Questions about Afghanistan

12 Oct

The poppies that are beginning to sprout on lapels are a reminder that in a few short weeks, throngs of Canadians will gather in communities across the country to mark Remembrance Day.

As usual, the main ceremony will take place here in Ottawa at the National War Memorial, and will include the participation of political, leaders, veterans and their families, and thousands and thousands of onlookers.

Not too many years ago, that annual event had become something of an afterthought in this country: Thinning crowds, aging veterans, wars that happened long ago and far away. Military matters seemed disconnected to the lives of most of the citizens of our large, peaceful country.

But in recent years, the crowds have swelled, due in part to the fact that Canadians have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan since early 2002. There is an urgency and immediacy to Remembrance Day that didn’t exist for many years prior.

Young Canadian combat veterans now exist in numbers not seen for a few generations.

In that sense, the upcoming Remembrance Day marks an important milestone. By this time next year, Canadian troops are supposed to be withdrawing from Afghanistan, if not largely gone from a military role in that conflict after nine years.

More than 150 Canadian deaths in Afghanistan, and more than 1,500 injuries, have taken their toll on Canadian public opinion about the mission, with recent polls consistently showing a majority of respondents opposed to our military participation.

But negative opinions about the mission do not translate into negative feelings about the military itself. Indeed, it’s hard to recall a time when Canadian Forces were so popular and prominent – even iconic – in our society.

From regular Support Our Troops rallies to appearances on Hockey Night in Canada, the military is now celebrated and venerated in this country in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

At the same time, questions continue to grow about what we have accomplished after so many years in Afghanistan. We’ve paid a great deal in blood, but has our sacrifice – and that of our NATO allies – been worth it?

The Taliban may be out of power, but are far from defeated, and will likely still be around when NATO troops eventually leave.

Democratic institutions are present in the country in a way they weren’t before the ousting of the Taliban rulers, but are extremely fragile. And Afghanistan remains one of the world’s least developed countries.

The government of President Hamid Karzai has a reputation for corruption, and has connections with warlords, criminals, and even the Taliban.

Afghans themselves may be wary about the role of Western military forces in their country. A survey released this past summer found that 68 per cent of Afghans believe NATO does not protect them and that 70 per cent believe recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people.

Some of those opinions were echoed recently on Canadian soil by a prominent Afghani politician who embodies the democratic hopes of her country.

At 32 years of age, Malalai Joya is the youngest MP to have been elected to the Afghan parliament, although she has been banned from sitting there for more than three years because of her brave and outspoken criticisms of fellow representatives and her prominent campaign against giving Afghan warlords a place at the government table. Time magazine has named her one of the world’s 100 most influential people

Joya is also a fierce opponent of both the Karzai government, which she calls a “Mafia regime” and of the NATO operation in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, perhaps, she is also a prominent target, having survived four assassination attempts and forced to travel within her own country under heavy security.

At a speech of hers I attended recently in Montreal, she caused a bit of a stir among some audience members by essentially lumping in NATO forces with the Taliban as “enemies of my people,” claiming that Western troops have done more harm than good and that when they left Afghanistan, there would be one less enemy to fight.

It’s important to note that Joya’s views are not necessarily representative of all Afghan democrats. The president of the Canada Afghanistan solidarity committee, for example, said her opinions “could not be further from the truth”.

But coming as they do from such a source, they add another question mark to a debate over the Afghanistan mission that will likely continue long after the final Canadian soldier has come home.

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