We must not abandon Afghanistan

Par Lauryn Oates le 25 mars 2010

In the recent speech from the throne on March 3, Afghanistan was mentioned in only two instances, and not mentioned at all in the budget speech the following day, strangely sidestepping the subject of the country in which we have engaged with so closely for the last seven years.

This is perhaps not surprising, given the inability of any of the three political parties to take any leadership on what a Canadian contribution to Afghanistan after 2011 might look like, and the Afghanistan fatigue that sadly characterizes Canadian public opinion.

And yet, for the past seven years we have taken part in a historically significant and tremendously expensive military mission in which we lost 140 men and women of the Canadian Forces as well as five civilians, and poured more money into Afghanistan than in any other country in the history of Canada's foreign development assistance.

One would think that sustaining an investment of over $18 billion would be at the very top of our country's political agenda, and on the minds of the public, as it should be in all countries that have participated in ISAF and that have taxpayer dollars supporting reconstruction in Afghanistan.

Instead, the solutions that we see put forth in Afghanistan originating from powerful institutions and from the echelons of some of the highest paid positions in the public offices of the governments of the likes of the United Kingdom and the United States are utterly alarming in their simplicity. Half-baked "solutions," like the currently in vogue pay-off-the-Taliban scheme show a profound lack of imagination, on top of a disregard for the will of ordinary Afghans.

While one might expect the best and the brightest thinkers on the payroll of NATO's member governments to be putting forth the highest calibre of intellectual inputs in the strategies they formulate, the results have been unimpressive.

Meanwhile, as the pot of gold for Talibs is filled, Canada's Parliament remains deadlocked in the endlessly regurgitated issue of Afghan detainees, paying not the slightest attention to the question of what we might do in Afghanistan after next year, to ensure that our gains there are sustained and that the foundations we have helped to lay in social and political development are further built upon. Parliament has left the most important question of all to the very last minute, shirking its responsibility to ensure we can show something at the end of the day for the lives lost in Afghanistan, the huge sums of money spent there, and the promises that we made to Afghans.

It's as if the international sponsors of Afghanistan's stabilization effort are only partially mobilized, like a plane flying with one engine out. Yet to be reminded of the consequences of failure in Afghanistan, we need not look very far back in history, to September 2001.

To go slightly further back, the events leading up that tragic morning have much to do with the failure of a peace agreement in Afghanistan in the early 1990s during and after the civil war there. At that time, the international community was in a mood remarkably similar to now, where minimal effort and motivation saw the outside world give up all too easily on Afghanistan. In walking away, they left embers that would eventually ignite into flames. On the U.S.'s way out, it left the back door open for Pakistan, which promptly joined forces with the fledgling Taliban movement emerging in Kandahar in 1994.

As Canadian politicians turn their backs on Afghanistan, they might be taking comfort in the idea of starting to place a safe distance between Canada and the chaos and violence of a perplexing and seemingly interminable conflict thousands of miles away that most Canadians want nothing to do with. But as Afghan MP and women's rights advocate Fawzia Koofi points out, "This is not an Afghan war."

Afghanistan's victimization by a misogynist, extremist army of psychopaths who delight in the surplus of violence cannot be contained within the borders of this small Central Asian nation. It has spilled over in the past, and it will no doubt do so again. Afghanistan is simultaneously a regional conflict, driven by forces in Pakistan and other regional factors, and an international conflict that engages and impacts the lives of people from around the world on and off Afghan soil. These include the victims of terrorist attacks in the U.S., the U.K., Spain and elsewhere to the soldiers and civilians of Holland, Lithuania, Turkey, Macedonia, Canada and dozens of other countries. Seeing a final end to the Afghan war is very much in our self-serving interest in realpolitik thinking.

Yet more importantly, from an ethical perspective, if we do indeed consider ourselves to be a civilized land, we should start to care about whether intervention in Afghanistan succeeds or not on the basis of our shared humanity with Afghans, a people thirsty for education, opportunity, and peace of the kind we enjoy in our own society. In February this year, Afghan opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah told me, holding his hands in the air, rubbing his fingers together, "Afghans have just touched democracy. They have held it in their hands." As it finally comes within their grasp, democracy is once more appearing elusive as ordinary Afghans watch with anxiety countries like Canada waffling on their commitments to peace in Afghanistan.

Those Afghans left standing in 2010 are the ones who have survived a lifetime of calamities: Soviet purges, the terrors of the civil war, the oppression of the Taliban, and the ongoing insurgency. They have made it through a long, dark and seemingly endless tunnel. They deserve the very best of our efforts and an unflinching commitment to imagine with them a different kind of future, and to stand by their sides as that future is finally realized.

Lauryn Oates is a Canadian human rights activist, gender and education specialist who has been advocating for the rights of Afghan women since 1996. She is also a senior adviser to the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee, which released its vision for Canada in Afghanistan Post-2011 <http://afghanistan-canada-solidarity.org/casc-report-keeping-our-promises-0> , Keeping Our Promises, in Ottawa on March 9.

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