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Harper’s flip-flop on Afghanistan

 We should have known it was too good to be true. Harper’s many, many repetitions of his government’s commitment to get all the troops out by July 2011 are well known. I think he may actually have meant it because by these repeated statements he framed the issue so strongly that all Canadians expected – and supported – the withdrawal.

Here’s what he said in an interview with Canwest last January:

“We will not be undertaking any kind of activity that requires a significant military force protection, so it will become a strictly civilian mission. We will continue to maintain humanitarian and development missions, as well as important diplomatic activity in Afghanistan. But we will not be undertaking any activities that require any kind of military presence, other than the odd guard guarding an embassy.”

Today the story changes, as it appears US President Obama is also preparing to change his mind about “drawing down” US troops from that poor country. In other words the war will go on and the pressure on NATO allies cranked up.

Harper now declares:

“I don’t want to risk the gains that Canadian soldiers have fought for and that they have sacrificed in such significant numbers for by pulling out too early if we can avoid that. I think if we can continue a smaller mission that involves just training, I think frankly that presents minimal risks to Canada but it helps us ensure that the gains we’ve made our continued … to truly ensure that the Afghan forces are able over the next couple of years to take over true responsibility for their security.” 

And just which gains would those be?  Exactly what have Canadian troops accomplished after more than 160 deaths, hundreds of dead civilians, dozens of tortured innocents and $18 billion spent?  Are Afghanistan and its citizens more secure? No. Is there any hope at all that the Karzai government – his election remains  illegal with one of the most massive voting frauds in modern history standing unchallenged – will ever be anything but totally corrupt, beholden to war lords and guilty of protecting drug lords? Have we forgotten that is a government that passed a law making rape legal if committed by a woman’s husband? So much for the liberation of women.

Afghanis don’t trust this awful government and they are as terrified of the police force as they are of the Taliban.  They have a somewhat higher regard for the army but it is hard to tell why. I guess when your standards are – at least they don’t shoot me or steal from me – then the army looks good.

But the army after seven years of training still has a high desertion rate and is notoriously unprofessional, often refusing to fight.

It is impossible to separate the army from the corrupt and hated Karzai government. Why would a soldier be motivated and willing to die for a government he and the people detest? This army will never, ever take control o Afghanistan because the US and NATO are determined to thwart real democracy in the country. They are there – and intend to remain – for geo-political reasons and as part of their plan to control the oil and gas in the region. Their commitment to an authoritarian and illegitimate government completely undermines their goal of an effective Afghan army.

It isn’t a matter of training. It is a question of legitimacy. Poorly paid grunts observing billions of dollars going into the pockets of politicians, government officials and war lords will never be as motivated as the Taliban – driven by the zeal of expelling foreign occupiers.

If they really wanted democracy why would the US and Karzai establish electoral rules that banned political parties from running candidates? This virtually guarantees that the legislature – such as it is with few powers compared to Karzai’s executive power – is completely dysfunctional. Scores of individual representatives are incapable of coming together in enough numbers to put together and pass a legislative program. Indeed, it was planned to be ineffective. The US does not want any government that has a nationalist political agenda.

The situation is further complicated by the increasing anger felt towards the US because of the ever-increasing number of civilian casualties caused by their use of fighter bombers, helicopter gun ships and armed drones – in addition to heavy artillery and tanks.  Ironically, once the Canadian contingent pulls out of Kandahar this slaughter of innocents will get worse as US troops replace our own.  The Afghan army is inextricably associated with the US occupation.

Canada cannot help the people of Afghanistan. Since the day that the US decided to occupy that country, this has been the case. The “gains we have made” referred to by Harper are a total illusion. There is no happy ending for Afghans whether we stay or leave. Better that we leave and let them decide their own future – and use the money we save for something productive that does not further ruin our reputation as a peaceful nation.

Murray Dobbin is a journalist and writer. This column first appeared in his blog. Reprinted with his kind permission.