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Fighting And Dying In Afghanistan. For What?

canadian soldiers canada afghanistan war mission freedom politics talibanA few months ago, a good soldier and better friend to me posed this question: “Should Canadian soldiers continue to bleed and die in Afghanistan on a mission that not one of our political parties is willing to fight – let alone lose – an election over?”

The simplest answer is an unambiguous “yes.” Members of the Canadian Forces are required to comply with the lawful orders passed down through their chain of command by the Government of Canada. That requirement isn’t contingent upon the moral courage of the politicians giving the directions.

Obviously the question reaches deeper than that, however. He might have rephrased his query: “Is it ethically defensible to have Canadian soldiers continue to risk life and limb on a mission in which vast numbers of Canadians, including politicians of all stripes, have lost faith?”

Again, the answer must be “yes.” Whether it’s a builder who honours a money-losing construction contract, a friend who puts her job on the line to be with you when you need her most, or our country fulfilling the pledge we made to both our allies and the people of Afghanistan, keeping a promise has its own value. Regardless of how we feel about the mission at this point, we made promises internationally that need to be kept.

Soldiers, including my friend, understand these concepts better than you or I do. But the fact that they are asking such questions at all points to a very real frustration among many of our troops: they have invested themselves heavily in this mission, and they don’t understand why others haven’t – especially the politicians who have access to some of the best information available.

One can understand their mystification and disappointment. There are those on the political right who complain that we’ve already done our share, that we’re spending too much of our blood and treasure on a country whose backward inhabitants have been subjugating and killing each other for centuries, and will likely continue to do so for centuries to come. “Not another drop of our sons’ and daughters’ blood, and not another penny of my tax dollars!” they cry.

Not only does this line of complaint reek of the callousness, stinginess, and arrogance that has characterized wealthy western nations’ relations with developing nations over the years, it’s also astoundingly short-sighted. We’ve tried ignoring Afghanistan, and it became a haven for our enemies. If protecting our most vital national interest – namely the physical security of the Canadian people and our way of life – isn’t worth our investment, then what precisely is?

Conversely, some on the political left decry the Afghan mission as a sycophantic overture to American imperialism, a bloody attempt to impose our views upon an unwilling Afghan public. This view ignores comprehensive opinion polls conducted by the Asia Foundation over the past few years consistently showing a clear majority of Afghans support the international mission in their country. And while recent Afghan elections were admittedly flawed, no credible observer would say the Afghan government is out of step with its electorate on the need to establish security and stability in the country. Besides, those elections were a far better representation of the public will than the dictatorships that preceded them. Moreover, Afghanistan is among the poorest, most desperate nations on the face of the globe. The Taliban government was brutally repressive, misogynistic in the extreme, and barbarically regressive in its rule. Shouldn’t standing in solidarity with the downtrodden masses of Afghanistan in support of their liberation, and in opposition to the return of the Taliban be in the most natural interests of Canadian progressives?

In fact, the Afghan mission should have represented the perfect opportunity to meld the compassionate idealism of the political left with the hard-nosed practicality of the security-conscious political right and stand firm in our commitment – to our own national interests, and to the people of Afghanistan. This should have been the one mission we could all agree upon. That support for such a potentially bi-partisan effort has been allowed to slowly decompose to such embarrassingly meagre levels is an indictment of Canadian leadership across the political spectrum.

With this in mind, perhaps my friend’s question should be rephrased one more time: “If Canadian soldiers are going to continue to bleed and die in the dust of Afghanistan for the betterment of both countries, shouldn’t Canadian politicians be willing to invest a fraction of the commitment that our soldiers so willingly give?”

Damian Brooks is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist.

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