human rights as universal rights. And a crude and irrational anti-Americanism—which, paradoxically, owes far more to American counterculture politics than to Canadian progressive-nationalist politics—is a big part of it, too. And so it came to pass that by the afternoon of September 11, 2001, everybody fell back into their familiar counterculture habits, and the handiest explanation was a shopworn and obsolete narrative that simply pits Third World revolutionaries against the American empire, and we’re living with it yet.
To be clear, I can talk trash about Yankees as well as anyone I know, and it’s all good fun, and sometimes it’s actually useful. We should never forget that the Canadian state is at least partly a function of resistance to American manifest-destiny assertions. And America itself is at least partly a function of resistance to the politics of reconciliation and coexistence that John Ralston Saul proposes as the basis of the British, French, and Aboriginal joint venture that went on to extend the Canadian dominion westward.
But now, in Canada, the left rarely misses a chance to denigrate and deny the distinct virtues of Canadian history and custom. This is new. At the same time, its overcaffeinated anti-Americanism has become a weirdly paranoid, fully functioning substitute for rational thought and debate in this country about Afghanistan, about globalization, and about any number of “domestic” and “foreign” policy challenges. This is new.
As you say, I have indeed taken a bruising for making these sorts of observations. I’ve been called a Zionist, a warmonger, a red-baiter, a neocon, and (my favourite) a left-gatekeeper to the Ziocon false-flag hegemony. I have been called a Liberal Party spy. Even my Wikipedia page says I supported the American position in the 2006 Hezbollah war (I’m not sure that I even know what the “American” position was).
One charge to which I will happily plead guilty is that I’m optimistic. It’s true. One charge I won’t stand for is the allegation that I am a conservative. I am very happy to have conservative friends. But the allegation that I’m one myself, well, that goes too far. I don’t think I’ve written a conservative sentence in my life. If you find one here, let me know, and I will check my head.
Victoria-Berlin, May 7, 2008. Terry Glavin is the author, most recently, of Waiting for the Macaws (Viking Canada, 2006). Stan Persky is the author of Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (New Star, 2007) and The Short Version: An ABC Book (New Star, 2005).