Wednesday, January 30, 2008

On the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan

The other day Prime Minister Harper stated in his response to the Manley Report on the Afghanistan mission that he would respect the report's recommendations. The key element in these recommendations was that unless NATO provided an addition 1000-man battle group to help in Kandahar, the Canadians would withdraw.

It is regrettable that it has come to this, having to threaten to leave a vitally important mission if our allies won't step up to the plate, and I can't help but feel that we should stay anyway. On the other hand, more troops are needed and if we don't get them, the mission may well fail long-term. Hopefully NATO will come up with the 1000 troops needed and we can continue to play our important role in the conflict. It has often been said that the government has failed to state clearly the reasons why Canada is in Afghanistan, for there are compelling reasons why this mission ought to succeed.

There are several perspectives from which a government must approach a decision like this one. Firstly, and most importantly for a government, the perspective of national interest. A government is instituted to prudently guide a nation in its dealings with others, and must think primarily in terms of its own interest; in other words, it must be selfish in the sense of the nation as "self." The invasion of Afghanistan by the Western powers, led by the United States, came about because of the attacks of 9/11. In the aftermath of the attacks, the American government quite rightly demanded that the current (sort of) government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, surrender to it the planners and enablers of the attacks; namely, Al-Qaeda. The Taliban, who had been sheltering Al-Qaeda for many years, refused this request and so it was deemed necessary by the Americans, with the full concurrence of its allies, to remove them from power. This was done, with the aid of the rebellious warlords of the Northern Alliance, and Afghanistan became a zone in which Al-Qaeda and its allies could no longer safely shelter. And here is the first reason why Canadian forces must remain in Afghanistan, and the most compelling: to prevent the Taliban from regaining territory that they can safely operate in and in which they can shelter entities such as Al-Qaeda. The attacks of 9/11 were attacks on Canada not only because of our NATO obligations, but also because around 30 Canadian citizens died as a result. These attacks were made possible because of the safe harbour of Afghanistan, a country which is uniquely suited for hiding entities like Al-Qaeda due to its lawless and decentralized nature. Therefore, it is definitely in the national interest of the government of Canada to contribute considerable resources to the maintaining of a Taliban-free and Al-Qaeda-free Afghanistan.

Secondly, a government must consider the moral perspective. The virtue that ought most to define government, prudence, is dealt with above; the other virtues, like compassion, are dealt with here. This perspective on the mission in Afghanistan is more tentative, because it is not a government's primary duty to root out evils beyond its own borders that do not threaten it directly. On the other hand, the government cannot just ignore gross injustices that occur around the world, and it is often necessary to act to end these injustices. Afghanistan under the Taliban was a place in which gross injustice happened fairly often: women had no rights, repressive religious law reigned, and there was no semblance of political freedom. In Canada especially, this perspective seems to be the best selling point for the mission, at least in the eyes of the press. It is fun, true, to bait radical feminists for their support of radical Muslim groups like the Taliban who if reinstated would oppress women far worse than in their darkest dreams, but there is a serious issue here: we may be appalled by the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, but we at least have some clout there. For example, a while ago a woman was going to be whipped for being raped (a common occurrence, alas) in Saudi Arabia; after an outcry from the West, her sentence was commuted. If the Taliban were to regain power after a Western retreat, would they listen at all to our pleas? Not likely. The Taliban is composed of brutal, barbaric thugs who richly deserve all the bullets that are shot at them, and who from a moral perspective must be prevented from regaining power.

The two reasons above are not equal in priority, to my mind; the first one is the concrete reason why Canada ought to stay in Afghanistan and provides a simple course of action in all the cases where it comes up; the second one is icing on the cake, the aroma of the steak, to use a couple of food metaphors. It's jolly good that we're preventing the Taliban from ruling tyrannically, but that should not be the main reason why we're in Afghanistan.

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